This is a guest post by Peter Harrington of Demos
Last weekend Demos decided to go ahead with its participation at IslamExpo. Here are our reasons.
The main argument advanced against participation was that attending an event organised by Islamists, with links to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, is comparable to attending one by the far-right in this country. The parallel with the BNP is flawed.
The range of opinion and interpretation as to the nature, aims and level of threat that many of the ‘Islamist’ groups represent makes the comparison a stretch. The character and aims of the BNP are unambiguous. In contrast, the broad terms of Islamism and ‘political Islam’ are complex, often confused with other movements, and contested by both outsiders and the various groups themselves.
There were also positive reasons for attendance. Given our research into this area, our legitimate role here is to convene a particular debate about the threat posed by Islamism. For example how useful is Islamism to try and combat violent extremism? Is it legitimate, dangerous or worthwhile using it in that way? And how do we tell these strands apart unless we force the conversation? Establishing whether or not there are versions of Islamism that we can legitimately engage with is a useful objective, which requires enquiry and debate.
Rather than the insipid argument that talking is always good, it’s a question of having the difficult debates and recognising that these aren’t straightforward issues. That is why Demos was only prepared to chair a debate which was intentionally framed as a challenging and open question.
As for the panels, far from a line-up of toothless yes-men they were diverse and informed. Soumaya Ghannoushi is daughter to one of Tunisia’s leading Islamists, but John Esposito is a world-leading authority on the Islamic world, and Robert Leiken is a Programme Director at the conservative Nixon Centre in Washington D.C. Martin Bright, who would have provided another critical voice, pulled out as a protest not against Demos but the libel suit brought against this blog. He stated that he supported our participation.
Far from lending endorsement to any group, Demos was making the most of a huge gathering to force the conversation with as many people as possible. We need to take the values we, and so many Muslims and non-Muslims, share as liberals and wage a battle against those values that make us deeply uncomfortable. If ours are as resilient as we hold them to be, then they will prevail.
There is a response by Nick Cohen here.