ONLINE Only: An Important Distinction

Islam isn't Islamism — but Muslims are too quick to defend extremists

I must state from the outset that I read Maajid Nawaz’s (director of the Quilliam Foundation) piece in the Wall Street Journal on the differences between Islam and Islamism with approval.  His exposé on how the intellectual gap is widening over issues like the ‘Ground-Zero Mosque’ is reminiscent of many of the conversations I have had regarding political Islam and its disparity with individual Muslims. 

I am reminded specifically of an occasion — ironically at a pub in Washington D.C. during the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2010 — when I had to distinguish in child-like terms the difference between Islam and Islamism.  After a good half an hour, many of the 10-strong audience still hadn’t grasped that there was a difference, let alone acknowledged any of the subtleties I was trying to explicate.

The problem I have with Maajid’s piece, however, is the counterproductive conclusion — and I say this with as much respect as possible for a man whose organisation I have worked with closely over the past twelve months.  The Quilliam Foundation does fantastic work on radicalisation and Islamism, but I fear that simply claiming that ‘Islamists do not speak on behalf Islam’ ignores the element of tribalism that plagues communities, especially the Muslim community and especially in the United Kingdom.

Maajid and I part ways where the argument turns black and white for him.  Unfortunately, he claims that the West has not heard the message sent by Muslim-dominated countries when they refuse to elect Islamists. 

But the problem does not simply concern the advent of the ‘Islamist State’ with its Shariah doctrine and relentless oppression.   This is a matter of micro and macro, and presently the microcosms of Islamism —those spheres of Islamist influence that exist within the state — are causing a greater problem than I foresee an Islamist-led state would.  States can be subject to various pressures which smaller groups or actors are not troubled by. It is far easier to hold a wayward state to account than it is a mercurial non-state actor, and the former is doubly constrained by the fact that it has to concern itself with the business of actually governing, whereas the latter can direct all of its resources toward its destructive objectives.    

When discussing Islamist states, I think that the wider Muslim community (if such a term can be used) are opposed or apathetic to them – as Maajid rightly suggests.  When it comes to the enemies of the West on a micro-scale, my experience is not always as promising. 

The tendency to side with whoever is ‘against’ the West, or with whoever calls themselves a ‘Muslim’ or acts ‘in the name of Allah’ is worrisome.  I have personal, familial experience of this — I’ve witnessed an unrelenting, disproportionate and unfounded hatred of Israel and its allies simply because, “they attack Muslims.”  Forget the atrocities from the other side; forget the geopolitical nuances.  In their minds, this comes down to Islam vs. the West and therefore vindicates Huntingdon and disturbs Maajid’s contention. 

Yes — this kind of myopic, ‘single-affiliation’ ignorance does pervade and run roughshod through Muslim communities, just as it does through any community that persists in being insular in its traditions and in its breeding.  There can be no denying that this is the case with many different groups — cultural, racial or otherwise.   Many Muslims within the United Kingdom find themselves in this category.  Until they’re ready to stand up to extremists not just at the ballot box, but also in their day-to-day practice of Islam, I won’t be in a position to accept all of Maajid’s claims. 

Islam has a propensity for good – but right now its followers are professing selective repudiation of extremists. This is not enough.

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