Review of Gita Saghal’s Hecklers appearance

Last Saturday Gita Saghal of Awaaz South Asia Watch and “Women Against Fundamentalisms”, an organisation which monitors and opposes religious fundamentalism in south Asia, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s programme Hecklers, so-called because one person is allowed to give a speech, occasionally interrupted by five opponents. In this case, the opponents were Moazzam Begg (former Guantanamo detainee), Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Britain, Tariq Ramadan, Tahmina Saleem of the Islamic Society of Britain and Nazir Ahmad of the House of Lords (in the British Parliament). Saghal, an atheist of Hindu background, who stressed that she was “secular”, advanced the now common stance that a number of the British government’s “key allies in the fight against terrorism”.

She named the groups as representatives or supporters of some of the most dangerous movements of our time, “involved in the political promotion of Islam”, which she named as Jama’at-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. “The take-me-to-your-leader approach served the Empire well, but it built neither democracy, accountability nor secular values,” she alleged. She said that the thinkers and spokesmen being engaged by the government are commonly regarded as moderates, and she conceded that they are in fact reformers rather than traditionalists; their movements, she said, were born in the twentieth century “and owe much to the very worst that western values have produced, namely fascism and its aim of total control”.

She went on to say that fascists tell the big lie with confidence, and like other fascists, “these politicians” do the same, “telling their audiences that practices that have varied hugely by place, class and region must be replaced by a single way of being, of worshipping, of dress, one that is imposed by divine authority. For example, they tell women that wearing the headscarf is a religious obligation, and Tariq Ramadan claims that punishments such as the stoning of women for adultery can’t be condemned entirely because they are divinely ordained. Women Against Fundamentalisms have identified the control of the minds and bodies of women to be at the heart of fundamentalist political movements” - at which point, the bell was rung, ending her two minutes of uninterrupted speaking time.

Daud Abdullah, asked the first question: “if the groups you claim are dangerous represent the majority of Muslims in their respective countries, how can you as a democrat exclude them from the political process?”. She replied that she was not arguing that they should be excluded, but that they had been made key allies in the government’s strategy; she also did not accept that they represented majorities, as in Pakistan the Jama’at had never acted with great popular support, but with the support of the military. Daud Abdullah countered by saying that Islamist parties had in fact won elections in other Muslim countries, including Palestine and Turkey. (The reader might notice that in Pakistan the parties opposing the JI are not avowedly secular, as is the case with the PLO/Fatah and the established parties in Turkey.)

The compere, Mark Easton, asked Saghal to clarify how the status of the JI, with its roots in India, is relevant to the situation of how the British government deals with Muslims here; Saghal said that the Muslim Council are “clearly linked” to the JI and that there were a whole network of groups which do not declare themselves as Jama’ati organisations (but, she implied, nonetheless were). The groups defined themselves as such by their policies, and “their attacks on other Muslims and other minorities”. Groups like the JI and Muslim Brotherhood are, she said, not transparent and accountable.

Nazir Ahmad asked Saghal to name two or three incidents, apart from 7/7, which was agreed as being a reaction to government policy, “where you may have seen so-called Islamists beating people up, burning buildings down or smashing any windows”. She replied that she had attended a forum related to the upcoming elections in Bangladesh, and noted the deep fear among various religious groups about violence perpetrated by Islamist groups, some of it defended by MPs of the Jama’at-e-Islami in the Bangladeshi parliament. (The reader might note that Nazir Ahmad might have been talking about religious violence in this country, rather than in Bangladesh or Pakistan.)

Tariq Ramadan accused her of “totally misrepresenting the viewpoints of the others”. He said he was not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even though his grandfather founded it. He also said that while the punishments Saghal alluded to were in the scriptures, he believed that the conditions were not right for them and that he was appealing to governments to stop using them as they were being targeted against poor people and women. Third, 99% of Muslim scholars had said that the headscarf was an obligation, but he believed that it was “against Islam to impose onto a woman to wear the headscarf” and asked what was wrong with that. Saghal said she believed it was women’s right to wear whatever they wanted, and said she had worked with a Muslim group called “Sisters in Islam” who did not accept that “Islamic scholarship says that the headscarf is an obligation; it’s in fact a very, very modern imposition which has been heavily promoted by the Muslim brothers”.

At this point Easton allowed Moazzam Begg to speak; he said that in the “activist” Muslim world, where “people are produced who commit acts of terrorism”, the likes of the MCB, Islamic Society of Britain “and even, with all due respect, Tariq Ramadan”, as far too moderate; he said that we had been here before, with the very person whose voice the government banned the BBC from broadcasting was the person they ended up making agreements with (namely Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA). If the government cannot talk to these people, regarded by the militants as sell-outs, who do they talk to? She replied that she had no quarrel with Moazzam’s analysis and that this was why “using them to corral the entire Muslim community into a ghetto of the mind, and demanding their loyalty, is not going to be the way”. They would have no effect on the extremists, but would affect all our fundamental freedoms.

With two more minutes to speak, she argued that the groups with which the MCB were connected (specifically the JI) had engaged in religious violence in Pakistan, supporting blasphemy and adultery laws which had “led to violence against poor and marginalised people”, including mob attacks on, and official persecution of, Christians and other minorities in Pakistan; the adultery laws inspired by the JI had led to women being “locked up for years, simply on the basis of a flimsy accusation”. The JI in Bangladesh had collaborated with the Pakistani military during the war of independence, attacking the majority of the population who supported “secular nationalism, rather than their own vision of an Islamic state”. In the diaspora, including the UK, they had fostered a sense of communal identity based on victimhood, often co-opting nationalist struggles such as Palestine, Chechenia and Kashmir, which become Islamicised, never mentioning Darfur where Muslims were killed by other Muslims.

Daud Abdullah countered that the MCB had organised a conference on Islamic trade and finance in London, at which Gordon Brown asserted that London was becoming the gateway to Islamic finance in the world, and had sent chaplains into the prison system to serve thousands of Muslims, had put books into the school system to “educate people on the correct principles of Islam”; Saghal said that it was precisely these issues which caused concern, and that she did not want her children learning the JI’s version of Islam. Tariq Ramadan pointed out that Muslims had been attacked on numerous occasions in the UK following 9/11 (more than 7,000 incidents), and wanted to know what evidence she had that British Muslims supported the overseas violence she referred to, and pointed out that he personally had stopped talking to the Sudanese government because of the incidents in Darfur. Whether it was in Rwanda, Burma or anywhere else, for him every human being is equal, and their rights are equal too.

Saghal alleged that whenever accountability was talked of, the argument is shifted to where Muslims were victims. She said she was not “outside” the community because she rejected the idea that Muslims were a community apart.

Tahmina Saleem said she admitted that the JI were there at the founding of the Young Muslims UK and Islamic Society of Britain, but that the two groups had moved on and were no longer drawing their reference points from the Indian subcontinent. She said she had not read Maududi (the JI’s founder) for about fifteen years and did not agree with him about women’s domain being the private sphere. She said that some of the “key women” in the MCB do not wear hijab and that it was not seen as an issue. The YMUK had made a conscious decision to split with the JI. Saghal demanded, “what have you done to show that what was done in the name of the Jama’at, and the organisations that were involved, and what do you say about the ongoing atrocities committed by the Jama’at in Bangladesh —”. The reader might note here that, apart from the fact that her first clause is incomplete and therefore meaningless, she seems to be blaming Tahmina Saleem for the fact that she was unaware that YMUK and the ISB had moved on from their Jama’ati past. It’s a typical example of the way in which Muslims are blamed for “not condemning terrorism loud enough” by people who were not listening when the condemnations were issued (as they almost always are). Tahmina Saleem replied that she condemned all acts of injustice, whether the victims were Muslims, Christians, Jews or whoever.

Tariq Ramadan accused Saghal of misrepresenting the position of “Sisters in Islam” in Malaysia; they did not have the position that hijab was not a divine obligation, but rather themselves allowed women to wear the hijab or not wear it (I think that was the gist of what he said). Saghal asked him what he said to Saudi Arabia and Iran, in which women did not have the choice. He also accused her of quoting dictatorships’ propaganda in relating the supposed involvement of the JI in religious violence in Pakistan and Bangladesh. He disputed that Muslims in the UK were a “diaspora”; we were at home here in Europe, and her point was to put Islam outside Europe.

Given a final minute and forty-five seconds, Saghal demanded to know “why the MCB say that Ahmadis are not Muslims”; asked who the Ahmadis are, she said that they could be called a heterodox Muslim sect, self-defining as Muslims while the JI and the Saudi Arabian government do not define them as such, and in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and other countries where they are defined as non-Muslims, they are defined as blasphemers if they use Muslim terms or worship as Muslims. They are also sometimes murdered, and such acts were, she said, defended by MPs of the Jama’at:

So when the MCB here, and its constituent organisations like the East London Mosque invite inflammatory preachers to preach here, don’t tell me that this is just a modernised British Islam that does not promote violence in the Subcontinent.

Daud Abdullah, on the subject of “Ahmadis”, replied that it was not up to the individual to define the criteria for Islam; a Muslim who accepts Allah, God, as One, and the finality of Prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). If you do not accept this, you are not a Muslim. Moazzam Begg said that he had his first discussion with a Mormon while in Guantanamo Bay, and that Mormons are rejected by the majority of Christians including by the Council of Churches, among other reasons because of their Book of Mormon, which is not part of Christianity. Saghal said that there were a number of bizarre groups across the Christian world who self-define as Christians.

Tahmina Saleem said that Saghal could be accused of being a secular fundamentalist, for trying to undermine voices, admittely not very loud ones, such as her own. Saghal replied, “the voice of victimhood again - whose voice am I undermining? I’m not representing very large groups; I’m representing a set of ideas; I don’t have a voice with the British government; they don’t invite me to breakfast to find (?) out what to do about terrorism, nor am I saying that they necessarily should, nor am I saying that they shouldn’t speak to you. What I am saying that you do not represent all that British Muslims stand for”, at which point Tahmina interjected that they never said they did. Saghal alleged that the current which she represented was one that the Foreign Office was foisting on such people as those organising arts festivals, demanding that they speak to the Young Muslims or Islamic Foundation, and that the organisers were surprised that groups with not much to say about the arts are “being foisted on them as the key people that they must talk to”.

Tariq Ramadan suggested that Saghal’s comparison of Muslim fundamentalists with “Hindu fascism” was not quite right; Saghal said that she thought it very apt, but that she was willing to condemn Hindu fascists for murdering Muslims, while “you are not prepared to stand up against Muslims when they’re murdering Hindus, Muslims and Christians”. She loudly demanded that he tell her when he has done so; Daud Abdullah suggested that she read the MCB’s website and she will see the condemnations. Saghal said she also saw the remarks on “Ahmadis”.

Tariq said that once again, she was saying things which are totally wrong, and not reading what the Muslim groups are saying; she did not want to hear, and it is not possible to listen to someone when you don’t want to hear what they are saying. He said that it was Saghal who was dangerous, because she was building connections out of nowhere and spreading fear rather than building the future. Saghal said it was a great honour to be called dangerous by Tariq Ramadan; the organisations may have moved on but still acknowledge their sources in people like Maududi and Hasan al-Banna (the Muslim Brotherhood founder and Tariq Ramadan’s grandfather) and have “never thoroughly broken from those forms of control … and saying that 99% of scholars think this …”. Tariq Ramadan demanded that she cite one statement from any of these organisations which she considered dangerous; Saghal cited the statement from the MCB that “Ahmadis” are not Muslims at a time when pogroms were being conducted against them, and the East London Mosque defending Dilwar Hussain Sayeedi who had been accused of hate speech, “known in Bangladesh as a purveyor of hate against minorities of all kinds, whether Muslim minorities or others”. The connection was that the current secretary general of the MCB worships at East London and “has a role there”.

Moazzam Begg asked what Saghal would offer as a solution to the problem of “other voices” of more moderate, mainstream Muslims not being heard; if the government are looking for solutions to the problem of terrorism and violence and these groups are separate from that, then who do they need to be talking to? Saghal replied that they need to be talking to everybody, and asked why people needed to be corralled into religious communities. Begg continued that if you want peace, you have to deal with the people behind the violence, as the government had done with the IRA, and that Osama bin Laden had said that if the west did not want to talk to them, they would speak in language which does not use words. He said that the government needed to speak to the likes of Abu Qatada and others who have influence over those with the potential to cause harm. Nazir Ahmad said that after “7/7”, the government spoke to well over a hundred people from almost every section of the Muslim community; Saghal countered that most were from groups connected with the JI and Brotherhood, although there were a few others, and that “secular women of Muslim descent were not part of those exercises”; she said there was rage against the MCB from some Muslim organisations.

At this point, the audience was invited to contribute. The first was Siddiq Kamil (?), a doctoral researcher at the University of Chester specialising in Muslim organisations in the UK; he said he was really disappointed and had thought she would do her homework. He said there were no facts in her flawed, incoherent argument. He accused her of claiming that the government was only speaking to the MCB, when in fact “the Sufi Muslim Council has been represented and it’s been talked to by the government; the FCO had a conference in Turkey two weeks ago, where they invited a spectrum of the Muslim organisations in Britain”.

The next was Jeremy Phillips, representing “MCCR, Equity and the TUC”:

Every creature that lives in the sky, every creature which swims in the sea, every creature that lives on the land, always protects their young for the future of their species. Can you tell me why the aged activists sacrifice their young and urge them to die when they should be doing it themselves?

Another Muslim woman speaker said that Saghal had only named groups from the Indian subcontinent, while Muslims in the UK today do not take their references from the Subcontinent anymore and that she was out of touch and debating the wrong country with the wrong people. A lady from MPACUK said that the situation in South Asia was entirely different to here and that it was entirely wrong for her to be making comparisons, and that yet she was stuck in a time warp in a different place which isn’t relevant to Muslims in this country. A male member of the ISB made statements for which he said he wanted no forgiveness from Saghal; he said she was completely extreme for a secularist and that he had never heard such claptrap, and that her accusations suggested that she thought people could not change, and that people were still connected to the organisations from which they had completely divorced themselves. A Muslim woman speaker said that Saghal’s impression of Muslim women’s situation in this country was based on culture, not Islam.

Saghal responded that it was depressing that those who said that they were British and not interested in the Subcontinent were unwilling to acknowledge that atrocities were being committed in the Subcontinent and that those who have supported those atrocities were coming to the UK at the invitation of the groups she was talking about. Mainly what she was talking about, she said, was democracy, which is what was absent from the discussion; she was not saying that any one person represents Muslims, or saying which were and weren’t the true representatives. The Sufi Muslim Council were set up precisely because those behind it were fed up with the MCB being seen as the main representatives.

“To deal with one set of terrorists, the government had brought on board older, more organised networks of fundamentalists, but they will not succeed in their appointed task of disciplining the pious and keeping British Muslims under control. Battles over textual interpetations are not the answer, and I don’t think that they’re going to convince the disaffected young men that [Moazzam Begg talked of]. The point in the end is not to control, but democratise, to struggle for the freedom of the imagination, to engage in debate about what are the values to which we can all subscribe. There is no answer to the defence of democracy with more democracy; the struggle against violence and for a just rule of law must begin in the most intimate spaces of the family, community, and the institutions of the state. These are questions that engage every British citizen, not only Muslims, and it is for the government to create the conditions in which that debate can take place, without hectoring, and without justifying torture and arbitrary detention. And finally, without forcing the whole of Britain to become as sectarian and divided as Northern Ireland was, a set of little communities each in their fundamentalist ghetto. The struggle for secularism is one for believers too, as a woman called Aisha said many years ago, I’ll be answerable to God, but not to the mullahs of this world. Thank you.”

I noticed that, like a lot of the secularist left, she is very free with injurious comparisons, in particular the tendency to throw the word “fascist” around. I agree with Tariq Ramadan that comparing the Muslim Brotherhood or those of a Jama’ati background involved in British Muslim organisations to Hindu extremists in India is unjustified. At a meeting at SOAS in June organised by Saghal’s group Awaaz-SAW, an individual named Chetan Bhatt of Goldsmith’s College, London (also home to Norman Geras, of the same tendency) suggested that the left, presented by a white man who had been lured into far-right extremism during his wanderings in eastern Europe and Russia and had got himself into serious trouble, would do only the minimum necessary to defend him from torture and other human rights abuses, a clear likening to Muslims from the UK who had travelled to Pakistan or Afghanistan and had wound up in Guantanamo. There is a world of difference between the most extreme Muslim fundamentalists and fascists; apart from anything else, when we are talking of fascists, we usually mean skinhead racists belonging to movements dating back to earlier pro-Hitler groups, rather than that of Mussolini or Franco.

When the characteristic used to define someone as a fascist comes down to insisting that the headscarf is a religious obligation, it really does become fatuous. Generally people are not saying that a particular type of headscarf is a divine obligation; rather, we say that a woman’s covering of her hair, and indeed her body other than her face and hands, is an obligation, without saying how this is to be achieved. In a few countries, a particular type of covering has been specified, but for example even those in this country who supported the Taliban did not demand that women here wore the same dress women in Afghanistan were being forced to wear (and, incidentally, many women outside the Taliban-controlled areas also wore), or any other specific type of dress. Of course, across the Muslim world women have found myriad ways to cover their bodies, and if anyone is demanding that a particular style be imposed across the board, they are mistaken, but in the pre-colonial period women, particularly urban women, generally covered up more than they do now, while in many places peasant women covered rather less. In the Muslim community here in the UK now, there is a contingent who want to follow Islam correctly, not follow the culture of peasants in the Punjab, which is why many women wear a new style of hijab which covers the head and shoulders. But it doesn’t mean that head covering is a new thing.

The position that covering the head is compulsory is not restricted to so-called fundamentalists; if you ask any classically-trained Islamic scholar whether a woman’s covering her hair is compulsory, he (or she) will say yes. There is another reason why many Muslims are preoccupied with it, however, which is that many non-Muslims, and a powerful contingent of secularised descendents of Muslims, oppose it on various so-called feminist grounds and seek to eliminate it by making life as difficult as possible for anyone wearing it. “You want to wear a headscarf - go home and be a domestic drudge; it’s all you deserve.” So it becomes impossible to get an education, to enter certain professions, or to enter various public buildings wearing one. Gita Saghal insists everyone has the right to wear whatever they want; does she support the rights of Muslim women to wear the dress of an observant Muslima and get the education their parents are taxed for, and to work in the professions as Muslim women have been doing successfully in this country for decades? The fact is that every liar and scoundrel who tells the world that hijab is not part of Islam and is just “man’s imposition” puts ammunition in the hands of enemies of Muslims who wish to deny our women this right.

Her example of a “dangerous” stance the MCB had taken - in declaring the Ahmadis, or Qadianis as we call them, to be non-Muslims - demonstrates that she really has no proof that the MCB pose any danger whatsoever. I was unable to find the statement on the MCB’s website, but the position of the “Ahmadiyyah” being outside the fold of Islam is standard Islamic thinking. If they had been asked to condemn mob violence in Pakistan and refused to do so, Ms Saghal might have a case, but as it stands, it appears that all they did is give the Muslim position. The position of the MCB in London would make precious little difference to the situation in Pakistan even if they did not take the position they have. Mob violence is wrong, and Islam condemns it and any Muslim organisation asked about it should condemn it - along with the use of blasphemy laws to settle land disputes and the jailing of women on flimsy adultery accusations (indeed, Islam condemns the making of such accusations; it is one of the seven gravest sins in Islam). But this does not change the fact that a group which follows a man who claimed prophethood after Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) is outside the fold of Islam.

When Nazir Ahmad asked Saghal if she knew of Muslims beating people up, burning buildings down or breaking windows, I gained the impression that he meant this country, given that he mentioned “7/7” and not, say, 9/11 or the Istanbul bank bombing. Perhaps this did not come across very well, but the fact remains that little or no religious violence has taken place in this country. We do not, for example, have groups which engage in the sort of intimidation associated with the fringe of the animal rights movement; despite the stories (some of them erroneous) about certain British companies’ involvement in Israel, I have never heard of any of their stores, depots or vehicles being sabotaged. The sectarian violence in Pakistan has never been replicated on the streets of any town or city in the UK.

Finally, while she never managed to steer the debate onto whether there was such a thing as a Muslim community, she made several attempts to do so. As one who has been a Muslim for several years, I am aware that the community cuts across ethnic lines, as indeed it has done since the beginning; I can also confirm that racism and class/caste barriers exist as well. However, just because people have other identities and concerns, it does not justify claiming that people’s Muslim identity is invalid. As Muslims we have not only common beliefs and values but also common needs as well as the interests of our respective ethnicities: we have certain dietary needs, certain dress requirements, the need to pray and so on, regardless of our skin colour or whether we prefer our halaal meat with rice or potatoes or wear a thobe, shalwar-kameez, sari or suit. Yes, there are also the unobservant among us who don’t require these things, but they should at least have the grace not to present themselves as “the real Muslims” and describe the rest of us as troublemakers and extremists and incite non-Muslims to deny us our rights. Of course, most of them still have the issue of race to deal with (particularly since in the post-9/11 era, they are as likely as any observant Muslim to be tarred with the same brush as the extremists), but since there are already organisations set up to deal with racism, what could a particularly “secular Asian” group have to contribute, particularly to the debate about preventing further terrorist attacks?

As I have written here before, a lot of Muslims are indeed critical of the Muslim Council of Britain and have been since its inception; a majority of Muslims in Pakistan do not support the JI and there were many scholarly objections to things its founder wrote. I do, however, believe they are far better acquainted with the community of religious Muslims in this country than Gita Saghal or any atheist of whatever ethnicity or religious background. No doubt Saghal has spoken to many Asian women whose only similarity with religious (Asian) Muslim women is their skin colour, who no doubt have no truck with the MCB. The MCB are, however, better equipped than Saghal, Chetan Butt and their cronies to organise any defence against religious extremism in the Muslim community, even if those who are already down that path will not listen to them.

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