Creating Islamist phantoms

“Modern Islamism is a complex political movement with a history that goes back more than 50 years…. It is only a tiny minority in the Islamist movement who have developed … a politics that advocates terrorism against the west…. We must be aware of this distinction so as to avoid a witch-hunt against the whole Islamist movement.”

Adam Curtis (who wrote and produced BBC2 documentary The Power of Nightmares) writing in the Guardian, 30 August 2005

A bit confused, to be frank. Contrary to Curtis’s claim, not all Islamists are Qutbists, or indeed revolutionaries. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for example, has condemned Sayyid Qutb’s later writings for promoting an extremist ideology “which justified the takfir (excommunication) of (whole) societies … and the announcement of a destructive jihad against the whole of mankind”. The “New Islamist” current in Egypt of which Qaradawi is part are democratic reformists. Rachid Al-Ghannouchi of the Tunisian Renaissance party is another prominent representative of democratic Islamism.

However, Curtis does at least recognise that there are different tendencies within the social and political movements that fall into the broad category of “Islamism”. (Which is more than can be said for most liberal commentators – or for that matter certain self-styled Marxists such as the Worker Communist Parties of Iran and Iraq.)

Postscript: It’s been pointed out to me, quite rightly, that there is an “annoying media tendency (see Panorama!) to make out that anyone who is influenced by Qutb or Mawdudi must subscribe to every word they wrote” and that it is possible to read Sayyid Qutb’s writings critically, accepting some of his theses while rejecting others, and taking into account their historical context. What I had in mind when I referred to “Qutbism” was the some of the positions he developed towards the end of his life (after years of torture in Nasser’s prisons), which have provided inspiration for takfiri tendencies within Islamism. But obviously Qutb’s ideas can’t be reduced to that.

I was also unduly harsh on Adam Curtis. His central point – “There are worrying signs that journalists are confusing the murderous beliefs of a genuinely destructive minority with the political ideas of a much wider movement. By lumping Islamism into a frightening, violent, anti-western movement led by the ‘preachers of hate’, they risk exaggerating and distorting the threat” – should of course be welcomed.