Progressives’ engagement with political Islam is a riveting question – but it can be a rather meaningless one. ‘Engagement’ remains a vague word; as for ‘political Islam’, it is such a disembodied expression, so as to evoke a conversation with an aerosol. We know what we’re getting at, but our failure to pose the problem in concrete terms is proof of our reluctance in ‘engaging’ with this issue head-on.
If by ‘engaging with political Islam’ we mean entering into meaningful dialogue with groups and organisations we might find distasteful, immoral and/or dangerous, the first question concerns what we hope to get out of it? At the international level engaging with Islamism is seen as one way of replacing existing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East with a version of democracy tailored to such a context.
But what concerns us here is the domestic level and a number of reasons for engaging spring to mind. Chief amongst these is that entering into a dialogue with such groups is valuable for our security. In a Demos pamphlet entitled Bringing It Home we argued that in order to build an effective community-based strategy for counter-terrorism we should be talking to those organisations who, though they seem at odds with some of our values, will help to gain access to individuals who might not only be radical but also violent. The link is not direct: it is our engagement with radical but non-violent individuals which will allow for the management of those who are radical but may turn violent. A difficult calculation perhaps, but at a local level, a useful one.
Neither strategy is cost-free: engagement can lend credibility to certain groups, be dangerous in terms of information-sharing and spreading, or even simply immoral (a cost neither to be underestimated or ignored). But it is also clear that the ‘quarantine’ approach allows underground networks to flourish undisturbed and leads to a lack of understanding that contributes to inadequate policy-making and inequality as well as an ignorance – often interpreted as contempt – about people with whom we share a neighbourhood, a city or a nation. Long-term refusal to engage with those whose motives and tactics we find condemnable simply allows them to get on with strengthening their networks and alienating moderates within those communities.
The key question is therefore not whether we engage but how we engage. This is determined in part by who we choose to engage with. The diversity of Muslim communities in the UK warrants a nuanced approach. The problem with the government’s past efforts in engaging was not with engagement per se, but rather that it did not take this diversity into account. A few groups were privileged, their claims allowed to float free and unchallenged in a belief that they somehow represented ‘The Muslim Community’. But engagement is tricky not just because of its costs, but because it can only work in a pluralist system if it is, as well as perceived as being, even-handed. In that respect, half-hearted engagement may be a much worse option than no engagement at all.
A final reason for ‘engaging’ is to foster the integration of such groups into the wider community in the hope that increasing contact amongst diverse groups will, over time, help diffuse radicalism and build shared values. Engagement here takes the form of discussion – not capitulation or concession, but rather as a signal that diverse voices are heard, that debate can take place even if sometimes, perhaps often, demands are not met and claims are set aside.
The reactions after the failed London and Glasgow bombings in the summer from Muslims and non-Muslims are testimony to the need for thoughtful engagement. The engagement that has taken place, across the board, with Muslim communities since 7/7 has led to greater understanding, communication and links between communities. It has led to the capacity of moderates to react together as members of a pluralist and tolerant society.
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