Wasiq Wasiq, associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson society in England and a regular contributor to Focus on Western Islamism (FWI), spoke to a July 29th Middle East Forum Webinar in an interview with Dexter Van Zile, FWI's managing editor. He addressed the threat posed to the United Kingdom (UK) and Western democracies by "Islamist participationists."
Wasiq defined Islamism as the political idea that the religion of Islam is not merely a private faith practiced by Muslims themselves, but a faith that must play a dominant role in the governance of countries where Muslims are present.
"We need to tackle that idea that Islam can solve all the problems [present in society], Wasiq said. "Actually, it can't, it's a personal faith. And that's [an idea] that we need to promote more, rather than it being something that's public and should be able to control and shape how society is run."
Recognizing that Islamists are not a "homogeneous block," Wasiq cited the work of Damon Perry, a research fellow at the UK think tank, Policy Exchange, who categorizes Islamists into three groups. The first group is comprised of violent Islamists – groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, mainly found in Muslim-majority countries. This group rejects "kafir [non-believer] laws," and resorts to violent means to "achieve a Caliphate ruled under Sharia law," Wasiq reported.
The second group is non-violent Islamists who agree with the political goals of violent Islamists, but do not commit violent acts in pursuit of these goals. This group is similar to the "quietist Salafist" branch of Sunni Islam that forswears violence, but instead focuses on the religious practices of Muslims to bring about the hoped-for revolution, Wasiq said.
The third group is Islamist "participationists" who believe in the usefulness of democracy and the rule of law to advance Islam into the public sphere "as the solution for everything."
Participationists pose the greatest threat to Western liberal democracies, Wasiq reports, because of their effect on civil society and the rules that underpin it, free speech especially. This group, Wasiq warns, insists the state protect Islam from critique or ridicule and to achieve this, they promote blasphemy laws that are anathema to the Western value of free speech. They also insist that Muslims never be shown in a negative light and present the image that "all Muslims are peace loving-people."
Activists from this group, also insist that any initiative in the public sphere be "sharia-compliant." To promote their cause, Wasiq reports, participationists falsely portray Western democracies as interfering with the practice of Islam.
"They also look to set up parallel laws, like Sharia courts to manage issues specifically for Muslims," he said.
Because their involvement in UK politics, participationists are able to portray themselves as the Muslim community's "gatekeeper" between it and the British government, Wasiq warns. As they usurp this role, Islamist participationists obscure the diverse theological and political views in the Muslim community. Moreover, they are able to "define who and what a Muslim is" and weaponize the term "Islamophobia" which further enables them to control the narrative about Islam in the UK.
At present, "Islamophobia" is defined as "a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness," Wasiq reported. This definition, which all parties in Parliament except the Conservatives have accepted, is problematic because it conflates religious identity with race and ignores the diverse beliefs and practices prevalent in Muslim communities in the country, Wasiq reported.
This definition of "Islamophobia," Wasiq warned, allows activists to mute discussion about the identity of Muslim terrorists, even when religious belief is a motivating factor behind attacks intended to affect government policy in favor of the Islamist agenda.
"It excuses their literal interpretation of Islam as a defining variable for carrying out acts of violence," Wasiq said.
Wasiq highlighted a demand by a Muslim police association for alternative ways to describe Islamist violence, describing it as an "erosion of language." Instead of using the descriptive terms for terrorists claiming Islam as their motivation as "Islamists" and "Jihadis," the association suggested multiple terms such as "faith claim," "terrorism," "terrorism abusing religious motivations," or "adherence of Osama Bin Laden's ideology" — all in lieu of those that reference Islamism directly.
The impact of such an approach, Wasiq warned, is to obscure the role Islamist doctrine plays in motivating violence and hinder society's ability to differentiate between Islamism and Islam itself.
"Surely the general public is more than capable of differentiating between Islamism and Islam," Wasiq said, [with] Islamism being the political ideology, whereas Islam being the private faith that Muslims practice."
People "need to have more confidence that the two terms are seen as distinct," he added.
Wasiq urged the officials to confront Islamist participationist organizations that regard British values as an instrument to be deployed and not principles to be adhered to. Officials should work to marginalize these groups until they are "committed fully ... to free speech and the rule of law," particularly "when it comes to who Muslims are or what Islam is."
In response to participationist stratagems, people committed to the preservation of Western democracies need to challenge and scrutinize their actions and accusations of 'Islamophobia,' Wasiq said.
"We also need a firm commitment to free speech," he said. "This is as important for the general Muslim population as it is for everyone else because Islamists are seeking to define what Islam and Muslims are. [...] It needs to be up to every Muslim to define who they are, rather than allow someone else to do that."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.