Islamism or Islam?

We all heard our leaders say after the Woolwich murder:

“There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act” (David Cameron)
“It is completely wrong to blame this killing on Islam” (Boris Johnson)
“…the distortion of a great salvation religion” (Nick Clegg).
Before them Tony Blair said “Anyone who knows anything about Islam, knows it is a religion of peace”.

Were you surprised that they all had the theological knowledge to make such definitive claims? Did you wonder what their justifications were? They never told us.

Boris Johnson’s case is particularly interesting because he appears to have had something of a Damascene conversion. After the 7/7 bombings in 2005 he said:

“To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia — fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke. Judged purely on its scripture – to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques – it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers….That means disposing of the first taboo, and accepting that the problem is Islam. Islam is the problem”

In 2008, while campaigning in the London mayoral election, he said he now believed, after having researched the Koran more in depth, that it is “a religion of peace”.

What did he find in the Koran that changed his mind? Sadly, he did not share that with us. Until he gives us chapter and verse, that is sura and ayah, we may suspect that his epiphany came not so much from reading the Koran as from realising the importance of the Muslim vote in London.

After the Woolwich murder Johnson wrote that:

“There is no sense in blaming Islam, a religion that gives consolation and enrichment to the lives of hundreds of millions of peaceful people…we need to make a hard and sharp distinction between that religion – and the virus of “Islamism”.

So there we have it – Islam is the otherwise healthy organism afflicted by an illness, Islamism, which has to be treated. I am grateful to Boris for making the establishment view so clear with his image.

This division is also at the heart of government policy. In December 2013 Her Majesty’s Government produced a report called Tackling extremism in the UK.

It says “As the greatest risk to our security comes from Al Qa’ida and like-minded groups, and terrorist ideologies draw on and make use of extremist ideas, we believe it is also necessary to define the ideology of Islamist extremism. This is a distinct ideology which should not be confused with traditional religious practice. It is an ideology which is based on a distorted interpretation of Islam, which betrays Islam’s peaceful principles, and draws on the teachings of the likes of Sayyid Qutb.”

(As an aside, if Sayyid Qutb is the evil genius behind all this, why is the organisation which reflects his ideology like no other, the Muslim Brotherhood, welcome in Britain? The MB has a record of engaging in terrorist violence or political infiltration according to circumstance, as do its offshoots for instance Hamas in Gaza (the former) and CAIR in the US and myriad organisations in Britain (the latter) and yet it operates openly from an office in Cricklewood. Conversely, if the MB is acceptable why is their great ideologue held up as the inspiration of our enemies?)

One intriguing development is referred to in the report:

“Appropriately recruited Muslim Prison Chaplains are already employed to challenge the extremist views of prisoners and to provide religious direction for Muslim prisoners. Using their experience, they are developing the ‘Ibaana’ [ie “clarify”] programme designed to target the small number of prisoners with the most entrenched extremist views. One-to-one sessions over several hours with a trained chaplain will be used to challenge the theological arguments used by these prisoners to justify their extremist views.”

There is of course the possibility that state backed theologians will just be dismissed by Muslim prisoners as “Uncle Toms” trying to create suitably docile Muslims.

But let us take a more positive view. If our leaders cannot provide the theological justifications for a peaceful Islam perhaps these appropriately recruited chaplains can. Whatever they are telling their charges, let them write it down so we can all see it and have our minds put at rest. I for one would be massively grateful for such justifications because whenever I go looking for them I find either comically blatant deception as in Tahir-ul-Qadri’s famous fatwah against terrorism or what could charitably be called wishul thinking as in Quilliam’s arguments.

No such document being planned? No, I thought not, but if HMG really think their Muslim chaplains can provide sound arguments to counter jihadi attacks against us then surely it has a duty to get them out into the world.

If you want to explore the intellectual underpinnings of the government’s stance then Michael Gove’s excellent book Celcius 7/7 would be a good place to start. It is heartening to know there is someone in the government with such an understanding of the Islamist threat and who is (or was) willing to speak out about it. Nevertheless, it seems to me that his attempt to separate Islamism from Islam does not hold water. He asserts that:

“The distinction is the difference between Islam, the great historic faith which has brought spiritual nourishment to millions, and Islamism, the specifically twentieth-century ideology which twists the religious impulse into submission to a new totalitarianism.”


“Islamism is not Islam in arms; it is a political creed that perverts Islam…”

but look at some of his supporting statements (I hope not misrepresented by taking them out of their context):

“…Islamism is driven by a divine mission to ensure that the whole earth, in due course, learns to submit to Islamist rule.”

“For Hassan al-Banna and his followers in the Muslim Brotherhood the roots of decline lay in the abandonment of a pure and unpolluted Islam. Revival could only come through a return to a society ordered on the basis of the literal, and unalterable, truths of the Koran.”

“His [ie Abul ala Mawdudi’s] group, Jamaat-i-Islami [closely related to the MB], was dedicated to the fundamental Islamist proposition that Islam was not so much a religion for private devotion as the source of a complete political system capable of competing with rival totalitarianisms for the minds of men.”

“…Mawdudi’s belief that ultimate sovereignty rested with God alone. It was by his unalterable rules and in accordance with his perfect revelation that society was to be ordered. Down to the last detail.”

Where is the specifically twentieth-century ideology there? I see nothing that could not be described simply as a return to Mohammed’s original religio-political ideology. Surely we must agree that Mohammed’s Islam, as developed in Medina at least, was not just “a religion for private devotion” but absolutely a complete political system.

Then, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, there are the Salafis and the Khomeiniites and Al-Qaeda. Is that one ideology or four? Quite different from each other, they share only one thing – the intent to spread Islam using peaceful or violent means as necessary. It seems to me that these four groupings do not represent a new totalitarian ideology but are simply new varieties of an old one. That is why I would reverse Mr Gove’s statement:

“Islamism is not a political creed that perverts Islam, it is simply Islam in arms.”

I hesitate to challenge Mr Gove’s view but I do have some scholarship on my side. Here is the historian Mervyn Hiskett writing twenty years ago when the terms “Islamism” and “Islamic fundamentalism” were used interchangeably:

“But the truth is, Islamic “fundamentalism”, as the world has understood it…adds little, if anything, to what has always been inherent in Islam since the Koran was revealed. The collapse of [Western European] imperialism and the rise of the liberal ethic have simply removed the barriers that once so salubriously contained it.”

One problem is that the groups we call Islamist are not so obliging as to refer to themselves as such. They see themselves simply as Muslims carrying out instructions laid down in Mohammed’s teachings, and supported by all four of the Sunni schools of jurisprudence and the Shiite equivalent. Look at these expressed views of Muslim scholars among others.

Can you tell the Islamists from the mainstream? For instance, what about the modern Syrian scholar Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Bouti in his major work “Jurisprudence in Muhammad’s Biography”:

“The concept of Holy War (Jihad) in Islam does not take into consideration whether defensive or an offensive war. Its goal is the exaltation of the Word of Allah and the construction of Islamic society and the establishment of Allah’s Kingdom on Earth regardless of the means. The means would be offensive warfare. In this case, it is the apex, the noblest Holy War.”

In fact he would not be considered an Islamist, yet see how exactly he chimes with Osama bin Laden:

“It is the religion of Jihad in the way of Allah so that Allah’s Word and religion reign Supreme.”

The views of al-Bouti, “the scholar’s scholar”, are particularly interesting, even ironic, since he reverses our current ideas about the distortion of Islam. Expanding on his theme of offensive jihad he writes:

“…This is the concept which professional experts of thought attempt to conceal from the eyes of Muslims by claiming that anything that is related to a holy war in Islamic law is only based on defensive warfare to repel an attack…It is no secret that the reason behind this deception is the great fear which dominates foreign countries (East and West alike) that the idea of Holy War for the cause of God would be revived in the hearts of Muslims, then certainly, the collapse of European culture will be accomplished.”

Perhaps our Muslim chaplains will hear him quoted in their conversations with the Islamist prisoners.

It is not that I deny that there is a distinction to be made between Islam and Islamism but I suggest that it is of very limited use. Islamism just refers to those strains of Islam whose adherents are willing to use violence to spread the influence of their religion. That sounds just like the Mohammed of Medina to me. I do not see any distortion of his teachings there at all. In fact I venture to suggest that if Mohammed came back today he would say “Well done boys, keep up the good work”. Presumably he meant it for all time (and this is how Islamic tradition has understood it down the ages) when he said:

“Not equal are those believers remaining [at home] – other than the disabled – and the mujahideen, [who strive and fight] in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives. Allah has preferred the mujahideen through their wealth and their lives over those who remain [behind], by degrees. And to both Allah has promised the best [reward]. But Allah has preferred the mujahideen over those who remain [behind] with a great reward” (sura 4:95).

So was Mohammed an Islamist or just a Muslim? The historian Daniel Pipes calls this the killer question of those who see Islam itself as the problem and answers it in a worryingly facile way. He says “Muhammad was a plain Muslim, not an Islamist, for the latter concept dates back only to the 1920s”.

Is this not just playing with words? If you put the question another way, “Who in the modern world most closely follow Mohammed’s Medina teachings and example?” surely the Islamists come out tops. Why shouldn’t they be murderous fanatics? That is exactly what Mohammed was. If they are Islamists then so was Mohammed. If Mohammed was just a Muslim then so are they.

Suppose there was an Islamic version of the rapture tomorrow and all those Muslims commonly referred to as Islamists were taken to paradise. Would that solve our problems? According to HMG it must. The ideology which is a distortion or a betrayal of Islam would have disappeared, leaving only peaceful Muslims to live harmoniously with non-believers according to their traditional religious practice. I suggest that before too long some Muslims would start to scratch their heads and say “Hey, look what it says here. Why aren’t we doing it?” Then new groups would spring up with sword in one hand and the Koran in the other, just as has always happened since the 7th century (apart from a relatively short spell of containment under European colonialism).

This is why I say that, while Islam and Islamism can be distinguished, the relationship between them is not that of an organism and an infection but more accurately that of a fire and the flames that it inevitably produces. If you doused the flames currently burning up so much of the world they would soon be replaced by others.

Is it not patronising and futile to imagine we can convince aspiring jihadis that they have misunderstood Mohammed’s demands? It appears obvious to most newcomers to Islam, as it does to so many learned scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, that supremacism and jihad are utterly inherent in the Islam of Mohammed, not just of Sayyid Qutb. Instead of trying to convince jihadis that they have it all wrong should we not accord them the dignity of regarding them genuinely as our enemy?

Let us close with a quote, taken from a comments section of the Guardian, from an unknown Salafi with whom I would not try to argue:

“As for how I define myself, I am merely a Muslim. If I have to expand on that further then I am also a Sunni. If I need to expand on that even further then I am a Salafi too. I don’t give credence to labels that are thrown around by the infidels. I believe that as a Muslim one should understand the religion by the apparent (i.e. literal) meaning of the texts which would no doubt render me a ‘devout Fundamentalist’. Thus I also believe in the concept of jihad which would also render me a ‘Jihadist’. The usage of these titles is a major bugbear of mine because there is no such thing as a fundamentalist or moderate Islam. There is simply Islam and Muslims may choose to be sincere and accept it in its entirety or on the other hand pick and choose from it to please their desires and others.”

7 thoughts on “Islamism or Islam?

  1. jameslovelace

    “Anyone who knows anything about Islam, knows it is a religion of peace”

    I can’t find any trace of Tony Blair saying this. Do you have a reference for it? After the 7/7 attack, his speech on terrorism is the most vacuous piece of hand-waving imaginable; it is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

    1. ECAW's blog Post author

      My memory is that it came from an interview with a Muslim interviewer on Al Jazeera but I cannot find it now. Here he is expressing the same sentiment in different words, ie “Islam is a peaceful and tolerant religion” (first minute):

  2. scrapTheBBC

    This is the question that is vexing me more than any other at the moment. Why do our leaders keep denying the obvious and claiming it has nothing to do with Islam. For a while I was even unsure whether they were making the claim through genuine ignorance or willful deceit, or whether they had actually been brainwashed by their ‘advisers’ such as Ramadan from the MB. However as you rightly point out, Johnson has undergone a Damascene conversion so it looks as if there is a general plan among the political gang. Clearly he knows the truth from his earlier statement, and from this I deduce that this is probably the same with the other Tories as they all are very close. Even Farage at times seems to have rowed back somewhat from his earlier statements, although I get a sense that privately he has not changed his mind about what he calls our Judeo-Christian heritage. I am still unsure but currently my conclusion is that the purpose of this approach is something vaguely similar to the useful idiots idea, that they have come to the conclusion that Islam is a useful tool towards political ends. For example Theresa May, a lady who sounds quite charming on desert island discs but who I now view as a sort of crocodile in sheep’s clothing, is trying to get the Snooper’s charter into law. (One day a wardrobe slip when she forgets to put her shoes on will reveal the truth, perhaps Icke is not so far off). She doesn’t want Islam to go away right now, she wants the Snooper’s charter at all costs. Policy under the coalition does seem to have shifted to try to limit immigration from Muslim countries so I do get a sense that they understand the danger of Islam and are trying quietly to curb its growth. Benefits policy also seems to be moving slowly against giving out child benefits to endless offspring especially of the you know whos, limit to 2 children was proposed by Schnapps, Ive not followed the progress of this though, don’t think its really happened yet. There will be political fallout if they ever do manage it, but I’m afraid its necessary. May’s comments on DID suggested to me that the highest priority in her mind is public safety and security, i.e. freedom of speech is not high on that agenda. The peculiar organisation called the Conservative Friends of Turkey has gone very quiet of late as well (no updates since 2013). Perhaps once they feel that security is better, they will roll back from this “Islam is alright, honest, go back to sleep plebs” agenda, and start to allow a bit more free expression again. This is my attempt to reassure you that all is well, as you requested. I hope that it has helped, although I confess I find myself generally quite worried as well. Once you kill freedom of speech and set up a massive surveillance state, I fear it will be hard to undo it and go back to normality. In reality I actually think that there’s just far too much political game playing going on, we need some straight talking chaps to rescue the UK. I expect to be assassinated by shadowy spooks for making this comment (its a bit too close to the truth for comfort you see), so you probably will not hear from me again… (how I am laughing as the poison enters my bloodstream… ).

    1. ECAW's blog Post author

      Thanks for your interesting comment. Unfortunately I cannot say I am reassured. Handcart…..hell….world – rearrange. Hope the spooks do it painlessly. That’s all I ask.

    1. ECAW's blog Post author

      Thank you for that detailed analysis of the issue and the much wider range of scholarly support than I could find. I agree with you on some points and disagree on others. For instance:

      1. The government dare not admit that they have realised that the problem is with Islam itself or they would have to answer why they let so many followers of it settle in Britain (yes, to form a potential fifth column for a perennially hostile religious ideology – heavy stress on potential). I would hope that they do realise that the problem goes wider than the tiny fringe they admit to and are using the term “Islamism” disingenuously in the interests of national security. Somehow I doubt that they are being so Machiavellian. I suspect they really believe their own press releases, otherwise it seems beyond the call of duty for Michael Gove to go to the trouble of writing a whole book justifying the Islam/Islamism split.

      You regard this wordplay as a cover for oppressing the Muslim population. Have you ever considered that it might be in order to protect them? It is particularly after each atrocity that the politicians trot out the false distinction. You complain about attacks on mosques and Muslim women, which I believe generally means tearing off their veil. How does that compare to blowing up fifty people on the tube or beheading a soldier? What do you suppose the reaction would be from the indigenous population if the politicians said “This has everything to do with Islam”?

      One aspect I find interesting is Tony Blair’s belated attempts to warn us that the fringe he once told us about is rather more than a fringe (something borne out by various opinion polls). We are now just debating about the size of that “fringe”. I think it will only grow in the public mind as jihadis return from Syria keen to carry on striving in Allah’s way at home.

      2. I quite agree with you that Western meddling has been disastrous. I wish it hadn’t happened and wasn’t still happening today, but I think it has only exacerbated a bad situation and is often used as an excuse for what Muslims feel duty bound to do any way. Can you tell me that the expansionary wars currently being waged from Nigeria to the Philippines to the Caucasus are anything to do with Western interference? To me they just look like Muslims doing what they were told to do by Mohammed. If you’ll forgive me taking my image of the fire (Islam) and the flames (Islamism) to perhaps fanciful extremes, I suggest that Gulf money has provided new oxygen to the blaze while Western interference has been the stick which stirred it around.

      3. Be that as it may, here is my main point of interest. You give scriptural and scholarly justifications for the theocratic caliphate but you give no details of its intended extent. This is one of your quotes:

      “So rule between people/mankind, oh Muhammad, Arabs, and non-Arabs”.

      I am a non-Arab. Does he mean me? In my understanding the duty of Muslims to spread Islam has always been “without limit of time or space”. Am I right or will you be content only with currently Muslim lands? If so, that seems pretty arbitrary since the injunction was laid down before Islam was even out of Arabia. If I am right, and that the means to be employed are either dawah or jihad as necessary, then I have to regard you as my potential enemy – just as has been the case for 1300 years with a short break due to European colonialism.

      By the way, I thought we were going to go the whole distance without encountering Islamophobia. I have to say I was disappointed that we didn’t quite make it since I regard that (along with the attempt to conflate religion with race) as fodder fit only for the useful idiots at the Guardian or the disingenuous whiners of TellMama or CAIR.

  3. MD

    My favorite line from above – “Instead of trying to convince jihadis that they have it all wrong should we not accord them the dignity of regarding them genuinely as our enemy?”
    They certainly see themselves as soldiers at war. As a soldier myself, I appreciate the honor that is knowing your enemy sees you as a peer and respects your dedication to your cause. When we minimize our enemy and disregard him as a mere coward and criminal, we cheapen our own victories and worse, denigrate our defeats.

    My second-favorite line – “…the relationship between them is not that of an organism and an infection but more accurately that of a fire and the flames that it inevitably produces.”
    What an insightful way of looking at it! This, of course, is the line so few are willing to cross and I applaud your courage in doing so. This begs the question, though, of whether the vast majority of the Muslims in the world are either misinterpreting their religion or are they being purposely fed a watered-down version that minimizes the Medina verses? Perhaps it is some combination of the two? For if the Jihadis are right, the rest must be wrong, no?


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