Damon Perry at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) within the War Studies Department at King’s College London has produced a new paper examining “The Islamic Movement in Britain”. The paper maps out the networks—the organizations and individuals—that comprise this Movement, what it is they believe, and what they want.
The Origins of Islamism in Britain
The “Islamic Movement” is the name many participants give to themselves, as do their foreign co-ideologues like the Qatar-based spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, though as Perry points out the term “Islamist” has come into common usage. The two key wellsprings of the Movement in Britain are the Jamaat-i-Islami, which originates in the Subcontinent led by Abul Ala al-Mawdudi, and the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna. From these beginnings in Britain in the early 1960s (earlier elsewhere in Europe), the groups evolved to gain considerable “operational independence”, Perry notes, and this has led to some calling them “the New Muslim Brotherhood”.
Perry gives an extensive catalogue of the groups that make up the Islamic Movement or the Islamist Movement or the New Muslim Brotherhood in Britain, ranging from the Muslim Students Society established in 1961 and the Islamic Council of Europe in 1973 to Muslim Aid (1985) and the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE) (1988) and—crucially—the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), and the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) all in 1997.
The spread of these groups has not stopped. Of the more recent groups, CAGE, founded in 2003 as an advocacy organisation for imprisoned jihadist terrorists at Guantanamo and elsewhere, is among the most prominent. In Britain, CAGE is perhaps best-known to the general public after its research director Asim Qureshi declared in February 2015 that Mohammed Emwazi, the Islamic State (ISIS) militant featured in several beheading videos who had been dubbed “Jihadi John” by the tabloid media, was a “beautiful young man”. This was in the context of Qureshi being asked to explain CAGE’s connections to Emwazi.
Another important recent Islamist institution founded in Britain is the Islam Channel (2004), which has rather extensive reach into the British Muslim community, watched regularly by over-half according to a 2008 survey by the British government.
Perry gives an extensive overview of the ideology of the Movement. Their cooperation is “based upon a shared religiously‑informed way of seeing and evaluating the world”, says Perry, particularly how to relate to non-Islamist Muslims and non-Muslims. “They understand themselves as the vanguard of a singular, collective body, the umma [Islamic community], possessing the correct understanding of Islam and tasked with conveying the true teachings of the prophet Muhammad and with remedying incorrect understandings of Islam held by both Muslim and non‑Muslims. … Collectively, Islamic Movement activists aspire for a comprehensive transformation within mainstream social and political structures, one based on Islam, both in Britain and globally.”
One characteristic of the Islamic Movement in Britain that is important to note is that it is “participationist”: it believes in using the system as it currently exists—including elections—to change the system. This is in contrast to both jihadists, who advocate violence to impose Islam, and some non-violent Islamic extremists, who eschew any connection with democracy altogether.
The Movement is ostensibly divided on the question of an Islamic state, though it might be more appropriate to say coy or inexact: they do not specify how or when an Islamic state is supposed to come about in Britain, but the logic of the Islamic “revival” they all advocate leads in the same direction. As Al‑Qaradawi explained, da’wa (proselytism) is the key to the Islamic victory in the West. “Islam will return to Europe as a conqueror and victor after being expelled from it twice”, said Al-Qaradawi, referring to the reversal of the Arab conquest of Spain and the later reversal of the Turkish conquest of large parts of Eastern and Central Europe. “The conquest this time will not be by the sword but by preaching and ideology”.
One of the interesting things Perry explains is the way the da’wa campaigns are carried out: “grounded in shari’a (Islamic law)”, the intention is to spread by somewhat camouflaged means the cultural and social norms that accord with Islamist values. It is notable that “Islam Awareness Week”, seen by Britons as a celebration of tolerance and multiculturalism, is instrumentalized by Islamists to spread their exclusivist mentality, which understands Islam as inseparable from politics and the purpose of politics being to impose Islam on the whole society. Needless to say, their version of Islam has little space for religious minorities or homosexuals, and offers a degraded position to women.
On the central issue of jihad, which has generally meant in Islamic history the use of military force to spread the faith, these groups tend to redefine their da’wa and other work to further the Islamization of society as jihad—a word that after all literally means “striving”. This is not to say, however, that their opposition to violence is total, or even principled; it is situational and even then there are exceptions, as will be explained below.
The Islamic Movement Gets Organized
Perry lays out the way this Movement cohered in the 1980s and 1990s: many organizations were founded on an ethnic or other sectional basis; gradually, however, they came together under the banner of the faith, and began to exert pressure on the state and society as a uniform bloc. What is noticeable is how foreign policy events were used by these groups as a means of mobilization and organization.
The fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the then-Supreme Leader of Iran, in 1989, calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie because he did not like his novel, The Satanic Verses, was a key event. The Islamist-orchestrated book-burnings and riots on the streets of Britain by Muslims that spring brought many of these groups into contact for a common cause for the first time—in support of Khomeini, whose Islamic Republic was less marked by sectarianism at that time than it is at present after the Syrian war.
Soon afterwards, the Islamists leveraged opposition to the Gulf War that protected Saudi Arabia and reversed Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait, and support for the jihadist elements in Bosnia, which made Al-Qaeda into a truly global phenomenon, to expand their ideology under humanitarian pretexts.
Assists Along the Way
In addition to its own organizational prowess and opportunism, Islamists in Britain have had two important assisting factors, one domestic, one foreign.
Domestically, the government’s decision to engage the MCB as an official interlocuter for British Muslims proved highly consequential: it created perverse incentives for people who wished to affect change to do so through the MCB and it made the MCB’s ideology—which could never claim anything like majority status among British Muslims—seem mainstream and legitimate. The Coordination Committee of Islamic Organisations, an umbrella formation comprising MAB, IFE, and some others, has “not received much attention in the media, think tank or academic literature”, Perry points out, but with the MCB it is a primus inter pares node in the Islamist network in Britain.
Externally, certain states have empowered the Islamist trend in Britain, particularly Qatar, Turkey, and Iran, the latter through funding for mosques and groups like the IHRC. Perry flags the Nida Trust, ostensibly an educational charity, which is funded by Qatar, and has a deep web of connections within the Islamic Movement—and not only in Britain. Nida’s connections extend to Tariq Ramadan, the Islamist intellectual and grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder. The Turkish government, run by the Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has sponsored a number of groups in Britain connected to Hamas, the especially militant branch of the Brotherhood based in Gaza.
There are some larger issues for Britain in this, particularly the legislative inefficacy of the Charity Commission, but this external agitation makes all of these problems worse.
How Islamists Work Now
Perry ends the paper by itemizing a series of campaigns used by Islamists as what would be called in the positive political theory literature “focal points”, that is events designed to trigger coordination among current disorganized groups, usually in the context of a revolution—which is, ultimately and however “softly”, the purpose of the Islamic Movement in Britain.
“The Islamic Movement in Britain is actively involved in initiating and leading a number of inter‑related campaigns in the service of Islam as a complete system of life and of the Muslim umma in Britain and abroad,” Perry explains. Of these, there are four that are notable as “[t]he most enduring, well‑funded and controversial”, which “focus on Palestine, the British government’s counter‑radicalisation and counter‑extremism strategies, and Islamophobia, as well as education and political participation.”
Palestine is probably the most important of these issues for the Islamists. The British state is challenged by public order problems from these people when anti-Israel and antisemitic protests are assembled, protests often organized in collaboration with extreme Left-wing groups like the Stop the War “Coalition”, a front group for the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that has worked closely with the MAB. More serious are the terror finance matters, since the cluster of charities in Britain that raise money for ostensible humanitarian purposes for Gaza either funnel money to Hamas or are directly organized by Hamas. Prominent among these is the Union of the Good, an umbrella created by Al-Qaradawi, and Interpal. Connected and often overlapping are the Muslim Brotherhood charities, some of them sponsored by Qatar.
The Islamic Movement is a key component of what the British call the “preventing Prevent” lobby, Prevent being a key strand of the state’s counter-extremism policy. This is probably the second-most important of the four campaigns, and seeks to convince Muslims that anti-radicalism efforts are an attack on their faith and their community. This element of the Movement’s campaign links in very much with the “Islamophobia” dimension, purportedly a campaign against Islamophobia, a syndrome that has gained the same connotation as racism in many quarters. As one of the Movement groups, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), says, “Islamophobia is built in to Prevent”.
The Islamists weaponization of Islamophobia originates in the Rushdie affair and has remained ever since an attempt to define Islamophobia as any criticism of the faith at all. This de facto demand for a blasphemy law—which is impossible to meet, and thus will always remain an issue to be used for incitement—is a part of the general effort of the Islamic Movement to alienate Muslims in Britain by telling them they are persecuted by a hostile state and society, leaving Muslims isolated and vulnerable to Islamist recruiters, who can offer to be the support system supposedly denied by the mainstream.
Perry’s descriptions of the Islamic Movement’s engagement with the political system, particularly at the local level where it focuses its energies, and its attempt to co-opt at least sections of the education system—the “trojan horse” case is the most infamous in Britain—are as detailed as they are alarming.
Britain was struck by a series of Islamist terrorist attacks in 2017 when the Islamic State (ISIS) was at its height. In the years since, this most visible aspect of the Islamist challenge has simmered down. But the challenge has not gone away—and even the terrorism will return, sooner and worse if measures are not taken to curb the spread and success of the Islamic Movement in shaping the environment by non-violent means.