Saturday, November 3

City Circle: In and Out of Islamism with Maajid Nawaz Click for more info

Security was the order of the day for today's talk with Maajid Nawaz, yet another ex-Hizb ut-Tahrir member currently doing the rounds: will there be any left I wonder? Being ex-Hizb is clearly this year's emancipated Asian woman.

But despite my obvious cynicism, today's talk was one of the better City Circles that I've been to. Maajid Nawas certainly articulate (perhaps due to his HT training? Okay, okay, that's the last one, promise) and a joy to listen to.

He started by talking about how he originally got involved with the party - it was the usual stuff of an eager youth, brutalised by the racism of the day, searching for an identity that wasn't the British or Pakistani ones that had already rejected him. His deliberate first person argument for joining HT was pretty compelling, but then any of you who've ever been approached by a member would have known this already. For those who haven't, the colonial West, with their manipulation of history and puppet leaders were all Very Bad Things and it was the religious duty of all Muslims to oppose them.

A four year prison sentence in Egypt had changed Maajid. He had the opportunity to contemplate and critically think about his beliefs, and came to the conclusion that, no, what the HT were promoting was not what he was into - what exactly caused this change of heart was not made clear (as far as I could tell, prison just gave him some alone time).

Moving on from his personal experiences, Maajid then went on to talk about what he did believe. The main crux of his argument was the rejection of the idea that sovereignty (of the political kind) belongs only to God. Effectively this meant that Islam was a religion just like Christianity and the like and not an ideology at all, and so where personal practise should be derived from scripture, wider political decisions should not.

Pretty controversial stuff, eh? Well maybe, but only because it was coming from an ex-HT member. This was pretty much the common secularist's view; that the religion and the state should be strictly separate and in that sense was nothing particularly new. Still, the discourse was still handy and a few interesting details did come up.

He compared an Islamic state to that of an Islamic car, or hospital - a nonsensical entity that wasn't really of any practical use. Personally, I think that a state is more abstract than a car or hospital, but even so it's easy to create an Islamically valid entity, so I wasn't quite sure where he was going with this analogy.

He also claimed that leaving HT hadn't changed some of his ideas about justice or truth, but acknowledged that they may now have been based on different foundations. He also criticised the use of minority politics and that politics should be about the single right answers for all of us, and not about giving each group their own solutions. It's a sentiment I agree with and have written about in the past.

The Q&A afterwards was one of the best I've witnessed at a CC, although that possibly might not be saying much. The biggest surprise was how consistent the audience was in their questioning; there were clearly some pretty major flaws in what Maajid was saying tonight and a number of us had picked up on it. The cracks were beginning to show I think.

Although I didn't ask them personally all of my questions were covered, if not adequately answered:

  • What makes something personal or political? The state decides. How? Arbitrarily.
  • What happens if the state restricts Islamic practise as a consequence of reason and logic? There is a difference between "state legality" and whether something is Halal or not, so the two things exist on different planes and so shouldn't affect one another.
  • Is it possible for an Islamist regime to establish a "secular friendly" society, and if so what's wrong with that? This is a question of semantics, and Maajid wouldn't describe such a regime as Islamist.
The Q&A was also interesting in that it sometimes appeared to be a bit of a love-in of ex-HT members, all relating to (if not agreeing with) Maajid (and I guess it wasn't surprising that Ed Husain was in the audience). For some, the reformation they went though gave them each an insight into the matters at hand. Although not a relevant observation, it had amused me anyway.

In conclusion, today's speaker seemed to be promoting nothing more than plain ol' secularism and so nothing particularly new. His background in HT added a slight twist, but only in that at times he seemed to use the same language, style and - dare I say it - extreme view as he might have when he was still a member; it had just been applied to secularism, possibly as a way to compensate for previous sins.

In fact, I actually agreed with a lot of the common sense that he dictated (regarding tolerance of opinion and interpretation for example), but some of his deeper arguments regarding secularism were just way too inconsistent for me to swallow whole. And to make the connection one last time, this is precisely the reaction I had towards those promoting the ideas of the Hizb ut-Tahrir too.