Islamism: why the west gets it wrong

“Islamism is widely misunderstood in the west. It has its roots in a reaction to the global politics of the 20th century”

Analysis of readers comments on the above Guardian Cif post by Roger Hardy 16 March 2010 – See full post here

Mr Hardy starts his article: “The west is ill at ease with Islam”, a BBC colleague remarked, long before 9/11. …. Our mistake is to see Islam as monolithic. We think of the Saudi brand as the norm – as if cutting off hands, outlawing the building of churches and denying women the right to drive were the norm across the vast sweep of the Muslim world. After 30 years’ experience travelling in the Muslim world – most of that time as a regional specialist with the BBC World Service – I’m still constantly startled by how many ways there are of being a Muslim in the modern world.”

This view and where it leads is rejected overwhelmingly by Cif readers.

Analysis of first 50 comments
Type of comment Votes %
Highly critical of Mr Hardy 5423 87
Neutral/unclassifiable 655 10
Supportive of Mr Hardy 188 3
Total 6266 100

Justabloke – 272 votes
I am not sure that I understand what you wish to achieve with this article.

You say that without a surer grasp of Islamism and its discontents, the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims will be lost. How do you propose that this should be done?

Are you saying that withdrawal from Iraq, Afganistan and anywhere else that could be presented as the western interference in muslim affairs is a pre-requisite? What then, of the civilians who are currently glad of the protection they are receiving and who would be at the mercy of ideologues?

It seems to me that the separation of Islam from Islamism requires just as much effort from Islam as from the west, and that this effort has been, to date, woefully inadequate

Auric – 249
[Roger Hardy said] [Our mistake is to see Islam as monolithic. We think of the Saudi brand as the norm, as if cutting off hands, outlawing the building of churches and denying women the right to drive were the norm across the vast sweep of the Muslim world.]

…. But the point made by some other experts – who probably won`t be offered Beeb jobs – is that there has been and is still a rather succesful attempt to replace the nice friendly local Islams with an in-your-face global Saudi-style global brand.

Tzimisces – 264
…. let’s not jump to the conclusion that the Islamists are right in perceiving muslims as being humiliated or that Islamism is purely defensive.

Islamists are highly aggressive in imposing their desires on other muslims and in attacking Westerners and Western ideas well outside the “islamic world”.

…. They are aggressive imperialists who see no moral bounds in what they can destroy to achieve their own ends.

goldmine – 544
You seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that we in the West should want to understand Islam, even embrace it. We don’t.

zounds – 188
It …. seems dangerously close to excusing Islamism as an ‘anti-imperial’ struggle, which is fundamentally is not. Islamism is another form of barbaric imperialism, something the European left (painting in broad strokes) has been worryingly slow to accept…

smellthecoffee – 312
[Roger Hardy said] [“Islamism: why the west gets it wrong”]

The west doesn’t get it wrong. Islamism (the extreme kind) gets it wrong. Try insulting Mohammed and you’ll be killed. Name a teddy bear after him and the same thing could happen.

In the west I can deny the existence of God, I can insult God, I can even make jokes about God, and nothing will happen (within reason.)

Then there’s the role of women. They are not just mothers, cooks, and cleaners. They have fine minds which can be used in the workplace, to run businesses etc.

BTW: How about Islamism understanding us for a change.

MeinHerzBrent – 199
[Roger Hardy said][Much of the talk about winning Muslim “hearts and minds” is shallow and misguided]

Muslim ‘hearts and minds’ won’t have a place in the west unless their views on women, apostates, gays, finance, animal slaughter and a myriad of other things move forward about fifteen centuries.

Plenty is talked about ‘winning them over’ as though it’s the duty of the west. Why should we bother, and what do the more ‘unwinnable’ muslims have to contribute? Let them cross over to us when they’re ready.

splat64 – 105
While lacking the degree of experince of the writer here I have travelled in Muslim countries and worked for many years in the Muslim ‘community’

I would say the ‘West’ is right to be ill at ease with Islam as it should be ill at ease with violence of monocultural capitalism. The truth of these ideologies lies not in extremity but in the everyday versions.

The daily application of both reveals the inner truth of both. Sure both can be flexible, to a degree, and will present a different face to the world as circumstances or cultures dictate/allow. The problem for Islam is a little different as ultimately it is the ‘unchangable ‘ word of god and whatever its manifestation it seeks theocratic control over peoples lives.

Heresiarch – 132
I don’t think anyone does think of Islam as monolithic. What frightens people is the undoubted spread of hardline Saudi-style Wahhabism with Islamist political ambitions.

This may be alien to much Islamic tradition and history; but it’s on the move today, it threatens to displace or bully what was previously the Muslim mainstream, it is growing where other, better types of Islam are receding.

You say that the West is “ill at ease with Islam” because we fail to understand it. But why not add that the West is ill at ease with Buddhism, or Confucianism, which are even more alien to the Occidental mind (Islam, after all, shares with Christianity the Judaic heritage)? The answer is that there are not Buddhists or Confucians who wish to blow up aeroplanes. It’s nothing to do with not understanding Islam. What people are ill at ease with is the threat of terrorism. Can you blame them?

farga – 31
the mistake is to see this as a conflict between islam and the west….which is how the extremists see it…and even some in the west.

The reality is that this is a conflict within Islam itself.

The vast, vast majority of the victims of Islamist violence have been muslims – from Algeria to Iraq to Pakistan.

…. At stake, ultimately, is whether islam itself is willing to adapt and reform in the face of modern secularism (which is not just a western phenomenon) – much like the Catholic church has had to do, or whether it is going to retreat into primitive medievalism.

This is ultimately a struggle that muslims will need to wage amongst themselves ….

sarka – 48
I’ve noticed how one of the “memes” of most people writing Islamism articles is to start by saying that in some way or another people “don’t understand” Islamism (and/or Islam) and then to proceed to give just another very generalising view of a kind that has been heard over and over again.

…. Yes Islamism is a reaction to the West (who would really say otherwise?), but it is rather more than that. For example, even if reactive (most political movements are reactive in some way), its character is bound up with the actual nature of the Muslim societies concerned and distinctive elements of their religious and social traditions and current conflicts, as well as interaction with certain Western ideas and inspirations…

Anyway, the author who I’m sure has much interesting expertise and experience, fails to explain the idea that by having some more precise understanding of Islamism we would necessarily be able to win Muslim “hearts and minds”…

To what extent, for example, would a better understanding of communism or fascism (both still the topic of endless controversy among historians), have enabled Western elites to head off the threats they posed or averted the damage they caused where they came to power? Please write on both sides of the paper, you have three hours starting NOW!

Waltz – 90
I don’t know why you think Islamism is “misunderstood” in the West.

There’s no original insight in your entire article. Your argument merely reiterates points and observations that have been made over and over by Western commenters. Islamism is understood perfectly well. The problem is somehow dealing with it within Western societies without resorting to pogroms. And on that front, you appear to offer no answers.

Anglophobia – 251
Stockholm syndrome combined with outdated cultural guilt, the spirit of appeasement, and even more outdated cultural arrogance doesn’t make a pretty column.

“Islamism is, at root, a reaction to western power.”

Even if true, so what? Nazism might at root have been a reaction to the unjust Treaty of Versailles, but that didn’t make the positive and expansionist agenda of the Nazis less important to keep at bay.

…. By now, whatever its origins, Islamism is a power-seeking phenomenon with its own momentum, its own priorities, and its own indigenous concerns that have nothing to do with us. It’s dangerous to conclude that if only we opened our arms, apologized simply for existing, and did all the things that Islamists want they would become Quakers, social democrats, feminists, and members of the Peter Tatchell fan club (of which I county myself a member).

…. It’s culturally arrogant to think that it’s all about us. It isn’t.

And it’s not our job to win Muslims’ hearts and minds. They’re not ours to win. Let them be as they wish to be as long as they don’t abuse us. Instead of playing mind games and acting like amateur cultural psychologists, we should focus on OUR priorities. Let’s ask ourselves in a clear-eyed manner, based on a blunt assessement of Islamists’ confessed goals and ideology, if we want Islamists to have more power in our country. And if we don’t, then let’s unapologetically take steps to curb Islamism.


leeyinyin – 60
Definition of islamism is not just any “ideology”, please dont try to neuter the overarching and explicit political goals the movement – in its various guises, peaceful or violent, moderate or extremist- aims to achieve. Islamists wish to re-establish theocracy, nothing less than that.


Modern incarnations of the movement like the MB or HuT have older 19th century roots in the Deobandi revival and that in turn was but yet another re-expresssion of something pretty intrinsic to Islam: Islam being a political and expansionist religion from the time of its founder. Many muslims see the religion’s early military victories as vindication of its divine sanction – you’d find this idea expressed in thousands of contemporary books and talks.

So the present day Islamists’ reaction against ‘humiliation’ by the west is easily essentialised as a return to divine favour by way of re-establishing political power once again. Very few muslims would accept severing the link between state and mosque even in theory as it would be akin to cutting the muscle, if not the heart itself out of the religion. There is no muslim majority country – apart from Turkey – where muslim civil laws have ever been abandoned by the state for example.

longlazydaysgoneby – 109
Yep Islamism is misunderstood by the west. especially by the left who seem to see it as some justified reaction to western imperialism.

They also misunderstand the fact that since Mohammed massacred the Jews in Arabia (historical fact, although the mods won’t like it said), many forms of islamism have been about land conquest and subjegation of all those who will not convert.

DruidRevelation – 81
I like how the column starts by saying that the west is ill at ease with Islam, suggesting that we ought to become more familiar and comfortable with it.

Then it goes on to argue that Islamism began out of a hatred of the west and that we need to accept that.

So no need for Islamists to worry about being ill at ease with the west then, no need for Muslims in general to accept us as we are and stop trying to change us.

Good, that sounds really fair. Roger Hardy should take over the Foreign Office, and rename it the Office of Cultural Retreat.

goldmine – 129
I’m not so much interested in Islamism as I am deeply concerned. Concerned that this author like so many others on Cif continually attempt to dress up the clash of cultures we’re seeing with the unchecked creep of Islam as something to be embraced.

The Emperors New Burqa.

crudfilter – 86
Please Please Please! Stop. Enough! Stop trying to sell Islam. Stop making excuses for it, stop apologising for it, have a little self respect and stop bending over for it. Regardless of the endless sales promotions, discounts, special offers and incentives offered by the Guardian, people dont like slavery.

They don’t, nobody is buying into it. Realise that you cannot give it away. Your efforts to dress it in a nice frock, comb it’s hair and have it pose for the audience are patronising at best and reak of blinkered desperation. Islam speaks for itself, It’s message is loud, clear and writ large all over the free world. Your problem is not ‘selling the message’, your problem is that people are all too aware of the message.

Until the next sales drive,

splat64 – 37
…. I had a great time working in Islamic communities, and experienced great kindness from individuals, but I remained the unbeliever to them. I was good enough to teach their kids but not good enough to shake their wives hands. I say good enough to teach their kids, thats except when I say spoke of equal rights for women and homosexuals, or when I proposed Darwinism, or suggested sex education or when I told girls that menstruation wasn’t disgusting and that they had no need to stay off school for their period, or when I said to kids find out for yourselves and change if you want and so on and so on. thats when the complaints rolled in. It is precisely everyday normal Islam that disturbs people rather than dumb extremists.

CanWeNotKnockIt – 57
….. As for Muslim societies not being obsessed with sex, I can think of few societies more obsessed with it – right down to reporting a couple for kissing in a restaurant or arresting women for wearing the wrong clothing.

metalvendetta – 43
As someone who avoided King’s Cross and Liverpool Street on 7/7 by virtue of treating myself to an arbitrary lie-in, I took it upon myself to find out more about Islam. I acquired an English translation of the Koran to read, and held many discussions on the subject with muslim colleagues, friends and people I know online.

As far as I can tell, it’s an oppressive, sexist and violent anachronism (the number of calls in the Koran for “unbelievers” to be put to the sword or destroyed by fire really shocked me) and we’d be better off without it. See also: Christianity, Judaism, any of other big religions.

Ilikedthe80s – 44
…. Any liberal, any progressive, any believer in human rights, equal rights, and a non-theocratic political system ought to oppose Islam, not just Islamism but Islam itself with every fibre of their being. I am a leftwinger from before it became “left wing” especially on CIF to support repressive and reactionary theocrats, so maybe I am old fashioned. But I am sticking with my centre left progressive point of view that Islam stands for everything that progressive liberals don’t. And that we’d be the first in any firing line should they ever have control of society.

There is no third way. It is a zero sum game. Every increase in power for Islam is a loss for progressive politics, Every success of progressive politics is a loss for Islam. People with such a poor understanding of liberalism that they think it simply represents a lack of all principle are not liberals.

shalone – 49
…. But basically, it has brought to our attention the real Islam and the % of Muslims who still believe in fundamentalism.

I have a Muslim background and know that majority of Muslims do not treat women as equal to men and are not disturbed that most of the women in most of Muslim countries are kept under ‘house arrest’ all their lives.

…. Many Mullahs add oil to the fire by preaching things which are not valid in 21st century. Yes, there are good souls around, but I have yet to meet a Muslim who would tolerate negative statements about Islam, although only few take laws in their own hands. I have opted out of the faith, because it is problematic to portray yourself as a liberal, when a muslim is supposed to follow everything without reforming anything.

Justabloke – 22
[Comment addressed to Shalone above] Thank you. Your experience seems to confirm a suspicion – that condemnation of islamism from islam is not forthcoming, because the two are closer than islam would like to admit

VolcanicComet – 37
[Roger Hardy said] [Without a surer grasp of Islamism and its discontents, the battle for Muslim hearts and minds will be lost.]

…..seems quite sensible. However I have yet to see an article on CIF that flips this sentiment around and asks what muslims need to do to win western hearts and minds.

[Roger Hardy said] [“Without a surer grasp of freedom of speech and without allowing free criticism of the Koran and Muhammed, the battle for western hearts and minds will be lost.” ]

We are going to fumble along this destructive path until people start to address all the issues in the debate. Spineless, liberal appeasement will not make muslims change.

aboveusonlysky – 30
Painfully naive article:

If you define Islamism as ‘Islam’s interraction with the West’, then yes, the West is a factor!

But Islamism affects the 50-something Muslim-majority countries far more seriously than it affects the West – not one Muslim country respects human rights to a decent degree. That’s largely the fault of the ideological aspects of the religion preventing progress.

The author seems only to be able to see ‘Islamism’ as ‘Al Qaeda plus a few nasty preachers’. I see it as ‘all Muslims except those who have broken free and want modernity’.

Cifilis – 34
…. About this so called “diversity” you celebrate in the Muslim world, what of it? You don’t really give any more examples than to say “We think of the Saudi brand as the norm ? as if cutting off hands, outlawing the building of churches and denying women the right to drive were the norm across the vast sweep of the Muslim world.” How are things so much different in the rest of “the Muslim World?” They aren’t quite as strict, please explain?

contrarian2 – 19
It’s encouraging to see so many negative comments about this article.

It is certainly true that there are variations in Islam and that some observers may oversimplify, may conflate Islam with Islamism, may assume that the brand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia exactly corresponds with the brand practiced in some other country. Nuances, local and regional variations, tribal or national variations, sophistication vs. primitivism…sure. But so what? The same is true of every religion.

What’s more, there is no single “we” who can be defined as guilty of oversimplifying Islam. There are knowledgable sophisticated observers and ignorant observers. But again…so what? The same is true of other religions.

Islamism is an issue because it actively, aggressively seeks to inflict serious harm on others. It may be that its origins are relatively recent, and that its future is, hopefully, brief. Fair enough. But it is an urgent problem right now, and there is increasingly less appetite, in the West, for worrying about the heart and minds.

I think it’s more important for Islam to worry about what the West thinks, than the other way around. Based on every accepted measurement of social progress, there is not an Islamic society on the planet that has anything to teach the west. The Islamic world should be convening urgent conferences on how to woo the West, not the other way around.

PeteK1959 – 23
…. As far understanding Islam a bit more? Does that include understanding the Arab slave trade in Africa, the Muslim invasions of India or the Devishirme in Europe to name but a few of the unacceptable events from Islam’s past that have absolutely nothing to do with the west? I am so glad the so called left is such a spent force. Because if it wasn?t the ?useful idiots? would have us living under Sharia law by now.

MorrisZap – 42
[Somebody said][Are Muslim societies obsessed with sex and money and pornography?]

… Are you having a laugh? There is no culture or religion on earth more obsessed with sex than Islam. That’s why there is an obsesion with covering women up in shrouds, that why the free mixing of men and women is so, er, “frowned upon” (and leads to soft community punsihments like stoning and lashes).

MuzzydeMontfort – 27
…. It always comes back to concessions, either at home, or shaping foreign policy in a way that will go down well with the Muslims. It’s clear from observing what Muslims protest about in the UK, and what they don’t, that this means always taking the side of Muslims over non-Muslims, as the Qu’ran demands.

ShafeeAlZindig – 29
…. I am an ex-Muslim who has rejected Islam on rational grounds. I still have many Muslim family members and friends though, who all have a wide range of views from radical to moderate. It has always galled me to hear some of the obnoxious comments on homosexuality, evolution and menstruation espoused by some of them.

Fortunately the majority of them sincerely believe in live-and-let-live and that only God should judge. They do not have a problem with my apostasy and believe it is between me and God.

greymatter – 24
[Etoiles wrote][“Many Muslims would say – and I would tend to agree – that we are the backwards society. As Sayeed Qutb wrote :

” … [the] family provides the environment under which human values and morals develop and grow in the new generation; these values and morals cannot exist apart from the family unit…..”

If…..the division of work is not based on family responsibility and natural gifts…”

“if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children….”

“….using her ability for material productivity rather than the training of human beings”]

One might expect a primitive bigot brought up in the traditions of the desert religion to have such a patronising, sexist attitude to the ‘role’ of women.

Shame on you for apparently being in such close agreement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: