Perhaps the most striking feature of the recent discussion of Islamism in Britain is that few people understand what the term means. Both those who defend it and those who condemn it are often equally vague.

This is a serious problem as Islamism has become an influential force in western societies and beyond. Yet if it is not properly understood it cannot be defeated. It is therefore necessary to identify the weaknesses of the current discussion before going on to identity the key elements of Islamism.

To avoid any confusion the definitions of the key concepts should be made clear from the start. By Islam I mean the global faith, with about two billion followers worldwide, which dates back to the early seventh century. By Islamism I mean a form of religionised politics which first emerged in Egypt in 1928 with the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sometimes it is referred to as political Islam or Islamic fundamentalism. The term “radical Islam” is also sometimes used although it is potentially misleading as it can be taken to simply mean religious extremism.

Islamists are therefore a segment within the Muslim world which upholds a particular brand of totalitarian politics. They are genuine Muslims – contrary to what some of their critics argue – but they do not represent the Islamic community as a whole.

These key distinctions are either muddled or completely missing in the mainstream discussion.

Those on the left – using the term loosely – all too often equate Islamism with Muslims. So when Lee Anderson, at that point still a Conservative MP, recently condemned Islamism he was widely described as an Islamophobe and a racist. After failing to apologise for his remarks the Conservative whip was withdrawn so he became an independent member of parliament.

This was despite the fact he was not referring to Muslims in general but to what he regarded as a particular kind of political activist. His remarks substantially exaggerated the extent of  Islamist influence in Britain but they were not racist.

Meanwhile, many of those on the right, although sometimes others too, talk of “Islamist extremism”. Once again this does not get to the nub of the question. It simply describes Islamism as a form of Islamic-flavoured extremism.

Labels such as “Islamo-fascism” are similarly flawed. They allude to the fact that Islamism is a reactionary political movement – which is true – but only through a kind of guilt by association. They fail to grasp the specifics of Islamist ideology.

Some refer to Islamist terrorist groups such as ISIS or al-Qaeda. That is fair enough in general but it does not apply to Islamist groups trying to intimidate Britain’s elected members of parliament. They are engaged in making violent threats but they are not generally terrorists. In any case terrorists only account for a small proportion of Islamists. There are many more who do not engage in terrorist activity themselves even though they often support it.

So what are the key features of Islamist ideology? These are some of the most important.

·     Scepticism towards if not outright hostility to the nation state. Islamists tend to see themselves not just as a members of a worldwide community of believers but of a global Islamic political community. This often entails extreme hostility to the nation-states in which they live. Islamists typically aspire to the ultimate goal of an international Islamic order.

·     Opposition to democracy. For Islamists sovereignty should lie with God rather than with man. They are therefore unremittingly hostile to popular sovereignty – the idea that the public should ultimately control political decisions – as the cornerstone of democracy. Nor is there any room for the secular in their political vision.

·     Genocidal anti-Semitism. Hostility to Jews is not an incidental part of Islamist ideology but a central feature of its doctrine. It views Jews as a central force of Satanic evil engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to destroy Islam.

·     Support for the use of violence against political enemies. Even if not all adherents engage in violence themselves they tend to support it if they believe the cause is righteous.

·     Hostility to individual rights and any notion of individual autonomy

Islamism is therefore not an authoritarian movement but a totalitarian one. It allows no room for freedom or spontaneity. It is also implacably hostile to democracy. The Islamist movement aspires to total domination over the world order.

The best book on the topic is Bassam Tibi’s Islamism and Islam. Its most influential ideologue is Sayyid Qutb. I have reviewed his foundational text HERE . For an example of a contemporary Islamist website in English checkout 5 Pillars.

Future articles will revisit the flawed notion of Islamophobia, examine the broader question of Muslim identity and examine the overlap between Islamism and woke ideas.

PHOTO: "Official portrait of Lee Anderson MP crop 2" by David Woolfall is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.

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