The desire to impose religion over society is otherwise known as theocracy. Being veterans of the struggle to push back against fundamentalist Christians, American liberals are well acquainted with the pitfalls of the neoconservative flirtation with the religious-right. How ironic, then, that in Europe it is those on the left—led by the Guardian—who flirt with religious theocrats. For in the UK, our theocrats are brown, from minority communities, and are overwhelmingly Muslim.
Islam is a religion like any other. Islamism is an ideology that seeks to impose any version of Islam over society. When expressed through violence, I call it jihadism. It is obvious to an American liberal that Christian fundamentalism must be made to respect personal choice. Likewise, it is as plain as the light of day to me—a Pakistani-British liberal Muslim—that any desire to impose any version of Islam over anyone anywhere, ever, is a fundamental violation of our basic civil liberties. But Islamism has been rising in the UK for decades. Over the years, in survey after survey, attitudes have reflected a worrying trend. A quarter of British Muslims sympathised with the Charlie Hebdo shootings. 0% have expressed tolerance for homosexuality. A third have claimed that killing for religion can be justified, while 36% have thought apostates should be killed. 40% have wanted the introduction of sharia as law in the UK and 33% have expressed a desire to see the return of a worldwide theocratic Caliphate. Is it any wonder then, that from this milieu up to 1,000 British Muslims have joined ISIS, which is more than joined the Army reserves. In a case that has come to symbolize the extent of the problem, an entire family of 12 recently migrated to the Islamic State. By any reasonable assessment, something has gone badly wrong in Britain.
But for those who I have come to call Europe’s regressive-left how could Islamist tyranny—such as burying women neck deep in the ground and stoning them to death—possibly be anything other than an authentic expression of Muslim rage at Western colonial hegemony? For don’t you know Muslims are angry? So angry, in fact, that they wish to enslave indigenous Yazidi women for sex, throw Syrian gays off tall buildings and burn people alive? All because… Israel. For Europe’s regressive-left—which is fast penetrating U.S. circles too—Muslims are not expected to be civilized. And Muslim upstarts who dare to challenge this theocratic fascism are nothing but an inconvenience to an uncannily Weimar-like populism that screams simplistically: It is all the West’s fault.
It is my fellow Muslims who suffer most from this patronizing, self-pity inspiring mollycoddling. And just as American Muslims, with some reason, fear becoming targeted by right-wing anti-Muslim prejudice, British Muslims are being spoon-fed regressive-left sedatives, encouraging a perpetual state of victimhood in order to score their petty ideological points against “the West.” In the name of cultural diversity, aspiration is being stifled, expectations have been tempered and because Muslims have their own culture don't you know, self-segregation and ghettoization have thrived.
Finally, on July 20 the British Prime Minister David Cameron mustered the political will to deliver a comprehensive speech setting out the UK’s approach to tackling the long rising tide of theocratic extremism in our communities. At last, Cameron named and shamed the Islamist ideology as a major factor behind the rise of such extremism. As founding chairman of Quilliam—an organization that seeks to challenge Islamism though civic debate across political divides—I was proud to have played a role in advising Downing Street on some of the core messages for this speech. I did this despite my being a Liberal, and not a member of the Prime Minster’s Conservative party. I did this because extremism affects our national, not just party-political, interests.
The Guardian, it seems, was not happy. Rather than react by providing much beleaguered feminist, gay or ex-Muslims with a crucial platform—as one would expect from a progressive newspaper—they featured a doting interview with the UK front-leader for the Islamist extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) complaining about the Prime Minster’s speech. HT wishes to resurrect a theocratic caliphate, in which—according to its draft constitution available online—they would execute “apostates.” They also believe in ISIS-style medieval punishments, such as stoning, amputations, punishing homosexuals, and approving of slavery in principle. I should know, for 13 years I was on the leadership of this group, serving five of those years as a political prisoner on its behalf in Egypt.
But this is not new for the Guardian. As the UK media industry magazine Private Eye later noted, over the years the paper has provided column space to supporters of al-Qaida, including Bin-Laden himself. On 23 February this year, the paper published a column by the leader of HT’s Australian branch, Uthman Badar, in which he makes it clear that though HT does not support ISIS, “neither will we condemn them,” for to do such a thing would be “morally repugnant.” Indeed, 10 years ago the Guardian even had a member of HT on its staff as a trainee journalist. Dilpazier Aslam’s affiliation was exposed on the blogosphere after he wrote an equivocating piece on the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London. Amidst public outrage, the paper was forced to pay him £30,000 as severance, probably to avoid a hearing at which editors may have had to admit that they knew about his HT affiliations all along. Like the Daily Mail of old, which to its eternal shame appeased the rise of Nazism, the Guardian is blinded by its infantilizing approach to minority communities, promoting the most regressive of theocrats, simply to “stick it to the man.”
And while the regressive-left have taken this approach with Islamist extremists, they have been simultaneously marginalizing that great political inconvenience, liberal Muslims. On July 21, a day after the Prime Minister’s speech, the Guardian G2 magazine’s commissioning editor Nosheen Iqbal wrote a glowing email to my office requesting an interview in order to discuss my “consistently dedicated work to combat extremism” and to build on the “momentum” of the Prime Minister’s speech so as to “flag up the crucial work being done behind the scenes.” Keen to engage the audience most hostile to liberal Muslims in the past, I was struck by the change of tone in this request, and felt that an opportunity to repair ties was at hand, so I agreed to the interview.
What I hadn’t seen was this same editor’s tweet, only a week prior, in which she made her dislike of me crystal clear. The resulting piece—conducted by David Shariatmadari—was nothing short of a character assassination. I have since responded in full to this hatchet job on my public Facebook page. Suffice to mention here that the article relied on no less than three anonymous hostile quotes, among countless other petty jibes and omissions of my actual answers. In fact, the piece was so bad that it appears to have violated the Guardian’s own editorial code on anonymized quotes. As was pointed out in the comment section, the Guardian reader’s editor has a policy on anonymous sources: they should “use anonymous sources sparingly (and)—except in exceptional circumstances—avoid anonymous pejorative quotes….the use of anonymous quotes is widespread within newspapers and is…particularly insidious when used to snipe at public figures in profiles.”
Other journalists and bloggers responded to the Guardian with advice, criticism, incredulity, scolding, and even a lesson in recent history. But it was mockery that proved to be the Guardian’s Achilles’ heel. By focusing on my personality, fluency, dress and beverage tastes—instead of my ideas and “crucial work” — the paper opened itself up to attack by a cleverly put together and popular satirical and irreverent piece. Satire has been a sanctuary historically monopolized by progressives, originally used as a discreet tool against Western religious fundamentalism. Of course, an authentic Muslim should not dress well, speak lucidly nor drink, of all things, a skinny flat white coffee. The real Muslim is scruffy. A credible Muslim can only be inarticulate, someone who requires an intermediary to ‘explain’ their anger, invariably through the prism of leftist ideological dogma. And if a Muslim does speaks for themselves, they must only do so when full of rage, obviously.
As another blogger accurately noted in response, the problem begins when journalists and others seek out “community representatives,” or “credible Muslim voices” to fit into convenient boxes. This relies on so many assumptions that it is hard to know where to begin. Not all Muslims wish to express themselves in public through a communal religious identity. Identities are multiple, and some may wish to speak instead just as citizens in their professional capacity, through their political party, or their neighborhood body. Those Muslim who do speak through their communal religious identity are not homogenous. This particularly holds true because majoritarian Islam has no organized clergy, and no pope. The question of religious “representation” becomes particularly difficult to achieve as a result. And in its most extreme sense it is undesirable anyway, leading logically to nothing but ISIS-style bloodshed and theocracy. Muslim “credibility” is just as flimsy an idea to pursue doggedly. In fact, this is nothing but a variant of the African-American “not black enough” theme. Who decides whose “Muslim experience” is real, and whose is not? Is the credible Muslim only he who dresses in Arab robes, eats spicy food and drinks cava? And yet we then worry about profiling?
The great irony is that, unlike many of today’s champagne socialists and shisha-jihadists my entire life has been a prototype of their archetypal aggrieved Muslim. Unlike the Guardian’s private school, Oxbridge-educated journalist David Shariatmadari, I am a state school-educated Muslim and racial minority. I have been stabbed at by neo-Nazis, falsely arrested at gunpoint by Essex police, expelled from college, divorced, estranged from my child, and tortured in Egyptian prison, and mandatorily profiled. I’ve had my DNA forcibly taken at Heathrow Airport under Schedule 7 Laws, which deprive terror suspects of the right to silence at UK ports of entry and exit, among much else. I’ve been blacklisted from other countries. I am every grievance regressive leftists traditionally harp on. Yet their first-world bourgeois brains seem to malfunction because I refuse to spew theocratic hate, or fit their little “angry Muslim” box. Yet they talk to me about privilege, and non-fat lattes?
There is a natural fear among Europe’s left, that challenging Islamist extremism can only aid Europe’s far-right. But the alternative to this fear must not be to instead empower theocratic fascism. There is a way to both challenge those who want to impose islam, and those who wish to ban Islam. It has not escaped me, nor other liberal Muslims, that while challenging Islamist extremism we must remain attentive to protecting our civil liberties. We are born of this struggle, after all. Over the years I have opposed past UK government ministers on ethnic and religious profiling, opposed Obama's targeted killings and drone strikes and opposed Senator King in the UK Parliament over his obfuscation and justification for torture. I have been cited by the UK PM for my view that though Islamist extremism must be openly challenged, non-terrorist Islamists should not be banned unless they directly incite violence. I have spoken out against extraordinary rendition and detention without charge of terror suspects. I have supported my political party, the Liberal Democrats, in backing a call to end Schedule 7. It is due to this very same concern for civil liberties that I vehemently oppose Islamist extremism and call for liberal reform within our Muslim communities, for our Muslim communities. We believe civil liberties cut both ways, for and upon minority communities, and it is due to this same passion for human rights that my organization Quilliam put out this anti-ISIS video only a day after the Guardian’s unfortunate sting. We chose to let our work speak for itself.
But if the regressive-left has its way, why worry about medieval punishments conducted in Islam’s name, such as the lashing of Saudi bloggers like Raif Badawi? Let us not be Uncle Toms, after all. Israel is the real enemy. Keep it real, man.