How can we undercut Islamists?

Submitted by AWL on 20 January, 2015 - 5:57 Author: Clive Bradley

Two books about Islamism, Ed Husain’s The Islamist and Maajid Nawaz’s Radical, have an obvious relevance after Charlie Hebdo.

There’s some crossover: the two writers knew each other in Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) (indeed Nawaz, who’s a bit younger, was Husain’s protege), and then, a decade later, set up the Quilliam Foundation together. Interestingly, at the time Husain wrote The Islamist, Nawaz was yet to leave HT, and he figures in the book as a possibly-dissident yet still-loyal member.

Husain’s book is more informative on how Islamist movements more generally operate in “Muslim communities” (that is, in particular mosques — East London, in the first place — and among Muslim students in Tower Hamlets and Newham). Husain was involved in the youth wing of the Jamaat Islami, which is quite similar to the Muslim Brotherhood except Pakistani, so he underwent an evolution through more “moderate” Islamism to HT — though that, in turn, falls short of out-and-out jihadism on the al Qaeda/IS model.

Nawaz was a hip hop kid in Southend who was drawn more or less directly into HT at college. But his subsequent evolution is more interesting, or certainly more colourful. Husain was actually quite quickly disillusioned with Islamism, and sought out a more spiritual version of Islam; a big part of the book is about his realisation that radical Islamists often know very little about the religion (don’t, for instance, sometimes, even know how to pray).

Nawaz was sent overseas by HT to build the organisation — in Pakistan, in Denmark, and then in Egypt, where he was arrested, tortured (or almost, though even the psychological stuff is pretty horrific), and spent five years in jail.

Husain gives, I think, much more of a sense of how the Islamist groups, or HT at least, operate locally and at colleges, and of the nuances in Islamist ideologies (stuff about how you can tell different types of Islamist, more traditional Salafists compared to more radical HT-types, by how they dress, etc.). Before he was drawn to Islamism he was already quite religious, learnt how to recite the Quran, etc. His evolution was more to do with the role and activities of organised groups within the community of which he was part. (That’s oversimplifying a bit, but it’s the gist).

Nawaz, on the other hand, wasn’t religious at all. He gives a much stronger sense of how it was racism that drove him towards Islamism. In Southend as a youth he faced constant racism from violent skinheads. He describes a very powerful moment where he and his brother were confronted and outnumbered by local racists; his brother warned the racists he had a bomb in his rucksack and he wasn’t afraid to die. For the first time, the racists were afraid of them, and after that left them alone. Islamism, in the broadest sense, had given him a power he had never experienced before over the racists.

Both books give a strong sense of how Islamism forms a hermetically sealed ideology, a kind of “meta-narrative” which enables you to explain everything, and of how this has easy appeal to Muslim youth (and not just youth) who experience different kinds of racism, who oppose US foreign policy and so forth, and who have a religious bedrock culture.

The Husain book is especially clear on how far the Islamists see nonbelievers — kuffar — as inferior non-people not worthy of much consideration. It’s only Muslims who matter. (HT seems to be less concerned with defining who really is and isn’t a Muslim than, say, ISIL. They’re a Sunni group, and they are contemptuous of Muslims who they think have sold out to the west, but less brazenly sectarian).

The Husain book also gives a particularly clear picture of how Islamism differs from mere religious belief, that it’s a political project to create a state.

HT has an especially crude concept of this. (Hence, for instance, infiltrating the Pakistani army: they literally think that if they can organise a coup in a Muslim country they can start to set up a global Caliphate. As opposed to organising war like al Qaeda or IS). Interestingly, for both of Husain and Nawaz it seems to have been a profound moment when they realised that so much of the ideology of Islamism (states, systems of law, political parties, etc) is taken from modern Western political philosophy, that they (HT, but it would be true more generally) are, as Nawaz puts it “the bastard child of colonialism”.

Both writers are deeply contemptuous of the “Orientalist” left who don’t understand how poisonous and dangerous Islamism is.

My intention here isn’t to summarise the books. I want to draw out some issues which are worth discussing.

First: what both these books show is that even people who’ve been heavily indoctrinated (I think they both use this term) are capable of thinking their way out of it. In both cases the hypocrisy and lack of accountability of the HT leadership seems to have played a role in this; in both cases this led them to question whether giving unchecked power to such people was a good idea! 

But, in both cases, their evolution was to a more personalised Islam, shorn of its Islamist contamination, as they see it. One could say a “depoliticised” Islam, but that’s not true: part of the point of Quilliam is to inject democracy into Islam itself (Nawaz doesn’t use the term, but he’s talking about a kind of “reformation”).

Quilliam is very bourgeois in its outlook. Nawaz describes the time he met George W Bush, and friendly advice chats at Number 10 with Cameron; at the end of the book it’s unclear if he intends to stand for the Lib Dems. Quilliam is known to be friendly with Blair, though Nawaz is very critical of Blair in his book. (Nawaz describes the grassroots movement they initiated in Pakistan, Khudi Pakistan — which sounds very different.)

A big role was played in Nawaz’s break with Islamism by the support he received from Amnesty when he was in jail in Egypt, by the fact that his lawyer was a communist who had himself been in jail, and by meeting principled liberals (like the academic Saad Eddin Ibrahim) in jail. He realised that you didn’t have to be an Islamist to have strong principles.

Of course the lesson to be drawn here is that a robust, secular, liberal in the widest sense (that is, democratic and pluralist) movement is the necessary counter to Islamism. But the problems in this regard are legion.

The Islamists, starting with the Jamaat Islami types, through Saudi-funded imams and mosques, through HT to the most extreme groups, the conduits to Syria, etc, have been building deep roots in Muslim communities in Europe, and have been largely uncontested. Both writers are very critical of cack-handed attempts by governments to promote “moderate” Muslim leaders who are actually just “moderate” Islamists, thus giving the entire Islamist project and “narrative” more, not less, legitimacy.

The Quilliam bourgeois approach might be wrong, but who is going to compete with the Islamists in those communities? This is not simply a problem of political will. Even if part of the left decided tomorrow to prioritise building support in, say, the Bengali community in East London (and assuming we could agree the political basis for it), we are tiny, we have no powerful movement to point to. Of course that’s not a reason not to try; and maybe if you could win one or two impressive individuals to revolutionary socialism quite a lot would change as a result. But the objective obstacles are immense.

Of course the weakness of the left is a more general problem in the world today. It’s not just a problem among Muslims. But the difference is that in “Muslim communities” (a problematic term, but I use it for shorthand) there are these forces which are, in a certain sense, “like us” — organised, grass roots movements which are proposing radical political solutions. But these forces are immensely more powerful and with stronger roots.

People like Husain and Nawaz would, I am sure, be tremendous assets to a socialist group. But they didn’t gravitate in that direction. You can understand the attraction of straightforward liberalism as an alternative to Islamism (indeed, it must be said, I would understand if someone like that was suspicious of what they saw as another “totalising” ideology, or “meta-narrative”). But in any case, bourgeois liberalism has a social weight. Revolutionary socialism does not (yet).

The trouble with bourgeois liberalism is that it’s never going to win over the mass of disenfranchised “Muslim” (assuming this is how they self-identify) youth in the French banlieues or wherever. It doesn’t have enough social weight, especially in times of economic crisis. But we are very far indeed from having a movement which can be counterposed to the Islamists.

There are groups we could build stronger links with (Southall Black Sisters for instane), as part of a wider secular, grass-roots united front of sorts reaching out into those communities but independent of the Quilliam types. 

I think the work some comrades have done around Kobane is very important in this regard. Is it conceivable that these kind of struggles could be amplified into a general challenge to Islamism?

One of the strongest appeals of Islamism, clearly, is that it claims to be about belief, principle, passion. It’s about certainty, and quite rightly the left, or at least any properly democratic and rational left, is much less “certain” in this simple sense. There’s something in the Kobane conflict which cuts through all that.

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