The Guardian and the Aslam Affair

The Aslam Affair seems to have drawn to its close, with the departure of both Albert Scardino and Dilpazier Aslam. Now is as good a time as any to review the lessons which have been learnt from it.

What concerned me most about the articles in question was not Aslam’s politics. Rather, it was the insight it provided into the difficult relationship between radical Islamism and important section of liberal opinion. On 26 July, I asked the following questions:

1. Did the Guardian editor or editors who commissioned the various Aslam pieces know that Aslam was a member of Hizb’ut Tahrir?

2. If so, did those editors appreciate the nature of Hizb?

3. If they knew the nature of Hizb, why did they continue to commission him to write articles on issues which are central to the Hizb political programme, without requiring the disclosure to their readership of Aslam’s membership of an extreme political party?

It now appears tolerably clear that, while some senior staff at the Guardian knew of Aslam’s membership of Hizb, they simply did not understand the nature of that political party. To the Guardian’s great credit, as soon as they were made aware of Hizb’s extreme politics, and its usually well disguised racism, it acted swiftly, sending a clear message that members of racist and totalitarian parties are not well qualified to be journalists at a liberal progressive newspaper.

Alan Rusbridger is, in my view, to be congratulated for making no excuses for the sacking. It was made clear that Aslam was not dismissed merely because he was a member of Hizb’ut Tahrir. Aslam was shown clearly racist propaganda published and distributed by his party and I understand that he refused to repudiate or even acknowledge its obvious racism. Accordingly, Aslam was quite properly sacked because he would not leave an organisation that embraces a racist ideology, and not because he had failed to declare his membership of it.

There are a number of important lessons to be drawn from the Aslam affair, not only by the Guardian, but by all the media:

First, key personel in both the newspaper world and the broadcast media should educate themselves, urgently, on the diverse nature of political and religious-political opinion which exists on the fringes of British society. That was true before 7 July, and it still holds true. Specifically, most newspapers manifest a pretty shocking laziness when it comes to analysing the nature of the various strands of Islamist ideology. There is also little understanding of the enormous crisis which exists within British muslim – and in particular, British-Pakistani muslim – society. If anybody is interested in a quick primer, Ehsan Masood’s recent article in Prospect is not a bad start.

The philosophies of Islamist groups should not be dismissed as some form of confused liberation politics practiced by people who are not sufficiently advanced to have discovered socialism, or a hysterical mirage created by the US right or, simplistically, the monsterous child of past US foreign policy errors come back to haunt us. Rather, the perspectives of Islamist groups should be treated seriously, and a greater effort should be made to understand their theoretical structure. Hizb is often given a free pass, not simply by the Guardian, but by Radio 4’s Today programme because – unlike the more colourful Al Muhajiroun/Ghurabba – its spokesmen do not advertise the party’s extremism by ranting and raving like a comic book villain. But Hizb is, nevertheless, a racist theocratic totalitarian party.

Secondly, although Islamist movements and some liberals and socialists may share some common perspectives – strong sympathies for the plight of Palestinians, or opposition to the Iraq war and US foreign policy generally, or what have you – the desired outcomes that each group respectively seeks differ fundamentally. Mere ignorance in no excuse for fellow travelling with illiberal, theocratic and totalitarian politics. When members of, or sympathisers with, the SWP-MAB/Muslim Brotherhood alliance do it, it should be exposed and condemned.

The final point which needs to be made is this. Aslam was brought into the Guardian under a “diversity programme”. Liberal newspapers which seek to reflect the pluralist nature of British society are right to operate such programmes. However some thought needs to be given to the purpose of a “diversity programme”. Newspapers which practice such programmes should select employees capable of a high degree of detatchment, and should not employ extreme partisans of a perspective which is marginal in the community from which they are recruited. Common standards should be applied; if a newspaper would not ordinarily employ doctrinaire racists, orientalism should not lead to the making of an exception to that rule. Neither should journalists be employed to be, in some sense, the “representatives” of their communities. For example, Gary Younge and Jonathan Freedland are journalists who come from ethnic minority groups and who have striven to maintain an independent perspective. That is what a diversity programme, at its best, should produce. At its worst, it produces a mouthpiece for Hizb’ut Tahrir, whose tiny number of recruits in the United Kingdom are drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of university students and young professionals who are frantic to reconnect with a what they imagine to be a pure version of a traditional religious culture from which, in many ways, they are profoundly alienated. By way of illustration, imagine an overseas newspaper employing a pubic school boy contributor to the Socialist Worker to provide “the view from Britain”.

One small footnote, and then I’ll leave the Aslam Affair alone, I promise. The Media Guardian writeup of the whole business missed an important point about the blogosphere. For all the hysteria about Aslam on some of the more rabid blogs, the issue raised some important questions about the nature of the relationship between the liberal-left and Islamism, which were seriously made. It would have been nice, in the circumstances, to have seen that acknowledged in a better judged article. One of the purposes of Harry’s Place is to provide a forum, which is not always available in traditional letters or comments pages, for an extended dialogue with parts of the media which we regard generally with fondness rather than disdain. I acknowledge that this purpose may not always be apparent, it is nevertheless what motivates us to write.