Analysis: Denham reveals how government's Islamist stance unresolved

Our interview with Communities Secretary John Denham illustrates that the British government’s stance on engagement with home-grown Islamism remains unresolved.

Mr Denham has made it clear that the Muslim Council of Britain will remain out in the cold while its deputy secretary general remains a signatory to the Istanbul declaration calling for attacks on Israel and the Royal Navy.

But there is still a tendency to engage for the sake of engagement. This is a departure from the position held by his two predecessors, Hazel Blears and Ruth Kelly, that there is no point in beginning the discussion until you know who you are talking to and what both sides want from the conversation.

The confusion has come about because of a tendency to impose models drawn from foreign policy on the domestic scene. While there may be a pragmatic need to engage Islamist groups in countries where they are among the only organised form of opposition to an oppressive regime, this does not apply here.

This thinking is exemplified by a new report from the left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, which has called for a fundamental revision of government policy towards Islamist groups in the Middle East and North Africa. Alex Glennie, the author of Building Bridges, Not Walls, concludes: “Occupying a middle ground between authoritarian regimes and the violent jihadists, they represent a political force that European and North American governments can no longer afford to ignore.”

As Islamist groups grow in influence across the region, it would be an act of criminal neglect to ignore them. But Glennie’s argument is that we should actively engage with groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Party of Justice and Development in Morocco and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan.

The view outlined by Glennie is shared by many senior officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who have been urging the establishment of diplomatic back channels to the Muslim Brotherhood for years. Supporters of this approach include John Sawers, then political director of the FCO. Sawers went on to become the UK’s permanent representative to the UN before being appointed head of MI6.

So is the “we must engage with non-violent Islamists” line the right one?

In some circumstances it may indeed be necessary for diplomats to engage with such groups, even when their political aim is to instal an Islamic state. But the model is completely inappropriate for Britain, where Islamism has no relevance to civil society and should be treated as the reactionary, separatist ideology it really is.

A version of this article also appears at the Guardian's Comment is Free

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010