Is political Islam a threat to the west?
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 the most recent Doha Debates, moderated by veteran BBC journalist Tim Sebastian in Qatar, in front of a diverse, engaged audience of 350 people.
In support of the motion, Maajid Nawaz, a former member of the radical group, 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.
However, Shadi Hamid, a senior Fellow at Stanford University, debating against the motion, disagreed: “With the exception of Hamas or Hezbollah, 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 vocalising her frustration at the nebulous and generalised 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, and 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 law.
Sadly, many incorrectly equate the vastly different intentions of both groups merely due to their both being identified as “Muslim”.
Moreover, rightwing, xenophobic political ideologues, especially in the United States and Europe, recklessly connect all versions of political Islam with al-Qaida as a dire warning to those who dare let such political parties gain influence and popularity. Haroon Mughal, director of public relations at The Islamic Center, at New York University, underscores the key differences: “Al-Qaida has no real political goals. Its main interest seems to be in killing lots of people … men, women, children, Muslim or not.”
Also, if all “political Islam” is defined as those who use the democratic system to exalt a polarising and violent version of Islam inspired by sharia law, then how do we explain Turkey”s successful AKP: 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 and home-grown British citizens committed the atrocious 7/7 bombings in London, those acts should not be 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 hardline Islamist parties, such as Hamas. The US 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.
Ultimately, the debates highlights the utter complexity and inter-connectedness of the modern, globalised terrain; one where simplistic talking points no longer suffice as the basis for 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 as a moderate, enlightened shield of self-determination rather than a poisonous, lacerating sword of intolerance and separatism.