‘Secularizing Islamists’ – lessons for countering violent extremism


The experience of the Islamic political parties in North Africa shows that they are, just like non-Islamic parties, capable of change and adaptation to changing circumstances, says Mohammed Masbah, an analyst at Chatham House, the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs. The evolution of Tunisia’s Ennahda and Morocco’s PJD provides important lessons in secularization for the fight against extremism:

While the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood did not behave with the same degree of adaptation while it was in power, its exclusion from the political milieu following the removal of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 has only weakened the pragmatic elements within the movement. Designating it a terrorist entity would only further remove it from the influence of conventional politics.  The Tunisian Ennahda party or the Moroccan Party of Justice and Development (PJD) are both excellent examples of political inclusion, of taking the path towards secularization, and not just moderation. Since their ascendance to power in 2011, both parties have significantly shifted their ideological background and diluted the initial Islamic identity with pluralism and freedom of expression. Therefore, the Trump administration’s idea to label the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization would be a mistake that would undermine its potential for pragmatic evolution.

In Morocco, unlike in other Arab countries, Islamists and seculars tend to cooperate in formal as well as informal politics. Political opportunities and pragmatic interests trump ideology most of the time, providing a suitable environment for a broadly inclusive political order, Masbah contends:

However, two factors stand in the way of sustained cooperation between Islamist and secular currents: on the one hand, sporadic upsurges of identity politics, and on the other, the strategies of divide and rule traditionally pursued by the “Makhzen” and its close allies. Rather than focusing on a set of partners who appear at first to be compatible with their values, Europeans should promote an inclusive political process that integrates all actors with significant popular outreach, such as the social movement Jama’at Al-Adl wa-l-Ihsan (Justice and Charity Association, AWI).

But Islamist terrorism remains the principal terrorism threat to both the UK and British interests overseas, says the Henry Jackson Society, a think-tank working across borders and party lines to combat extremism, advance democracy and real human rights.

At the start of 2017, terrorism directed, approved or inspired by Islamic State posed the predominant threat to national security, while al-Qaeda and affiliate groups continue to aspire to attack Western interests, HJS analyst Hannah Stuart writes in Islamist Terrorism: Analysis of Offences and Attacks in the UK (1998-2015):

The report identifies and profiles all Islamism-inspired terrorism convictions and suicide attacks in the UK between 1998 and 2015 in order to provide detailed information and statistical analysis on the manifestation and development of the threat to British national security. Statistics include offenders’ background information, types of offences, roles and targets as well as the prevalence of links to terrorist networks and travel for terrorist purposes, including training and combat experience.


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