David Cameron’s apology to a London imam who he had wrongly described in the House of Commons as supporting Isis has been celebrated in some quarters. Less attention, however, was given to the fact that the Prime Minister clarified that Suliman Gani was actually reported to be in support of an Islamic state, rather than the Islamic State, or Isis.
The shrill accusations of extremism that were thrown around in the run up to the London mayoral elections were a step backwards in our efforts to understand the dangerous global ideology behind groups like Isis. More useful is to try and understand why Gani shares the main objective of creating an Islamic state, but differs with Isis and others on how to achieve it.
There is no suggestion that there is a direct progression from political Islamist aspirations of an Islamic state to jihadi violence like that of Isis. However, both derive their direction from a common ideology and hold aspirations of establishing a state in which Islam is the dominant legislation. There is overlap that we cannot shy away from.
That doesn’t mean saying there is a problem with the Muslim community as a whole. Let’s not forget, they are the prime targets and first victims of Isis and their fellow jihadis.
The answer lies in combatting the politicisation of Islam. Only then can we distinguish religion from politics and faith from fanaticism.
The truth is that while Islamist groups may differ vastly on the particulars of their respective visions of Islamic governance and the means by which to achieve them, there are some shared ideas.
Some jihadi groups came into being due to the development of an existing non-violent Islamist group, or its members, resorting to violence in order to further its cause. Examples of which have been seen in the Islamic Salvation Army in Algeria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
My research at the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics has looked at the backgrounds of 100 prominent jihadis – the leaders and ideologues driving the movement. We found that 51 per cent had documented links to non-violent Islamist organisations prior to their involvement in violent extremism.
We cannot therefore dismiss the possibility that the two are linked. Of course we found that not all jihadis were Islamists, nor that all Islamists inevitably go on to become jihadis. But the research suggests that there may be a stronger link between the two than many of us previously thought.
Half of those jihadis documented as having non-violent Islamist links prior to engaging in jihad were traced back to the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, a group that has already faced scrutiny over its activities and was subject to a UK government review last year.
Research by Raffaelo Pantucci linked half of all terror attacks carried out in the UK back to Al-Muhajiroun, a group that despite being outlawed, continues to operate under various guises. The group calls for the reinstatement of the caliphate and the application of Sharia law in Britain, but does not actively encourage acts of terrorism. That said, the 7/7 attacks and the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby were carried out by individuals with links to this seemingly non-violent Islamist group.
Islamic societies that operate on campuses up and down the country have often courted controversy for hosting extreme speakers, shutting down atheist events, and even promoting anti-Semitic and homophobic views.
The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), which was founded by activists from the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami movements, claims to represent almost 100,000 Muslim university students has in the past been criticised by the Government for its failure to adequately challenge terrorist and extremist ideology.
Mohammed Emwazi, more commonly known as Jihadi John, was a student at Westminster University, where an investigation found that the student Islamic society had been running a Facebook page circulating violent jihadi videos and whose former president was jailed on terrorism charges in 2007.
Concerns about links between non-violent Islamist groups and violent jihadi groups are not as farfetched as some would like to believe.
Inevitably, there are some difficult conversations to have. Addressing matters of free speech and political engagement will indeed form part of the dialogue, but when a train of thought is being associated with abhorrent ideas, society and our political leaders must speak up. Criminalising ordinary practicing Muslims from going about their business is not the solution, but we must rescue Islam from the warped political ideologies that thrive on its manipulation.
The Prime Minister, along with other world leaders, must not shy away from having these difficult conversations. Our leadership must show courage and unity if we are to effectively challenge and defeat extreme ideas.
Mubaraz Ahmed is a Middle East Analyst at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics
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