Despite the attack at a London mosque, we must expose the jihadist lie that the West is Islamophobic and take pride in our open society
The setting was identical. A sombre prime minister dressed in black reading statements from the Number Ten lectern. The attempt at mass murder of Muslims by a white driver was a “sickening attempt to destroy” our freedoms — just as the attempt at mass murder of non-Muslims by the brown driver had been a fortnight earlier.
And the solution? “As I said here two weeks ago, there has been far too much tolerance of extremism in our country over many years. And that means extremism of any kind, including Islamophobia.”
On a day when a non-Muslim attempted to mow down Muslims only to then boast about it, it’s understandable that Mrs May would wish to reassure Muslims of her sincerity about protecting them when they so clearly believe that Islamophobia here is rampant — a perception not helped by parts of the press.
But have our institutions really been too tolerant of Islamophobia? No one, surely, could argue this or any other government has been soft about prosecuting people intent on murdering Muslims or blowing up mosques, or abusing them verbally or physically. The Muslim-hating organisation National Action has been banned, and, uniquely in respect of hate crimes, the law has also been changed in favour of the victim’s perception. The police must now record any incident as a hate crime if it is “perceived, by the victim or any other person” to be motivated by racial or religious prejudice. So if a victim believes hatred of Islam rather than anything else was the reason for the abuse, Islamophobia is how the police record it. When it comes to the government’s anti-extremism programme Prevent, the fact that almost a third of referrals now relate to far-Right extremism also suggests there is no institutional tolerance of Islamophobia.
There is, however, plenty of evidence of institutional timidity when it comes to dealing with Islamist extremism, even though its violent manifestation poses a much greater threat to the security and cohesion of this country than far-Right extremism. The reality is that Prevent only came into existence because of the threat posed by Islamist extremism.
Our institutional timidity at being candid about the main cause of violent Islamist extremism begins with academia. At some point in their radicalisation process, the three London Bridge cutthroats experienced empathy fadeout. Dead zones in the anterior insular cortex replaced the normal range of human emotions associated with fellow feeling and compassion. Gone, too, was their fear of pain from the police bullets they knew would be fired into them. They became zombies.
Since the 7/7 bombings, several academics have told us that this zombie psychosis is induced by one or any combination of the following: relative deprivation, alienation, feelings of humiliation, racism, mental illness and especially foreign policy. Glossy academic papers with footnotes and appendices seem to have concluded that Islamist terrorism is the only form of terrorism that has little to do with ideology.
Blaming “radical religious ideology” does “not stand up to scholarly scrutiny” asserts the poster boy for this assessment, Arun Kundnani, a British-born professor of terrorism and media studies in New York. “A growing body of academic work holds this position to be fundamentally flawed.”
No-one claims that ideology alone drives people to violence. But Kundnani seems to want to erase it altogether. He has been described by a government adviser as an “imbecile” who writes “intellectually lazy, retarded, tribal anti-establishment nonsense” and by the Times columnist David Aaronovitch as an “idiot”. Perhaps they have a point. Even Jeremy Corbyn acknowledged during the election campaign there was such a thing as “extremist ideology”.
What of Kundnani’s solution to violent extremism? He thinks non-violent extremists should have more of a platform: “Rather than a broad policy that seeks to criminalise or restrict extremist opinions . . . the best way of preventing terrorist violence is to widen the range of opinions that can be freely expressed, not restrict it.”
One reason for the UK armed forces having only half the number of Muslims as British jihadists who went to fight in Iraq and Syria, or were stopped from going there, is because extremists like Omar Bakri, Anjem Choudhary and some Muslim Brotherhood activists could preach whatever they wanted to here for over a decade.
Today, the “wide range of opinions” that Professor Kundnani wants to be “freely expressed” are espoused by a broad coalition of Salafi-Islamist organisations who do not incite violence. Indeed, some have expressed abhorrence at the recent attacks. They have, however, given a platform to and promoted preachers who are on record as having expressed non-violent but extreme views. Here’s a sample from nine preachers hosted by seven of Britain’s most influential Salafist-Islamist organisations:
On woman (“the nature of the woman is to follow her husband”); gay rights (a “disease”); Jews (“prophet killers”); human rights (“direct opposition to what Allah has revealed”); progressive Muslims (“brown sahibs . . . they’re regressive”); Sharia (“Allah commanded us to make his law superior to any other law”); citizenship (“your primary nation is the nation of Islam”); conspiracy theories (“attacks in the western world? . . . our enemies love it . . . an excuse to attack Islam”); Islamic punishments (“they’re a huge deterrent”); blasphemy (“anyone who insults the Prophet in a way which is extremely derogatory, the penalty is death”); Israel (“I truly respect, those brothers who are resistance fighters making jihad”); helping the police (“a Muslim is a brother to another Muslim . . . he does not hand him over to be imprisoned by anyone”).
The company you keep says a lot about you — and it also says something about the people who follow you. Between them, these seven organisations have Facebook followings of 824,000. One of the preachers — who has made venomous anti-Semitic remarks — has more than one million followers.
None of the above opinions are banned by law. But because it is so blindingly obvious that the language of violent extremists echoes some of these non-violent but extreme and intolerant ideas, for the first time in this country’s recent history, a British government has felt compelled to devise a formal policy to counter them.
How do we know that violent extremists make use of non- violent extreme ideas? How’s this for starters: “This is for Allah,” the London Bridge attackers yelled as they stabbed random victims. The fact that they may only have read an “idiot’s guide to Islam” is supremely irrelevant. As Hannah Stuart, joint head the Security and Extremism Unit at Policy Exchange, has explained, conflating theology with ideology completely misunderstands the issue. Just because young jihadists are ignorant of one “ology” (theology) doesn’t mean they aren’t driven by the other “ology” (ideology) — the simple notion that the West hates Islam and is determined to undermine the global Muslim umma, which is entitled to retaliate. That’s why they see themselves so perversely as “the truest” of Muslims acting on behalf of their co-religionists. What’s that but ideology?
We confronted this ideology in Afghanistan in 2001 with American B-52 bombers and special forces followed by the deaths of a lot of very brave British men and women to prevent al-Qaeda from recovering its foothold there—only for IS to supersede them, to say nothing of the vastly greater and continuing death toll of Afghan security forces and civilians.
But it is an ideology that here at home, by and large, our elected representatives, much of academia, leaders of public institutions, the churches and pockets of the BBC have been slow to square up to in open debate. Why, one might ask, when these non-violent ideas violate our own mores, and their violent manifestation is so pernicious, vicious and backward?
Our reluctance to confront the regressive culture and ideas that underpin violent extremism has been apparent since the anti-Salman Rushdie rallies in 1989. On 28 May that year more than 70 British Muslims were arrested as a 20,000-strong mob descended on Parliament. They waved banners and shouted slogans like “Rushdie must die” with effigies of the writer hanging from a gallows. We looked on in horror as we realised then that some migrants to this country had brought with them a lot more than just their possessions: a total lack of understanding about how dissent was ultimately the only guarantor of religious freedom, including theirs, but also that there were limits.
Or were there? The mob only moved on after the police capitulated by agreeing to release those arrested. A newly-elected Labour MP, Keith Vaz, demanded Rushdie and his publisher, Viking Penguin, withdraw The Satanic Verses from circulation in Britain. Nearly 30 years later, we remain, says the Prime Minister, “far too tolerant” of those versions of Islam which are incompatible with a liberal 21st-century democracy.
Since then, the Muslim population has more than quadrupled, to over 3 million, so it is even more important that we understand this ideology for what it is. The security services are currently wrestling with 500 investigations into 3,000 individuals. A further 20,000 are said to have been “subjects of interest”. “It is time to say enough is enough,” Mrs May said in response to the London Bridge attacks, the third act of mass murder here by Islamist terrorists in as many months. What exactly did she mean? “We’re tired of the hand-wringing,” a prime ministerial aide explained to me, tired of agonising over whether plain speaking about the causes and solutions to Islamist terrorism will cause cultural and religious offence.
After all that has happened, there remains both a naivety and queasiness about speaking frankly in this country. Why, when violent Islamist extremism has so much in common with the knuckle-brained far-right ideology of the traditional shaven-haired sort — intolerance, racism, boot boy violence? Sara Khan, the courageous British Muslim director of the counter-extremism organisation Inspire, explains why. “We have lacked the confidence to challenge” the Salafi-Islamist organisations promoting these extremist ideas, she says, even though we have never lacked the confidence to tackle the traditional far-Right. What accounts for this double standard seems pretty clear: anxiety about being accused of Islamophobia — of being branded a “bad” person even though, if you are gay or Jewish or a woman, fear of much of Islamist ideology is entirely rational. As a result, the Islamic far-Right has thrived.
That’s why Mrs May said that “stamping out” extremism would “require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations”. We need to become “far more robust in identifying it . . . across the public sector and across society,” especially NGOs, churches, sections of the media and politicians.
One of those difficult conversations is reaching agreement on what exactly extremism is. The government defines it as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. Extremism also includes calls for the death of members of the armed forces.”
Opponents of the government’s counter-extremism strategy seem to relish pointing out that those values are not unique to Britain and also to keep tagging them as “British” is “hierarchal”. Typical is the comment from the Franco-British academic and journalist Myriam François-Cerrah: the term “British values”, she says, smacks of a “very privileged white male in Whitehall dictating to brown people in Birmingham what it means to be British and that is bound up in power”. Jeremy Corbyn has also challenged “the notion that human rights is somehow or other something based on Romano-Christian law based on Europe rather than the rest of the world.”
It’s true, of course, that “British values” as defined are essentially Western and enlightened values, but Western civilisation is itself based on Christianity, which enshrines individualism and freedom. And these values are surely unique to Britain in at least one respect: we have shown ourselves to be far more tolerant of cultural, race and religious difference than many other Western countries who would also lay claim to them.
In her statement trying to reassure Muslims of government protection following the van attack, Mrs May again spoke about values — but this time conspicuously left off the “British” tag.
The alternative to defining our values as especially British is a diffuse mush with nothing particularly special to defend at all, as former prison governor Ian Acheson found last year in his review for the Justice Department of Islamist extremism within the prison service. Like the rest of the public sector, prisons are now under a legal obligation to promote British values. Acheson says that when he raised this with senior prison management, “Some of them looked at me with disdain. ‘Perhaps we’d call them European values,’ said one.”
This kind of institutional timidity also explains why in 2006 a report found that only a third of teachers felt confident teaching in a multi-cultural school. “Am I offending anybody because of my own ignorance?” was the prevailing sentiment of the staff. We have become almost crippled by our lack of confidence in giving a positive account ourselves which is why under David Cameron, the government urged us to start fighting “the battle of ideas”. We have yet to find the courage or the confidence to wage it.
We could start by ending double standards. There was outrage at the government’s decision to seek a pact with the Democratic Unionist Party because of its opposition to gay rights and abortion. A petition against the pact attracted almost half a million signatures in 24 hours. Yet the DUP’s social conservatism is mild compared to that advocated by preachers promoted by many Islamist groups in Britain. Politicians have sometimes shared platforms with Islamist homophobes — like the Conservative peer Baroness Warsi, who appeared with two rampant Islamist homophobes at a 2015 fundraising dinner for an Islamist activist organisation. One speaker had previously referred to homosexuality as a “perversion”; the other had said, “Kill the homosexual . . . if you ridicule, you curse Allah and his Messenger, the punishment for that is death.”
Enough, too, of double standards over calling terrorism for what it is. When jihadists mow down British civilians on London Bridge, and then go on a wild stabbing spree, the BBC reports it as a “terror attack” plain and simple; when a Palestinian mows down Israeli civilians in Jerusalem, it’s described as “what police call a terror attack”.
What about the inflammatory half-truths perpetuated by these Salafi-Islamist organisations about the victimhood of Muslims at the hands of non-Muslims? They also help to radicalise Muslims because they help keep them angry.
For well over a decade now, we have been told that Britain has developed an irrational hatred of Islam to the point of being “institutionalised”. It’s true that after Islamist terror attacks, there are completely unacceptable spikes in anti-Islam related incidents, like the recent oxymoronically named “UK Against Hate” march in Manchester organised by ex EDL leader Tommy Robinson where a pig’s head was provocatively eaten. Some protestors shouted “Our streets” and “You’re not English anymore.”
But it’s also true that Pakistani and Bangladeshi youngsters now have entrance rates to Russell Group universities as high as the white British, despite the former’s (generally) poorer and culturally separate backgrounds. Statistics quoted by some Islamist organisations about the scale of Islamophobia seem alarmist and there is a real danger from playing politics with the fears of ordinary Muslims. Britain is an open society, and if we blindly accept such claims without rigorous scrutiny the bleak vista they promote could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If young Muslims keep being told their own country hates them, they will become even more inward-looking, they won’t apply for jobs and Britain will become even more divided than it already is.
As London Mayor, Boris Johnson was right to round on the Salafi-Islamist lobby group Cage for “crying Islamophobia” instead of directing their “wrath . . . on people who go out to join groups that throw gays off cliffs, that behead people who don’t subscribe to their version of Islam, that glorify in the execution of innocent journalists and aid workers”.
But no. While organisations like Cage have condemned the recent terror attacks, they’ve kept their collective spotlight trained tightly on Islamophobia because it is such powerful ammunition for their priority target: discrediting the government’s counter-radicalisation programme, Prevent, as a state spying operation against Muslims.
Prevent is aimed at stopping those who are vulnerable to radicalisation from being drawn into terrorism. Ever since it was introduced more than a decade ago, a broad swath of Islamist organisations have campaigned to get Prevent and every other single piece of terrorist legislation scrapped. What kind of message does that send?
The public sector is now under a statutory duty to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. This has led to some Muslim schoolchildren being referred to special local authority panels for assessment as to whether they are at risk of being radicalised. If so, they are offered counselling with Home Office-appointed mentors under another programme called Channel. Some mentors have themselves been extremists.
The 2015 Act has been a gift to the anti-Prevent alliance. Before it was passed, Prevent was given the standard “racist-Islamophobic” treatment. Now that the public sector has a legal duty to be alert for signs of radicalisation (for which staff get training), it has become a “state snooping campaign” against Muslims. So there is a political purpose to the relentless focus of these Salafi-Islamist organisations on Islamophobia. It gives credence to their main charge against Prevent — that institutionalised Islamophobia has led to a state-sponsored spying programme, inspired by “Zionists” and “neo-cons”.
If that is true, why are almost one third of Prevent referrals to the Channel radicalisation programme being directed at non-Muslims — namely the traditional far Right? There’s no evidence that Prevent has ever been intended as a spying programme against Muslims. Indeed, government guidance states: “The Prevent programme must not involve any covert activity against people or communities.” Prevent is a safeguarding programme, as the Muslim parents of those children who have been talked out of wanting to go to Iraq and Syria would agree.
Inevitably, under Prevent there have been some clumsy referrals, with conservative Islamic practices mistaken for possible signs of radicalisation. But it’s also true that some have turned out not to be quite as clumsy as Prevent’s opponents have willed them to be. And half of all far-Right referrals are also under 18.
Recent comments by Home Secretary Amber Rudd have also been wilfully misconstrued. Responding to criticism on BBC Question Time that cuts to police numbers had led to a reduction in low-level intelligence, she replied: “We get the intelligence much more from the Prevent strategy, which engages with local community groups, not through the police.”
A Cage commentator has presented this as government confirmation of their state spying charge: “The current Home Secretary has now finally admitted Prevent is essentially an intelligence gathering exercise, used to spy on the Muslim community.” What Ms Rudd actually meant was that the intelligence was coming from those civic-minded Muslims who were engaging with Prevent.
So enough of the “state spying” smear, and enough too of the myth that this smear is designed to perpetuate: that terrorist outrages like Manchester and London have nothing to do with Islam. We are forever told there is nothing in Islam to justify this or that atrocity, and it is perfectly true there is nothing within classical Sunni Islamic jurisprudence that endorses such conduct. Sceptics should read A Guide to Refuting Jihadism, written by Rashad Ali and Hannah Stuart, which debunks the claims of modern jihadists and shows that classical Islam’s rules and ethics of warfare broadly mirror the Geneva Convention.
But it is also true that there are many Islams, which is why there manifestly is a problem within Islam which, as Tony Blair has said, is a strain of Islam that is not simply the “province of a few extremists”. It “goes deeper and wider than it is comfortable for us to admit. So by and large we don’t admit it.” But it is time that we admitted how deep and wide is our state of denial — starting with Manchester’s newly- elected Mayor Andy Burnham when he, like so many non-Muslim leaders before him, parroted that the genocidal attack on children at the Ariana Grande concert had “nothing to do with Islam”. If that was true, why do the perpetrators keep coming back to the religious texts? On his WhatsApp profile, one of the London Bridge murderers, Khuram Butt, wrote: “Allah says (Quran 94:6) — Indeed, with hardship, comes ease.” When anti-terror police raided the bedsit Butt and his accomplices had used they found an English-language copy of the Koran opened at a page describing martyrdom.
However hurtful this may be to the majority of Muslims who are just as sickened by Manchester and London as the rest of us, there surely ought to be an end to the repeated denials that such atrocities have anything to do with Islam. They have everything to do with the crisis within Islam, and the more that crisis can be talked about in an open and honest way, the sooner there might be some resolution to it — an outcome not helped by the full-on moral relativism from the likes of “Thought for the Day”’s Dr Giles Fraser. He says he has a problem with people thinking “the Koran is a particularly violent book and that somehow causes some sort of violence” whereas “the Bible itself is a particularly violent book and that doesn’t create the same sort of thing.”
It’s true that the Old Testament has some terrible verses but they aren’t being used today to justify havoc and grief worldwide. There is not a network of private schools and priests, study groups, political activists and global satellite channels inculcating division and hate to the point where cells of warrior Christians are slaughtering innocent people on a near-daily basis.
Viewed through their modern ideological prism, jihadists do justify their appalling violence by reference to the Koran’s warlike verses, despite their reasoning having been challenged by classical Islamic theology and jurisprudence.
That ideological prism — from the 7/7 jihadists, to the slaughterers of Private Lee Rigby, to the Westminster jihadist Khalid Masood and the Manchester bombing — all claim foreign policy as their justification, just as Osama bin-Laden did when he spoke of the “humiliation” suffered by Muslims at the hands of the West since Sykes-Picot, the 1916 Anglo-French agreement that carved up the Ottoman empire.
But things have also moved on. It was the West that came to the rescue of Muslims in eastern Europe after the break-up of Yugoslavia; and it was the West that liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein.
Foreign policy is not the root cause of the violence and nihilism now being inflicted on us. If it was, what is the reason for its daily occurrence in Arab and other Muslim countries? Anti-Western sentiment is the root cause, fuelled by lies about how the West hates Muslims and by theological interpretations of Islam that have created a divisive “them and us” worldview. After the van attack on Muslims here, it is easy think this might be true — but the vast majority of British non-Muslims will not fall into the trap set by bigotry begetting bigotry. As for poor theology, that is a challenge which lies squarely with British Muslim community leaders. But non-Muslims also have a massive stake in these leaders fashioning a version of Islam that is compatible with the mainstream majority if we are ever to have a truly shared citizenship and an end to both far Rights — Islamist and traditional.
This may take decades, yet now we seem set for another false start. In its election manifesto, the government sounded as if it was going to put real political heft into calling time on the ingrained timidity that has inhibited this country’s institutions from asserting pride and confidence in, yes, British values. They are indeed superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.
Instead, the Conservative Party has recklessly and selfishly allowed a poisonous family quarrel over Europe to become a suicide pact — and now risks letting in a Labour leader whose entire political career has been stimulated by disdain for the West, appeasement of extremism, and who would barely understand what fighting for the revival of British values is really all about.