Friday 20 February 2015
More British Muslims are members of the Islamic State (ISIS) than are soldiers in the British Army. ISIS has reached the height of its popularity: it has expanded into North Africa and it has replacements ready for when its fighters are killed (despite the inevitability of an internal power struggle). Less is known about the composition of other Jihadist groups in the region, like Jabhat al-Nusra, which Brits are also joining: regardless, it is indisputable that the danger of radicalisation in British Muslim homes is real.
On 13 January, the BBC current affairs television show, Panorama, screened an episode titled ‘The Battle for British Islam’, which I recommend going back and watching. It placed a lot of emphasis upon the grievance narrative perpetuated by non-violent, ultra-conservative, theocratic clerics as a reason for why radicalisation is a problem. This narrative is predicated upon the idea that Muslims are being persecuted for being Muslims, both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Foreign examples put forward are the barrel bombing of Muslim civilians in Syria by the Assad regime and – a constant since 1948 – the plight of Muslim Palestinians. Previously, the experiences of Muslims in the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan, and the Bosnian War have been used. Injustice and victimhood can be forged from something as ostensibly insignificant as cartooning the Prophet Muhammad, which they say is an attempt to dehumanise a powerless and discriminated against group; hence, it is worthy of a march and a petition, which happened on Sunday 8 February. Last week the perceived under-reporting of the killing of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, caused both Muslims and anti-fascist groups to mass outside the BBC, screaming “Muslim Lives Matter,” as if the BBC was a well-known font of anti-Muslim bigotry.
The issue is that these grievances often build upon a grain of truth which Maajid Nawaz, the co-founder and chairman of the anti-radicalisation think tank Quilliam, calls half-truths. “[H]alf-truths aren’t the same as lies. It’s a lot easier to debunk a lie and to disprove a lie because it’s not based in fact,” Nawaz said in 2013, “they only pick on evidence that justifies their own narrative. They say America is at war with Islam and Muslims because Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Iraq. Muslims are dying everywhere – Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition to torture, waterboarding – these are all things that actually happened. …if one were to try and prove any one of these they can find ample evidence to say these happened and that’s how the young mind gets convinced, but, of course, it doesn’t tell the other side of the story.” The next step is to tell Muslims that they need to defend their faith from the other, the people wanting to destroy it. This is why demonstrations only occur when the victim is a Muslim and the perpetrator is not. One hundred and thirty two children have been massacred in a school in Pakistan? That’s not worth rallying over because those pulling the triggers said they were Muslims. A Jordanian Muslim man, Muath al-Kasasbeh, has been placed in a cage and burnt alive? Better not march, apparently a Muslim lit the match.
It creates an ‘us versus them’, ‘in-group/out-group’ dynamic. Crimes committed by Muslims against other Muslims do not fit into this narrative, so they are ignored. Islamist clerics attempt to dehumanise non-Muslims to make any future action feel justified and less inhumane. “Part of being a non-Muslim is that they are liars. Usually, usually,” rants Abu Usamah at-Thahabi in the montage of Islamist clerics shown on Panorama. The other two screened are Murtaza Khan and Haitham al-Haddad. All three have said some despicable, antisemitic, misogynistic, racist things, hoping to remove any semblance of humanity from the out-group non-Muslims, thus deepening the fictional divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. This is identity politics at its headiest; calling on Muslims to identify with their faith first and foremost and protect it from inevitable outside attackers.
The worst part, and the greatest success of the Islamist movement in Britain, is that these hate preachers have been adopted by the media as the voice of the British Muslim community (as if such a coherent single group exists). This has allowed Islamists to call themselves mainstream and label anyone who says otherwise a racist or an Islamophobe – this includes liberal Muslims. Naser Khader, a Danish-Syrian Muslim and former member of the Parliament of Denmark, is quoted in Nick Cohen’s marvellous work, You can’t read this book (which I beseech you to read), discussing the opinion of mainstream society. Khader says that “They [mainstream society] take a minority in a minority to represent everyone. When the minority in the minority demands the right to oppress the majority within the minority, they give it to them.”
There are more similarities than differences between fascists and Islamists. They are closer in ideology to one another than either is to the Liberal centre, but Islamist groups are considered respectable and allowed a platform to air their views because they claim they speak for a minority. Spokesmen from Islamist groups are routinely asked to appear on news and current affairs programs. They speak as the voice of the British Muslim community, and the media takes their word for it. Far-right white racist groups often use a similar tactic when discussing a pure Aryan race as if they speak for all Caucasian people. The difference is that television executives, newspaper editors, and radio producers refuse to converse with white racists (and there will be no backlash if they continue to refuse), but they allow Islamist racists to air their grievances.
Two examples: in 2012, the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) wrote that they disliked a Channel 4 documentary, Islam: The Untold Story, by historian Tom Holland. They called it “clearly biased,” amongst other things. You may, correctly, think: who cares? Well, the BBC then published a story featuring their press release, even though leading members of the iERA have made openly antisemitic comments, approved the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy, and have stated that domestic violence against women is acceptable. From there it snowballed: other groups complained, Holland and people at Channel 4 were threatened, and so, on 11 September 2012, Channel 4 cancelled a planned screening at its London headquarters and decided not to schedule it. They said it would only be available on 4oD.
When Brigadier Lee Rigby was publicly executed in Woolwich, Asghar Bukhari of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK) went on television and said the government had to admit the “direct link” between Britain’s foreign policy and the death of Rigby. When the massacre at Charlie Hebdo happened last month, again Bukhari was on television exonerating the killers and indirectly blaming the deceased for their own murders. MPACUK has a very chequered history, not least its antisemitism and routine conflation of ‘Zionist’ and ‘Jew’, yet they keep being given air time. Supporters and members of groups like the iERA and MPACUK are part of a minority which do not represent the views of the majority of British Muslims. Yet, as their opinions continue to be sought, these groups are given a respect which they do not reciprocate or deserve. It is embarrassing that they are treated as if they speak for British Muslims. It is also problematic, because, by featuring on such a public, high profile medium, both the grievance and ‘us vs. them’ narratives are lent a legitimacy.
There is an ongoing ideological battle within British Islam to be rid of the ungainly concepts of grievance, victimhood and ‘the other’ for, mainly, two reasons. First, it is fiction:
- Islam is a religion. Religions are prone to schism. More than one sect exists in Britain and no one person or group speaks for all Muslims.
- There is no Western war on Muslims. There are only people tragically caught in war-zones; though, that is not to say that there are no anti-Muslim bigots. Intolerance still exists and should be argued against and called out. Nonetheless illegitimate anti-Muslim bigotry is not to be confused with the legitimate stance taken by those opposing Islamism.
- The majority of British Muslims – especially women – have a far better quality of life in the UK, than if they lived in an Islamist society. This is shown again and again, and is not dissimilar to the masochism of spoilt Westerners.
Second, these myths are pushing some Muslims toward Islamism and on to Jihadism. The media has been getting better – painfully slowly, I might add – at selecting liberal Muslims to appear, Maajid Nawaz for one. I hope that the days when Anjem Choudary will feature on Newsnight are gone (although he does still write for USA Today).
Islamists have been facilitating radicalisation by pressuring Muslims to pick sides in a fictional battle, occasionally through the threat of violence. If we want to help our liberal brothers and sisters fight radicalisation we can start by handling Islamists the same way we treat white racists. To do this we must argue them back to the fringes. This is not censorship; it is rationally debating them, convincingly winning, and then removing the oxygen of publicity from their discredited ideas. Those that shout the loudest get heard, such is life — but we do not have to listen. When tragedy befalls our society I do not want to hear Asghar Bukhari once again telling us that the West is to blame. Nor do I want to be told what I can and cannot watch on my television by theocratic fascists. To accept that these people must be given a platform as part of a balanced argument is masochism. Masochism offered to us by sadists. We need the Islamist ideology to be rejected by mainstream society like fascism has been since 1945.
I have written in the past that we are not directly involved in this ideological battle, but we can help the morally superior side by aiding heroic organisations like Quilliam, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.