Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ on Islamophobia

Among the things I am probably more phlegmatic about than some other HP readers are:

  • The APPG definition of Islamophobia
  • The word Islamophobia
  • Miqdaad Versi
  • Assertions that the Conservative Party is Islamophobic

However I found a segment which took in all these topics on Radio 4’s Sunday programme very frustrating.  Its starting point was a recent poll which found that nearly half of people in the UK think Islam is incompatible with British values; the two guests were Khalil Yousuf and Miqdaad Versi.

The inclusion of a more dissenting voice – maybe Maajid Nawaz or Amina Lone – would have forced both men to grapple more directly with the reasons for those poll results.  The conversation might have been more challenging for them – but could have been used to demonstrate the complexities which those most hostile to Islam may not acknowledge.  For as things stood, this feature would have done nothing to shift the views of an Islamosceptic listener.

Yousef is an Ahmadi Muslim, and this was the first elephant in the room. The Ahmadi are targets of sectarian bigotry and persecution, and the MCB, of which Miqdaad Versi is the assistant secretary general, has been criticised for refusing to recognize them as Muslims.

Neither Yousuf nor Versi went beyond the issue of terrorism when reflecting on the reasons for the poll results.  A more effective response would have included a discussion of non-violent extremism and very conservative social views.  Here one absent presence on the programme was any reference to the recent controversy over LGBT teaching in schools.  This might have been on the minds of many who gave a negative response to the pollsters. A conversation could have reminded or informed listeners that those from other faith groups have also supported the protests whereas some Muslims supported the teachers.

By asserting that ‘Islam has nothing to do with extremism’ Yousuf effectively cut off what could have been a more useful – if less comfortable– conversation, one which acknowledged that there is a clear tradition of interpreting Islam in ways which could (certainly) be characterised as extreme, but also countervailing traditions and more liberal readings. Because the guests were silent on these issues, hostile listeners would have filled in the gaps for themselves and felt their prejudices were confirmed. An open and frank discussion of, say, apostasy punishments might have felt like ceding ground, but could have encouraged some to conclude that maybe some versions of Islam were compatible with British values.

A sceptical listener might have wanted to turn Miqdaad Versi’s words back at him when he expressed concern over ‘really problematic views … these are very much mainstream rather than just within a fringe of the population’  – i.e. similar phrases and formulas are also sometimes applied to the views held by some Muslims.  However I do agree with Versi that there are serious problems in the way Muslims/Islam are represented in the media, although my sense is that the situation has improved a little over the last few years.  I also agree that there are problems in the Conservative Party which should be addressed.

The Runnymede Trust cautioned against seeing ‘Islam as a single monolithic bloc’. This is a tendency associated with anti-Muslim bigotry, but it’s a charge which could also be levelled at Islamists who insert their harsh version of Islam is the only true version. Versi and Yousuf don’t fall into this category – but their interviews would have been more meaningful if they had engaged with the way Islam is (to quote Runnymede again) ‘diverse … with internal differences, debates and development.’