The prime minister of Great Britain, Boris Johnson, is stepping down following a number of controversies while in office. As a result, eleven Conservative members of Parliament put their names into the ring to replace him and become the next prime minister. Three are left.
The initial roster was no ordinary field of candidates — but the most ethnically diverse one in history. Three of the initial 11 candidates — Sajid Javid, Rehman Chishti and Nadhim Zahawi — come from Muslim backgrounds.
Of the three Muslim-background candidates who put their hat in the ring, Sajid Javid, the son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants whose father was a bus driver and his mother a housewife, is the most explicitly and reliably anti-Islamist. Javid established his anti-Islamist bona fides in 2019 while serving as Home Secretary, when he blocked the return of Shamima Begum who had left the UK to join the Islamic State in Syria, marrying a Dutch-born fighter and giving birth to three children, all of whom sadly died.
Not only did he block Begum’s attempt to return to the UK after the collapse of the caliphate in 2019, he also revoked her citizenship. His rationale, based on intelligence reports, was that Begum was a security risk and that revoking her citizenship was conducive to the public good. Javid received quite a bit of backlash at the time from the left, the right, and the Islamist community. Fortunately, he ignored it.
Javid gave a sense of his attitude toward Islamism in 2015, while he was Business Secretary, when he urged British Muslims to challenge non-violent extremists who support the ideology of groups such as the Islamic State. He described Islamism as an ideology that is “antithetical to our way of life in a Western liberal democracy, and that has inspired countless attacks against innocent people.” Those are the words of a committed anti-Islamist
Rehman Chishti, a Pakistani born immigrant who came to the U.K. in 1984 at the age of six, can best be characterized as a non-Islamist Muslim who affirms the principle of religious freedom but seems a bit naïve about Islamism as a movement.
To demonstrate his commitment to religious pluralism, Chishti swore his oath of allegiance in Parliament using the Qur’an while keeping the Bible and the Torah with him. He wanted to demonstrate that despite being a Muslim, having respect for all faiths was essential to harmonious coexistence.
Chisti also campaigned for the release of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian mother accused of blasphemy in Pakistan. Chishti has also been an advocate for the rights of women and minority religious communities in Muslim-majority countries such as Afghanistan. For example, he wrote in the grassroots Conservative website, Con Home, that using mainstream Islamic teachings could help hold the Taliban to account. He also called on Al-Azhar University in Egypt to condemn the organization.
This is where Chisti falls short. In his call for Al-Azhar University to hold the Taliban to account, he describes the school as a “a widely respected and leading institutional authority on moderate Islamic thought.”
It is no such thing.
As Cynthia Farrahat reports, the school remains an outpost of Islamist opposition to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s attempts to modernize Egypt. Clearly, Chishti is no Islamist himself, but his reliability as a counter-Islamist is, for now, a bit questionable.
Of the three Muslim-background candidates, Nadhim Zahawi’s response to the threat of Islamism has been the most contradictory. Zahawi, who was born to a Kurdish family in Baghdad that fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the mid-1970s, offered mixed messages in response to the rise of Islamist movements in the Middle East during the Arab Spring.
On one hand, he expressed concern about the Islamist record of human rights abuses, support for terrorism and contempt for democracy. But on the other hand, he lauded Erdoğan’s Turkey as a “case study of an Islamist government which is sympathetic to our values and with whom we can do business,” declaring that “The AKP government has shown that Islam can play a role in public life while remaining respectful of a secular constitution.” Five years later, Zahawi boasted of having met personally with Erdoğan to speak about trade relations. Erdoğan is no committed secularist, having mobilized Turkey’s expatriate community to disrupt public life in Western democracies.
Closer to home, Zahawi has taken a tougher line against Islamism, chiding London Mayor Khan and then Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn for mainstreaming Islamists in 2016. “No one wishes to see Hamas being invited to Downing Street, or anti-Semites visiting City Hall,” Zahawi wrote, “and they have met with these people, and spoken alongside them on many occasions.”
The following year, however, Zahawi condemned U.S. President Trump for his so-called “Muslim ban,” (which was really a travel ban imposed on countries that posed espionage and terror threats to the United States).
The counter-Islamist credentials of the three Muslim-background candidates vary, but their willingness to speak openly about the issues is reassuring. But unless the diverse British Muslim community stands up with them and other politicians in their opposition to Islamism, the rest of the British public will be led to believe that either they don’t care, or that they agree with the Islamists. This is certainly not the case, but the community’s opposition needs to be shouted both at the top and at the grassroots after every opportunity.
Wasiq Wasiq is a journalist specializing in defense and terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter: @WasiqUK