By the Editorial Board
The Muslim Bogeymen
Islamists loathe no bogeymen more than liberal Muslim activists.
If the mission is to make your Islam the authentic, accepted and influential version of the faith, liberals are an important and frustrating obstacle on the path to power. They show another way is possible for faithful Muslims in the West, and it is by nature a better fit with liberal and secular societies.
Worse, liberals are not shy when it comes to criticizing aspects of what some Islamists call “normative Islam”. No, the liberals say, there is nothing “normative” about supporting brutal sharia punishments, pushing divisive sectarian messages, casting Muslims out of the faith merely for holding certain opinions, and defending the concepts of jihad and a caliphate as terrorists wreak havoc across the world in the name of both.
So, many Islamists conclude, the liberals must be attacked. If there are no solid grounds for an attack, fables will do nicely.
This has happened once again in the UK with the launch of a new report on Islamophobia by “Muslim Engagement and Development” (Mend).
Mend has a long history of extremist agitation, including crude attacks on liberals. Its latest words in a chapter of the report titled The ‘Islamophobia Industry’ are typical.
The Sinister Continuum
The chapter tackles a number of individuals and groups most would consider plainly reprehensible. The self-styled English Defence League (EDL), for example. It is a bunch of ruffians who “protest” against extremism by way of shrieking bigotry in the streets (“burn a mosque”, “Allah was a paedo”), smashing property, scaring ordinary people of all sorts going about their lawful town center business, and fighting with the police and even each other.
Scuffles at an EDL march in Liverpool in 2017
“Britain First” is another target. It is a nasty far right group whose leader Paul Golding and deputy leader Jayda Fransen were jailed earlier this year for religiously aggravated harassment.
Jayda Fransen and Paul Golding
The Mend trick is to situate these noxious people in a sort of sinister continuum where one also finds mainstream individuals and organizations. It is actually somewhat akin to far right thinking, where Muslims who have no time for extremists are disparaged as “stealth jihadists” or dishonest “taqiyya merchants”.
Consider the report’s words on Policy Exchange, a center-right think thank that is close to senior Conservative Party leaders. It is guilty of nothing less than “rejection of multiculturalism, opposition to Muslim agency, and portrayal of Muslims and Islam as antithetic to the values of neoliberal societies”. It is also part of a “network” and an “industry” that is bent on “demonizing Muslims”. Sure enough, the vilification of Policy Exchange is immediately followed with an attack on Robert Spencer, the rather ludicrous man and undoubted extremist behind “Jihad Watch”.
This is an assault on a think thank that has repeatedly championed liberal Muslims and never made any statement which could fairly be considered as “opposition to Muslim agency” or a bid to paint Muslims – as Muslims alone – as a threat to society. Bracketing it with the likes of the EDL, Britain First and Robert Spencer is simply mischief-making, at best, not legitimate analysis.
In 2016, for example, Policy Exchange launched a report which noted that British Muslims “broadly share the same views as the rest of the population. Despite the greater religiosity and social conservatism of British Muslims, their life-styles are largely secular with only limited interest in sharia finance or separate religious education.” These are not the words of an outfit determined to “demonize” Muslims. In addition, one of the report’s authors was Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, a Muslim.
Asked for his views by European Eye on Radicalization (EER), Khalid Mahmood described Mend as “deliberate agents of discontent in the UK” and added “they are continuously eroding trust in mainstream society and pushing young people away from integration and the mainstream. People should not be afraid to challenge Mend.” At the same time, Mahmood observes, “Islamophobic offences should be reported to the police, local authorities and the national government in order to examine the true extent of the problem, including in social media posts”.
David Cameron speaking at Policy Exchange
On to the liberal Muslims named in the report, who are at the heart of the fable. The think tank thread is woven in at the outset of the Reformed or “moderate” Muslim validators section of the chapter, with a slur for stitching:
The views perpetuated by these well-funded think-tanks are then legitimised by Muslim or former Muslim activists and validators, who accept the idea of an inherently dangerous side of Islam and legitimise anti-Muslim discourses.
US figures Nonie Darwish, Tawfiq Hamid and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are targeted first. Then they are bracketed with the British targets:
In the UK, similar figures include Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz, founders of the Quilliam Foundation – which now receives funds from neoconservative American organisations – Sara Khan of Inspire and now UK counter-extremism chief, Amina Lone, Co-Director of the Social Action and Research Foundation (SARF), Raheem Kassam, and Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell MAMA. To various degrees, they all shared opinions accepting that Islam has in fact a problematic face, or that interfaith and interracial relations are not working. For example, Nawaz openly declared that “multiculturalism has failed”; Mughal rejected the entire concept of Islamophobia; and Khan is one of the strongest supporter of the highly controversial counter-terror strategy, PREVENT.
For Mend, these figures are not players in legitimate debates. No, they are something much worse:
Diversity in beliefs and practices in terms of faith is a natural characteristic of British Muslim communities and nothing to be concerned about. However, the problem emerges when individual Muslims are used and promoted for the purpose of justifying the stigmatisation and marginalisation of Muslims as a whole. Establishing themselves as spokespeople for “liberal Muslims”, individuals such as those mentioned above justify heightened scrutiny of Muslims and anti-Muslim policies “thus justifying, seemingly from a Muslim’s perspective, concerns about those Muslim communities who hold different views from theirs.”
In come the EDL and others, right on the heels of this silencing bid:
The ideas pronounced by experts and justified by Muslim validators influence grassroots movements, media, and in turn politicians. In the United Kingdom, grassroots organisations that subscribe to the views of the Islamophobia Network include the English Defence League (EDL), Britain First, Pegida UK, and the relatively recently emerged Football Lads Alliance (FLA).
To underline the point, the very next section of the report chapter is a profile of the EDL.
Setting the Record Straight
The targets of the report are furious, and rightly so.
I am saddened but not surprised by this Dispatches investigation. People support MEND because they want to fight hatred. The documentary instead reveals vile racist attacks and bigoted conspiracy theories.
Members of the Sunni, Shia and Ahmadiyya communities, the Jewish community and others have spoken to me about MEND’s divisive activism.
Unfortunately Mend’s leadership are playing into the hands of far right and Islamist extremists.
I call on MEND’s supporters to challenge their leadership to truly fight all hatred. The Commission stands ready to help everyone do this.
Furthermore, while Khan broadly supports Prevent, as any reasonable person arguably should in a country facing as many problems and threats as the UK, she has also criticized elements of UK policy. For example, see this post on a London School of Economics (LSE) blog.
Sara Khan meeting the imam and deradicalization expert Abdul Ahad in a visit to Newcastle in June 2018.
Quilliam too has long been a bugbear for Mend. Asked for his views on Mend’s “Islamophobia” report by EER, Quilliam CEO Haras Rafiq said:
There has been a concerted effort, for a number of years, to defame Muslims who are politically and socially liberal as anti-Muslim bigots. When the SPLC characterised Maajid Nawaz and Quilliam in this manner, they were forced to apologise, withdraw their report, and pay substantial damages to us.
MEND must know that by doing so, they paint a target on our backs. Liberal Muslims have been murdered by jihadists, all over the world.
Attacking Muslims who are liberal is the primary purpose of MEND. They do so because we stand up against the hate preachers, who teach a polarised vision of Islam, with whom they have consistently allied themselves and whom they have promoted.”
In addition, if one looks into Mend’s bald claim that Maajid Nawaz “openly declared that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ “, it is misleading. The cited clip is from a broadcast by the London radio station LBC. Nawaz concludes his remarks in the clip with these spirited words for Muslims:
And the problem has been that we’ve been celebrating differences and not commonality. The problem has been a bigotry of low expectations. Mutliculturalism is dead, long live omniculturalism. Long live integration. Long live people not fearing being called racists, or Islamophobic, or anti-Muslim bigots, from wanting to do something to uplift Muslim minorities in this country so that they are on par with everyone else. That’s what equality means and multiculturalism failed these communities. It’s high time we had a policy that celebrated what we have in common rather than how we are different and a policy that focused on integration instead of segregation.
In a country where identity politics have indeed created division and anger, these views are neither illegitimate nor uncommon.
It is also certainly true that Mend has promoted many hate preachers, as Quilliam says. They include some of the worst, such as Shakeel Begg and Haitham al-Haddad.
Begg is a London-based imam who sued the BBC for defamation after it identified him as an extremist. In 2016, Begg lost badly. In a devastating ruling, the judge said Begg “clearly promotes and encourages violence in support of Islam and espouses a series of extremist Islamic positions”.
Al-Haddad has expressed countless extreme views. One of the most telling – and chilling – is a call for an Islamic state where even the most discreet and quiet apostates from Islam will be found out and executed. He also supports female genital mutilation, the stoning to death of adulterers, Hamas, and absurd conspiracy theories about the terrorists of Islamic State. As for British Muslim MPs who voted for the legalization of same sex marriage, al-Haddad wants them dragged before an “Islamic body”, where they will be told to repent for “leaving Islam”. If they do not, they must be shunned, even by their families, because they are no longer Muslims.
Five of eight British Muslim MPs did vote for same sex marriage in 2013, while two abstained and one voted against. Two of the “yes” voters are hardly shunned – they are Sadiq Khan of Labour, now the Mayor of London, and Sajid Javid of the Conservatives, now Home Secretary.
Sounding off, with reason, Fiyaz Mughal of Tell Mama, a respected anti-racist group, tells EER the Mend report is “scurrilous”:
As someone who has spent over 20 years challenging racism and bigotry and having founded Tell MAMA and spent 6 years being abused, harassed and threatened by far right groups and activists for defending the right for Muslims to live their lives free from hatred, intolerance and bigotry, for the MEND report to suggest that I am somehow facilitating Islamophobia is scandalous and scurrilous and shows exactly what some of that report does. It takes people it may disagree with and smears them in with actual anti-Muslim bigots. It also brings into serious question the factual accuracy of the report.
Fiyaz goes on to chart a lamentable situation:
You can question the two-decade old term Islamophobia for social policy discussion and put your life and reputation on the line to defend Muslims, their property, mosques, dignity and their personal freedoms from hate. I have done this every day for many years and have challenged institutional anti-Muslim hate and bigotry wherever I have come across it for the sake of people’s dignity and access to justice. So there is a debate to be had and it is just that, a debate around how to ‘badge’ the work. But to call me a facilitator of Islamophobia is perverse in the extreme and actually reflects on MEND, their factual accuracy and their tactics. Such tactics do deep damage to the work of tackling anti-Muslim hate.
Once again, Mend’s use of evidence is questionable. It cites an article by Fiyaz Mughal in The Times. It is an argument for better and stronger opposition to hatred against individuals, not some kind of charter for bigots. Mughal sketches the history of the term “Islamophobia”:
The term “Islamophobia”, which is so readily accepted by some to describe anti-Muslim hatred, was coined in the Runnymede Report of 1997. It used the word to encompass hatred of both Islam, the religion, and Muslims, the people.
Much has changed in the 20 years since then and today anyone can criticise or even hate any religion, including Islam. It is not illegal to do so and some Muslims also criticise elements of the faith. Are they Islamophobic?
We are therefore no longer in the “Islamophobia” space where hatred of Islam can be rolled in with real-world attacks on Muslims. All of our criminal and civil laws are based on the protection of people, and rightly so. Which means that anti-Muslim hatred is measurable and recordable, unlike the nebulous term “Islamophobia”.
This is a time for precision, not obfuscation, Mughal adds in the Times article:
At a time when hate attacks against Muslims are having a serious impact on many people, let us try to ensure that obfuscation through the use of the term “Islamophobia” does not take away from the real-world problems facing Muslims.
We need to have less politics around the use of the term “Islamophobia” and more of a focus on supporting the victims of anti-Muslim hatred, and reducing the hate directed towards any group of people. I care less about the defence of a religion and far more about people — the very source of where religion has come from.
Reducing this nuanced argument to “rejection of the entire concept of Islamophobia” and providing no further information on Mughal’s views is not an honest critique.
A Decade of Slurs
In fact, Mend and its predecessor “iEngage” have run a campaign of vilification of liberal Muslims and their allies for a whole decade now. The names noted above are not the only targets. Far from it.
Sara Khan has even been attacked for working with Hope not Hate, a left-leaning anti-racist activist group.
Azad Ali launched this attack when he was a leading Mend figure. He is a notorious extremist who famously lost his campaign to silence a British newspaper which had accurately reported that he supported the killing of British troops in Iraq. Ali has since left Mend for Cage, an organization which openly supports terrorists, even when they have been duly convicted in transparent and fair British and American court cases.
Here Mend threatens the former senior Metropolitan Police officer Mak Chishty with isolation for his heartfelt call in The Times to Muslims to do more against extremists, written in the aftermath of the London Bridge terrorist attack:
Considering Chishty’s previous reputation, something that he should bear in mind is that he can only further isolate himself from much of the Muslim community with myopic, one-sided analyses that are unsupported by evidence and target a community already feeling stigmatised, vulnerable and under pressure.
This is no empty threat. Mend’s campaigning work has many followers and some of them do engage in shameless abuse of its targets, aiming to cut them off from Muslim communities and silence them.
Indeed, any Muslim group which decides to work closely with the authorities is likely to earn Mend’s wrath. Note the words of Sufyan Ismail, Mend’s founder and former CEO, in a mosque talk in 2014. He says accepting any public funding is like adding urine to drinking water:
Are we some kind of Prevent-funded body or government-funded organisation? Well there’s good news and bad news here. The good news is we are 100% community funded, alhamdulillah. So I think you should all go “alhamdulillah” to that, yeah? I promise you not one penny comes from any government of any description, yeah. 100% of our funding comes from the Muslim community.
Put one drop of urine in a bucket of water, who’s going to drink it? Who’s going to drink it or bathe in it? Simple as that. This thing has got to be kept pure. It’s got to be kept pure.
So, which Muslims does Mend like? Sufyan Ismail provides an instructive answer in undercover footage recorded by Dispatches. Speaking of Mend and Cage, Ismail says:
I think we agree on principle. It’s process, we’re very different on process. It’s almost like your means and ends, you know. Our ends are the same, we all want counter-terrorism legislation which is unnecessary to be abolished. We all have the same view on Prevent.
In fact, Dispatches revealed, Ismail donates to Cage. In another undercover recording segment, Ismail says:
I have personally donated to Cage over the years, for the record, and I continue to do so. Let’s get that that on the record and I don’t know how many people have donated as much as I have. I’ve no idea, but it’s not a small amount.
Magical Thinking, Real Betrayal
Mend’s close links to Cage should be enough to make it beyond the pale for mainstream British politicians.
But it is the attacks on liberals that sting the most for the targets and their friends and allies. Liberals of all stripes should stand by them and take Mend on.
Instead, on the left one finds magical thinking. Mend are a good group, some in the Labour party insist, and they should be supported. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is one of them – he spoke at a Mend Parliamentary event in November 2017.
That event prompted another rebuke:
Henna Rai, director of the Women Against Radicalisation Network, said: “I don’t think any MPs should be seen associating with Mend.
“They are a deeply problematic organisation which regularly labels any Muslims collaborating with the government on counter-extremism initiatives as ‘bad Muslims’.
“Just as I was alarmed to see the Hindu nationalist Tapan Ghosh recently hosted in Parliament, this was another example of extremism being hosted in the heart of our democracy.
“I think our elected politicians have to exercise due diligence and be more critical in deciding who is worthy of being given such a platform.”
Over the years, Mend have indeed lost support. They struggle to find any friends at all in the ruling Conservative Party. They fare somewhat better among Liberal Democrats, but that party was hammered at the last election and has limited influence today. Furthermore, once they were apprised of its record and agenda, some Liberal Democrat figures have walked away from Mend.
Labour, by contrast, is powerful and some of its figures continue to laud Mend. For example, here is Manchester Labour MP Afzal Khan praising Mend at the launch of the “Islamophobia” report:
The UK is facing deeply serious threats from terrorism and extremism. This is no time for fables. Liberal Muslims hope reality will finally shatter magical thinking, casting Mend out into the cold where it belongs.