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As Islamic political parties take power in the Middle East, outdated and static perceptions are unhe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