Charles Moore, well-known writer for the Telegraph and Spectator and known among us for articles like this one from 2005, calling for the Muslims to bring forward a Gandhi (my response here), gave a lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies Monday before last entitled “How to beat the Scargills of Islam”. Arthur Scargill was the leader of the miners’ union in the early 1980s who led a major, but unsuccessful, strike against coal mine closures; he is a byword, at least among British conservatives, for intransigent and unreasonable trade union behaviour. Moore’s proposition appears to be that many of the alleged leaders of the Muslims in the UK today, like Scargill, have serious flaws in their legitimacy. You can read the lecture here (PDF) and an article based on it in the Spectator here.
The charge that Muslim leaders are neither moderate nor representative of the Muslims at large is not new; the usual claim is that this leader or that is connected with the Muslim Brotherhood or Jama’at-e-Islami, something which appears in the second page of Moore’s lecture as it appears in the Spectator:
Some — the organisation Hizb ut Tahrir, for instance, which the government promised to ban in 2005, but has still not done so — even argue that what they see as God-given law — the sharia — is the only law which they should obey and that Muslims therefore owe no allegiance to this land which they inhabit. The Muslim Council of Britain, supposedly the umbrella organisation for all Muslims in this country, is much influenced by followers of the Pakistani ideologue, Mawdudi, who said, ‘Islam wishes to do away with all states and governments which are opposed to the ideology and programme of Islam, if necessary, ‘by the power of the sword.’
Hizb-ut-Tahrir is actually a relatively small group, which enjoyed a brief period of notoriety in the mid-1990s when Omar Bakri was in charge of a group acting in its name in London. Not one of the major Muslim leaders is associated with it now. It is true that many of them are JI or Muslim Brotherhood. Like many who complain about this, he fails to ask why there has been no great clamour from the Muslim community in general about it. Could it be that Muslims are content with their efforts at lobbying government on our behalf, as long as nobody asks them to accpet being dictated to by the likes of Iqbal Sacranie? Could it be that they have paid their dues, and are known for other good works in the community, as with various well-known Muslim charities?
In the original lecture, he makes this false observation about Muslims’ stance on the Shari’a:
Some well-meaning and intelligent people have even persuaded themselves that the best way to deal with such views is to accommodate them. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, recently seemed to advance the view that you could have a little bit of sharia - he proposed it in, of all things, marriage - worked into our own law, as if it were an exotic herb which could be used to spice up our multi-cultural soup. He does not seem to realise that, for those who call for its imposition on the world today, sharia has to be the only dish on the menu.
This is a parody of what Muslims really do think about the Shari’a. Personal laws based on the Shari’a are in force in most of the Muslim world, except for a few places where militant secularists gained the upper hand. Those who insist that “sharia has to be the only dish on the menu” are not those who call for the implementation of aspects of Shari’a through arbitration law are simply not the same people; the latter generally do not call for general implementation of Shari’ah in the UK because they know it will not happen. It is a stupid and inflammatory comparison between two things which have nothing to do with each other.
Moore complains in the first page of the Spectator’s version that “the most vocal leaders of Islam in this country today themselves advance their religion in a political way”, offering three examples:
They say that Muslims cannot support any British military action against a Muslim nation, or that it is an Islamic duty to oppose the existence of Israel, or that British law should be altered to make it a criminal offence to insult their prophet Mohammed.
The last is an example of Muslims being encouraged to lobby for sympathetic laws, something the Catholic church has done explicitly with regard to recent proposed changes in fertility and embryology law. I do not believe that the attitude cited regarding British (or other western) military action in the Muslim world is confined to devotees of Islamist ideologies but is widely held by common Muslims and religious scholars alike; likewise the opinion on Palestine, which was a predominantly Muslim land until it was seized, with western connivance, in 1948. As for the last, I have always held the view that books like The Satanic Verses never would be banned, offensive as they are, because they break no law and even the blasphemy laws which existed, which protect only the country’s established religion, were on the verge of being rolled back in any case. The demands to “ban TSV” showed a failure to measure British culture correctly, but were legitimate in a democratic country which does not have guaranteed freedom of speech in the same way the USA does.
Moore then wheels out “Ed” Husain:
One of the most powerful lessons from Ed Husain’s remarkable book, The Islamist, is that the people most intimidated by Islamist extremism in this country are Muslims themselves. It is they who bear the brunt of abuse and threats in their mosques, in their student societies, youth groups and other organisations. Every time the wider society enters into dialogue with the extremists we are not only dealing unwittingly with bad people, we are also empowering them against good people.
As has been demonstrated in Muslim critiques of his book, conveniently ignored by most of the mainstream media, Husain’s knowledge of the Islamist scene and its impact on general Muslim culture is limited and of limited relevance, being mostly based on his observations at his college in the mid-1990s. The intimidation of Muslims has come not only or even primarily from political extremists, but also from apolitical “salafis” who were also being very aggressive at that time. I came into Islam after those disputes reached their peak around the mid-1990s, but it was still more than possible to find such people in mosques and on street corners until after 9/11, but they were easily identified and avoided also.
Moore advises distinguishing between “moderate Sufis or Barelwis” and “extremist Wahhabis or Salafists”; the fact is that neither of these groups lobby much. The “salafist” extremists of the sort who gathered around Abu Hamza in the 1990s were too angry to lobby; Barelwis have not involved themselves in the major Muslim lobby groups, except for a couple of efforts to establish lobby groups, most notoriously with the “Sufi Muslim Council” which turned out to represent one small group. I also find it irritating that Barelwis are commonly promoted as “moderate” Muslims, when in fact they are only moderate in the sense of not having a group political stance. If we are to discuss the effect that Muslim groups have on other Muslims, the Barelwis are one of the most infamously intransigent and sectarian, particularly towards the Deobandis.
Towards the end of his lecture, Moore makes a couple of positive observations: one of them regarding the importance of the individual, the other regarding the potential of Islam to make a positive contribution to British culture:
The first is to bear in mind at all times the importance of the individual rather than the group. A believing Muslim will naturally regard his belief as encompassing his whole life, not just his prayer or his Friday observance, but that will not mean that he necessarily wants his place in our society to be a Muslim one, or that he makes no separation between his personal beliefs and his politics. Our western language of rights and freedom puts great stress on the fact that each person is entitled to choice and autonomy. We see this as the way that we make real, adult moral decisions and we regard that personal space as, to use a word which secular society otherwise avoids, sacred.
In one sense, the “group behaviour” of Muslims is over-rated; Muslims do already make decisions about various issues, including politics, based on factors other than what this religious leader or that says about them. Speaking personally, I know that Ken Livingstone is popular among Muslims in London and will probably win the Muslim vote, but he will not win mine, not because of the controversies over Lee Jasper’s grants but largely because he has gone too far in his road toll schemes in London. I always opposed the Olympic bid, mainly because it threatened to gentrify the main area of Muslim settlement in east London, particularly in Newham borough. Muslims in the USA learned the hard lessons about “block voting” from what happened when their preferred candidate for President in 2000, George W Bush, turned against them after 9/11.
However, it is foolish to think that Islam will have no bearing on what stances Muslims take on moral issues, or on how they vote. The degree of this will vary depending on how committed or practising the Muslim is, and on what his ethnic origin is (the political stances of Afro-American Muslims differed considerably from those of Arab immigrants in the USA until 2001, for example), but even a non-practising Asian Muslim is likely to be affected by race issues even if issues of Islamic dress, or even food, do not affect him.
As regards the second, Moore holds out hope that “in a hundred or even 50 years the CPS, or indeed, Policy Exchange, will be able to hold a prestigious conservative lecture named after some great Conservative politician, who was also a Muslim”, a reference to Keith Joseph, who was Jewish. He also suggests that, “in Islam, the word ‘honour’ does not have to go with the word ‘killing’, but can have a real meaning which it has too often lost in our secular society”. For most Muslims, honour does not go together with killing; it means much the same as it means elsewhere, such as keeping promises and speaking the truth. It is only associated with killing elsewhere because it is what they read of in the papers. It is a false generalisation sourced from an un-named “pet moderate”.
As for his hope regarding a future Tory Muslim politician, it is my observation that current attitudes towards Muslims in the Conservative party and, in particular, in think-tanks like the Policy Exchange are turning Muslims against the party. It does not inspire confidence when politicians with a record of Muslim-baiting in Tory-associated magazines are admitted to the shadow cabinet and then given the candidacy for the mayoralty of the capital city; neither when the organisations Moore mentioned send spies into various mosques and then publish unreliable reports accusing mosques of distributing extremist material based on their findings (or accusations).
The speech’s chief flaw is in its failure to distinguish genuine extremists from those with merely unapologetic political stances. Hizb-ut-Tahrir are not a violent organisation, but a movement which rejects engagement within an un-Islamic political system, a stance rejected by activists with other Islamist movements, who encourage Muslims to lobby and vote. Most Muslims do not belong to any of these groups, but their activism in, and for, the community is understood and appreciated. By contrast, those Moore advances as moderates are unrepresentative nobodies whose only distinction is a few articles in the mainstream media and a couple of books. They are widely distrusted among Muslims, including Moore’s beloved Sufis.
Moore also fails to describe what “delivering” the membership means. Muslim “leaders” are only leaders of groups, to which most individual Muslims do not belong, not political leaders with power over their groups’ memberships. However able to “deliver” they were, it is likely that they could not have prevented the 2005 bombings, let alone the attempted bombings last year which were the work of foreigners, because they had no authority over the perpetrators who were not even Muslim Brothers or Jama’atis; they and the al-Muhajiroun tendency, which have organised the well-known offensive demonstrations, are mutually hostile. It is not clear, then, who the “Scargills” are, calling their members out on disruptive actions without a vote, given that there have been no such actions - only a few peaceful demonstrations - under their influence since 9/11.
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