Islamists via A Tribe Called Quest

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)‘, Steve Biko (Stir it Up) and ‘8 Million Stories‘ by A Tribe Called Quest.

Islamists have made the news for very different reasons over the last week.  Broadly speaking, Islamism can be taken to mean the promotion of Islam as a political, not just religious, system.  Islam is seen as governing every aspect of human life: the personal is political.  Such groups generally promote the institutionalisation of shariah law.  Some also propound pan-Islamic ideals such as the resurrection of the caliphate.  There are many, many variants, from moderates to jihadis.  Unfortunately in the west there is a tendency to associate the term with the latter most of the time, obscuring the pluralism of Islamism and the reasonable perspectives of some who fall under its rubric.

I don’t know much about Islamist music (if there is any), or even Islamic music (my loss, no doubt).  So accompanying this post is one of my favourite groups with Muslim members (tenuous, I know): A Tribe Called Quest.  A Tribe Called Quest fall under the broad category of hip-hop.  They don’t however have a lot in common with the present-day artists that spring instantly to mind with that tag.  You could consider them hip-hop moderates.  Their songs don’t deal with gang violence, they aren’t known for displaying overt markers of affluence (read bling) and their videos don’t feature scantily clad gyraters.  Instead their beats are low-tempo, their rhymes smooth and laid back and their lyrics sensitive.  They even throw in shout outs to Muhammad (or maybe they’re to member DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad).

Results in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections came out this week.  It was good news for the grand daddies of the modern Islamist movement, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.  Their political party offshoot, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), won 213 of the 498 seats contested.  Another Islamist party – the Salafist Al-Nour party – came in second with 123 seats.

Victory for the Muslim Brotherhood in these elections was widely predicted (Al-Nour’s success came as something more of a surprise).  Before Mubarak’s downfall the Brotherhood was illegal and its candidates had to stand as independents.  In the June 2010 polls those independents did not win a single seat.  Official turnout for those elections was said to be 14 percent; analysts believe it was as low as 10 percent.  The current elections, held over seven weeks, had a turnout of around 60 percent.

The relationship between Islamism and democracy is a fascinating one, and it will be interesting to see whether democratic legitmisation ‘normalises’ the Brotherhood, or whether they ‘Islamise’ Egypt’s burgeoning democracy (or both).  The first session of the new parliament was held on Monday and it was an entertaining start.  While members of the public danced on the street outside to celebrate their first freely (although the degree of freedom is disputed) elected government in over six decades, things got increasingly unruly inside with lawmakers attempting to pledge allegiance to the revolution or to Islamic Law rather than to Egypt, a bitter dispute over the election of the speaker and a lot of yelling.

One final point of interest is that, unlike previous Islamists elected into power (think Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon), the United States is taking some very tentative steps toward engagement with the Brotherhood.

It was revealed last week that things did not go as planned for a shadowy group of Bangladeshi Islamists whose plan to depose the elected government was foiled.  Up to 16 serving and retired military officers were involved in the coup attempt.  All but one has been detained.  Two of those arrested have said they have links with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an international pan-Islamic organisation banned in Bangladesh by the current government in 2009.

Islam is the state religion in Bangladesh but the current government made a controversial amendment to the constitution last year re-establishing secularism as one of the four pillars of the state.  While the state’s success fending off the threat was bad for the plotters, it isn’t exactly good for the Awami League government which comes off looking besieged (a similar attempt was made in 2009).  The fact the threat came from the military is particularly concerning. Analysts believe radical Islamism in the Bangladeshi armed forces is widespread and growing.

The ever more prolific Boko Haram struck again in an ugly series of bomb attacks and armed assaults in the city of Kano in Nigeria’s (largely Muslim) north last Friday.  Over 200 people were killed in the attacks which appeared to target police.  Two days later the group bombed two empty churches and a police station further south and attempted to rob a bank.  Two days later again Boko Haram reportedly attacked another police station, this time with hand weapons and grenades.

It turns out the name Boko Haram is not a nod to prog rock but translates to “Western education is forbidden”.  Some believe the group has links to transnational Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda or Somalia’s al-Shabaab.  Others think its gripes are less ideological or pan-Islamic and more local and economic.  It is difficult to know because the group does not have stated demands.  It has been suggested that beyond a small group of hardcore Islamists in the group’s northern heartland, the name Boko Haram is used by any number of diverse groups, including criminals, for a variety of ends.

Boko Haram is not even Nigeria’s biggest problem at the moment (that honour probably goes to the tussle over petrol subsidies).  And no one is yet talking about the prospect of Islamist forces taking over Nigeria.  But Boko Haram is at the very least a scary manifestation of the divisive identity politics that continue to weigh the country – a country that is Africa’s most populous and that has incredible economic potential – down.

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