Underrated: Sara Khan
A courageous Muslim campaigner for women’s rights who faces misogyny, intolerance and extremism
An unwitting question from a Woman’s Hour presenter began a new fight for Sara Khan.
“Are you a government stooge?”
As she pondered her reply, Khan might have reflected that she had more than enough fights on her hands already.
Until the London bombings of 2005, she had given the appearance of being a conventionally successful member of the liberal middle class. She had a degree and career in pharmacy, and a husband and two children. She also had an enviable ability to deliver a principled argument in a cheerful and straightforward manner. In 2009, she abandoned her comfortable life and put her talent for tackling abuses she saw around her to good use. She founded the campaign group Inspire to persuade Muslim women to stand up against religious misogyny. Surely all reasonable people would agree with that. What else could they do?
The “bastardisations of Islam” — Wahhabism and Salafism — had “stolen my faith,” she said in 2015. “Muslim women needed to be told by other Muslim women that they need not bow their heads and indeed cover their heads before religious conservatives.” So far, so traditional. With slight changes of emphasis, liberal Christians and Jews could have used her criticisms against their own conservatives.
The arrival of Islamic State gave her an opponent no liberal from another faith had to face. IS was persuading girls to come to Syria to be abused and abuse others. “I too am British and Muslim,” Khan said in a widely-read open letter to Muslim schoolgirls. “You are being lied to in the wickedest of ways.”
The comparison between religious militants and paedophiles is obvious. When girls are groomed and exploited no one would object if a mother were to organise a campaign against the abusers and demand the support of the British state. Khan was not just enlisting the support of Theresa May and other politicians to protect girls, but their families too. Just as all parents do not want to hear that their children have been raped, Muslim parents do not want to hear that their daughters have risked and in many cases lost their lives by being lured from British schools to Syria.
As with campaigns against conventional child abuse, Khan’s work was both crime prevention and social work. Naturally, she supported the government’s attempts via the Prevent programme to stop children being radicalised. Indeed she would be outraged if this or any other government was not trying to stop grooming, as anyone else would be outraged if the government were to announce it had instructed the police to lay off paedophiles.
For this she is hated. Naz Shah, whom gullible Labour supporters accept as a repentant Islamist, says that Inspire is one of “the most loathed organisations amongst Muslim communities”, and should face questions from parliament about its role in supporting the government’s counter-extremism strategy. Obscurantist websites such as 5Pillars devote vast energy to attacking her. She has been vilified, threatened and, most ominously, given the death sentence-provoking label of “apostate”.
But, for her, the most telling moment came when she appeared on Woman’s Hour to hear a presenter ask her, “Are you a government stooge?” Supposed feminists, who cried to high heaven about the oppression of women with white skins, were neutral about the oppression of women with brown skins.
Would Woman’s Hour wonder if a feminist demanding that the government prosecute rapists was a state “stooge”? Would it imply that Christian or Jewish feminists fighting their own conservatives were stoolpigeons or traitors? As the Prevent programme also targets children who are being groomed by white fascist movements, would it go along with the British National Party or English Defence League if they described Prevent supporters as “stooges”? The question should not just be directed at the BBC. The far Left, which now includes the leadership of the Labour party, along with the National Union of Teachers, opposes stopping the Muslim far Right grooming children. Both scream blue murder when the white far Right is mentioned.
For all the recognition she has received, and Khan has been widely honoured, at the root of the difficulty this impeccable liberal faces is the belief in wider liberal society that it can stand aloof from the struggles within British Islam. It is undoubtedly true that on the spectrum that begins with religious conservatives and ends in Raqqa, there are many Muslims who believe that the only problems worth addressing are Islamophobia, British foreign policy and the onerous — to their minds — demands of a secular society.
Khan and her allies say you have a choice. Either you support the extremists and their apologists or you defend women’s rights and liberal values. She should be honoured, because she never allows mainstream society to pretend that the choice does not exist or that it can get away with ducking it.