BY ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS
In last week’s issue of the Spectator, Peter Oborne threw his weight behind a faction within the coalition government, headed by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who are urging David Cameron and some of his closest allies to reassess their current stance on the role Islamist groups should play both in the direction of British Islam and in the government’s counter-radicalisation efforts. He believes that Cameron’s neoconservative cabal in Whitehall has fundamentally misunderstood what constitutes extremist Islam, and is mistaken in its rejection of a wide array of British Islamist organisations. Instead, he thinks Cameron and his allies must understand that non-violent Islamist groups can act as a useful bulwark against violent extremism. As well as being flawed, his argument also reveals a surprisingly low opinion of Britain’s Muslims.
Oborne rightly identifies the “defining occasion” of this split as last year’s Global Peace and Unity (GPU) event at London’s Excel Centre. Warsi was prevented from attending by the Conservative party hierarchy due to their concerns about a strong Islamist influence over the event, apparently based on information in a briefing paper provided by Quilliam, a counter-extremism think-tank. Describing the event as “cheerful”, he clearly believes that this decision exemplifies a supposed neocon narrow-mindedness toward Islam.
It is not clear from his piece if Mr. Oborne in fact attended the GPU event, but his analysis of it suggests no more than a brief glance at their website and a few Youtube videos. I have been to the last two, and while the most recent one was a big improvement upon the last (largely due to heavy behind the scenes criticism from groups like Policy Exchange and Quilliam), I would characterise it rather differently. Although populated with a wide variety of Islamic groups, including the Minhaj ul-Quran, a group well known for its impassioned stance against suicide bombing and jihadism, the event was still dominated by a number of less than cheerful organisations.
At the stall for the UK Islamic Mission (UKIM), who print and disseminate the ideological works of Pakistan’s Jamaat e-Islami (JI), visitors were given free copies of texts written by two of the godfathers of Islamist thought, Sayyid Qutb and founder of the JI, Sayyed Abul A’ala Maududi. Indeed, JI supporters had a strong presence at the GPU, and in the event’s official brochure, two leading members of the Pakistani JI, Qazi Hussein Ahmed and Abdul Rashid Turabi, were listed as confirmed speakers, though only Turabi made an appearance after Ahmed was refused a visa by the Home Office. One of the event’s main sponsors was the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), a London-based Islamic centre which trains its members in the works of Maududi, and another one of the the organisations which Oborne claims is unfairly stigmatised by Cameron and his allies. One of its most senior members, Azad Ali, was filmed by Channel 4 last year telling his class that “democracy, if it means that, you know, at the expense of not implementing the sharia, of course no one agrees with that”. It is worth noting at this point that as well as being a totalitarian, Islamic supremacist political party, the JI was one of the main forces behind the marches in support of Mumtaz Qadri, who murdered Salman Taseer after the former Punjab Governor came out against the country’s blasphemy laws. The JI is also one of the main instigators of such acts in the country, repeatedly calling for the murder of those who “insult Islam”. During an interview in which the current leader of the JI, Syed Munawar Hasan, gave his unequivocal support to the killer, he said: “he [Qadri] has done what the people wanted to do regarding a person like Salman Taseer.”
The vast majority of the attendees of the GPU were, as Oborne describes, law-abiding and well integrated British Muslims, and here he inadvertently makes Quilliam’s arguments for them. The organisers of the GPU have a long record of Islamist activism, and the CEO of the event, Mohammed Ali Harrath, runs the Islam channel, a satellite channel populated mainly by hard-line Salafi preachers, with a generous sprinking of the hard-core Islamists of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Last year, OFCOM ruled that the channel broke broadcasting regulations after its presenters advocated marital rape and violence against women. Harrath, like other Islamist inspired organisations mentioned in the Quilliam briefing, seeks to gain legitimacy among Muslims and steer the direction of British Islam to suit a political-religious agenda. On their own, the sectarian, divisive and often violent ideological precepts of Islamism would be unpalatable to most British Muslims, but backed with government support, funding, and lavish events, the essence of their social engineering project becomes clouded and affords Islamists further influence within communities.
The GPU therefore offers a useful case study in the debate on the role of Islamism in British society. Cameron’s position is clear; though by no means seeking to ban or criminalise Islamists, he and his supporters have have drawn a line in the sand about what kind of views the British government wishes to endorse and lend legitimacy to. Organisations which support or promote the views of groups like the JI are, as far as Cameron is concerned, inappropriate partners for a secular, liberal government.
There is also a second, and perhaps more revealing, element to Oborne’s argument. If we are to believe what he suggests about the role of non-violent Islamists in preventing Muslims from violently expressing grievances, acting instead as a way to channel this anger into political activism, then we must also admit that we have far lower expectations of Muslims than we do of any other religious or ethnic group in the country. Under no other circumstances would supporters of extremist political groups be so highly touted due primarily to their rejection of violence; just imagine for a second if someone suggested to you that the best way to stop violent neo-Nazis from Combat 18 was to partner with the British National Party, an ostensibly non-violent political party. British Muslims are not, as Oborne seems to think, a single bloc of people waiting to turn to violence at the drop of a hat, and it is insulting to suggest that their best representatives are the Islamic equivalent of the BNP. In passing off the extreme and illiberal politics of Islamism as unproblematic, or as a vent for Muslim anger, Oborne unwittingly reinforces the essentialist stereotyping of Muslims that we are more used to seeing from far-right organisations like the BNP and English Defence League.
This attitude is perhaps best exemplified in Oborne’s defence of the East London Mosque (ELM), an institution described by a recent government report as “the key institution for the Bangladeshi wing of JI in the UK”. Exposed repeatedly as a veritable cornucopia of homophobic, anti-semitic, pro-jihad and sectarian preachers (including Anwar al-Awlaki, now of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), the ELM remains one of the most influential Islamic institutes in the country. It has successfully embedded itself into the local community and become an integral part of it, thus achieving precisely what many other Islamist organisations aspire to. Seemingly acknowledging that that the ELM has played host to a number of unpalatable people, Oborne argues: “Certainly unorthodox views are expressed, but this is because it plays an important role in enabling Muslims to vent their anger and frustrations.” It should first be pointed out that these “unorthodox views” (from the permissibility of killing homosexuals and adulterers, to the primacy of sharia law and a theocratic state) are more often than not coming from the individuals promoted by the mosque, and not the congregants. This also illustrates the inherent problem with Oborne’s position, as he assumes that the only thing stopping Muslims from blowing themselves up is a group of religious fundamentalists who are pushing a utopianist, political-religious ideology. In the same way an exasperated parent may park their unruly child in front of the television, Oborne patronisingly assumes that Muslims can somehow be distracted into behaving themselves by a succession of hard-line preachers and ideologues. Not for the Muslims, then, the intellectual pursuits of debate, discussion or critical thinking we would expect of any other member of a secular society, just give more power to the clerical fascist political movements and they’ll keep them quiet. Surely Britain’s Muslims deserve better than this?
Oborne’s implicit suggestion is that excluding and criticising organisations such as GPU, IFE and ELM should be categorised as “Islamophobic”. I would urge him to reassess his definition of this amorphous concept, as the supposed neocons are quite plainly exhibiting the polar opposite to an irrational fear of Muslims — they, very rightly, are holding British Muslims up to the same high standards as everyone else.