Why we need a new understanding of "Islamism"

As Islamic political parties take power in the Middle East, outdated and static perceptions are unhe

Following the Muslim Brotherhood's victory in Egypt's election, William Hague has said that Britain must engage with elected Islamic governments in the Middle East.

This is a marked contrast to David Cameron's visit to Egypt last year, when he refused to meet with Islamic politicians, saying they were "extreme" (I note that he has shown no such qualms on his state visit to Saudi Arabia today).

The Foreign Office denies a difference in tone, saying that it is still correct to view the Muslim Brotherhood as an extreme organisation. However, writing in the Times (£), Hague says:

It is true that parties drawing their inspiration from Islam have done better at the polls than secular parties and there are legitimate concerns about what this will mean.

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Either way, we must respect these choices while upholding our own principles of human rights and freedom and urging the highest standards.

Hague is absolutely right to say that Britain shouldn't unilaterally refuse to engage with a democratically elected government because it doesn't like its principles. But it is interesting that such an article is necessary (shouldn't it be a given that we respect the choices of other countries' free elections?).

Many, many people throw around the term "Islamism" (which, crudely, refers to the notion that Islam is an ideology as well as a religion) without very much understanding of what it actually means. Too often, it is part of a dichotomous "them vs. us" mindset, which explains why Hague's starting point is that we should automatically suspect an Islamic government.

Like so much commentary on Islam, this completely deletes nuance. When you consider that Islam is practised worldwide by a billion people, it is bizarre to assume that the religion -- or its political manifestation -- is monolithic. On the most basic level, people tend to be surprised when I say that one side of my family is Muslim but not particularly devout. We are so frequently bombarded with images of extremism or burka-clad women that many find it difficult to conceive of someone who identifies with the religion while living a largely secular life, for example. Think of the many different types of Christians -- from Jehovah's Witnesses to those who have been christened but not set foot in a church since -- and you have an accurate point of comparison.

By the same token, political Islam can take the poisonous, corrosive form that we have seen in al-Qaeda, but this is not the be all and end all (I hope I do not need to reiterate here that the vast majority of Muslims abhor these practices). Likewise, Islam in governance can certainly be regressive, as in Saudi Arabia, which bans women from driving (NB. Where are the government's "legitimate concerns" about this?). But this is certainly not the only form it takes worldwide. Moreover, a simplified understanding of terminology engenders a static understanding of the phenomenon, and ignores the fact that like any other ideology, Islamism is capable of evolution.

It is entirely possible (though of course far too early to say) that this is what we will see in Egypt. As the last 84 years have proven, the Brotherhood is nothing if not adaptable. The Economist reports:

It says fixing Egypt's ailing economy should take priority over promoting Islamic mores. The Brotherhood would probably prefer a centrist alliance that would not frighten foreign powers or alienate Egypt's army, which remains an arbiter of last resort.

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Whatever the outcome, Egypt looks set to join a broader regional trend that has seen a more pragmatic, tolerant form of Islamism rise to dominate the political scene, by way of the ballot box rather than the gun barrel.

Quite apart from the specifics of what is happening in Egypt today (which I will not explore in detail here), the west's relationship with Islamism is a long and complex one. It has defined the post-communism generation, and the way it develops could define the next. Hague writes that:

[Islamist parties'] success is partly a legacy of the refusal of governments to allow the development of meaningful opposition parties in the past. It may also be part of a tendency to vote for groups believed to have done the most to oppose dictatorship and corruption and to offer basic welfare.

To a great extent, this analysis is probably correct, although it ignores the fact that Islamism as a political movement is largely a reaction to the west. It is no coincidence that the Brotherhood was born out of British-ruled Egypt. "Eject imperialism from your souls, and it will leave your lands," said founder Hassan al-Banna.

Continuing to take too simplified a view of the Islamic world (such as it exists) will do nothing but drive it even further away from the west.

As Edward Said wrote in 1980:

So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists.

In the intervening 32 years, very little has changed. Now, with a new political reality in the Middle East, there is the opportunity for a more mature, nuanced understanding of the region, as a shifting entity, a real place with real ideas, rather than a statically fixed comic book villain. There is the opportunity, but is anyone truly optimistic it will happen?

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.