Rethinking Islamism IV

What kind of Islamic state do Islamists want?

The type of Islamic state -- a term which allows for many interpretations, and even denials that it makes sense -- that Islamists aspire to, varies according to what kind of Islamists they are.

The International Crisis Group, an NGO led by the former UN high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour and which has been described as "the eyes, the ears and the conscience of the global community" by Bill Clinton, defined three main categories of Islamist in a 2005 report: political Islamists, missionary activists and violent jihadists.

I do not propose to deal with the third category here, for while I think it certainly worthwhile enquiring why it is that people turn to terrorism, that is not the purpose of this series. Likewise, non-violent missionary activism, a category of Islamism that more often than not sees involvement in any western-style political system as un-Islamic, need not concern us here. (We might examine their beliefs and aims in a later post on the concept of jihad.)

This series started by raising the example of Turkey, and it is the political Islamism of which its AKP government is one example that I wish to concentrate on. The ICG's conclusion about this strand of Islamism is worth noting: "The most political tendency . . . is the least fundamentalist."

There are several good reasons why this should be so. The very act of participating in the political process in a country where the constitution may incorporate Quran or sharia-based ideas but, equally, may not, and is either way also partly formulated on western-style democratic/liberal/secular principles, is to recognise some distinction between political and other spheres (including that of religion).

This recognition may be grudging or merely pragmatic, but it is there nonetheless, and it is not one that Salafist missionary activists or violent jihadists would even contemplate. Further than that, though, this participation has had the effect of implicitly defending the integrity of the states in which they operate.

Confrontational and violent?

As the distinguished scholar Olivier Roy put it in an essay for the American Social Science Research Council: "The mainstream Islamist movements have shifted from the struggle for a supranational Muslim community into a kind of Islamonationalism: they want to be fully recognised as legitimate actors on the domestic political scene, and have largely given up the supranational agenda that was part of their ideology."

Clearly, if an "Islamic state" is their goal, then this is not the all-encompassing caliphate of Osama Bin Laden's dreams, one that would rule not just the Dar-al Islam (the Islamic lands) but would also conquer and incorporate the Dar-al Harb ("the place of strife", meaning "where the infidels live"). It is true that the constitutions and charters of many Islamist parties still state aims that strike the literalist reader as deeply alarming, if not blood-curdling. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that they necessarily reflect the intentions of those parties today.

So to say that because the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, talked of the "obliteration of Israel", or that because the Hamas charter quotes that passage at its beginning and goes on, somewhat ludicrously, to mention The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that we should assume that no branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas, will rest today until that objective is achieved would be most unwise -- although it is a convenient assumption for those who wish to portray Islamism as monolithic, confrontational and violent.

Similarly, to insist that all political Islamists want to impose a strictly literalist, atavistic version of sharia and to subjugate women would be even more wrong. Female politicians, for instance, have come to the fore in Islamist movements in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt. But never mind what I think. Here is what the Hamas leader Khaled Meshal had to say about these issues in an NS interview with Ken Livingstone last year:

KL: Do you wish to establish an Islamic state in Palestine in which all other religions are subordinate?

KM: Our priority as a national liberation movement is to end the Israeli occupation of our homeland. Once our people are free in their land and enjoy the right to self-determination, they alone have the final say on what system of governance they wish to live under. It is our firm belief that Islam cannot be imposed on the people. We shall campaign, in a fully democratic process, for an Islamic agenda. If that is what the people opt for, then that is their choice. We believe that Islam is the best source of guidance and the best guarantor for the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

KL: Do you think Jews, Muslims and Christians can one day live together in peace in the Holy Land?

KM: We do, in Hamas, believe that a realistic peaceful settlement to the conflict will have to begin with a ceasefire agreement between the two sides based on a full withdrawal of Israel from all the territories occupied in 1967 . . . It should be reiterated here that we do not resist the Israelis because they are Jews. As a matter of principle, we do not have problems with the Jews or the Christians, but do have a problem with those who attack us and oppress us. For many centuries, Christians, Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully in this part of the world.

KL: Does Hamas impose Islamic dress in Gaza? For example, is it compulsory in Gaza for women to wear the hijab, niqab or burqa?

KM: No. Intellectually, Hamas derives its vision from the people's culture and religion. Islam is our religion and is the basic constituent of our culture. We do not deny other Palestinians the right to have different visions. We do not impose on the people any aspects of religion or social conduct. Features of religion in Gaza society are genuine and spontaneous; they have not been imposed by any authority other than the faith and conviction of the observant.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, the aims of the Islamists may astonish some.

When I was in Jakarta earlier this year (a full report of my visit should be appearing the magazine in the coming month), I had lunch with Dr Zulkieflimansyah, an MP and chief economist for the Prosperous Justice Party or PKS. It is an Islamist party, a term that Zul happily used to describe himself, has four seats in the cabinet, and regularly wins around 10 per cent of the vote, which is a significant figure in Indonesia's multi-party system.

Not only did Zul use a distinctly non-halal metaphor to explain why PKS did not believe in imposing their beliefs on anyone else -- "it's like trying to force a pig to sing - it won't work, and it annoys the pig as well" -- but he stressed the need for his party to be progressive, inclusive and open-minded, and criticised older generations of PKS leaders for talking about al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. All that was too rigid, he said.

So, what was their aim for Indonesia? "Islam as a moral code," was his reply.

Democratic imperative

That's a far cry from the kind of Islamic state (which, constitutionally, Indonesia is not) that strikes fear into the hearts of so many people here. Another Indonesian Islamist leader, Habib Rizieq of the hardline FPI, has said in the past that this concept is in any case not the point: the Prophet Muhammad, he argued, was more concerned with the formation of a Muslim society than with an Islamic state.

Next door is a country that actually is an Islamic state, at least according to the current Malaysian prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, and his predecessor-but-one, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. I won't go into that here, but as many commenters have queried my favourable remarks about Malaysia, I may look into the story of Malaysia as an "Islamic state" at a later point.

I will close by stating that I believe that parties such as the AKP in Turkey and PKS in Indonesia should provide hope, for those countries and also for those in the west who are fearful of political Islamism. Both participate in and recognise the democratic process and, so far at least, their actions suggest their aims are for Islam to inform the state, not to replace or destroy its current incarnation -- and all through free and fair elections.

Quite apart from the fact that if the voters of another country choose such a party as their government, then that is up to them: are these not people with whom we could and should do business?

For a blunter, but certainly a realistic, conclusion, I turn again to Olivier Roy. As he put it in a talk to the IPPR in 2006:

If democratisation means more nationalism and more sharia, this is far from what the western promoters of democratisation envisaged. But this problem must be faced head on by saying: there is no way not to engage the Islamists. There is no alternative. We in the west have to make a choice between [Turkey's Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and the Taliban. And if we don't choose Erdoğan, we'll get the Taliban.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser