Our tolerance to intolerance is a familiar story. The book-burning rallies during the 1989 Rushdie affair should have been a wake-up call to religious fundamentalism. Instead we became paranoid about causing offence and tried to appease regressive community leaders who dishonestly claimed to be speaking on behalf of the “Muslim community”. We lacked the confidence to challenge them or extremists, and as a result they have thrived.
It is clear we have learned little about the diversity of Muslims. We have not only been prepared to legitimise Islamist preachers and groups, we continue to hold the misguided belief that we are serving the interests of the so-called “Muslim community”. We unhelpfully lump Muslims under the banner of a singular “community”.
This myopic perception of Muslims is part of the problem. How many times do we hear politicians and others tell us Muslim terrorists are not “true Muslims”, that they “don’t represent the Muslim community”?
Yet this outdated language conceals the problem. We fail to understand the battle taking place among Britain’s Muslims between those who advocate for a pluralistic humanistic interpretation of Islam against those who subscribe to a supremacist, intolerant and anti-Western Islam.
There are Muslims in our country who support this hostile Islam; they represent the far-Right of British Muslims, and the unfortunate truth is that they are pretty popular.
They preach on campuses, at community events, and have a large online following, some in their hundreds of thousands. Promoting conspiracy theories, calling for the establishment of a caliphate, pouring suspicion on any engagement with state agencies, endorsing anti-Semitism, and intolerance to other Muslims who don’t share their Islamist world view… they then employ the language of multiculturalism and human rights to win supporters while duplicitously playing the victimhood card.
I have seen this for a long time, yet naïve politicians with their singular myopic lens about the “Muslim community” are so eager to stand up against anti-Muslim hatred they end up legitimising the very people who provide the climate for extremism, and attack progressive Muslims who seek to counter Islamist extremism.
This tolerance to extremism was demonstrated by Citizens UK when it invited chief imam of Lewisham Islamic Centre Shakeel Begg to speak at a demonstration on child refugees outside Parliament last year. Only six weeks earlier a High Court judge had ruled that Begg was an “extremist Islamic speaker” who had “promoted and encouraged religious violence” and had glorified key 20th-century jihadist ideologues.
Citizens UK’s defence was that the event it asked Begg to speak at was about the issue of child refugees. One wonders if the charity would extend such a warm invitation to far-Right extremists who have advocated violence to come along and speak about child refugees. I doubt it.
Our tolerance to extremism is also demonstrated by anti-racist groups unwilling to challenge Islamists. Hope Not Hate is one of the very few; it has dipped its toe in the water to find itself — rather typically— of being accused of racism and Islamophobia. Yet so-called anti-racist groups like Stand up to Racism and the NUS invite groups like Cage and Mend to speak at their events, while last year the NUS “no-platformed” Hope Not Hate’s Nick Lowles for “being Islamophobic”. In other words, challenging Islamist extremism is seen as bigotry.
As a Muslim, I find this to be nothing but outright hypocrisy by anti-racist groups who, consumed by identity politics, are unable to see the wood for the trees. Although they are prepared to challenge traditional far Right extremists, they are not prepared to call out far-Right Islamist extremists in the erroneous belief that to do so is Islamophobic. This is the dismal out of touch state of our anti-racist movement today.
Which is why two days before the election, it is imperative that we ask our prospective candidates what their position on how they would challenge Islamic extremism. Find if they even have any understanding of the issue.
A few days ago I received an email from a councillor. For two years, he told me he had been pressing his council to deal with the alarming rising risks from Islamism, which he saw taking root among Muslims in his and neighbouring towns. With increasing segregation, it was clear policies were needed to reverse segregation. He came across resistance from others councillors “who rely heavily on the Muslim vote” but also “officers who seem to live in a parallel multicultural universe”. His story is unbearably familiar to me.
Almost 30 years on from the Rushdie affair, we remain stuck in a vortex of outdated multicultural, multi-faith policies and our ignorance about Islamist extremism remains unchallenged. Muslims need to acknowledge this without getting defensive and redouble their efforts in countering Islamist ideology. We are not doing enough. However, what is also needed is a broad coalition that seeks to defend our shared values and counters all divisive hate beliefs based on our common humanity. No such movement, fit for purpose in the 21st century, exists. It’s high time it did.
Sara Khan is author of The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, and director of the counter-extremism organisation Inspire. Follow Inspire on Twitter @wewillinspire