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27 May 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 4:08am

Democracy and Islam at the Hay Festival

Chairing a debate on radical Islam at the Hay Book Festival brought me face to face with Hamas

By Martin Bright

I imagined any serious fireworks on the panel discussion I chaired last night on Islam and democracy would be provoked by Michael Gove, the Tory shadow minister who has made a point of challenging liberal sensibilities on radical Islam. His book Celsius 7/7 is a counterblast to the received wisdom that assumes engagement with the extreme tendencies of political Islam would be necessarily productive.

Gove was provocative enough – insisting that Iran should not be considered a democracy and brushing aside criticism of US foreign policy. You could almost feel the ultra-liberal Hay audience preparing to hate him. But Gove’s interpretation of the question “Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?”, the title of the debate, was reasoned and calm. It amounted to a sceptical “I do hope so”. It was difficult to argue with that. At one point, the New Statesman columnist Ziauddin Sardar said Gove’s ideological allies on the American neo-con right subscribed to a totalitarian ideology every bit as dangerous as al-Qaeda, but the Surrey Heath MP didn’t rise to the bait. He was also extremely courteous to Ghazi Hamad the representative of Hamas on the panel, placed right next to Gove for maximum effect.

It took Samir Al-Youssef, the Palestinain writer and critic, to really bring the evening to life. He began by saying baldly that no monotheistic religion, Islam included, was compatible with democracy. He thought the title of the debate was daft, but felt it was his only possible answer.

Later, when the man from Hamas explained, at some length, how his version of Islam was not only compatible with
democracy, but was essentially feminist and pacifist, al-Youssef couldn’t hold himself back. “I am an atheist,” he said, “If I said that where you are in power, you would kill me.” It was quite a moment.

I had only been told about the presence of Hamad on the panel at the last moment. I’m not quite sure what
book he was promoting, apart from the Quran. His interventions amounted to a series of party political broadcasts. But I took the opportunity to ask him whether he recognised any political system not based on Islam, Hamad’s answer was the longest, most tortuous “no” I have ever heard. For an Islamist the answer must always ultimately be no to this question.

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We did not hear enough from the young Bangladeshi writer, Tahmima Anam, whose novel, A Golden Age, is set during her country’s independence struggle, She said the rise of the Islamist party Jamaat-i-Islami in Bangladesh was founded on the political cowardice of secular political parties who felt they had to make an accommodation with the religious radicals, She said most people, Muslims included, were terrified by the idea of Islamic state based on sharia law. Her
comments raised the loudest applause of the night.

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