If a Muslim speaks up against political Islam – questioning the legitimacy of these self-appointed spokesmen – we know what to expect. Those of us who love our faith but do not go along with what the hardliners say in its name are accused of Islamophobia or, in my case, ‘misrepresenting Muslim behaviour and belief’ and ‘negating the belief of some Muslims’.
Just look at this week’s report by a group called the Centre for Media Monitoring, which claims that ‘Islamophobia’ is on the march in Britain. In making its case, the group cites one of my Spectator articles in which I defended Boris Johnson’s right to criticise the burqa (a garment which, unlike Boris, I do not think has any place in a tolerant society, nor a basis in Islam).
The Centre for Media Monitoring claims that my column – and The Spectator itself – is guilty of ‘misrepresenting Muslim behaviour’. But what exactly is this body? The group’s own report admits it is part of the Muslim Council of Britain, a highly-politicised organisation. But actually the link is closer than that: its founder and executive director is also the official mouthpiece of the Muslim Council of Britain.
Unsurprisingly, the report has major flaws. It claims from the start that ‘Islamophobia is real’ but doesn’t properly define the term. It’s true that bigotry against Muslims exists, just as it does towards dozens of other groups. But the use of Islamophobia is intended to cover something much broader than that: namely to smear any criticism of Muslims and Islam as motivated by bigotry.
This isn’t just disingenuous; it’s dangerous. As I’ve written before, Islamophobia is an ambiguous term which serves to portray diaspora Muslims as a besieged minority. This explains the term’s popularity with Islamists and their sympathisers, who seek to magnify Muslims’ sense of victimhood in the very societies where our rights are afforded the greatest personal agency: the West.
The term Islamophobia is also used to silence discussion on issues like the niqab – despite the fact that its use is hotly debated by Muslims around the world. Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have all passed various laws opposing the wearing of garments like the burqa and niqab. These bans are often motivated by security concerns, but they also make it clear that face-covering is not a central practice in Islam. These nations see the niqab as deeply divisive, not only in Western societies, but in their own Muslim-majority societies too.
But rather than argue its case, groups like the Muslim Council of Britain seek to shut down debate altogether. By painting arguments like mine as bigoted and beyond-the-pale, they aim to wrest control of the conversation in favour of another view: that Muslims are perennially demonised and objectified by the very same societies, and media outlets, which allow us to freely express our views.
I don’t agree with everything in The Spectator but I’m grateful for the platform it gives me to examine complex and sensitive topics around Islam – and to do so in the face of intense disagreement from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For an organisation like the MCB to accuse The Spectator of bigotry is indefensible.
Accusations of Islamophobia leave little space for individual believers to challenge the differences between Islamism and Islam, or the diversity within Islam itself. And for non-Muslims? Their exclusion from the debate becomes absolute when any criticism is likely to be labelled “racist Islamophobia”.
The views of the MCB don’t come from a political party or even its alleged links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, these views merely reflect the rise of identity politics in secular liberal democracies. Today, victimhood is valued above all else.
But Muslims who indulge in such identity politics should be aware that these views certainly didn’t exist in the time of the Prophet himself. Even as the Prophet and his early followers faced intense persecution, they didn’t claim victimhood. What’s more, with little historical experience of martyrdom within Islam – explained, in part, by the religion’s meteoric expansion and its rapid ascent to dominance until the peak of Islam’s ‘Golden Age’ – being Muslim had never been equated to victimhood until Islamism arrived in Egypt in the 1920s and soon after brought it to post-war Europe.
Bassam Tibi, an influential Muslim scholar of Islamism, has written that when compared to violent jihadists, non-violent Islamists can be wrongly seen as moderate and progressive (when, in fact, they can be just as corrosive to society and its values).
Think, for example, of mainstream Western support for Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-allied government in Egypt, which was only overthrown by enraged Egyptians when Morsi’s Islamist ambitions became clear. Tibi also notes the influence of Islamism in shaping how most of the world sees Islam, particularly among non-Muslims. Back in 2013, he warned that failing to confront this monopolisation of the discourse would give Islamism ‘a standing it does not deserve’.
He isn’t wrong. In fact, Islamist groups have made it one of their central aims to discount the value of civil and pluralist Muslim groups. Part of this has been the fantastically successful duping of tolerant, secular, liberal democracies into believing that Islamists are a vulnerable and marginalised religious minority, instead of the totalitarian theocrats they really are.
It’s why pluralist Muslims like me – who argue that true Islam must be authentically tolerant and that anti-democratic supremacist Islamist beliefs are at profound odds with the teachings of the Prophet – are seen as such a threat.
Given the track record of the Muslim Council of Britain, it’s laughable that any projects affiliated to it should be taken seriously on issues like bias, prejudice, discrimination and tolerance. Look how the Council has acted towards Ahmadi Muslims, pacifist Muslims who now face persecution in Britain at the hands of other Muslims, as well as further afield (notably in Pakistan, where they are persecuted by lethal, deeply unjust blasphemy laws).
Shortly after the 2016 sectarian murder of Asad Shah, an Ahmadi Muslim who lived in Glasgow, leaflets saying that Ahmadis should face death if they refuse to convert to mainstream Islam, were found in Stockwell Green mosque in south London. The leaflets were written by the once-leader of the notorious ‘Khatam-e-Nabuwwat’ movement. The organisation is notorious in Pakistan for calling for the genocide of Ahmadi Muslims.
The Muslim Council of Britain subsequently ‘suspended’ its affiliation with the mosque to examine the matter. But in a statement put out days before, the MCB published a position statement appearing to negate the right of Ahmadis to affiliate with the MCB. ‘Given this fundamental theological difference with the Ahmadi community, the MCB is not in a position to represent or be represented by the Ahmadi community,’ the statement said.
The Centre for Media Monitoring would be better named the Centre for Controlling the Narrative of Islam. Its mission is arguably not to combat bias, xenophobia or even the misappropriated use of the term Islamophobia, but instead to lay sole claim to the narrative of both Islam and Muslims in Britain, and silence Muslims like me.
So if the MCB is worried about publications which give liberal Muslims a voice – and publications which are not afraid to scrutinise the menace of Islamism – then they have chosen the right target. The Spectator remains one of the few places where this bid to chill discourse, control the narrative and eliminate nuance is robustly challenged. It may well become increasingly difficult to speak out. But I for one refuse to be cowed.