Anti Fascism

The FCO and the Islamists

Last year, Martin Bright broke the story in the Observer of the British Foreign Office’s cultivation of the Jamaat-i-Islami linked leadership of the Muslim Council of Britain.

At the time, there was some debate on Harry’s Place as to why the Foreign Office – as opposed to the Home Office – should be treating with domestic Maududi-ists at all. The most plausible explanation was that – by flattering their domestic affiliates – the Foreign Office was simply continuing the old colonial policy of attempting to groom what it believes may be the next generation of political leaders in Pakistan. The danger of such a policy is that it builds up the profile, power and influence in the United Kingdom of people who espouse a vicious politics, legitimises and facilitates the promulgation of that ideology domestically, and – to use a fashionable phrase – undermines “social cohesion”.

It has become clear that the FCO’s policy extends not only to the encouragement of the South Asian Maududi-ists, but to the Muslim Brotherhood. John Ware reported yesterday that the FCO subsidised a Muslim Brotherhood conference in Istanbul:

Sheikh Qaradawi and his wife were amongst 180 Muslim leaders from Europe, Egypt and Saudi Arabia flown by the Foreign office to the Turkish capital Istanbul for a conference called “Muslims in Europe” held in a luxury hotel.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the estimated £300,000 cost of the conference was “about right.”

He said the event was “facilitated” by the Foreign Office’s department “Engaging with the Islamic World” headed by Frances Guy, former British ambassador to Yemen.

The depth of unhappiness with the pro-Islamist policy within the FCO can be gauged by the degree of enthusiastic leaking over the last year in the direction of Martin Bright: now the political editor of the New Statesman. Martin Bright has turned this information into a Channel 4 documentary, “Who Speaks for Muslims” which will be shown this Friday at 7:30 p.m. He has also published an article for the Cameronian think tank, the Policy Exchange: When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries.

Bright’s pamphlet makes for uncomfortable reading for those of us who support the Labour Party, and who appreciate the effort which the Prime Minister has made to encourage a proper understanding of the philosophical nature of Islamism. It sets out, in detail, naming names, the extent to which a policy of bridge-building with Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat activists has been pursued in the Foreign Office: not simply overseas but – surprisingly – at home. The Foreign Office has had a prominent hand in a remarkably large range of domestic initatives, many of which have involved the promotion of Islamist politicians aligned with these two groupings.

Most dispiriting of all: it suggests that the Government does not have a handle on the Foreign Office’s pro-Islamist policy:

As the Poliitical Editor of a left-wing magazine, it depresses me deeply that a Labour Government has been prepared to rush so easily into the arms of the representatives of a reactionary, authoritarian brand of Islam, rather than look to real grassroots moderates as allies. With the honourable exception of former Foreign Office minister, Denis MacShane, few senior Labour figures have taken the trouble to grapple with the complexity of the issues involved…The one minister with a genuine knowledge of the area, Liam Byrne, was moved within the Home Office from dealing with security (where he could really have made a difference) to immigration, that graveyard of ministerial careers (where he will not).”

Given the difficulty that the FCO and the security services have in penetrating the jihadist movement, the policy of befriending and extending largesse to Islamist groupings at home and abroad must appear to be a sensible strategy. The FCO has evidently concluded that chumming up with Jamaat and the Muslim Brotherhood presents a valuable opportunity. Perhaps the intention is to leverage these relationships to block the intelligence deficit. Possibly the thinking is that, because these groups presently advocate violence only outside Europe, that they can operate as some kind of bulwark against Al Qaeda-ism: which has a more promiscuous attitude towards terrorism. Plausibly, the FCO still believes it is operating in the world depicted in John Buchan’s “Greenmantle”: in which Muslims are only ever a step away from fanaticism, where the triumph of Islamist politics is inevitable and where, accordingly, the British need to have a dog in the fight.

The problem with this approach is that if the FCO butters up these fascists abroad and at home, it will be difficult for the Government plausibly to combat the corrosive political philosophy which they peddle. Conferences funded by the State, meetings with Ministers, and the like, are displayed as badges of respectability. Worse: if the Government is perceived as as facilitator of Islamism, it will be accused of hypocrisy when it tries to combat it. Finally, it risks alienating and disenfranchising British Muslims: a diverse and overlapping set of communities defined, loosely, by a variety of religious and cultural traditions. They deserve better than to be delivered into the hands of the well-organised religious fascists of Jamaat and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The irony of the FCO’s policy is this. First, contrary to the prejudices of the FCO, Islamist politics is not “mainstream” at all among British Muslims. The overwhelming majority reject, vocally, the positions promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat. Yet the Foreign Office proceeds on the basis that senior Jamaat and Muslim Brotherhood figures are moderates whose influence should be encouraged – as we have seen – by means of conferences on “Muslims in Europe” and the like. Secondly, abroad, attempts to influence Islamism won’t work. The limited advantages presented by engaging with Islamist groups are, in the view of senior diplomats, illusory. Here is Sir Derek Plumbly, the British ambassador to Egypt on the subject:

I suspect that there will be relatively few contexts in which we are able significantly to influence the Islamists’ agenda…I also detect a tendency for us to be drawn towards engagement for its own sake; to confuse ‘engaging with the Islamic world’ with ‘engaging with Islamism’; and to play down the very real downsides for us in terms of the Islamists’ likely foreign and social policies, should they actually achieve power in countries such as Egypt.”

We should make no mistake about this. The Muslim Brotherhood and Maududi-ist Islamist ideologies are not simply a form of South Asian or Middle Eastern nationalism: they have significant implications for domestic British politics as well. It may be gradualist rather than revolutionary at the moment: but this is a matter of strategy, not principle. It is a direct competitor with, and a challenge to liberal pluralism.

We treat with it at our peril.

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