Islamism: Is political Islam a threat to the West?

Islamism: Is political Islam a threat to the West? January 24, 2009
Looking for nuance

As the world witnesses Muslims frequently embracing “Islamic” political parties in the Middle East, many ominously foresee this trend as an inevitable threat to “the West.”

This contentious issue anchored last week’s prestigious Doha Debates moderated by veteran BBC journalist Tim Sebastian in Qatar, which hosts controversial topics in front of a diverse, engaged audience of 350 people. The motion “This House Believes that Political Islam is a Threat to the West” was defeated by 51% to 49% following a vote from the passionate audience, which included several members from the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow conference who were invited to observe and participate.

In support of the motion, Maajid Nawaz, a former leader of the radical Hizb ut-Tahir who has since totally renounced his affiliations, stressed that Muslims and Islam are not inherently undemocratic or extremist, but rather the modern politicisation of Islam creates a dehumanising ideology soaked in separatism and violence. As he told me after the debate, “Political Islam is an ideology. They believe in exporting this divisive ideology to Muslims in the West… terrorists emerge from these parties. They don’t believe in our same democratic values.”

However, Shadi Hamid, a research fellow at Stanford University debating against the motion, disagreed: “With the exception of Hamas or Hizballah, every single mainstream Islamic party has renounced violence.”

Hamid’s debating partner, Sarah Joseph, Editor of the Muslim lifestyle magazine Emel, won over the audience by vocalizing her frustration at the nebulous and generalized definitions of “the West” and “political Islam.”

Meanwhile, Yahya Pallavicini, an Italian Imam and government adviser, argued for the motion lamenting the misuse of religion by Islamist political parties who selfishly hijack theology to “legitimise violence” and demonise women.

The debate highlighted a glaring problem when discussing this powder-keg issue. Namely, these conversations routinely obfuscate the highly complex and diverse citizenry of the world by carelessly lumping them into simplistic categories, such as “the West” and “Political Islamists,” purely for the sake of rhetorical convenience and ideological propagation.

Following the debate, I asked Maajid Nawaz to clearly define “the West.” He replied: “By ‘the West’ I mean America and Europe.”

It must be comforting for some to know that the late Samuel Huntington’s antiquated model parcelling the world into fictitious, neatly carved regions is still the hallmark for enlightened debates on global relations.

To be fair, the side arguing against the motion did not articulate the complex variety of “political Islam” either. Instead, they spent an inordinate amount of time on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as a model of non-violent Islamism.

Without nuance, one can never understand the difference in the mindset between mainstream, practicing Muslims engaging the political arena, such as Muslim Americans for Obama, as opposed to certain “political Islamists, ” such as Hamas or Muslim Brotherhood. After the debate, Hamid offered clarification: “For the latter, Islam is the primary motivator for their politics. They want to see Islam and Islamic law play a larger role in public policy.” They are unlike the former who merely vote like other Americans citizens based on their candidates’ respective platforms, instead of a passionate desire to implement Sharia.

Sadly, many incorrectly equate the vastly different intentions of both groups merely due to their tangential nexus of being identified as “Muslim.”

Moreover, right wing, xenophobic political ideologues, especially in the United States and Europe, recklessly connect all versions of political Islam with Al Qaeda as a dire warning to those who dare let such political parties gain influence and popularity. Haroon Moghal, Director of Public Relations at The Islamic Center at New York University, underscores the key differences: “Al Qaeda has no real political goals. Its main interest seems to be in killing lots of people… men, women, children, Muslim or not.” Mona Al-Oraibi, a British-Iraqi Muslim journalist, concurred and like many in the audience, both Muslim and Non-Muslim, lamented over the fact that “all Islamic political expression is lumped into ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism.”

Also, if all “political Islam” is defined as those who use the democratic system to exalt a polarizing and violent version of Islam inspired by Sharia, then how do we explain Turkey’s successful AKB party: a pro-Western, democratic party that won the popular vote due to its adherence to conservative, Islamic values.

Although Islamist extremists used terrorism in Bali [2002 Hard Rock Café Bombings] and home-grown British citizens committed the atrocious 7/7 bombings in London, those acts should not be wholly imputed to the vast majority of diverse Muslim citizens worldwide committed to peacefully promoting their religious values by proactively engaging the democratic system.

Indeed, if the United States and UK truly embrace the democratic ideals they preach, they must eventually respect the wishes of a voting Muslim population, even one that freely elects hard-line Islamist parties, such as Hamas. The U.S. must engage them – at least diplomatically– as to not commit an affront towards the fundamental principles of free democratic elections or to the Muslim citizens that participate in them.

Furthermore, by supporting repressive regimes such as Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s royal family – instead of democratically elected Islamist leaders – the U.S. reveals its glaring hypocrisy and double standards in dealing with the Middle East. This shameful Machiavellian foreign policy follows a disturbing legacy in which U.S. has deliberately circumvented Middle Eastern democracy for its owns selfish initiatives; most notably in overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mosaddeq in favor of the brutal tyrant, Muhammad Shah Pahlavi, in 1953. Mosaddeq’s crime? His desire to nationalize his country’s most important resource, oil, and wrest it from U.S. and European control and exploitation.

However, observing the debate with the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow and hearing their diverse range of opinions, one should emerge hopeful that the bulwark of reactionary, monolithic thought [whether it be “Islamic” or “Western” – whatever you wish those terms to mean] will be stifled by this emerging generation. As Hussein Rashid, a PhD candidate in Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, remarked, “One thing to keep in mind is that ‘Islam doesn’t speak, Muslims do.’ It is Muslims who define what Islam says and does, within broad parameters. The new generation is engaged, informed, and articulate. It scares the Islamists, because [the new generation] won’t fall for the ideologues.”

Ultimately, the debates highlights the utter complexity and inter-connectedness of the modern, globalized terrain; one where simplistic talking points no longer suffice to have meaningful discussions about political Islam’s relationship with itself and the world. As with any political ideology and process, the threat or benefit is ultimately derived from its adherents who must wield the power to use it proactively as a moderate, enlightened shield of self-determination rather than a poisonous, lacerating sword of intolerance and separatism.

(This article was previously published in shorter form in The Guardian, Comment is Free)

Associate editor Wajahat Ali is a Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at He can be reached at

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