Mainstreaming Islamism: Islamist Institutions and Civil Society Organisations

7th October 2019

This paper has been commissioned and published by the Commission for Countering Extremism.

You may read it in full, here.

Throughout the 1990s and into the first decades of this century, a speaking circuit consisting of a series of preachers with a deep attachment to islamist political and religious theory toured a number of British institutions. The preferred solution to contemporary problems besetting Muslims included the advocacy of a single caliphate that implemented “the Sharia”. This was not a matter of a one-off, shocking statement. Rather, these preachers advocated for a cohesive religious-political ideology.

Critics warned that the vision of society advocated by certain of the preachers who were afforded a platform at these institutions represented a challenge to the liberal values of equality between persons, fundamental human rights and pluralist democracy. A related concern was that visits by public figures to institutions with a history of hosting problematic speakers, and joint ventures between such institutions and civil society organisations would, in turn, strengthen islamist politics in two ways. First, engagement would result in the collapse of the civil society cordon sanitaire, which hitherto had restricted islamist preachers to the fringes of public life. Secondly, it was feared that uncritical engagement would be employed to suggest that concerns about the nature of the speakers hosted by such institutions were misplaced, making it more difficult for Muslims who opposed the promotion of islamist politics to raise the alarm.

In the first part of this paper, we identify a series of preachers who promoted an islamist theology during this period, and the institutions which hosted them. In the second part, we discuss a series of case studies, illustrating the nature and extent of civil society engagement with these institutions.

Our conclusion is that civil society should proceed with caution. There is a risk that certain institutions and organisations which present themselves for engagement have not truly disavowed the theological and political views of preachers they have championed in the recent past, but instead are pursuing a Janus-faced approach. Where, for example, an institution such as MEND continues to defend islamist preachers such as Haitham Al-Haddad, a legitimate cause for concern arises. If engagement does take place, it is important that it takes place in a manner which ensures that the relationship cannot be used generally to validate the institution. Hosting organisations should be asked why they have associated themselves with islamist preachers.  Where University ISOCs choose to host islamist preachers, considerations of freedom of expression are relevant. However, every opportunity should be taken in these circumstances to make a strong case for a pluralist and liberal democracy: to the speakers, their hosting societies and, most importantly, to the student audience. 

These challenges remain both present and urgent. It is vital that civil society learns from its errors, and resolves to do better in the future.