Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

How should the British left engage with Islamists?

Far too often, the left has badly bungled its attempts to engage with Islamists. For example, Labour’s candidate for London mayor, Ken Livingstone, has promoted Yusuf al-Qaradawi, often regarded as the spiritual leader of the world’s largest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, as ‘one of the leading progressive voices in the Muslim world’.

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Equally as ill-conceived was human rights charity Amnesty International’s partnership with Moazzam Begg and his ‘Cageprisoners’ organisation. Begg, aside from being an ex-Guantanamo inmate, has also written that the Taliban regime ‘made some modest progress … in upholding pure, old style Islamic values forgotten in many Islamic countries’.

Given that the left has traditionally been the defender of minorities’ rights, such partnerships may seem extraordinary. After all, as the traditional upholders of equality, partnership with Islamists undermines the very values upon which the left are founded. However, such associations are part of a worrying tendency to confuse defending the rights of minorities with defending extremists within minority communities.

In promoting Islamists, the left undermines their credibility as defenders of women’s and gay rights. Islamists believe in creating a totalitarian ‘Islamic state’ in which an interpretation of the Islamic moral code, the shari’ah, would be enforced as law. Most often, this would entail making women unequal politically. Furthermore, women would suffer disproportionately from the punishments of the hudud (codified ‘religious’ penalties for certain crimes). Moreover, in most Islamists’ vision of an ‘Islamic state’, homosexuality would be a crime requiring legal punishment by the state. Livingstone’s friend, al-Qaradawi, for example, has openly questioned what the legal punishment should be for gay sex: ‘Should it be the same as the punishment for fornication [ie. lashing], or should both the active and passive participants be put to death?’ One needs only to look at the human rights abuses in places like Iran, Sudan and Somalia, to understand that Islamists attack the very principles for which the left stand.

And so it is imperative that the left do not confuse support for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in the UK (in this instance British Muslims) with the promotion of Islamists. As Nick Griffin wouldn’t be presented as the representative of the white working class, nor should Islamists be pushed forward as representatives of British Muslims.

How, then, should the left engage with Islamists? Not, as Labour too often did when in power, by giving them public funds. Now in opposition, Labour should also avoid bestowing Islamists with any form of political legitimacy. They should not be partnered with. Nor should Labour politicians uncritically share public platforms with them.

Instead, as bastions of equality and justice, the left should be proactively undermining the Islamist ideology, taking their ideas to task and publically exposing their illiberal agenda. Working with Islamists is not progressively aiding the rights of religious minorities. It is regressively promoting an ideology that is the antithesis of the left’s liberal and equalitarian agenda.

Moreover, to promote Islamism is to patronise the very minorities that the left is trying to defend. The majority of Muslims both in the UK and abroad do not subscribe to such a dystopian vision of an ‘Islamic state’. Instead, Muslims can (and many do) share the left’s convictions and belief in equality, justice and democracy. It is with these Muslims – the overwhelming majority- with whom the left can, and must, work and defend.

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Lucy James

is a research fellow at Quilliam


  • I think Progress readers should know that Lucy James has followed her Quilliam colleague in quoting Qaradawi out of context. ‘Readings quotes Qaradawi’s summary of the punishments jurists had recommended for those convicted of engaging in gay sex. But he omits to explain the background to this. Under the various schools of sharia law homosexuality is treated as a sub-section of adultery. The Islamic jurists who formulated the legal position on this issue were trying to put a stop to the barbaric practices in a backward tribal society which did lead to individuals (mainly women) being killed in order to defend the “honour” of the family or community. These early jurists ruled that it wasn’t adultery, and by extension homosexuality, that was a crime but rather the sexual act itself, and further that four independent witnesses to the sexual act were required for a conviction. The result was to preserve the draconian punishments – stoning etc – as a symbol of extreme social disapproval while raising the evidential requirements so high that in practice it was impossible to sentence anyone to those punishments. So when Qaradawi was discussing the penalties for gay sex in The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam we have to bear in mind that it was these symbolic punishments he was referring to. In a 2006 interview on Al-Jazeera, when asked about the Islamic position on homosexuality, Qaradawi argued that there was disagreement among the early Islamic jurists over the issue of gay sex and that in the modern world the (symbolic) draconian punishments should no longer apply. He continued: “Therefore we don’t lock the doors before the homosexuals. No! They have committed sins, but it is within their ability to repent to God.” Does Readings really think these are the words of a man who advocates “lashing or killing homosexuals”?’

  • I agree entirely with what you say, Lucy. I suspect that past Labour support of certain Islamist groups and individuals was a consequence of ignorance, naivety and fear of perceived public opinion. Too often, government saw the Press and TV claiming “Labour policies are resulting in nation-wide Islamaphobia” and beleived it. If the Labour government had made the effort to connect with Party members as well as Joe-public they would perhaps have been more discerning in the choice of Islamic friends. Any Labour government policy based primarily on ‘media representations of public opinion’ is doomed to abject failure. Such mis-guided attitudes have lost us 5 million voters and a General election.

  • @EricBlair So gays are still sinners and the punnishment is only symbolic? well, that’s all right then!

  • As the think tank of major political party in the UK, to Progress the quilliam foundation may seem very educated, organized, proffesional and attractive to work with in the current climate faced by British people as a nation. However, Progress should Quilliam as an organisation have little or no support of the vast majority of the Muslim, Muslim communities, organisations and business’s of the united. I wonder what representation they actually make when you have given them the title “voice of the Muslims”, they are not the voice of the Muslims and any seminars, conferences, research and analysis that you conduct with Quilliam will be flawed, why? Because they do not represent the vast majority of Muslims in the UK, have their support or even be in a position to claim they are the voice and face of Muslims in the UK. If Progress and the Labour party is working with such distant group and individuals (Quilliam), how can any of your researches, findings strategies be accuarate or effective? This is a lost cause, I am a frontline Youth and Community Worker working with predominantley the Muslim community, neither Quilliam or Politicans have accuse as to what is going on……

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