For those of you with an interest in the correct use of the English, the Guardian provides a useful example of the incorrect use of the term “refuted”.

Here is the original passage:

Pankhurst also refuted claims that he helped “groom” another ex-student, Omar Sharif, who blew himself up in Tel Aviv in 2003. “This guy must have been on the course at the same time as me at King’s College in 1996. I was president of the Islamic Society,” Pankhurst said. “Does that mean I was responsible for what he did seven years later? It’s neocon nonsense. It’s crime by association.”

Pankhurst is taking legal advice over “this false allegation”, he says.

The Guardian has realised its mistake and has altered the word “refuted” to “rebutted“.

Omar Sharif, you may remember, was one of a two man team which went to Israel to murder civilians drinking and enjoying music at Mike’s Bar. Sharif’s bomb did not explode, although his friend’s did. My suspicion is that he chickened out at the last moment and ran away. His body was later found floating in the sea.

The proper use of the term “refute” is a preoccupation of Oliver Kamm. Here he provides various examples of the correct and incorrect use of the term. Oliver concludes:

Occasionally a writer will be aware that refute and deny mean different things but not be familiar with the exact distinction. There is a temptation then to use “rebut” in the sense of “deny”. It should always be resisted. To rebut a charge means to offer detailed evidence against it. In a debate, one side will rebut the argument presented by the other. If it merely denies the argument, then there won’t be much of a debate. If it refutes the argument, then it will have won the debate.

So, was the Guardian correct to substitute the term “rebutted” for “refuted”? Let us consider Reza Pankhurst’s “rebuttal”:

This guy must have been on the course at the same time as me at King’s College in 1996. I was president of the Islamic Society,” Pankhurst said. “Does that mean I was responsible for what he did seven years later? It’s neocon nonsense. It’s crime by association.

Is that a rebuttal or a mere denial?  In order to answer that question, we must examine the claims to which Reza Pankhurst is responding.

Unfortunately, link to the original Evening Standard article is not working at the moment. Luckily, there is a copy of the relevant passage here:

[Pankhurst] was alleged to have played a key role in radicalising Omar Sharif, the British suicide bomber who died after an attempted attack in Tel Aviv in 2003. It is claimed that Sharif met Mr Pankhurst at Hizb meetings when he was a student at King’s College London in the Nineties.

According to Sharif’s former university friend, Zaheer Khan, Mr Pankhurst acted as Sharif’s mentor and had “a big hand to play” organising the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir on campus.

It is important to note that the Evening Standard article does not state that Mr Pankhurst sent Mr Sharif to Israel in order to murder civilians. It merely states that he “was alleged to have played a key role in radicalising” Mr Sharif.

These allegations were made, in greater detail, in an article in the New Statesman, four years ago. The article describes Mr Sharif’s lack of interest in religion or in identity politics, until he joined Hizb ut Tahrir, and the role that the group played in his radicalisation. This is what it says about his relationship with Mr Pankhurst:

Khan attended several HT meetings at King’s, especially ones addressed by guests such as Omar Bakri and Mohammad al-Massari, the radical said to have links to Osama Bin Laden. Khan says Sharif never missed a meeting. “I think it was probably towards the mid-first-year when he was heavily attending all, absolutely all, HT-organised circles and even when speakers came from outside he’d be there,” he says. At the beginning of the second year, Khan, now more interested in completing his studies, drifted away from the group, but by that time he says that his friend was “squarely” with HT, meeting members from outside the university as well. According to Khan, Sharif acquired a mentor: Reza Pankhurst, one of the HT members released from a three-year prison sentence in Egypt in February this year. Khan remembers attending talks by Pankhurst and says that although he wasn’t the leader he had “a big hand to play” in organising on campus.

In summary, therefore, it is said that (a) Reza Pankhurst was a Hizb ut Tahrir activist at Kings with “a big hand to play” in organising its activities,  (b) that Omar  Sharif  regularly attended those activities, and that accordingly Mr Pankhurst became his ‘mentor’. The only detail that the Evening Standard adds, is that Reza Pankhurst is said to have played “a key role in radicalising Omar Sharif”. In the original New Statesman article, the argument is that, by attending meetings organised by a group in which Reza Pankhurst was a major player, Omar Sharif became radicalised.

In summary, the New Statesman article argues that Mr Sharif came to university with no strong religious opinions, but left wholly immersed in the political milieu of Hizb ut Tahrir. Hizb ut Tahrir, so it is claimed, radicalised Omar Sharif.

Is Reza Pankhurst’s response a “denial” or a “rebuttal”?

Applying Oliver Kamm’s test: Reza Pankhurst certainly does not provide “detailed evidence” against the claims. Indeed, when they were originally made in 2006, this is what Hizb ut Tahrir had to say:

In a response to this piece, it flatly says that Sharif “had no affiliation whatsoever with Hizb ut-Tahrir” and his decision to become a suicide bomber was “not influenced at all by any member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, including Reza Pankhurst”. In a statement it added: “Despite extensive investigations by the police and security services, including legal proceedings against members of the Sharif family, no link to Hizb ut-Tahrir has ever been proven.”

Hizb ut Tahrir’s assertion  that Omar Sharif had no “affiliation” to the organisation or its activists, and that no “link” has been proven in legal proceedings is substantively the same position as that taken by Reza Pankhurst: who adds the flourish that any suggestion to the contrary is “neocon nonsense” and “crime by association”.

In contrast to that denial, the New Statesman article details a contemporary who is adamant that Omar Sharif was indeed a compulsive attendee at Hizb ut Tahrir activities, including those in which Reza Pankhurst had “a big hand to play” in organising.

It is possible, of course, that by “affiliation”, Hizb ut Tahrir means that he was not a member of their party. However, unlike most political parties, it is not easy to become a member of Hizb ut Tahrir. The majority of those attending Hizb ut Tahrir meetings regularly will not be members at all. Therefore, that claim could be true, in a technical sense. However, a denial of an “affiliation” does not preclude the possibility that Hizb ut Tahrir nevertheless played a role in shaping Mr Sharif’s political and religious worldview.

Importantly, Reza Pankhurst does not appear to deny that he had contact with Omar Sharif. In fairness, he might not be able to do so. It was, after all, a long time ago. Mr Pankhurst has since spent four years in an Egyptian jail, and perhaps cannot remember the many many students he would have met as President of the Islamic Society and a Hizb ut Tahrir activist, all those years ago.

Assuming therefore that Mr Sharif’s friend is not lying, the next issue is this. Did Hizb ut Tahrir ideology plausibly have a role in radicalising Omar Sharif? If Reza Pankhurst wished to “refute” or “rebut” the mooted influence of his party’s political theory, he would need to engage with the nature of Hizb ut Tahrir’s teachings.  What sort of things would he, and other Hizb ut Tahrir activists, have said to students during the relevant period? And might Hizb ut Tahrir theory have resulted in the radicalisation of those students?

Here is an example of Hizb ut Tahrir’s political theory. It is a religious ruling which purports to provide guidance on the propriety of hijacking aeroplanes, entitled The Islamic Rule on Hijacking Aeroplanes. The position of Hizb ut Tahrir is as follows.

– Aeroplanes from an “Islamic country” are  “Muslim property” and
cannot be hijacked.

– Aeroplanes from a “Kafir state with whom there is no direct war with Muslims” may not be hijacked.

– Aeroplanes from a “country which is at war with the Muslims, like Israel, it is allowed to hijack it , for there is no sanctity for Israel nor for the Jews in it and their property and we should treat them as being at war with us”. In that case it is permitted to hijack and destroy the aeroplane and terrorize and kill the passengers.

There is an excellent article by Raziq, a former Hizb ut Tahrir member, who details his former party’s position on violence and terrorism, in pursuit of religious-political goals.

In order to “refute” or “rebut” the argument, Reza Pankhurst and Hizb ut Tahrir would need either to deny that Hizb ut Tahrir – during its most outspoken “Omar Bakri Mohammed” period, no less – did not obsess about fighting Jihad, particularly against Jews. Or, alternatively, that exposure to that sort of thinking was neither “radical” nor  “radicalising”.

I would have thought that a student who attended Hizb ut Tahrir meetings in the 1990s would have become radicalised. Neither Hizb ut Tahrir nor Mr Pankhurst have attempted to argue that Hizb ideology would not have that effect – but perhaps they do not think that Hizb ut Tahrir’s political programme is a radical one. Moreover, no attempt has been made by Mr Pankhurst either to refute or rebut the claim that Omar Sharif was a regular attendee at Hizb ut Tahrir meetings.

Therefore, the Guardian needs to make one more correction to its article.  Reza Pankhurst has neither refuted nor rebuted the allegations in question. He has merely denied them.