Don’t blame all Islamists for the violence of a minority
June 2, 2013
The Woolwich murder in London; Muslim Brotherhood rulers in Egypt; the ultraconservative Salafi religious movement. What do they have in common? Not very much, and even less with Muslim communities worldwide.
Some recent events may tempt us to connect these three things, but if we do we are likely to create many more problems for ourselves, and to lose allies as well.
Before the Arab uprisings, much of my work was focused on counter-terrorism strategies in the UK, Europe and the US. The UK bombings of July 7, 2005, triggered a critical debate about radicalisation – and great confusion on that subject among the public.
The temptation across much of government and in most public discourse was to conflate all types of political activity within the Muslim community as inevitably violent. As deputy convener of the UK government’s task force on radicalisation, I saw this as highly counterproductive. Islamist activity of any type may impair social cohesion, but it was and is imperative that British society distinguish among various kinds of Islamism – and engage with them accordingly.
Ultra-conservative Salafi groups, such as London’s “Brixton Salafis” who attracted so much media attention after July 7, never represented mainstream Muslims, but they were not a security threat.
Islamist-inspired lobby groups and community associations could be considered problematic, for a variety of reasons. But they were not Al Qaeda, and should not be lumped together with violent groups. That assessment was not common in British public discourse, but was prevalent in the country’s security establishment.
Within the Arab world, there was another debate going on at the time over the view, mostly advocated by the civil rights sector, that it was right to open up the political system in Arab lands so that non-violent Islamists (the vast majority of them) could participate more fully.
Those arguing that way were not, in the slightest, Islamists. Their motivation was based on principle, not self-interest. Indeed, it would have been far easier for them to turn a blind eye to the abuses taking place against many ordinary Muslims, just as many others did.
Eight years on, London has witnessed a murder, ostensibly committed by an extremist. Meanwhile Islamists governing Egypt face harsh criticism for their track record of repression. Outside of government, radical Islamist groups are accused of contributing to an increasingly serious security situation in the Sinai desert.
Were those of us who supported the civil rights community in Hosni Mubarak’s time wrong? Were those of us who pushed for greater political integration wrong? Were those of us who insisted on nuanced analysis of Islamism in the West wrong? Should we all have insisted that all types of Islamism were just one big conveyor belt to violent extremism? In a word: no.
The brand of Salafism pushed by the Brixton Salafis, and the Muslim Brotherhood-style of Islamism that forced the likes of Abu Hamza Al Masri out of Finsbury Park mosque, are far preferable to the violent radicalism that produced the July 7 bombers.
According to all reports thus far, the Woolwich accused are not products of either. The murder was denounced by all Muslim community associations bar the infamous (and banned) Al Muhajiroun. That group seems to excel in sensationalist statements for the purpose of being provocative. Why we continue to lavish so much attention upon them boggles the mind.
Britain’s security establishment needs to be asked how the Woolwich murder took place, when it knew the suspects by name.
Yet in general, the UK has been remarkably successful at foiling extremists. Despite abuses and mismanagement, the security services have in general managed to deliver most of these extremists into the hands of the law, where they’ve been prosecuted and convicted.
Where people break the law, including when it comes to incitement, they ought to be held to account – through the law.
In Egypt, had the Islamists (in particularly, the Muslim Brotherhood) been more involved in political life before the revolution, it is likely they would have been far more competent, and far less problematic, in government.
Indeed, they might not have been in government, as a good part of their appeal to the electorate was based on public ignorance of how they might actually perform – an ignorance that would have been far less if they had been allowed to participate in politics, even marginally, before the revolution.
It is telling that the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity has plummeted. (And it is a shame that there is no worthy opposition waiting to take over.)
Where does that leave the discussions about different types of Islamism now? In much the same place. The ultraconservative Salafis are still not the mainstream in any Muslim community anywhere, and shouldn’t be mistaken for it.
Mainstream Islamist forces are still not a democratic alternative that should be given a free pass, but should be held to account every time they abuse the democratic game for their own selfish designs.
Most people in Muslim communities simply want a better future, with the inalienable rights of all protected, not as Islamists but as citizens. That desire will win out – if we stay the course. Stigmatising Islamists at large as inevitably violent, and all Muslims as inevitably Islamist, whether in London or in Cairo, leads only down a path to failure.
We ought to remember that our societies have become stronger, and better, every time we have resisted the temptation to let cynicism and paranoia get the better of us. That has always been the way to refuse the extremists a victory that they neither deserve, nor will ever get – unless we let them. The choice remains ours, not theirs.
Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .
This article was published by The National on June 2, 2013. Read it here.