UK 'political Islam' report: The main findings

#Politics

Middle East Eye summarises the key points made by the UK's Foreign Affairs Committee in its new report on political Islam

Tunisian Islamist Ennahda Party leader and founder Rached Ghannouchi (AFP/file photo)
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Tuesday 8 November 2016 13:41 UTC
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A new report published on Monday by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee's examining political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood called on the UK government to adopt "more precise language" to distinguish between different types of Islamism, and criticised the government's previous review of the Muslim Brotherhood's activities conduced in 2014 by Sir John Jenkins, the then-British ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Below MEE summarises the main findings.

On the failings of the government's 2014 review of the Muslim Brotherhood:

The review aimed to understand the Brotherhood, but its Main Findings neglected to mention the most significant event in the Brotherhood’s history: its removal from power in Egypt in 2013, the year after being democratically elected, through a military intervention.

UK Foreign Affairs Committee report

Another omission is the FCO’s assessment that understanding the Brotherhood “did not require” an examination of events following this removal from power, including the killing in August 2013 of large numbers of protesters who sympathised with the Brotherhood, and the continuing repression of the group in Egypt and elsewhere.

On Sir John Jenkins’ appointment:

Sir John Jenkins’s appointment to lead the Review, while he served as UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was misguided. It created the perception that Saudi Arabia, an interested party that had designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation the month before the Review was announced, might have undue influence over the Review’s report

How the report defines acceptable 'political Islam’:

i) Participation in, and preservation of, democracy. Support for democratic culture, including a commitment to give up power after an election defeat.

ii) An interpretation of faith that protects the rights, freedoms, and social policies that are broadly congruent with UK values.

iii) Non-violence, as a fundamental and unambiguous commitment.

On separating democrats from non-democrats:

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.

On the compatibility of political Islam and democracy:

Several witnesses gave us a theological justification for the compatibility of Islam and democracy, rooted in the Islamic concept of ‘shura’. Mohamed Soudan, the Foreign Relations Secretary for the Freedom and Justice Party, said: According to Islam, it is the society as a whole—not one person, like the Egyptian pharaoh in the time of Moses—that owns and exercises power… Al-Shura, or consultation, is the Quranic expression of democracy.

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Ibrahim Mounir was another witness who emphasised the relationship of ‘shura’ with democracy, saying that “an action cannot take place against people’s choice and opinion, at least in priority matters; this is where a near-complete (if not complete) consensus can be reached”.

Among the characteristics of democracy that were emphasised by the Nour party in Egypt were “Shura (consultation)” and “considering the opinion of the majority of those who have the right to vote”.

On Islamist parties' 'pragmatism' in power:

Political Islamists have varied in the policies they have pursued in power. Some have been very pragmatic. Others have been more dogmatic. The PJD in Morocco and Ennahda in Tunisia have generally articulated their Islamist ideology in a broad sense, through the promotion of welfare policies. Fears over the introduction of a restrictive interpretation of ‘Islamic law’ by the FJP in Egypt were based on both speculation about the future and on experience. The FCO should see the pragmatism of some political-Islamist parties as an opportunity to engage with them, and to influence their current trajectory, as well as considering their future intentions.

On the Muslim Brotherhood and violence:

The Muslim Brotherhood states that it does not aspire to achieve its goals through violence. But we note the Government believes that the group might be willing to consider violence where gradualism is ineffective. However, the evidence so far in Egypt is that if the Muslim Brotherhood supported or condoned violence, then Egypt would be a far more violent place today.

On Hamas and violence:

We asked the FCO whether it assessed Hamas’ use of violence as being rooted more in its Islamist character as opposed to its nationalist objectives of opposing Israel.

Neil Crompton, Director of the Middle East and North Africa at the FCO, told us: There probably is a slightly nationalist element to Palestinian violence, against what they see as the existence of the state of Israel, but there is also a religious, Islamist dimension to that. Opposition to the state of Israel is a strongly held and shared view by many political Islamic groups. 

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We would suggest that the Palestinian perspective in the Israel-Palestinian conflict contains rather more than a “slightly” nationalist element. However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also has a profound religious aspect. 

On political Islam as a 'firewall' against violent extremism:

The vast majority of political Islamists are involved in no violence whatsoever. Because of this, and because of their broader status as a ‘firewall’ against extremism, political Islamists have suffered criticism and attack from ISIL and other extremist organisations. No political movement can entirely control its individual members or supporters, particularly under extreme provocation. Incarceration of political activists without fair trial and the shutting down of political avenues to address grievances is likely to lead some to extremism. Political Islam is far from the only firewall, but in the Muslim World it is a vehicle through which a significant element of citizens can and should be able to address their grievances.

On the need for Islamist parties to take part in elections:

Political Islamists self-identifying as democrats have embraced elections as a mechanism for contesting and winning power. They should be allowed to freely participate in democratic processes, and the FCO should use the ability of political Islamists to take part as one of the key criteria for defining free elections in the MENA region.