The first Friday prayers of this year's Ramadan, at East London Mosque. Tanya Nagar/Demotix. All rights reserved.
Most scholars studying Islamic political theory will tell you that defining ‘Islamism’ is a near impossible task, made no easier by the many competing experiments at theorising and implementing a political system based on Islamic law.
There are few similarities between the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of wilayat al-faqih (the basis of the Islamic Republic of Iran) and the ideas at the core of Hizb-ut Tahrir’s worldview. Branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sudan and Syria have their own distinctive visions of a well-run society based on local culture and regional conditions. Though some Islamists view the end of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 as the death of a moribund and corrupt institution, some continue to mark the date as the beginning of the first major fitna (division) of the Muslim world in the twentieth century.
Despite this, both politicians and extremists have largely succeeded in projecting ‘Islamism’ as an unambiguous, homogenous and violent political doctrine. Earlier in 2014, Tony Blair warned that Islamism was, “not about a competing view of how society or politics should be governed within a common space where you accept other views are equally valid”. Islamism is different, according to Blair, because of its ultimate goal: “not a society which someone else can change after winning an election”, but “a society of a fixed polity, governed by religious doctrines that are not changeable but which are, of their essence, unchangeable.” After the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, David Cameron pledged to "drain the swamp" of Islamic extremism in the UK. What this meant, argued the Prime Minister was, “looking at the process of radicalisation on our campuses, it means looking at Islamic centres that have been taken over by extremists and gone wrong, it means looking at those mosques, which are struggling to throw out the extremists and to help them in the work they are doing.”
Cameron’s emphasis on radicalisation in university campuses and Islamic centres reflects a fear that Muslim youths will, under the guidance of radical clerics attempting to mix politics with religion, be seduced to commit unspeakable acts of violence both at home and abroad. Those who run Mosques in the UK are already acutely aware that a controversial statement made at the minbar (pulpit) can have severe repercussions for that Mosque’s standing in the eyes of the government and local authorities. Many choose simply to avoid inviting speakers who voice political opinions in their sermons, or facilitating discussions about theoretical and practical issues being confronted today in the Muslim world.
Alongside their quietism, Muslim leaders are also often called upon to condemn and distance themselves from the violence and repugnant acts being carried out in the name of Islam. This has been the case in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on September 11 and July 7, and most recently in the cases of Woolwich and IS(IS) slaughter in Iraq and Syria. Even the Vatican has issued a statement asking Muslim leaders to condemn the persecution of religious minorities in Iraq. Despite what is commonly suggested, British imams and faith leaders have readily condemned extremist groups and acts of terrorism.
Yet the call for Islamic scholars to condemn IS(IS) reveals a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the dominant discourse regarding Islamism. By demanding that Muslim leaders condemn the Islamic State, they are now being called upon to make a political and theological judgement that – through their years of quietism – they have little credible authority to make. One of the biggest shortcomings of today’s Muslim leadership in the UK is that they have shied away from weighing in on some of the most important political issues in the Muslim world, and have thus become complacent in their role as authorities confined to spiritual matters alone. Those who do have the power to set agendas and lead intellectual debate have been confined to addressing issues such as ritual purity or, at best, social cohesion.
This is not to say that politics should be a prerequisite for worship, but that a failure to address political issues is making religious scholars in the UK less relevant. The reluctance of today’s religious leaders from publically confronting the political as well as moral consequences of the basic Islamic tenet enjoining the good and forbidding evil (amr bil ma’ruf, wa nahy an al-munkar) has left a void within which jihadi discourse has thrived.
Frustrated young British Muslims who now behead and mutilate in the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed Caliphate are unlikely to have been presented with a convincing legal and political challenge to the discourse of IS(IS) in the public realm. As with most other societies that have forced Islamism underground, today’s British fighters in Iraq and Syria were in all likelihood exposed to the most vociferous arguments justifying al-Baghdadi’s claim to absolute religious authority in private study circles, or simply online. Unconvinced by the quietism of religious scholars, they saw the violence of IS(IS) as the only other option.
Right now condemnation of extremist groups like IS(IS) is a spectacle that does not confront the fact that radicalisation is as much a battle over ideas as it is about economic disenfranchisement or social alienation. The fact that many well educated and affluent Muslims have chosen the path of extremism highlights this. Condemnation must coincide with rigorous critique from all directions in the Muslim community of a political doctrine that has been projected by the British establishment, as well as extremists, as the only outcome of mixing Islam with politics. This cannot happen unless the popular narrative of Islamism changes and Muslims are given more space to debate and refute within a political-Islamic framework the ideas at the core of jihadi discourses. It is no coincidence that faith leaders now condemning IS(IS) by stating that their actions are un-Islamic, or that their members are not true Muslims, simply reinforce the binary scale of ‘true Islam’ and ‘non-Islam’ also used by jihadis.
What we need is for religious authorities at all levels to challenge the ideology of groups like IS(IS) using arguments drawn from Islamic law, philosophy, theology, and especially political theory, rather than rhetoric. To do this, the UK government needs to cease treating Islamism as an all-encompassing doctrine and instead allow for a plurality of approaches to combining Islam with politics – Islamisms as opposed to Islamism – to develop.