9.There is no universally-accepted definition of ‘political-Islam’, and much of the sensitivity around the phrase is rooted in disputes over its meaning. As Tobias Ellwood MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), told us, along with other witnesses, it is not a phrase that individuals or groups within the world’s diverse Muslim communities tend to use to identify themselves. Dr Radwan Masmoudi, an advisor to the President of Tunisia’s EnNahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, said that ‘political Islam’ was “probably the most misunderstood and vague term used in politics today around the world”. We therefore focus at the outset on the issue of definition.
10.The FCO provided us with its definition of ‘political Islam’, as well as an explanation of how it approaches the phenomenon, in its opening written submission to our inquiry. The FCO defined the broader concept of ‘Islamism’ as promoting “the application of Islamic values to modern government and society”. Within Islamism, the FCO defined ‘political Islam’ in the following way:
Political Islamists pursue their goals through participation in political processes. However, in some cases, such participation is purely tactical and does not reflect a fundamental belief in democratic processes and values. Political Islamism can include overtly extremist views, opposition to democracy, and attitudes that are fundamentally hostile to the West and liberal, progressive societies. The range of views, beliefs and objectives espoused by political Islamists is consequently very broad and, while at one end of the spectrum, there are groups and individuals that demonstrate a genuine commitment to democratic principles and liberal values such as equality and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs, at the other end of the spectrum are groups and individuals that do not and hold intolerant, extremist views.
11.The FCO emphasised non-violence, and a broad definition, in its description of ‘political Islam’. Tobias Ellwood told us that “the term ‘political Islam’, as generally understood, covers a broad spectrum of non-violent movements and ideologies”. In oral evidence, Mr Ellwood was twice asked whether his definition of ‘political Islam’ included Al-Qaeda and ISIL, and his answers did not clearly exclude them. But, in a subsequent written answer, he told us that:
You mention Da’esh (ISIL) and al Qaeda in your question. I think we need to be clear that such violent terrorist groups are beyond the pale in terms of UK engagement. Nor would we include them in our definition of political Islam. [Emphasis in original]
12.In terms of broadness, Mr Ellwood described ‘political Islam’ as “a catch-all phrase … a useful label, if you like, to encompass political parties, groups and organisations that, as I say, have very different contexts and backdrops”. The FCO told us that “it is not practical or useful to adopt a single approach in all circumstances” and spoke instead about a “case-by-case basis”. The FCO described its case-by-case basis as being a “geographical basis” premised on the different countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Mr Ellwood told us that:
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s engagement with political Islam is part and parcel of its engagement with the countries in the region…Depending on where we are working, what we are doing in those countries and what is happening in those countries, it will vary from piece to piece.
We asked Mr Ellwood whether it may be appropriate to sub-divide the groups within the FCO’s broad definition of ‘political Islam’ into more specific ideological categories. He told us that: “I think the right approach is not to try to come up with a specific policy approach to each different strand within political Islam.”
13.National circumstances are certainly a relevant factor for assessing political-Islamist groups, but it is also the case that some of the most significant recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region—from the Arab Spring to the spread of ISIL—show the power of ideas that cross national borders. Political Islamist groups in different countries influence one another, and share elements of political ideology and philosophy. The FCO should supplement its country-specific framework for understanding ‘political Islam’ with a thematic basis for analysis, which forms policies towards common global, regional, and political ideologies as well as individual countries.
14.Speaking about the FCO’s objectives when it engages with ‘political Islam’, Mr Ellwood told us that:
We should encourage moves towards more democratic, accountable, pluralistic cultures which respect other faiths and minorities and defend human and civil rights. And we should be prepared to engage with all parties and movements which are prepared to renounce violence and move along the democratic path.
The FCO’s written submission likewise emphasised a “commitment to non-violence, inclusive governance, tolerance of other faiths and of minorities and, where relevant, respect for international agreements” as being key criteria for assessing ‘political-Islamist’ parties. The submission also repeatedly emphasised the importance, within UK policy, of countering ‘extremism’.
15.The definitions of ‘political Islam’ that were provided by our witnesses often differed between the broad and narrow, depending on whether these witnesses were supportive or sceptical of ‘political Islam’. Some of our witnesses, generally those who were more sceptical, provided us with broader definitions. These definitions often included democratic and non-violent groups alongside violent and anti-democratic groups under the labels of ‘political Islam’ or ‘Islamism’. Some witnesses argued that these groups had shared goals, even if the methods for reaching these goals differed. These end goals have been described by some as being to implement a restrictive interpretation of ‘Islamic law’, or to establish a ‘Caliphate’.
16.Other witnesses, predominantly those who were supportive of the concept, provided us with a narrower definition of ‘political Islam’. In particular, these witnesses rejected the term ‘Islamism’ as too vague to be useful and too tainted by associations with violence and extremism. Some witnesses also objected to the phrase ‘political Islam’, on theological grounds. But these witnesses, who supported the concept, overwhelmingly argued that there existed a distinctive sub-section of ‘Islamist’ ideology, one that should be differentiated from other forms of ‘Islamism’ on the particular basis of its non-violence and commitment to democracy; for example, some specifically asked to be called ‘Muslim Democrats’.
17.We have identified three values that should guide the degree of positive engagement with groups and parties in the MENA region. These values should be applied to political Islamists, but they should also be a benchmark for assessing all political philosophies on an equal basis globally, with the same standards being applied to the Islamists as to all other ideologies in terms of what behaviour is acceptable to the UK and what is not.
18.We partially agree with the FCO’s definition of ‘political Islam’. We agree with their definition of it as a broad phenomenon that encompasses a wide range of different beliefs, but believe that groups engaged in illegal violence should be included in the definition despite them being excluded from overt engagement with the UK Government. The FCO should use more precise language to differentiate between different types of political Islamist. The FCO told us that there is one form of Islamism that embraces “democratic principles and liberal values”, and another form of Islamism that instead holds “intolerant, extremist views”. We consider it inappropriate to place these two types of Islamism within the same, single category and—if the FCO wishes to encourage Islamist groups towards democracy, non-violence, and a flexible interpretation of their faith—then we recommend that it devises a vocabulary that doesn’t group these types together.
19.The FCO’s submission to our inquiry repeatedly emphasises the need to tackle extremism. By contrast, the need to recognise the legitimacy of democratic, peaceful, and ideologically moderate groups is less prominent within the FCO submission. As the FCO told us, an effective strategy for countering Islamist extremism is vital for the UK’s national interests. But, in addition to outlining the ideologies that the UK is determined to oppose in the MENA region, the FCO should likewise make a clear case for the political philosophies that the UK will commit to engage with. We suggest the above three criteria as a basis for doing so.
8 See, for example, Katherine Thane, Operations Director at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, , para 3.1.
11 , para 1
12 , para 1
13 , Q1a
14 , Q1a
16 , para 4
17 , para 4
18 Q160, Q166
19 Q159, Opening Statement by Tobias Ellwood MP.
21 Q160 to 164
22 , Q1a
23 , para 4
24 , in particular para 7, and also paras 2, 3, and 6.
25 See, for example, the definitions provided by Dr Machteld Zee, A Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society; Ed Husain, a Senior Advisor at the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics; and Mokhtar Awad, a Research Fellow at the Program on Extremism, George Washington University, in Q107.
26 See, for example, Dr Machteld Zee in Q109 and Q140.
27 Q107. Also, in his , the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, said of the Muslim Brotherhood that its “foundational texts call for the progressive moral purification of individuals and Muslim societies and their eventual political unification in a Caliphate under Sharia law”.
28 See, for example, the rejection of the term ‘Islamism’ by Usaama Al-Azami, a PhD candidate at Princeton University, in paras 1 and 3.
29 See, for example, Foreign Affairs, , an article by Rached Ghannouchi, the President of the EnNahda party from Tunisia, in which he wrote that “[EnNahda] no longer accepts the label of “Islamism” – a concept that has been disfigured in recent years by radical extremists”.
30 Some ‘political Islamists’ who gave evidence to our inquiry rejected the phrase political Islam because they believed that it implied a qualification of Islam, which they rejected by describing Islam as a holistic faith. See, for example, Ibrahim Mounir, the Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood (Q44) and Wael Haddara, a former senior advisor to President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt ( para 3).
31 See, for example, the objections to being included in the same definition as violent groups that were offered by Anas Al-Tikriti, the CEO of the Cordoba Foundation and a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, in paras 6 and 7, or by Dr Daud Abdullah, a researcher at the British Muslim Initiative, in paras 4.1, 4.2, and 6.6.
32 The EnNahda party identifies itself as ‘Muslim Democratic’ in its evidence (). See, also, the use of ‘Muslim Democrat’ by Dr Abdulmawgood Dardery, a former member of the Egyptian Parliament for the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), in para 1, or by Sondos Asem, formerly Foreign Media Coordinator at the office of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt, in .
3 November 2016