In recent weeks an unnecessary schism has been created between government and British Islamists.
First, government failure to condemn Israel in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead exposed a bias towards Israel and an ambivalence towards the value of Palestinian lives that angered British Islamists. Next, the government's new counter-terrorism strategy ("Contest Two") served to amplify pre-existing British Islamist concerns at being treated as "fifth columnists". Then, along came Hazel Blears with an ill-judged assault on Daud Abdullah and the Muslim Council of Britain. Taken together these incidents reinforce concerns that British Islamists are uniquely held out for political attack, and illustrate the power of key anti-Islamist lobbying groups. The result is a feeling that the government holds Islamists to a different political standard based on a Bush-ite principle of "either you are with us or against us", where the "us" is clearly not Muslim.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, "Islamist" describes an Islamic political or social activist. Over the last year we have been interviewing Islamists in Britain. While all of them fit this dictionary definition, none match the negative caricatures provided by UK thinktanks such as the Quilliam Foundation and Policy Exchange. Ironically enough, all of our interviewees do appear to resemble Britain's first Islamist, Abdullah Quilliam (1856-1932) who was himself critical of imperial British foreign policy in the Middle East in much the same way that his modern day descendents are critical of the Blair and Brown governments' policies in the same region. In Quilliam's day, however, it was difficult for British Muslims to be politically engaged.