>Starting the week: Islam and ‘democratic geo-politics’

> Andrew Marr’s Start the Week on Radio 4 is as interesting as ever today bringing together disgraced-then-rehabilitated Dutch liberal MP and critic of IslamAyaan Hirshi Ali , someone from the British
thinktank the Henry Jackson Society – supporters a sort of cleaned up neo-con foreign policy shorn of embarrassing associations with Bush and Blair, which they term ‘democratic geo-politics’ – very much on the wavelength of the ‘muscular liberals’ of the Euston Manifesto – and left-wing comedian, provocateur and anti-arms trade campaigner, Mark Thomas, who I had assumed was anti intervention in Iraq and, as far as I remember, a Socialist Alliance and then Respect supporter, although this wasn’t much in evidence on the programme.

The discussion was curiously civilized and restrained – Hirshi Ali argued that Islam was very largely a religious distillation of the cultural practices of Arab tribes. The West she says in her new book should promote the transformation and modernization of Islam through the taking up of enlightenment values. Western governments are too accommodating to such anti-liberal values because of cultural cringe and multi-culturalism.

A similar argument is presented in the Observer by Nick Cohen, who notes the FCO’s incompetent efforts in what is essentially a strategy of co-optation to distinguish ‘moderate’ from ‘extreme’ Muslim figures and organization. Even the ‘moderates’ are pretty conservative and illiberal, in many cases.

Hishi Ali was personally very impressive – perhaps why Mark Thomas did not lay into her as one might have expected. The problem with both her and Cohen’s argument however, is that rational enlightenment argument – especially in the short-medium term – is not going to effect a sudden transformation in the beliefs and values of politically organized Muslims (who may, of course, be unrepresentative) in the UK, or indeed elsewhere. Indeed, the type of ‘muscular’ approach endorsed by Hirshi Ali and Cohen seems likely to have no effect or to energise precisely the forces they want to demobilize– as Karen Armstrong argument that fundamentalisms are a modern, anti-modern backlash suggests.

This was complemented by the HJS’s presentation of arguments from its new manifesto The British Moment, although as Mark Thomas astutely observed why if democratic geo-politics (which seems a codeword for liberal imperialism) is rooted in the British tradition ) name yourself after a figure like Scoop Jackson, who no one has heard of in Britain. The argument that any other title would prevent a non-partisan rallying to the cause, but then why not just call it the Centre for Democratic Geopolitics?

Perhaps there are American funders who want the Society’s the transatlantic link underlined. Here too, I felt awkward issues were not raised. Does ‘democratic geo-politics’ entail the use of external force, as the pairing of the two words suggests? Given the limitations of resources available for democratic geo-politics Marr suggested the Gladstone Society, but wasn’t W E Gladstone sceptic about Empire despite – or because? – of his support for a C19th ethnical foreign policy. The John Stewart Mill Society would be nearer the mark, but perhaps a little too candid, given JSM’s Victorian candour on the subject

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