“We may not agree with [Islamism’s] reactionary vision of the political use of Islam and the pessimistic, anti-progressive beliefs that lie at the heart of Qutb’s teachings, but it is essential to realise that there is no inherent link between these ideas and terrorism.”
Andrew Anthony provides a neat answer to Curtis’s objection to linking classical Qutbism with jihadism:
“This makes sense, but only insofar as it makes sense to draw a distinction between the political ideas of fascism and those minority of fascists who turn to terror.”
Professor Bassam Tibi, in a similar vein, sketches the close ideological link between Qutbism and BinLadenist jihadism:
“The jihadists are followers of the ideas of Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, who laid the foundations of Islamism as a political and military interpretation of Islam. Islamism aims not only to purify Islam but also to establish the “Nizam Islami,” or Islamic order.”
Professor Tibi goes on to argue that the essential point of departure between classical Islamists and those who have taken the ‘jihadist’ path is that the former “honored Qutb’s distinction between two steps, the local and the global, in the jihadist strategy”: first, topple non-Islamist regimes at home, and then move on to global jihad. Tibi’s argument is that Al Qaeda has confused “the two steps in the jihadist strategy“.
I do not think that confusion is the best word for that process of conflation. Bin Laden and Al-Zawahri, from 1998 onwards came to the conclusion that the “near enemy” – chiefly but not exclusively Arab regimes – and the “far enemy” – chiefly but not exclusively the United States – had to be fought simultaneously, not because they were millennial nihilists, but because they are tacticians who believe that fighting the far enemy will assist in the battle against the “near enemy”. The near enemy defeated, the focus would then turn to global jihad, and the establishing of God’s just order over all humankind, and so on.
We are now offered a choice between two perspectives on Islamism.
The first sees in Qutb’s writings – in Curtis’s words – “a powerful critique of modern western culture and democracy“: not an attractive species of utopianism, but not a particularly dangerous one either. That view regards the triumph of Islamism – despite its global aspirations – as an event the impact of which will be limited chiefly to the Middle East, and which will in any event be short lived, and that accordingly it is not a source of serious concern to anybody outside Arab and other Muslim lands. Some appear to have come to the conclusion that an alliance with the Qutbists of the Muslim Brotherhood is both a strategic necessity if the BinLadenists are to be denied recruits, and even desireable, because they provide an “anti-imperialist” counterbalance to US foreign policy goals. That is essentially, I think, where Ken Livingstone ends up: which is why he seeks to champion and promote the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, Qaradawi, as a Mandela figure. The Socialist Workers’ Party ploughs a similar furrow.
Then there is George Galloway, who is the lynchpin of the formal alliance with the Trotskyite Socialist Workers’ Party and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. He was happy to enter into such a pact, even though he is a Stalinist who still casually deploys the word “Trotskyist” as an insult, who aligns himself with the Morning Star’s pro-Soviet position on Afghanistan, who enthusiastically supported a Baathist tyrant and who is still carrying a torch for his deputy. The fact that Galloway advocates a particular position is no reason of itself to oppose it. But, given his uncanny ability to back the wrong side, it is a very good reason to think twice about sharing it.
The alternative perspective is to treat Islamism – in both Qutbist and BinLadenist forms – as a species of totalitarianism, which should not be bargained with.
Curtis’ conclusion is as follows:
“The real danger is that, by suppressing Islamism, we will make its ideas more attractive to already marginalised young men.”
That claim may, empirically, be right or wrong. However, there is a world of difference between Livingstone’s soft embrace of Qaradawi, or Galloway’s hard coalition with Islamists on the one hand, and merely opposing clumsy attempts to defeat Islamism on the other.
In any event, I am certain that the “war of ideas” – the “struggle between global jihad and democratic peace” of which Professor Tibi speaks – cannot be won if Islamism is regarded as no more than “reactionary“, “pessimistic“, or “anti-progressive“. If the argument in realm of ideas is to be won it is, at the very least, essential that the challenge which Islamist political beliefs represents to democratic values is not minimised.
It is the tendency to play down the nature of Islamism, rather than the temptation to build up the the threat which it embodies, which makes alliances between left-liberals and their theoretical antithesis possible.