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Thursday 24th September 2009
For the IPPR the world is still flat


I see my fellow blogger, Alexander Hitchens, beat me to it in posting about the IPPR report on engaging with Islamists but I couldn't resist chipping in with a few thoughts of my own.

The latest paper from the IPPR, Building Bridges, Not Walls, offers little new analysis when it comes to advocating engagement with Islamist groups in the Middle East and beyond. Essentially, it is a rehash of the tired ‘Moderate Muslim Brotherhood' argument first articulated by Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke in 2007.

The Leiken-Brooke thesis, and by extension the IPPR report, fall into the lazy trap of suggesting that Islamist groups support democracy. This is a misnomer. Surely, no one could suggest that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood support democracy as we understand it: meaning a liberal society which ensures legal and constitutional equality (for example, for women, homosexuals, and religious minorities). Of course, what these groups actually mean when they profess support for ‘democracy' is actually support ‘elections' - a mechanism of having themselves elevated to power. That, in itself, says nothing about the values those groups endorse, or the worldview they aspire to realise.

However, the main problem with accepting the view that we should - or indeed need to - engage with Islamists is that it is predicated on the belief that such groups are somehow representative of Muslim opinion. This must be challenged.

As I pointed out in my own report on engaging with Islamists, Choosing our Friends Wisely, the Jamaat - South Asia's largest Islamist movement - was effectively destroyed in the Bangladeshi elections last December. Similarly, in Pakistan's most conservative region, the North-West Frontier Province, the religious coalition known as the MMA which won scores of seats after 9/11 was effectively thrown from office in 2007. In Iraq too, religious parties achieved only pitiful results in the most recent elections. So, where is this yearning for ‘political Islam' that we are told Muslims desire?

Such claims are even found to be wanting in the UK where a noisy and sophisticated Islamist lobby frequently projects itself as the voice of British Muslims. During the 2007 Mayoral elections in London a ‘Muslims 4 Ken' campaign was launched, urging Muslims in London to vote for Ken Livingstone because this was deemed to be ‘in the best interests of London's Muslims'. Yet, just a few days after the campaign was launched, polling released by Ken Livingstone himself revealed that Muslim concerns were the same as those of everyone else - clean streets, housing, crime, and education. Those issues are a world away from the Islamist obsessions of Iraq and Palestine, where it was felt Boris Johnson might be less ‘Muslim-friendly'. Of course, then, ‘Muslims 4 Ken' was unable to deliver the very constituency it claimed to represent.

Similarly, despite the repeated protestations of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) that it is the largest - and therefore must representative - body of British Muslims, polling conducted by Populus for Policy Exchange in 2007 revealed that only 6% of British Muslims felt the MCB represented them. I suspect even that figure flatters them more than they deserve.

While working for More4 News in 2006, I uncovered footage from the Channel 4 series ‘Shariah TV' when a representative from the MCB had been on the panel. The presenter asked the audience if they felt the MCB spoke for them and an awkward silence followed as no one raised their hand. After a while a few hands sheepishly went up when the presenter asked if anyone felt the MCB represented them on some issues.

These are just a few of the issues on which the IPPR report gets it wrong. After all, given that Islamist groups are not ‘democratic' in the way we understand the term, and are so demonstrably unable to ‘deliver' those on whose behalf they claim to campaign - why should Western governments engage them?

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About Focus on Islamism

Focus on Islamism is a blog dedicated to analysing and exposing the modern ideological phenomenon known as Islamism.

Shiraz Maher is a writer and broadcaster.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is a PhD student at King's College, London.  He has contributed to various online and printed publications including, The Daily Telegraph, Lebanon's Daily Star, Standpoint and NOWLebanon. 

To contact the authors, click here

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