Wed, Jun 27, 2007 - Page 9 News List

`Engagement': Indulging Islamist bigots with very little to show

Despite UK Foreign Office efforts to `engage with the Islamic world,' the disgusting reaction to Salman Rushdie's knighthood shows there is still a long way to go

By Nick Cohen  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

On June 23, 2005, Sir Derek Plumbly, the British ambassador to Egypt, wrote to the UK Foreign Office's political director, John Sawers, about his colleagues' determination to "engage" with the radical Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Its motto is: "Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our constitution. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope."

Hassan al-Banna, its founder, was an admirer of European fascism and its most terrible ideologist, Syed Qutb, inspired the Sunni terror that is sweeping the world.

Given that the brotherhood's leaders came from the far right and upheld an explicit far-right program, Sir Derek wondered if these were the kind of chaps the Foreign Office should be doing business with.

In a letter leaked to the New Statesman magazine, he said that he detected a "tendency for us to be drawn towards engagement for its own sake; to confuse `engaging with the Islamic world' with `engaging with Islamism'; and to play down the very real downsides for us in terms of the Islamists' likely foreign and social policies, should they actually achieve power in countries such as Egypt."

What was Britain hoping to achieve?

How did a country under a left-of-center government expect to influence religious rightists? Did it hope that a conversation with Foreign Office ministers would persuade them to repent and become converts to the noble cause of the emancipation of women? Would an invitation to tea with a high commissioner be enough to shake them out of their hatred of homosexuals, Jews, free thinkers, liberals and secularists?

Get real, said Sir Derek: "I suspect that there will be relatively few contexts in which we are able significantly to influence the Islamists' agenda."

Plumbly lost the power struggle against the pro-brotherhood faction in the Foreign Office, but the questions he raised then remain pertinent now, as the disgraceful reaction to Salman Rushdie's knighthood shows.

Across the political spectrum, the ignorant and the terrified are arguing that if only Britain didn't provoke the zealots in Pakistan and Iran -- and, indeed, in parts of the UK -- by defending liberal values and honoring a great writer, their fury would pass and we would be safe.

APPEASEMENT

In theory, they may have a case. Neville Chamberlain gave appeasement a bad name, but we all appease in our daily lives and make concessions in order to get concessions in return. In practice, the Labour government has tested appeasement to destruction and, thankfully, turned back to principled politics.

If you haven't read The Islamist, Ed Husain's memoir of his life on the religious right, it is worth getting a hold of a copy because he uses his inside knowledge to describe how the Labour party in the UK placated reactionaries who hated every progressive principle the center-left holds.

To take one of many examples, Husain tells how his journey into the wilds began when he joined the east London mosque, which was controlled by Jamat-e-Islami, the Muslim Brotherhood's south Asian sister organization.

After his disillusionment with far-right politics, he returned to the mosque bookshop and found Qutb's work on sale: "... with chapter headings such as `The virtues of killing a non-believer' and ideas such as `attacking the non-believers in their territories is a collective and individual duty.' Just as I had done as a 16-year-old, hundreds of young Muslims are buying these books from Islamist mosques in Britain and imbibing the idea that killing non-believers is not only acceptable but the duty of a good Muslim."

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