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Khayrat el-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for the forthcoming Egyptian presidential elections, met with Islamic scholars from the Islamic Legal Body for Rights and Reform (al-hay’at al-shar’iyya lil-huqûq wal-islâh) on Tuesday.

According to the Body’s founding statement, one of their principle goals is:

“The creation of an Islamically-legitimate [râshida] source of authority, which revives the function of clerics and Islamic intellectuals in the Umma (global Islamic community), to support The People who Loosen and Bind [ahl al-hall wal-‘aqd] in strengthening freedoms and ensuring reform.” (إيجاد مرجعية راشدة تُحْيِي وظيفة العلماء والحكماء في الأمة، لمعاونة أهل الحل والعقد في تدعيم الحريات وتحقيق الإصلاح.)

Now, The People who Loosen and Bind is an historical Islamic legal term for those members of a community invested with the power to ‘elect’ a caliph or imam.  It is through this group that a caliph received an oath of allegiance (bay’a) on behalf of the people.

The modern institutional equivalent of the ahl al-hall wal-‘aqd is the legislature or the Majlis al-Sh’ab in the case of Egypt.  It is noteworthy, therefore, given Khayrat el-Shater’s reluctance to speak directly to the media since the annoucement of his candidature, that he paid a visit to this group of clerics and scholars.  Particularly so, given that the Body consists of a cross-section of senior Egyptian ulema; the sort of people likely to endorse or reject his nomination from an Islamic perspective.

At the meeting, Associated France Press reports him making some controversial statements on sharia:

“…Khairat el-Shater, has pledged to press for the implementation of sharia (Islamic law) if elected [and] said implementing the sharia was “his first and final goal,” […] Shater [also] said “he would work to form a group of scholars to support parliament in achieving that goal,”

What’s interesting again is that the Arabic term used at the Body’s website, from which AFP gleaned their information, for ‘a group of scholars’ is ‘majmu’a min ahl al-hall wal-‘aqd‘ (وقد أكد الشاطر أن الشريعة كانت وستظل مشروعه وهدفه الأول والأخير، وأنه سيعمل على تكوين مجموعة من أهل الحل والعقد لمعاونة البرلمان في تحقيق هذا الهدف.).  The use of this term further underscores the importance for Islamists of tradition.

El-Shater’s mention of this ‘group of scholars’ could signal his intention to use the Islamic Legal Body for Rights and Reform.  It will also alarm many who read the Brotherhood’s Draft Party Platform several years ago and noted its reference to the creation of ‘a council of religious scholars’ with the power to veto legislation proposed by the People’s Assembly/Majlis al-Sh’ab.  Could this be the same thing?  It certainly seems so.  If el-Shater is elected, and even if he is not (and becomes PM!), it will be intriguing, not to say worrying, to see what form this ‘group of scholars’ takes.


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During the course of the Arab Spring, we have noted various types of Islamist group emerging into the public sphere.  From the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood and their political party, the FJP, to the newly formed Yemeni Salafist party, the Rashad Union. Muslims of various creeds and affiliations have taken an active part in the political revolutions sweeping the MENA region.

Yet, not all of the Islamists vying for attention belong to parties or established movements.  For some, this is because of a doctrinal aversion to hizbiyya or partisanship; for others, it is simply because they are unaffiliated to any specific theological movement or Islamist grouping.  Khalil al-Anani terms them ‘informal’ Islamists:

“They are not officially affiliated with any Islamist movement. Nor are they keen to establish their own organizations. Ironically, they shunned joining any of the new Islamists parties. Moreover, whereas “formal” Islamists, for example, the MB, ad-Dawa al-Salafiyya, and ex-Jihadists, rushed to formal politics, “informal” Islamists prefer to play outside the official framework.”

Perhaps the archetypal unaffiliated or ‘informal’ Islamist is the Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.  Despite being associated with the Ikhwan, and playing a pivotal role in the initial formation of the Global Muslim Brotherhood Organisation, al-Qaradawi has established a global independent platform for his doctrine of wasatiyya or ‘moderation’ in one’s interpretation of Islam.  Through his appearances on the popular Al Jazeera show Al Sharia wal Hayat, his leadership of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, to the publication of numerous books translated into a multitude of languages, he has been able propagate his ideology to a global audience independently of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

It is the flexibility of operating outside of any formal religious or political organisation that has been a boon for this type of Islamist personality in the wake of the Arab uprisings.  Whilst politico-religious movements such as the Ikhwan and the Salafis have entered parliament, Islamists such as the Egyptian presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, who bridges the gap between the two, have been left untarnished by any controversial pronouncements made by members of either movement, and have built allegiances that cross traditional class and economic boundaries.

It is worth noting that these types of Islamist only represent a short term threat to the political aspirations of the Brotherhood and the Salafi movement; in the long term, these independent Islamists serve to frame the terms of the political debate along Islamic lines.  They broadly share the same goals as these movements in that they wish to see greater Islamic unity, and to see a prominent role for the sharia in the legal systems of their respective countries.

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I’ve written before about the use of the shibboleth concept Islamophobia as a tool by Islamists to peddle grievances for political gain.  So it comes as no surprise that ‘Dr’ Bob Lambert, the man who set up the Metropolitan Police’s Muslim Contact Unit and brokered a deal with the Brotherhood to take over management of Abu Hamza’s Finsbury Park mosque:

In 2003, British police shut [Finsbury Park] mosque, but Abu Hamza’s followers continued to have a strong presence in the area. In February 2005, police helped broker a deal for the mosque to re-open under the leadership of the local chapter of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), a Muslim Brotherhood group. No sooner had the moderates gained control of the Finsbury Park mosque than they were confronted by Abu Hamza’s angry followers, led by the pugnacious Atilla Ahmet, who calls himself “the number-one Al Qaeda in Europe” and who, in October, pled guilty to providing British Muslims with terrorist training. “They brought sticks and knives with them,” recalls Kamal El Helbawy [former European spokesman for the Ikhwan – ed.], spokesman for the new trustees at the mosque.

Undeterred, a few days later Helbawy gave the first Friday sermon, explaining that this was a new start for the mosque and stressing how important it was for Muslims to live in harmony with their neighbors. Detective Inspector Lambert, the Metropolitan police officer who helped broker the takeover, says that, because of its social welfare work and its track record supporting the Palestinian cause, the MAB has “big street cred in the area and [has] made an impact on Abu Hamza’s young followers.”

Detective Inspector Lambert told us preachers like Anas and Al Oudah “can’t be discounted. … When you have Muslim leaders who are attacked both by Al Qaeda supporters and by commentators who oppose engagement [with Islamists], then they are in a useful position.”

is the co-author of a report entitled Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: a London Case Study, published yesterday by a newly formed research unit, the European Muslim Research Centre, at the University of Exeter.

And Lambert has form on this score, having acted ‘as consultant for an AHRC funded research project An Examination of Partnership Approaches to Challenging Religiously-Endorsed Violence involving Muslim Groups and Police headed by Dr. Basia Spalek, Senior Lecturer in Criminology & Criminal Justice, Institute of Applied Social Studies, University of Birmingham and Dr. Salwa El-Awa, Lecturer in Islamic Studies, Theology Department, University of Birmingham.’

The background of some of his colleagues, in particular,  Dr Salwa el-Awa, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Birmingham, should raise more than a few eyebrows.

I recognised the name, but couldn’t decide where I’d seen it before. I googled it and it dawned on me that she was related to Dr Muhammad Salim el-Awa, a well-known Egyptian Islamist and Secretary-general of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, where he works closely with Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. I found a profile of him and discovered that Dr Salwa is his daughter.

Now, his links to the Ikhwaan are well-publicised even if the profile of him paints him as ‘distancing’ himself from their core doctrines.  What I didn’t realise was that el-Awa is now married to Hasan el-Ashmawi, a key figure (and former leader) of the Ikhwan.

The question is, why is the daughter of a well-known Islamist integral to a research project that will not only shape the way that the police deal with Islamists such as the MB/MCB/MAB etc. but also the government? The proximity of such individuals to the coterie of advisors that formulate and influence govt. policy on counter-terrorism is extremely worrying.

According to the project’s homepage, Dr el-Awa’s previous research ‘involved establishing strong connections with experts in and leaders of the Islamic movement in Egypt and UK, as well as relations and co-operation with other interested agencies.’  According to the report itself, ‘religion could play a positive role in counter terrorism’:

Contrary to traditional policing and academic perspectives, the research has highlighted the importance of religious knowledge for counter terrorism, not only in understanding communities within which extremists may operate, but also in motivating the work of police and community members who wish to prevent violence. Dr Salwa al-’Awwa, who co-led the investigation, said the study showed that religion could play a positive role in counter terrorism. The team found strong evidence that an effective counter message to Al-Qaeda’s propaganda must offer a convincing and reliable alternative for religious people to turn to, and that the knowledge and expertise of religious community leaders was essential.

The University of Birmingham report suggested that groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood would be appropriate in bringing such ‘religious knowledge’ to bear on preventing terrorism and included the following statements:

Certain Muslim groups are particularly demonised, including those labeled as ‘Salafi’ and ‘Islamist’, and are used to illustrate the inherent threat from ‘fundamentalist’ Muslims.

The MCU’s [Muslim Contact Unit] ability to engage with ‘radical’ and marginalized groups such as Salafis and Islamists allows for counter-terrorism work that many other policing and security units are unable to achieve. This approach has also facilitated counter-terrorism work by communities themselves, opening up another important avenue in the prevention of violence that has otherwise been closed down.

This study has documented direct examples of ‘success’ in terms of partnership work helping to counter terrorism – reclaiming a mosque from an infamous cleric’s hard-core extremist supporters, launching community based counter-violent extremism initiatives in London, supporting Muslim minorities – especially Salafis and Islamists – against widespread stigmatisation as terrorist ‘fellow travellers’ or ’suspect communities’.

Now, there’s no denying that there are plenty of bigots only too willing to paint Muslims in general as some sort of threat; a monolithic entity, restricted to Islamist interpretations of religious dogma, if you will.  And anti-Muslim bigotry does lead to violence, as the report amply documents.  But what the report tries to do, and fails miserably, is to postulate a link between the often highly selective reporting of individual extremist Muslims such as Anjem Choudary and Abu Qatadah; the legitimate criticism of Islamic dogma and the behaviour of specific Muslims; and hate crimes against Muslims and their communities.

Here’s one revealing paragraph in the preface to the EMRC report:

From our perspectives and experience, both academic and practitioner, the rise of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crime is morally abhorrent and needs to be countered. Muslim communities in the UK and Europe have important contributions to make to the local communities and broader societies in which they live. Yet to date, these communities, and Islam more broadly, are often the subject of misunderstanding and vilification. Whereas Islamic legal and political traditions have, at key points, inspired and informed Western political and intellectual traditions, and Muslims in Europe have historically made, and especially today continue to make, important contributions at every level of British and European society, portrayals of their religion and identity still often seem to focus on terrorism, intolerance, and issues such as the veil. While such portrayals are unjust and empirically untrue, they still appear to academically, politically and popularly inform perceptions of Islam in Britain and Europe. This insidious phenomenon runs the very real risk of driving deep divisions through European societies, and of alienating friends, neighbours and political partners.

Again, I don’t think that any right-thinking Briton would today argue that crimes against individuals or communities based on their adherence to a particular faith are not ‘abhorrent’.  Quite the contrary.  Unfortunately, what the authors seem to be saying, and its a narrative that we’ve seen Islamists employ as a strategy time and again, is that the majority of people somehow misunderstand Islam, Muslims and Islamic culture, and it’s this hypothetical ignorance that leads to so-called Islamophobia; that tax-payer funded da’wah and consultation with specific Muslim organisations on behalf of the UK Government should be used to counter this; and that political engagement with Islamists (This insidious phenomenon runs the very real risk…of alienating…political partners) is somehow a necessary expedient.

The premise, of course, is a false one.  Criticism of Islam and Muslims is generally directed at those anti-social and often extremist practices that the mainstream non-Muslim public object to and, aside from a small minority of bigots who essentialise Muslims and extremist Islam, such criticism is justified; a fundamental right in a free society.  Freedom of speech, with certain caveats, is one of the pillars of liberal democracy, and a quality that distinguishes Britain from the surfeit of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and beyond.

If we examine the report itself more closely, on page 9, where acknowledgements are made we come across some familiar names:

We have also benefitted enormously from guidance from our advisory board: Anas Altikriti, Mohamed Abdul Bari, Rachel Briggs, John Esposito, Andy Hull, Oliver McTernan, Basheer Nafi and Tim Niblock.

Anas al-Tikriti is the founder of the Cordoba Foundation, a Muslim Brotherhood front which received Prevent funding towards tackling violent extremism and tried to play host to Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-based Salafist preacher linked to the radicalisation of both the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan, and the failed ‘underpants’ bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.  He’s also the former head of the Muslim Association of Britain and founder of the British Muslim Initiative, both Brotherhood front organisations.  Not coincidentally, his father, Osama al-Tikriti, is the head of the Iraqi Brotherhood chapter, the Iraqi islamic Party. On the same page, we see Brotherhood ideologue Tariq Ramadan and the Islam Channel’s Director of Programming.  The Islam Channel’s CEO is Mohamed Ali Harrath, a convicted terrorist and former member of the Tunisian Islamic Front.

Mohamed Abdul Bari is Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, an organisation founded by supporters of  Abu ‘Alaa Mawdudi’s Pakistani Islamist organisation, Jamaat-e Islami.  His deputy is Daud Abdullah, co-signatory to the Istanbul Declaration.  Abdul Bari is also chairman of the East London mosque, a masjid that has played host to numerous extremists and has links to the Jamaat too.

John Esposito is a well-known American academic sympathetic to the Brotherhood.

Basheer Nafi is a member of the Brothers who has written books published by the Brotherhood publishing house, Dar el-Shorouq, and was arrested by federal US Immigration Service agents and charged with immigration fraud. He was considered an active leader of the Islamic Jihad terrorist organisation working for a network of academic front groups, and was linked as well to the Islamist militant group Hamas.  He eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser violation of his visa status, and was deported and barred from entering the U.S. for five years.

But perhaps most startling of all, we find this:

We also wish to thank the trustees of Islam Expo and the Cordoba Foundation who have provided the funding to launch the European Muslim Research Centre (EMRC) and enabled us to carry out the research for this report.

Islam Expo‘s founding members include Mohamed Sawalha, the fugitive Hamas commander and co-founder of the Muslim Brotherhood front, the Muslim Association of Britain.  Cordoba are, of course, run by al-Tikriti.

How could anyone take this report’s conclusions seriously?

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