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Shiraz Maher Has His Say

Nick Cohen and Sunder Katwala, director of the Fabian Society, have been at daggers drawn over the last few weeks after Cohen accused the Left of betraying ‘liberal Muslims’.

I initially had no intention of involving myself in this extraordinary row, and have resisted commenting on it so far – however, after being subjected to repeated ad hominem attacks in the most personal terms, I feel that I have to say something in response.

During a lengthy conversation with Cohen, on which he based part of his article, I suggested that neither the IPPR nor Fabian Society would have published my recent pamphlet for Policy Exchange which outlined a model for engagement with Muslim groups based on normative British values.

What followed the publication of that comment was a remarkable and heated response from the liberal-left which repeatedly maligned me.

Both Katwala and Stephen Pritchard, the Readers’ Editor at the Observer who belatedly waded into the row, felt Cohen was disingenuous because he neglected to mention my previous membership of a radical Islamist group, Hizb ut Tahrir (HuT).

That line of attack was surreal. My former activism with HuT is probably the best known fact about me.

I should make it clear to unfamiliar readers that I was a member of HuT from 2002-2005, which I joined, and left, while at university, before resigning as a matter of conscience. Though my association with HuT is something that I regret, I have never hidden my previous membership of that group. Indeed, since leaving the organisation I have spent much of my time advising young Muslims against the group, and against radical Islam more generally.

During my last year in HuT while I was studying at Cambridge University I also met and associated with the Glasgow bombers who were in the city at that time. I left Cambridge in 2005, resigning from HuT in the process, and had no further contact with either of the men involved in that attack. Two years later they would come back to haunt me. Thumbing through a newspaper I realised that I knew the men involved in the attack at Glasgow airport and immediately went to the police to offer any information that might have assisted their case. I later also appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the trial of those men and helped secure a conviction against Bilal Abdulla who is now serving 32 years in jail.

I cannot object to criticism of my political choices as an undergraduate: although as Katwala observes, few political careers end where they started. However, I find it hugely depressing that my adolescent politics are being deployed as a means of deflecting attention off the serious issues highlighted in my Policy Exchange report. And, in the context of Cohen’s article, I cannot see what possible relevance my background had to his story.

I would prefer not to engage with the ad hominem attacks leveled against me, but to explain why it was reasonable to suggest that neither the IPPR nor the Fabian Society would have published the paper I wrote for Policy Exchange.

Katwala points to Sadiq Khan’s admirable speech at the Fabian Society in 2006 when he compared Hizb ut Tahrir to the BNP. That is a welcome and accurate comparison but, in this context, it misses the point. Most people would agree that HuT is a bad thing, but I think that political Islamists – many of whom would eschew HuT’s methods – come from the same ideological stable. I would humbly submit, though it is of no pride to me, that on this point, I know rather more about how Islamist groups operate.

The real therefore issue is how a liberal society responds to the challenge of ‘entryist’ groups who seek to Islamise the public and political space. This was the central argument of my report.

Sadiq Khan was not the only person to speak at the “Being a British Muslim” event in 2006, but was also joined by Mohammed Abdul Bari from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB): a group Hazel Blears has recently shunned because of concerns about its views. On another occasion, the Fabian Society also hosted then General Secretary of the MCB, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, at the “New Year Conference 2006” to speak about “Are we educating for a shared society?” In that year the Fabians also extended a platform to Tariq Ramadan, a man whose heteroglossia has given cause for real concern, to discuss “Islam of the West: Will the Reformers Win?”. The crucial point about all three of these men is that they have associations with not uncontroversial Islamist bodies. Why, then, did a centre-Left organisation choose to host them?

Along with those voices the Fabians have also hosted genuinely liberal Muslim elements, which deserves recognition. However, the body of opinion which says we should balance space given to ‘reformers’ by also giving space to ‘radicals’ strikes me as perverse, borne of a dangerous deference to relativism. That is precisely what we were arguing against, in our study.

Notably, Sadiq Khan, Chair of the Fabian Society, backed Hazel Blears on this very issue when she took the courageous decision to prevent government officials from attending IslamExpo last year. The logic of that progressive decision implied a more rigorous policing of the boundaries of engagement, and Khan was right to have given Blears his support.

Of course, the progressive Left understood from an early stage that confessional identity politics was a bad thing in the context of Northern Ireland – so why should it think the same dangers do not apply on the British mainland in the context of radical Islam?

At the heart of all this lies the question about what kind of society we want to build for the future. After Ruth Kelly began the important process of distancing government from some of its traditional Islamist partners, Azzam Tamimi was quick to criticise those who were newly empowered. He suggested the government had chosen some Sufi partners ‘because these [Sufi] orders generally encourage the separation between life and religion’. More recently, the spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain – Inayat Bunglawala – said that Policy Exchange ‘has consistently tried to promote an apolitical version of Islam’.

Would this be such a bad thing? It may be bad news for Azzam Tamimi and Inayat Bunglawala, but why would it be bad news for Britain? Do we really want more religion in politics? Do we want to see more people adopting faith-based political identities? Ultimately, do we want progressive, non-sectarian politics in this country, or do we want to accommodate ourselves to sectarian ‘realities’?

These are among the most pressing issues for our society, and require consideration form those on all sides of the political spectrum.

Our argument is that we should not extend a platform to those who rail against the most basic values of our liberal society. It was therefore reasonable to conclude that the Fabian Society would not have published my report in the form that Policy Exchange produced it.

I also suggested that the IPPR would not have published my report and an article appearing on their website last week confirmed as much. Andy Hull and Ian Kearns said:

“Non-violent Islamists are much more likely to come across Al Qaeda recruiters and recruits than moderates, who do not move in those circles. And unlike most mainstream Muslim leaders, Al Qaeda’s Islamist critics have the credentials to make their criticism bite. If, as seasoned former counter-terrorism officer, Bob Lambert, observes, ‘Al Qaeda values dozens of recruits over hundreds of supporters’, can the government really afford to do business only with moderates?”

This is the entire issue on which my paper centred. I argued that because non-violent Islamists share many of al-Qaeda’s aspirations – though not its means – they are not acceptable partners for public engagement. It confirms that the IPPR would also have been reluctant to publish my paper which is diametrically opposed to the views espoused by Hull and Kearns.

However, as with the Fabian Society, it would be misleading to suggest that the IPPR always get it wrong. They are right to suggest “people can change their politics over time” (who am I to argue with that?) and recently invited Dilwar Hussain, head of the policy research centre at the Islamic Foundation, to write a chapter in their publication “Faith in the Nation: Religion, identity and the public realm in Britain today”. We welcomed his comments in my report as signalling a “welcome departure” for the Islamic Foundation.

Hussain’s comments are then only discussed in the context of how the government should assess and monitor institutional change. Indeed, if the balance within the Islamic Foundation is being tipped in favour of young reformers then surely the IPPR should welcome serious debate about how such reform is assessed.

Rather than consider these issues both Hull and Kearns resorted to lazy accusations of ‘thought policing’ and ‘McCarthyism’. My report was quite clear on what it advocated – disengagement from radical groups. That has nothing to do with criminalisation, but is about the government setting a clear marker of those values it believes are non-negotiable in our liberal society – or do Hull and Kearns believe that we have now gone so far into the entitlement culture that any official refusal to engage with sectarian groups is akin to criminalisation?

There is a final issue to address here too. Katwala and Pritchard both accuse me of being “miles off the pace” and “out of touch” with current liberal debate because I suggested that government has not done enough to promote the idea of “Britishness” as a counterbalance to the confident worldview radical Islam offers young men.

They point to a plethora of speeches and roundtables where ministers have spoken about the idea, all of which I acknowledge in my report.

My criticism is that while government has spoken about these issues, little meaningful change has materialised as a result of this debate. In fact, my report quite clearly states that the ideas espoused by government are ‘imprecise’, ‘vague’ and ‘poorly defined’ rendering them useless.

Debates in the Westminster village or with John Humphrys cockcrow constituency are one thing, but what is government doing to communicate its message of an inclusive and progressive national identity to the average Abdul in Bradford, or the ordinary Omar in Oldham?

Katwala and Pritchard miss this point entirely.

Rather than engage constructively with these issues, Nick Cohen’s enemies have used my naïve and youthful political errors as a stick to beat him with. I have been hurt and disappointed by this element of the debate. I am however delighted that my pamphlet has kick-started a much needed debate about the government’s engagement strategy, and welcome the comments and criticisms that have followed.

But the deeply personal terms in which so much of this spat has been conducted is unwarranted and jeopardises the emerging liberal consensus on important issues which transcend the traditional left-right divide.

This article clarifies the context in which my comments were made, and the basis on which they were reasonably founded. For Cohen to have alerted his comrades to that was not disingenuous, but a moral duty.