Silent liberals?

An image of Maajid Nawaz, a middle-aged South Asian man with greying hair, moustache and (short) beard, wearing a white, open-necked shirt, sitting in front of an LBC microphone and against the backdrop of a backlit LBC logo. Above the caption reads, "The uncomfortable truth about UK grooming gangs".Last week a half-hour feature by Nick Cohen of the Observer on the supposed “silence of the liberals” on the ‘plight’ of liberal Muslims in the UK who are, he alleges, facing death threats and being called unbelievers (which he claims is effectively a death warrant) for supporting women’s rights and advocating the same liberal vision they themselves do. He accuses them of a colonial attitude, preferring to speak to ‘leaders’, and accuses left-wing politicians of relying on those leaders to procure Asian votes through the ‘biraderi’ block-vote system. He interviews Amina Lone, Fiyaz Mughal of Tell MAMA/Faith Matters, Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam and the LBC radio station, and Maryam Namazie, an Iranian communist exile who runs “One Law for All” which opposes religious tribunals for settling personal and marital disputes. He makes much of the fact that no Labour MP would appear on the programme and claims he asked a wide section of the parliamentary party, including people for and against Corbyn’s leadership.

Cohen starts by interviewing Amina Lone, the former Labour councillor and parliamentary candidate in Manchester who was deselected on the grounds that her attendance record was not good enough. Lone claims that she was singled out for her so-called women’s rights campaigning, the sole example of which was her campaign to stop girls of primary school age being allowed to wear the hijab at school. Cohen made no attempt to refute the claims about her attendance record — the claims of persecution made by Lone and her friends in the Tory press never do. It should be remembered that Lone’s anti-hijab campaign has had the support of the Times and the director of Ofsted and one of her articles on this subject has in fact appeared in the Guardian, so Lone is no voice in the wilderness here. It’s just that she doesn’t have the support of the Muslim community.

He then moves on to Fiyaz Mughal who runs the hate crime monitoring organisation Tell MAMA, which he claims is based in an anonymous-looking office. Fiyaz also says he changes his route to work every day so as to avoid threatened violence from neo-Nazis and, he suggests, other Muslims who objected to him taking advice from the (Jewish) Community Security Trust and having Peter Tatchell, a well-known gay rights campaigner, as a patron. I personally wonder how truthful he is about all the ‘death threats’; such claims are a standard tactic of people who wish to discredit their opponents and their supporters always take the claims at face value. Peter Tatchell is not an uncontroversial figure even among gay rights activists; he notoriously wrote a letter to the Guardian in 1997 defending a book published by the Gay Men’s Press on “boy-love”, claiming:

Prof Gilbert Herdt points to the Sambia tribe of Papua New Guinea, where all young boys have sex with older warriors as part of their initiation into manhood. Far from being harmed, Prof Herdt says the boys grow up to be happy, well-adjusted husbands and fathers.

The positive nature of some child-adult sexual relations is not confined to non-Western cultures. Several of my friends, gay and straight, male and female, had sex with adults from the ages of nine to 13. None feel they were abused. All say it was their conscious choice and gave them great joy.

Why would Tell MAMA appoint this grubby little man as a patron? To provoke Muslims. There’s no other logical explanation. Since we have already mentioned the Community Security Trust, let’s look at a major difference between them and Tell MAMA: the CST is unapologetically pro-Jewish and pro-Israel, and does not go around telling Jews that they should stop supporting Israel if they want to stop anti-Semitism, which it blames on anti-Semites, not Jews, and does not give this message to the mainstream media. Tell MAMA, meanwhile, has a history of blaming Muslims for prejudice against them — they blame terrorism, homophobia, hostility to Qadianis, discrimination in Saudi Arabia; everything but the media and everyone but the white bigots who are primarily responsible. This is why the community does not trust them; they claim to be fighting hatred against Muslims, but foment it in their statements to the media and on their social media feeds.

Maajid Nawaz is another “voice in the wilderness” despite having a show on LBC, a well-listened-to London-based talk radio station. We are told about his history as an “Islamist” with Hizbut-Tahrir which landed him in prison in Egypt, through his founding of Quilliam, supposedly an anti-extremist think tank. Cohen tells us that Nawaz has been called various things including an ‘unbeliever’ which he tells us is tantamount to a death warrant, which is an entirely baseless assertion; it’s only a death warrant if it’s issued by someone with the intention to have the subject killed and followers so minded (or with the power of state). The reason people have called Maajid Nawaz that is not because he turned his back on Hizbut-Tahreer (which most Muslims want nothing to do with) but because of such remarks as “if there is a holy grail, it is embracing uncertainty, and not knowing what happens after death” (to an American radio programme); belief in the afterlife and in specific things happening are fundamental tenets of faith in Islam.

Cohen also attacked the Southern Poverty Law Center, an American organisation which monitors hate groups, for including Nawaz in a list of “anti-Muslim extremists” alongside Brigitte Gabriel, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others. Cohen calls this a “hit list” which “outs” people who spread “misinformation and hateful rhetoric”. We can hardly call their inclusion on this list “outing”; what the people on it have said is public knowledge, having appeared in the mainstream and sectarian media and on blogs for years. Cohen accuses them of calling people who advocate liberal or feminist readings of Islam “Uncle Toms”, sell-outs, native informants or Islamophobes and calling “actual Muslims, anti-Muslim bigots”. But he does not quote from the piece itself, which says that Nawaz’s story has been disputed by some of his old friends who accuse him of self-promotion and that he had sent a “secret list” to a British security official accusing “peaceful Muslim groups, politicians, a television channel and a Scotland Yard unit of sharing the ideology of terrorists”. In other words, he agitates against other Muslims and informs on them to the authorities, which comfortably fits the description “native informant”.

Cohen also allows Amina Lone to attack the ‘biraderi’ system whereby Asian votes are supposedly bought en masse by appealing to one or two community leaders, and candidates are frustrated for not belonging to the right ‘caste’. However, this system does not deliver Islamist politics but rather keeps power in the hands of older ‘uncles’ and is as frustrating to younger Muslims who want to see back-home caste systems broken down for whatever reason, as it is to secularists who dislike (for example) old men defending ‘conservative’ practices such as hijab. It’s noticeable that despite the large number of Muslim women of all ethnicities who wear hijab, not a single MP has ever been elected who wears one; Muslim male MPs are usually clean-shaven, which practising Muslim men usually are not.

Cohen is accusing ‘liberals’ of colonialism — looking to ‘chiefs’ to tell them what Muslims really think and expecting them to vote as the chief tells them — while displaying actual colonialist attitudes, namely listening only to Muslims (or people of Muslim origin) who tell him what he wants to hear, as he does not interview anyone to give the mainstream Muslim viewpoint on Lone, Nawaz or any of the others he interviews. It isn’t “colonialism” not to give undue exposure to fringe elements in a minority community who deride their own culture and religion, and if they look into their claims of oppression and isolation and find them wanting, because they have shows on mainstream radio stations and ample exposure in the tabloid and broadsheet press for example, they are just doing their job as journalists. Muslims generally read the liberal press as it is less blatantly hostile to us than the Times or Telegraph but it does not actually give much airtime to mainstream, practising Muslim voices; the Guardian has a handful of Muslim women columnists who appear fairly regularly but none wear hijab, it has allowed Polly Toynbee to advocate banning hijab in schools here, and when it ran a feature on Muslim fashion a few years ago, it subsequently printed a letter from a non-Muslim woman demanding that the women featured in the article question and reject their beliefs (phrased as if the latter was a natural consequence of the former).

As for why Labour MPs will not answer his questions, perhaps it’s because they know he is using rhetoric about feminism and human rights to pursue an anti-Muslim dog-whistle campaign and that it can only fuel racism. It’s not “fear of being called racist”, which no racist nowadays is, but the fact of racism bubbling under the surface. It should be noted that the liberal media has a fraction of the circulation of the Times and Sun, which advocate the same “muscular liberalism” we first saw being advocated by Cohen’s Euston Manifesto comrades in the mid-2000s, and which represent the party currently in power; the campaigns of people like Lone are much better served by them than by the Guardian. They have plenty of exposure and do not need any more.

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