As I have recently returned from a tough but rewarding visit to Iraq, my mind has turned quite naturally to the role of religion in that part of the world and particularly to what is happening to Islam there and, conversely, to how it is affecting the political and social situation in these countries.
Diplomatic or naive? Baroness Warsi and David Cameron at the Faisal Mosque, Islamabad (Stefan Rosseau/PA)
We have so often heard the mantras of "violent extremism", "Islamism" or even "Islamist terrorism" that we are in danger of not noticing that the common element in so much of the turmoil in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and West Africa is not extremism or terrorism as such but a resurgent Islam. This manifests itself in a variety of ways: Sunni, Shia, Salafi, Wahhabi and even Sufi. A recent negative example of it was the rioting over Koran burning in Afghanistan and elsewhere when a number of innocent lives were lost. While some forms of resurgent Islam can genuinely be progressively reformist — the names of Anwar Ibrahim and Chandra Muzaffar in Malaysia, Nahdat-Alc-Ulem in Indonesia and Asghar Ali Engineer in India come readily to mind — for the most part resurgent Islam is generally backward-looking. That is to say, it is looking back, not just with nostalgia but with political, social and economic programmes in mind, to the origins of the particular tradition to which it belongs. It is usually suspicious of religious plurality and is prepared to countenance the existence of other faiths in only the most restricted circumstances. Because of its missionary nature (which it shares with Islam), Christianity is often viewed with special concern. As a rule, there is a generalised hostility to the West and to Israel which is sometimes expressed in terms of particular grievances, such as the West's support for Israel, its armed intervention in various Muslim-majority countries, and its failure to secure justice for Muslims in Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya (Bosnia and Kosovo are conveniently forgotten).
Significant movements within this resurgence, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere or the pietistic Tablighi Jamaat in South Asia, either claim to be non-violent by nature or at least claim to have renounced the use of force in the achievement of their aims. Their advocacy of a "pure" Islam, their aversion to any kind of constitutional equality for non-Muslims, their hostility to the West and to Israel and their antipathy towards other forms of Islam can, however, lead their followers to even more extreme forms of Islamism which do not eschew violence. For these reasons, extremist Islamism, even when it professes non-violence, cannot be viewed with complacency or approached with that naive engagement which has characterised some of the Establishment's overtures towards it.
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