The intolerance of Islamist politics

9 Apr 2013 by CST

A new publication from the Cordoba Foundation, a UK-based think tank that is generally supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, lays bare the sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that currently divide the Middle East, and the associated intolerance at the heart of Islamist politics. It also shows how Iran's reputation has been transformed, via the Syrian crisis, from an ally of Sunni Islamists to a mistrusted adversary.

Called Arab and Muslim National Security: Debating the Iranian Dimension, the paper is a summary of a debate hosted by the Cordoba Foundation for "a group of prominent and influential Islamic figures, comprising of activists, leaders, thinkers and scholars from different backgrounds". The group discussed the concept of Arab or Muslim national security now that Islamist movements are in power, or close to it, in several countries; and how they should relate to Iran. The participants are not named in the paper and consequently the comments in the debate are all anonymous.

The primary theme is that Iran uses its Shiite identity to pose a grave cultural, demographic and political threat to Sunni Arab states, and thereby threatens their security.

A secondary theme is that Islamist movements need to coordinate better, both in their theoretical understanding of national security and in their actual policies. One participant notes that the UK used to be the location for precisely this coordination:

Prior to the Arab Spring, there was a political apparatus in the UK regulating and coordinating, albeit quite loosely, the work of the Islamic movements but that is no longer the case although the need of such an apparatus now is more than ever.

What is most striking about the debate as reported in the Cordoba Foundation paper is the level of sheer contempt amongst some of the participants for Shiite beliefs, and the suspicion that falls on all Shiite Muslims as a result:

Threats to national security are those that represent an existential danger to country or a population, not a system of government. A group of people converting from one religion to another would constitute a great demographic threat that could give rise to sectarian and intellectual conflict. Such demographic pockets in some Arab countries pose a threat to society regardless of how small they are.


The difference between the US and Iran is that the former and its agents are rejected by our societies but Iran infiltrates through people who carry out its agenda under the cover of religion with the aim of destroying our history, religion and culture.


We need cultural programmes that would protect Muslim societies and similar approaches to reform Shiite thought if at all possible. We should strive to encourage Shiites to rethink many of their theories and approaches if they wished to avoid conflict and play a positive role in the region.


We are not worried about Iran’s cultural project because it is irrational and holds a belief system too absurd to attract anyone. It is the demographic expansion, such as the one in Syria that we should be worried about.


It is in the very nature of Shiite thought to reject any other identity. It thrives on disagreements and differences with other sects and is constantly in search for a political being.


We are all in agreement that Iran has a sectarian, ethnic, Persian agenda and that it buys people's loyalties and leaders in the Muslim world. If we had our own agenda, we would be doing the same.

This narrative of a demographic threat to a society posed by religious conversions, or of people of strange belief using religion as a cover to fundamentally change a national culture, is reminiscent of the anti-Muslim propaganda of the English Defence League or the British National Party. And this, astonishingly, is how the participants spoke about fellow Muslims.

Just the framing of the debate in religious terms is revealing:

In contemplating the relationship between Iran and the Islamic movements in the Arab world there is very little to prevent the latter from organising the tenets of this relationship from a religious, Sunni perspective. The real dilemma, however, lies in the wheels of history which has pulled the world much closer to a modern democratic state with very little role for religion and religious discourse. Iran, on other hand, draws upon history and past events to revive sectarian belief systems in many Arab countries as part of its efforts to shore up its political influence through religious sectarianism.

A definition of national security that includes cultural or religious security is counterposed to existing global human rights standards  that treat religion as a personal matter, but which, the paper claims, Western nations are also questioning due to changes within their own societies:

Conversely, should we adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principles of democracy and UN resolutions whose own Enlightenment project championed faith as a purely personal matter. It is worth noting that countries like France, the US and Britain are revisiting their own Enlightenment-based modes of thinking due to a firm belief that these modes have negatively impacted their national security.

According to one participant, Western countries are coming to accept the concept of "cultural security" as a result of  immigration:

Democratic countries usually avoid references to cultural security allowing for more individual freedoms, what Western politicians fondly refer to as “the Western way of life”. A sudden realisation that local cultures are losing ground to immigrant cultures and religions has prompted Europe and the US to reconsider their original position on the matter especially in light of the  fact that most Westerners are not very keen on the religious aspects of their identities.

Iran, the paper claims, has wrought demographic and religious changes in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Turkey, all examples of its threat to "Arab national security". Furthermore, it has gained "strategic victories" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Yemen and eastern Saudi Arabia, which is "almost under the sway of the Iranian government."

Some participants warned that it would be a mistake to treat Iran as an equal threat to Israel and the United States, but others argue that it poses an even greater threat than those two traditional enemies, precisely because its threat is cultural and religious. One relays a remark from an Iraqi military leader that while the US was an occupying force in Iraq, "the bigger threat comes from Iran which has sought to change the cultural and religious identity of Iraq by gradually controlling all its institutions."

Others warned that the political realities of leadership mean that Islamist movements, and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have to find a way to engage with Iran. Last month's revival of direct flights between Cairo and Tehran, after a break of 34 years, is one example of this.

A couple of participants made the excuse for Iran that it has fallen for a Western trap to sow hatred between Sunnis and Shiites, but others argued that Iran knowingly colludes with Western countries, and even Israel, "to launch attacks against Arab and Muslim countries to alter their religious identities."

It was not always this way. Twenty years ago, in November 1993, the now-defunct Muslim Parliament held a conference in London on 'Bosnia and the Global Islamic Movement', a concept with Iran at its heart. Kalim Siddiqui, who ran the Muslim Parliament, was a strong supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran and is even credited with having come up with the idea of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. In the Muslim Parliament's own account, at the conference:

Hizbullah stood shoulder to shoulder to FIS, Al-Nahda of Tunisia stood alongside PAS from Malaysia; and the Sudanese Ikhwan stood alongside those from revolutionary Iran. Representatives from the Islamic Movement of Bosnia and the Balkan republics were also present in force, together with those from the US and Canada across to Central Asia and South Africa...The conference was quite truly a microcosm of the Ummah.

The collapse of this unity is best illustrated by the report in last week's Times (£) that Hamas fighters in Damascus are training the Free Syrian Army to bring down President Assad of Syria, while Hizbollah sends increasing numbers of fighters to defend his rule. Behind both stand the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, respectively.

Any reduction in the global influence of Iran is to be welcomed. Iranian state media routinely promotes vile antisemitism and Holocaust Denial, while their foreign policy includes terrorism against disapora Jewish communities. But opposition to Iranian policy should never stretch to this kind of religious bigotry. One participant in the Cordoba-run debate pointed out that "The raison d'etre of the Islamic Movement is essentially political". This is true; and in this form it represents a type of politics with intolerance at its core.

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