Policing the boundaries

Tom Bower and Mike Segalov on Good Morning Britain

During the launch of the Independent Group, while it was still a breakaway faction from the Labour party, there was an exchange on a morning TV show between Tom Bowers, the author of book on which the Mail on Sunday’s parade of irrelevances about Jeremy Corbyn is based, and Mike Segalov, a Jewish Labour party member who is generally supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, which ended in Bowers calling Segalov a “self-hating Jew”. This was widely condemned on social media but did not really receive much censure on TV or the mainstream print media. The phrase is an insult commonly used on dissenters within the Jewish community such as those who condemn Israeli abuses of the Palestinians or indeed Zionism itself. Meanwhile, as Mahershala Ali won a second Oscar this week, people have been sharing The Atlantic’s piece from 2017 on why “some Muslims” were not celebrating, i.e. because he is an “Ahmadi Muslim” or Qadiani to us, a sect that mainstream Islam does not accept as Islam because it accepts a recent claimant to prophethood.

To take another example: Wednesday before last, there was a letter in the Guardian signed by over 200 members and supporters of the Labour party defending its leader from accusations of tolerating anti-Semitism, citing his “lifetime record of campaigning for equality and human rights, including consistent support for initiatives against antisemitism, is formidable”. There was a letter in reply to that published a few days later which alleged that the signatories to the earlier letter “plainly feel the need to rely on their Judaism to bolster its content” when it is irrelevant because the “vast majority” fo the British Jewish community do not trust him on the issue. On Twitter the sentiment has been more bluntly expressed: that a lot of Corbyn’s Jewish supporters are in fact not Jewish and often rely on having a Jewish ancestor generations back to back up that claim when they otherwise have no connection to the Jewish community, are not Jewish according to Jewish law because their Jewish ancestry is on the wrong side, and are certainly not practising. (When non-Jews do it, identifying ‘good’ from ‘bad’ Jews is regarded as anti-Semitic, but in this case ‘mainstream’ Jews insist that they are the Jews to be listened to rather than “those others”.)

In our community, on the other hand, we have always had numerous people claiming to speak for us or for Islam itself whose purchase on Islam is extremely weak, at best. Some are members of sects which diverged from Islam even longer ago than the sect Mahershala Ali belongs to but still regard themselves as more Muslim than they regard us, and the feeling is mutual; others are secularists who use their Muslim heritage to cast slurs on the Muslim community in general or promote policies which are against our interests. I have a name for these sorts of people: Muslimanders, relating to their tendency to say “I’m a Muslim, and …”, and when challenged from within the community, they will usually turn back to their non-Muslim friends in the media and claim that it justifies their position because the Muslims are just showing the backwardness they were generalising about (the case of Usama Hasan losing his imam’s job in east London for believing in human evolution is a good example). If they are people with Real Media Jobs, they will not deign to address criticism from mere bloggers or social media chatterers. They’ve made it and we haven’t, and we’re just jealous.

And the worst thing that any Muslim can do in these situations is to say that the person who has a Muslim name (or claims to be a Muslim) but is spouting outrageous nonsense that is completely opposed to Islam or to Muslims’ interests on any level is not actually Muslim despite their name. This has been posited as a “litmus test” of moderate or extremist Muslim attitudes recently and calling a person with a Muslim name an unbeliever is deemed equivalent to signing someone’s death warrant, even if you know, and the person accusing you knows, that you do not have the kind of followers who would do that sort of thing (or indeed followers at all, as opposed to mere readers), but the intention may have nothing to do with wanting harm to come to that person but simply to make it clear that the person’s views are anti-Islamic, that they have no connection with the Muslim community at all and no right to speak for us. Supposedly someone may hear or read your words and take the Shari’ah into their own hands — we are held to be responsible for what anyone who reads them might do, even if we do not say “go and do this”. I’ve had to deal with non-Muslims sanctimoniously lecturing me about this from a position of ignorance in the past, as well as when an imam made very valid observations about the behaviour of Shi’ites and I commented that they resonated with my experiences of some of them.

There are also some Muslims who have internalised this fear of being seen as an extremist to such an extent that they will condemn Muslims for pointing out kufr (unbelief) when they see it, or for stating the fact that a member of a sect which has been acknowledged to be un-Islamic for decades or even centuries is not a Muslim, despite their also having used their media platform to spread obvious falsehoods about Islam or Muslims or to make claims that put Muslims in jeopardy. And yes, it is unacceptable in the Shari’ah to make careless accusations of unbelief in the context of disagreements (even if someone is in the wrong) or because someone commits a sin, even a public one; those are not the circumstances I am referring to. (There are categories of unbelief where anyone who denies it falls into unbelief; this is when people show obvious disdain for Islam, Almighty Allah or His Messenger, or deny things everybody knows such as that alcohol is prohibited. One must not be so afraid to be called an extremist — and I do believe this was the motive, in the incident I am referring to — as to deny that clear unbelief is what it is, or to defend an open enemy of the community when someone says they are not Muslim.)

Every minority has had to deal with well-known figures who go beyond being conciliatory into being disloyal, who often pose as spokespeople for the group. There are a number of expressions for these sorts of people: in the African-American context they are sometimes called Uncle Toms or House Negroes, British Asians sometimes call them coconuts (brown on the outside, white on the inside), while in Wales the term “Dic Siôn Dafydd” refers to a Welshman who “despises his language and who imitates the English”, after a fictional character by a 19th-century pamphleteer who pretended not to understand Welsh and refused to speak to even his mother in their native language. It’s no surprise that we have real or purported Muslims who behave in the same way or that the media or politicians prefer to hear from them than from people who challenge them, but it is important that we be able to point these people out without being called an extremist or having accusations of sympathy with terrorism made against us. The opinions of a small clique with access to the media cannot be assumed to be the true voice of the Muslim community, or to be more enlightened than the community they may have left behind.

Much as the traditional definition of a Jew may exclude some people with traditional Jewish surnames, the traditional definition of a Muslim, to Muslims, is not “someone who looks like a Muslim to the untutored eye”. Of course, Jews are defined as much by ancestry as by religion; a Muslim is defined by belief and affirmation, not by ancestry at all. Some of the people of Jewish ancestry defending Jeremy Corbyn are practising Jews (particularly certain groups of Haredim) and some are Jewish enough by ancestry to have been put in the gas chambers had they been around 70 years ago; some are not. Given that you don’t have to be practising to be Jewish to a racial anti-Semite, the opinions of those Jews who are part of modern Orthodox synagogue communities or have connections to Israel should not be the only ones taken into account when assessing the “Jewish view” of whether the Labour party has become anti-Semitic or not. And if Jews’ views on who is a Jew and who is not are to be respected, ours about who is a Muslim and who is not should be as well, and those with no loyalty to the community or who make their living confirming others’ prejudices should have their media platform lowered somewhat.

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