Their views are seldom heard as ministers prefer to court radical Islamists
No political movement can hope to win arguments if it turns the best and bravest into its foes. For the most courageous British Muslims, the Labour government and wider liberal society already seem slippery and hypocritical. Soon, they will be irredeemably tainted.
Take Ansar Ullah, a Bengali leftist from the old school. Like many secularists of his generation, his life has been dominated by the struggle against Jamaat-e-Islami. The party’s name is rarely mentioned in our public life, although its supporters in the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Foundation are on the radio almost daily. The Bengali equivalents of British Observer readers know it all too well. They regard Jamaat as we regard the BNP: the sworn and potentially deadly enemy of all their best principles.
To stop the breakaway of its effective colony during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, the Pakistani army began by massacring the male students at University of Dhaka and forcing the women to be soldiers’ sex slaves. It targeted intellectuals and political opponents and, inevitably, the Hindu minority. Jamaat was on Pakistan’s side. Journalists at the time, and the researchers from the Bangladeshi War Crimes Fact Finding Committee since, claimed that a militia staffed by Jamaat members murdered 150 academics and journalists, including the BBC’s man in Dhaka, Nizamuddin Ahmed.
The allegation that Jamaat would want to exterminate liberals was hardly far-fetched. Maulana Mawdudi, its founder, has as a great a claim as Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood, to be the first to argue for a totalitarian Islamic empire. “The establishment of an ideological Islamic state requires the Earth,” he said. “Not just a portion, but the entire planet.”
Ullah told me with considerable satisfaction how Jamaat had been thrashed in the last Bangladeshi elections. Then he turned to politics in his native Britain and all the pleasure vanished from his voice.
There seems no decent limit to the willingness of the British state to flatter Jamaat. After Prince Charles visited its stronghold at the East London Mosque last year, the Queen was so pleased she featured footage of his tour in her Christmas message. When Lord Phillips, the lord chief justice, declared that in his learned opinion sharia could apply to Muslim women, he made the announcement in the mosque’s conference centre, an understandable choice of venue, since Jamaat is one of the most misogynist organisations in the country.
I might have explained to Ullah that Charles Windsor was the most reactionary member of a reactionary family and that the English judiciary is nowhere near as liberal as the Daily Mail believes, but I could not explain away the behaviour of the Labour government.
On the one hand, Hazel Blears has proved she is not a fairweather feminist or selective anti-fascist. She will argue for freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and gay and women’s rights regardless of her opponents’ colour or creed. On the other, Jack Straw and Gordon Brown engage in serpentine contortions as they attempt to cover all bases and keep potential voters in Labour’s innercity seats happy. In the confusion between the principled position of Blears and the desire of her colleagues and the civil service to appease, the government has created a “tackling violent extremism” strategy that panders to extremists.
Author Ed Husain, who made the journey from Jamaat and Hizb ut-Tahrir to liberalism, tells me that a senior Jamaat supporter is now an adviser on religious policy. In the past, he saw him in the East London Mosque. Now, he sees him in Whitehall. Last week, the Observer ran the story of how Daud Abdullah, a member of the government’s Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, had signed a declaration in Istanbul opposing the ceasefire in Gaza and advocating attacks on Royal Navy ships if they imposed an arms blockade.
On the same day, the Conservative thinktank Policy Exchange issued a report on how the government’s counter-terrorism strategy was backfiring because the state showed no willingness to discriminate between reactionaries and moderates. Many of its examples were familiar – the West Midlands Police and Crown Prosecution Service attacking Channel 4 for exposing a homophobic preacher who preferred theocracy to democracy and the Met making a far-right ideologue an adviser on “countering extremism”, even though he was the subject of an Interpol “red notice” at the time.
The evident dangers to national security and to the interests of British Muslims who want to enjoy the benefits of liberal democracy do not trouble the cynics of the political left. They assume that if they mouth the necessary pieties and scratch the right backs, the votes will pile up in our Tammany Halls.
But disreputable manoeuvres come at a price and Labour does not notice how its tactics repel thoughtful people from the Muslim world. The pioneer in rejecting treacherous friends was Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The death threats from Islamists her espousal of feminism brought earned her nothing but insults from Dutch leftists and English liberals. She ended up working for a conservative institute in Washington because her natural allies would not offer her their protection and support.
Ullah unconsciously picked up on her exasperation when he told me he was a Labour party member who found the behaviour of his government mystifying. “They never want to talk to people like me,” he said. When I asked Shiraz Maher, the co-author of the Policy Exchange report, why he had not offered his work to the leftish Fabians or Institute for Public Policy Research, he guffawed. They would never print what he wrote. For this Muslin liberal, the left was no longer a home but an obstacle.
Ed Husain did not laugh but exploded with anger. “Where is the centre-left movement combating extremism?” he thundered. “Who on the left stands on the side of Muslims who want to support secularism and pluralism? Do they think that fascists only have white skins?”
I had no answer for him, but sensed that his furious questions were a better indicator of the bankrupting of the long period of Labour dominance than any opinion poll.
• Nick Cohen’s essays, Waiting for the Etonians, have just been published by 4th Estate