Bushell, Boris and the Spectator now

The past couple of days the London BBC radio station has had features on possible candidates for the next London mayoral election. Yesterday, on Eddie Nestor and Kath Melandri’s drive-time show, the candidate was Gary Bushell, a columnist for various tabloid papers who was originally a socialist and moved in a much more libertarian direction, and now belongs to the “English Democrats”, an anti-EU party which supports an English parliament. Now, something I noticed from the 2004 election was that at least one far right candidate was talking about things he could not deliver as mayor - such as immigration. Gary Bushell, yesterday evening, was moaning about Londoners’ tax money going up north and to Scotland, which is obviously unjust and has to stop according to him, but it’s not something he can deliver. Where income tax money goes is decided by Parliament, not by the Greater London Authority.

More scary is Boris Johnson, who was being discussed on Vanessa Feltz’s show this morning. Feltz told us that apparently women love him for some reason which I can’t quite remember. One male caller said that if women were really going to vote for him on that basis, then they should have locked Miss Pankhurst (the suffragette) up and thrown the key away, and that underneath his blond hair and his charisma was an old Etonian, right-wing Tory. This is the closest anybody said to why this man is a dangerous prospect for mayor of London.

While I know some Muslims will disagree with me about this, I don’t mind whether the mayor of London is pro-Israel or supported the Iraq war. The mayoralty isn’t about that, it’s about things like transport (with Ken Livingstone having been mayor for as long as the position has existed, it’s hard to think of what else it’s about). It’s important, however, that the mayor is not a bigot, which on the strength of his coverage of Muslim affairs while editor of the Spectator, Boris Johnson is. In that position, Johnson reacted to the July 2005 London bombings and the Paris slum riots of that year with horrendously unbalanced coverage, commissioning articles from the likes of Patrick Sookhdeo, full of sweeping generalisations, plain falsehoods and outright absurdities. The tone was that Islam itself, not an extremist movement, or the western policies off which it thrives, was to blame.

I took a look in the Spectator today, and my first impression was that Boris’s ghost lives on at the Spectator even though the editorship was in the hands of Matthew D’Ancona. However, this time round, the Sookhdeos, Steins and even Johnsons are gone, replaced with Alex Lewis of Oxford Student, Saira Khan (of The Apprentice fame) and Stephen Schwartz and Irfan al-Alawi. On this occasion, Schwartz manages to get through an article without attacking Shaikh Hamza Yusuf. Their article is mostly about the links between medicine and Islam, the fact that several prominent radical Islamists have been physicians and that their organisations have built clinics and other community facilities, and that moderate, Sufi groups like the Indonesian Nahdatul-Ulama have also built hospitals and clinics. Their assertion that “the West has got radical Islam wrong: it is less a product of misery and the sense of extreme oppression than of the thwarted aspirations of the Muslim middle classes” seems contentious, since these particular physicians are not the thwarted ones but had every opportunity. If they were less literate and wealthy, like the residents of Imbaba in Cairo, they might have concerned themselves with local acts of rebellion aimed at getting rid of the likes of Mubarak.

The Alex Lewis article describes how he sought for proof of Anthony Glees’s claims that “prior to the 7 July bombings up to 48 universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and LSE, had been infiltrated by the now-banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun”. He was not convinced, and had never seen any evidence of extremist activity and nobody he spoke to, including Muslim students, had either. So, he decided to speak to Omar Bakri, over the phone at his house in Tripoli, Lebanon, and guess what? Omar Bakri said that everything Glees said was true, and that he had used innocuous names like “peaceful society” and “shisha society”:

Bakri claimed to have been visiting Oxford since the 1980s, and to have spoken there during the Bosnian crisis and the first Gulf War. It fitted — in 1996 he’d told the Guardian that al-Muhajiroun planned to recruit from Oxbridge using friendly-sounding front organisations. ‘They will not be able to ban peace and human societies,’ he said, ‘because if they do, it will only backfire!’

Not entirely convinced, we contacted Anjem Choudary, Bakri’s second in command in al-Muhajiroun, and Abu Izzadeen, who has called for the Pope’s assassination and described the 7 July attacks as ‘completely praiseworthy’. (Izzadeen was arrested just days later under the Terrorism Act after an extensive surveillance operation.) Both men confirmed that they had visited Oxford with Omar Bakri as part of a nationwide recruitment campaign — which Bakri claimed secured up to seven converts a day. ‘Sheikh Omar Bakri had many platforms around the country, and I definitely remember watching him speak in a debate in Oxford,’ said Choudary.

Bakri had claimed al-Muhajiroun had the support of up to 30 Oxford students and that they regularly distributed leaflets from a street stall under the name of the ‘Dawah Society’. At our request, Choudary sent the leaflets to us from an email account belonging to Ahlus Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah, a successor organisation to al-Muhajiroun. One, entitled ‘The Rotten Fruits of Democracy’, described paedophilia and adultery as the products of liberalism: ‘Democracy and all that emanates from it is retarded and perverse. Truly the Kuffaar are upon a falsehood and what they believe in and live according to is what will make them residents of the hellfire. Do you really want to live in a society where people live like animals?’

There are a few problems with this story. First of all, Omar Bakri and his gang are notorious braggarts and loudmouths, and appear to relish being media sensations. It is not certain that their boasts can be trusted.

Second, if these people were active on your campus, you certainly could not say you’d “not had a whiff of al-Muhajiroun”, as the author of that article was told by Muslim students. Any function they could arrange would have the stamp of al-Muhajiroun over it. Unless they had maintained enormous secrecy, people would definitely have noticed. Besides which, since he had already told the press that his group would arrange under innocuous names, some of which don’t look like real student society names (Human Society, Intellectual Society), it should be pretty easy to check records to see if functions had been arranged under those names.

Third, there is the obvious difference between members of al-Muhajiroun and terrorists. Even if there are people on campus shouting about the kuffar and paedophilia and the idea of a global Caliphate, it does not prove Glees’s claim that terrorists are recruiting on campus.

However, the article I found most obnoxious was that by Saira Khan. This is not the first time I’ve seen this woman presented as a media example of a moderate Muslim: Jeremy Vine put her up against Anjum Choudhary last September on his lightweight lunchtime current affairs programme on Radio 2, and the inevitable result was a personal slanging match. In this article she tells us about her two cousins who ditched their Pakistani culture and started wearing hijab and “Middle Eastern outfits” after coming across some Islamic organisation at university (which sounds like al-Muhajiroun, or its predecessor, branded as Hizb-ut-Tahreer). The women proclaimed that they were Muslim and not British, and told their mother that she was not a proper Muslim because she was still into Pakistani culture and did not dress as they did.

She alleges:

My point here is not to say that women who wear the hijab are extremists — far less that they will at some stage be involved in some terrorist activity — but to suggest that this is how, in many cases, extremism starts.

Al-Muhajiroun was not by any means the only way women got into wearing hijab. While it was certainly a noisy presence and did advocate hijab, the position that hijab is compulsory is the standard one, and Muslims and Muslim groups which had nothing to do with al-Muhajiroun or any other extremism advocated and defended wearing the hijab. Extremism starts when you hook up with extremists, not when you start wearing hijab. Richard Reid and the individuals allegedly behind last week’s incident did not get into extremism by wearing hijab, after all. They are all male.

Two paragraphs down, we get this staggering generalisation:

Of course, most British Muslims won’t become violent extremists, but most will endanger society — albeit unwittingly — by supporting and condoning the actions of extremists. Very few will admit this in public, but many will say behind closed doors that they are sympathetic to the bombers’ cause and that they can understand why they are doing it. These things are said in front of young children and justified by various conspiracy theories which nearly always involve Jews, America and the CIA.

This is an appalling piece of slander, or what we call in Islam nameema, which refers to gossip, betraying secrets and telling people what someone else says behind their back in order to foster enmity for that person. She is telling an audience of hostile non-Muslims that, behind their backs, most Muslims actually “support and condone the actions of extremists”, or their cause, which is simply not true, in my experience. I know there are those who support suicide bombings, but those who support international terrorism are considerably fewer than those who support such actions in the particular circumstances of the Palestinian situation, which is certainly not everyone. I haven’t done a census, so I can’t say what percentage it is, but then I presume Saira Khan has not done one either.

She goes on to promote Hassan Butt, even suggesting that the government engage with him and those like him, rather than people who have practised Islam without falling into extremism or terrorism, and even worked to keep mainstream Islam alive despite sectarian attack, for the last two decades while Butt and those like him were making trouble. The fact that Butt has simply started telling politicians what they want to hear, and that he echoes the arguments of anti-Muslim bigots regarding “those passages of the Koran which instruct on killing unbelievers” without mentioning the context, which is not circumstances in which those non-Muslims are not harming Muslims, means nothing to Saira Khan.

At the end, she dictates to us that “British Muslims have to realise that there is no ‘but’ after a sentence like, ‘I wholeheartedly disagree with the terrorist actions and the killings of innocent civilians’”. In terms of public pronouncements by mainstream Muslim representatives, I can’t remember hearing one in which a “but” appeared at the end, this being mainly the preserve of the likes of Omar Bakri. As for opinions we express in private conversations amongst ourselves, that is our right and our business (unless it is for planning a crime, of course). If the “but” is usually that it’s western government actions that draw terrorists in, it is not without basis.

It is rather galling to be dictated to by this woman, who has come out of pretty much nowhere, at least nowhere which has significance for Muslims, like a mosque, a centre of Islamic learning or a Muslim charity or organisation, or any position of secular authority for that matter. She is just a runner-up in a BBC competition - nothing more than that - and she is no advertisement for an Islamic lifestyle, yet she feels free to tell non-Muslims who the authentic Muslims are, and it’s (guess what) people like her. It is no skin off my nose, or our noses as Muslims, if Saira Khan or some other petty TV personality chooses not to wear hijab; that’s her business; however, her fame and background do not make her an authority on Islam or on the Muslims, and she should recognise this. Her article in the Spectator is a disgrace; it is nothing more than a tissue of smears and generalisations.

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