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As Islamic political parties take power in the Middle East, outdated and static perceptions are unhe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


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.


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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A hard Brexit is the best way to keep Scotland in the UK - here's why

Theresa May knows she has the upper hand. 

Conventional wisdom says soft Brexit is good for the union. If Theresa May steers the UK out of the EU but retains access to the single market, maybe a bit of freedom of movement it would make many Scots – the majority of whom voted to stay in Europe – think twice before voting Yes to independence.

After all, they’d be turning their back on some access to the EU for an uncertain future as an independent country who would still have to negotiate it’s way back into the club.

Conventional wisdom is wrong.

The reason Nicola Sturgeon is hell bent on keeping Scotland’s access to the single market is because a hard Brexit is bad news for the independence cause.

Never forget that while the SNP may claim to be Scotland’s party it is in fact a single issue movement focused on one goal only – independence.

If Sturgeon is opposed to the increasingly likely scenario that sees the whole of the UK crash out of Europe swapping single market access for full immigration controls, it’s because first and foremost it’s bad for her cause.

For if there is to be a hard Brexit, Sturgeon would have to sell the prospect of Scotland leaving the UK, joining the EU and being confronted with not just border posts for anyone wanting to travel south but tariffs for anyone wanting to trade with England.

She’d have her work cut out.The UK is a significantly more vital trading partner for Scotland than the remaining 27 countries of the EU. Scotland’s exports to the rest of the UK outstrip what it sell to Europe abour four to one, and it’s estimated that while 250,000 Scots jobs are tied to the EU, a million more rely on being in the UK.

It’s why Sturgeon for all her fighting talk is trapped. If there is to be a hard Brexit she needs to get Scotland out of the UK before the reality of that dawns. That’s looking like a two-and-a-half year window.

But the polls are stubbornly static.

She can’t have another referendum unless she knowns she’s going to win it. For to lose two votes on the same subject – and her draft legislation published last week suggests she’s going for the same question but banking on different arguments – would provide a definitive answer, closing the issue down for a generation for real this time and begging questions not just about what next for the SNP but what’s the point of the SNP.

With Yes still hovering around the 45 per cent mark in current polls Sturgeon needs to add a good 15 per cent before she can consider triggering indyref2.

Now, some of her supporters point to the last independence campaign when support for the proposition rose from a historic position of around 25 per cent to 45 per cent by polling day. They claim the same can be done again.

But that was a long campaign and Sturgeon does not have the time, never mind the fact that most of the soft Yes vote has been hoovered up now and convincing those that remain will prove much harder. 

And, according to my Number 10 source, Theresa May knows all this. 

That’s why she can dismiss Sturgeon’s bleating. Why she can sit around the Cabinet table with her as she did yesterday and, despite promising respect, actually give her short shrift.

May’s in the stronger position on this one. She’s newly installed, and confident that she can go to the country and win at will.

Sturgeon’s overseeing an increasingly tired SNP administration (albeit, like May, there is no credible opposition to speak of). If she doesn’t deliver independence it’s not just her political career but the future of her entire party that would be pitched into the balance.

Unlike David Cameron, May has no specifically Scottish special adviser and her dismissive tone towards Scotland has led some to speculate that she doesn’t get it or doesn’t care.

Quite the opposite. 

Whatever other drawbacks, hard Brexit brings it is the most sensible position to take if your number one priority is keeping Scotland in the UK.

In the absence of any evidence as to what else her strategy may consist of, perhaps that is May’s game.