What do we mean by Islamism?

The British media and political landscape have done much to obscure a proper in-depth understanding of Islamism, the ideology, as separate from the Muslim faith. Two books can be a small help - everyone should read them.

Denis MacShane
2 January 2013

In 1940, Alec Douglas-Home broke his back in an accident and had to spend months in a complete plaster and immobilised.  The future Prime Minister dedicated the time, so he claimed later, to reading the Works of Marx and it was this lecture that turned him against communism and all its works.

 In truth, the old Etonian aristocrat didn’t need to dig too deeply into the concept of alienation and surplus value to decide that anything linked to Marxism was a threat to his class, but it is important to read about the theory and experience that gives rise then to political practice that can shape the world.

 In the middle of the last century therefore a study of Marxism was useful. Today, a study of Islamism is also essential if one is to make sense of so much of the problems and perils of today’s world. 

An openDemocracy headline described what was happening in Egypt as 'Islamist Fascism'. Secular Tunisians have described what is happening in their country – as the historic UGTT trade union finds itself being slowly crushed by the Islamist Government (whose leader was recently awarded the Chatham House International Man of the Year prize at Banqueting House) – as a slow-burn Iranian style 'revolution'. Sadly we no longer have Fred Halliday to issue prescient warnings about the fears that the Arab spring revolutions may be devouring their own children and are now entering a period of establishing a new authoritarianism.

What we do have, which may be some small help, are two important books:  “Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening” by Maajid Nawaz and “Encounters with Islam” by Malise Ruthven, both important discussions into the phenomenon of contemporary Islamist ideology.  Nawaz tells a remarkable story about his indoctrination as a young student from Southend into Islamist politics in the 1990s.  This was a lost decade as the British political class simply failed to notice what was happening under its own eyes.  An ideology that would justify the most atrocious violence and torture, including the beheading of captured opponents, with a horrific record of oppressing women and homophobia, matched with a contempt and denigration for any of the rights that progressives have fought for through the ages, notably freedom of expression, was allowed to penetrate British universities and many young minds.

 Our universities, where students were usually alert to any expression of extreme right white politics, appeared not to notice the extreme right politics of Islamist ideology.

Nawaz goes into pitiless detail exposing the activities of Hizb ut Tahrir. Like the English Defence League, this Islamist organisation, he says, preach relentless hate. For Nawaz, the spread of HT was intimately connected to the Conservative Government’s indifference to the genocidal massacre of Muslims in Bosnia. We still have had no apology from William Hague, who was in John Major’s Cabinet and who is now Foreign Secretary, for his involvement in the collective British Tory decision to allow the mobs of Milosevic to carry out their slaughter of European Muslims. Eight thousand imprisoned men were taken out one by one, their hands tied by plastic handcuffs, and Serbs shot them in the head to push them into a carefully excavated mass grave.   

I was in the House of Commons when Sir Malcolm Rifkind, our Foreign Secretary, washed his hands at the despatch box, like any Pontius Pilate, to explain why Britain would not lift a finger to intervene to stop the massacre of Muslims.

 For some young British Muslims at colleges and universities, this was a moment when they crossed the line to become HT activists.  Nawaz tells of a conference at the LSE where a student, Omar Sheikh, listened to Islamist preachers.  He was so convinced that he went to Pakistan and there took part in the kidnapping of the American Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl. Pearl had his throat cut in order to promote Islamist ideology. Sheikh is still in prison in Pakistan for this crime.

 Nawaz, himself from a pious, gentle Pakistani origin family in Southend, loved Hip Hop music and girls but turned his back on such pleasures to become an activist and then one of the leaders of HT. He studied Arabic and law and went round Britain, as well as Denmark and then to Pakistan to set up new Islamist cells. The chief goal was the overthrow of the Pakistan Government to replace it by an Islamist Junta in preparation to bring about the return of the caliphate using Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to this end.


Some people did and do write about these problems with the depth they deserve.  Those who traced anti-Semitism carefully could not fail to be horrified at the rise of Islamism. But others – Melanie Philips in the Daily Mail for example – broadened a justified concern about Islamist anti-Semitism into an uncontrolled stream of consciousness against Muslims and the religion of Islam itself. We all know the result. Islamism, the ideology and Islamists, the preachers of hate and death, flourished because their early opponents focused on the wrong target, namely the Muslim faith and its followers.

 Nawaz saw one ‘answer’ to Islamism when he was arrested in Egypt. Although never tortured himself – the soggy old British diplomatic service came to his rescue as a British citizen – he witnessed unbearable and unspeakable acts of cruelty by the Egyptian regime against its Islamist opponents.  One evil begets another. 


Now, like so many who in their youth were blinded by Stalinism or Trotskyism, Nawaz has left behind the shores of fundamentalist belief and extremist politics to advise and coach and coax fellow British Muslims who might be tempted to take the path he did twenty years ago not to do so. Anybody who cares about the future of Britain should read this book, and they will get even more from Nawaz’s account when read alongside an illuminating, thoughtful and prescient collection of essays on Islam by Malise Ruthven.

Ruthven, pronounced Riven, is like the late and still very much lamented Fred Halliday, a scholar, investigative reporter, and insightful essayist all wrapped in one. As Ruthven points out, when commentators write glibly of Muslim states they usually mean a rather narrow range of Arab authoritarian nations. There is a much wider Islam diffused through many preachers, some strands close to Unitarian or Quaker versions of Christianity. I once heard a leader of the Muslim Council of Britain declare that he could not condemn or call for the outright abolition of lapidation – the stoning to death of women who sleep with a man not their husband – because to do so would be to go against the teaching of the Qur’an.  I could hardly believe my ears, hearing this in London from a fluent young man often treated on Newsnight and other BBC outlets as an authority on the Muslim condition in Britain. He seems to me to be as close to this as a fundamentalist Presbyterian is to the condition of Scotland or a member of the Plymouth Brethren is to the condition of Christianity in England.

Ruthven also looks at the efforts by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to rewrite the universal declaration of human rights in order to conform to their idea of their faith and what they see as the different rights of men and women.  He helps to give us the tools to expose such assertions for what they are, like Stalin’s 1936 constitution or the arguments by Russian diplomats in the 1950s and 1960s that their version of human rights was every bit of good as that of progressive democrats.

 Ruthven proposes Jew-hate as one of the organising elements of both contemporary Islamism and much of the organised politics of many majority Muslim states.

 He condemns George W Bush for his language about crusades and above all, for announcing a “war on terror”. This, he says, immediately raised the status of ideological murdering criminals to that of enemy combatants. In contrast, in Northern Ireland, the murderers linked to the extreme right-wing IRA were continually treated as criminals and put in prison as such, rather than afforded the martyr status that Bush has given Islamists by defining the campaign against them as a war.


Both Nawaz and Ruthven have written significant books, which add greatly to our store of knowledge on the new ideology of Islamism.  Twenty-odd years ago I wrote a pamphlet for the NUJ asking why there were no black or Asian or Muslim reporters in our newspapers or working for the BBC.  To some extent that problem has been put right.   But we are still far from having an adequate journalism or political understanding of the meaning of contemporary Islamism, nor an honest debate over the tragedies that British and Western policy have caused. It should in political terms be possible to hold a reasoned and progressive debate. 

But then the hate remains.  

Recently, I was helping organise and speak at a protest against the English Defence League when they came to Rotherham. One man walked past me with hate on his face snarling the words “Zionist filth.” The EDL is an openly anti-Semitic organisation whose leaders have endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  Was this an EDL man thus condemning me?  No.  It was a British Asian, not one I recognised from my former constituency of Rotherham, but one whose mind was as equally poisoned by lies as those who believe EDL ideology. 

I would love to give both him and the EDL members copies of both books, as well as the money men behind the EDL.  But even if they were to read them, would the important and essential messages that Narwaz and Ruthven express have any impact at all?

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData