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As Islamic political parties take power in the Middle East, outdated and static perceptions are unhe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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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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