The first time I was ever called a racist was not long after I joined Twitter. I was debating Asghar Bukhari of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK on the teachings of Islamic holy texts and their direct influence on real world atrocities committed by those who cite these sources as inspiration. After a lengthy disagreement, which almost immediately degenerated into playground insults from him towards me, he apparently decided that in order for me to oppose certain aspects of a religious & political ideology I must have an underlying agenda of racism. DJ Nihal Arthanayak of the BBC Asian Network stepped in at one point to defend me against these accusations by stating that, in his opinion I was not a racist, but unfortunately this either fell on deaf ears or did not fit Bukhari’s agenda and was therefore promptly dismissed.
As it turns out, this kind of reaction tends to be par for the course when a critical eye is cast over Islamic extremism and Islam in general, in a way that seems not to occur with any other religion or political movement. It is an unfortunate fact that there are people in this world that will prejudge, discriminate and dislike people based on their skin colour, nationality, heritage and a number of factors over which the victim of this discrimination has no control. George Galloway, for example, walked out of a debate at Oxford University last year on account of his opponent’s nationality. This kind of bigotry, and indeed bigotry in general, is something I have nothing but distain for, and so in my naivety, I was not expecting to be accused of racial hatred due to my criticisms of the more distasteful aspects of an overtly political belief system.
Another encounter on Twitter, with an Islamic apologist called Ann Fields[i], also resulted in the term “racist” being thrown around rather frivolously and in an accusatory tone. When I raised the question of definitions, the response was one I was entirely unprepared for. According to Ann, the definition of “racism” as described in the Oxford English Dictionary is in fact incorrect. Ann’s definition of racism is far broader, more general and includes any instance where the recipient of a particular comment or action deems an implicitly racist intent. In other words, virtually anyone can be accused of racism for any reason if one party decides to refer to themselves as a victim.
The dishonesty inherent in redefining words in order to use them in out of context is, I hope, readily apparent, but the bigger issue with resorting to this tactic is the covert degradation of a vitally important term. Misusing words as essential as “Racist” and “Racism” as a way to stifle debate, silence criticism and to brand such criticism as motivated by bigotry is obscene, and by doing so the user is contributing to the dilution of these words to the point where they are robbed of all meaning. This casual and dishonest widening of the net is doing a serious disservice to victims of real racism by eroding the impact of the term and undermining the seriousness of its implications. Furthermore, these accusations of racism in response to the opposing of Islamic extremism and fundamentalism fail to take one important factor into account: namely that those who suffer primarily from Islamist aggression and hard-line interpretations of Sharia are undoubtedly Muslims themselves. That a defence of persecuted Muslims could be accused as stemming from a racially motivated, bigoted, anti-Muslim agenda is paradoxical.
I think, for the most part, that many Islamic apologists who would ideally like to equate a dislike of certain ideological beliefs and practices with bigotry are actually very much aware of the transparent dishonesty inherent in throwing accusations of “racism”, and that this awareness goes some way towards explaining the prevalence of the fatuous catch-all term “Islamophobia” as a popular tactic used to fill this void.
A phobia is a form of anxiety or fear which is usually deemed to be irrational due to the disproportionate sense of danger perceived in relation to the nature of the threat posed. However, there is no reason to believe that distain for an overtly political ideology and its real world consequences, falls into this category. As someone who suffers from a fear of heights when in tall buildings or other structures that are somehow connected to the ground, but is bizarrely unaffected when flying in aircraft, I am acutely aware that the underlying substance of phobias are notoriously difficult to pin down. Conversely, aversions to religious and political systems are almost always backed up with extensive justifications. Far from being irrational fears they are, in many cases, the result of considered, measured analyses.
Again, rather than addressing concerns head on, a word is being used in an inappropriate context to shoot down any potential debate before it can even get off of the ground. These kinds of knee-jerk, defensive reactions to legitimate concerns, questions and grievances amount to nothing more than a frustrating diversion tactic which renders the process of open and honest debate virtually impossible.
It has generally been the case that when asked if they support the practices of stoning for adultery, amputations for theft and hanging for homosexuality, certain high profile Muslims are able to state their vague disapproval due to a lack of specificity within the question that allows for an answer that belies their true opinions. However, Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation often asks a carefully formulated version of this question which is worded in such a way as to not allow for any doublespeak or equivocation in the answer. The question when asked in this way invariably leaves the responder unable to answer for fear of exposing their embarrassingly dubious views on the subject.
In the BBC documentary When Tommy Met Mo, Nawaz asked Muslim spokesperson Mohammed Ansar the following question:
If an Islamic state existed, should it chop off someone’s hand for theft if all the Sharia conditions are met?
Ansar was famously unable to answer the question. The same carefully worded question was put to Adnan Rashid on the BBC show The Big Questions recently this time in respect to the stoning of adulterous women. Once again, an honest, straightforward answer was not forthcoming. Even more worryingly, Ibrahim Hewitt (chairman of Interpal) was also deliberately evasive in condemning the execution of adulterous women when questioned by Nawaz on Newsnight. Hewitt, it should be noted, is the founder and chairman of trustees of the Al-Aqsa school in Leicester which is responsible for the education of 250 children aged between three and eleven.
Time and again, a refusal to engage openly and honestly occurs when Muslims are questioned over their beliefs. I have seen this question asked innumerable times on social media and it is continually met with diversions, avoidances, re-directs and a general unwillingness give a coherent, straightforward answer. In fact the only time I have seen a variation of this question answered on Twitter was when I asked a user who calls himself ‘Muslim Patrol’ the following:
If it could be agreed by Islamic jurists that stoning an adulterous woman to death was a legitimate part of Islam, would you support it?
His answer was yes.
A reluctance to acknowledge and criticise the actions of Islamic fundamentalists based upon some kind of half-baked equivalency is another especially prominent method of attempting to suppress debate and to ostensibly divert attention away from the threat Islamism currently poses. Compare and contrast the reaction towards the recent conflict in Gaza with the reactions towards Islamist atrocities the world over. The Islamic State (formerly ISIS) has installed a caliphate in Iraq in which civilians are crucified, entire families are buried alive, children are murdered and women are sold into sexual slavery. At the time of writing, news has just broken that this same group in Syria has beheaded an American Journalist named James Foley with a dull knife and posted the video of his execution online as a warning against opposing them. Yet the focus is always diverted to Israel’s actions in Gaza when any mention of this inexcusable barbarism is made. IS has killed over 3 times as many civilians as have been killed by Israeli defensive strikes upon Gaza and yet Israel is constantly insisted by many Muslims as being the bigger, more urgent issue.
Over one hundred thousand people have died in the Syrian civil war. Hamas routinely use their own women and children as human shields whilst firing rockets indiscriminately at civilians. Boko Haram butcher Nigerian school children in targeted attacks and sell kidnapped girls into slavery. Al Shaabab take siege of a shopping mall in Kenya and massacre anybody who cannot recite the Quran from memory. The Taliban commit systematic massacres against civilians, run a network of human trafficking and engage in a brutal oppression of women whilst their supporters in al-Qaeda routinely execute civilians and opponents and carry out suicide bombings designed to inflict maximum loss of innocent life. People all around the world have been killed in more than twenty three thousand separate Islamic terror attacks since the al-Qaeda assaults upon American society on 11th September 2001 and the overwhelming majority of these victims are other Muslims. Yet the outrage, the protests and the general condemnatory response from the global Muslim community is muted at best and non-existent at worst. Not only do suspected Jihadists espousing extremist rhetoric in mosques go unreported by their fellow worshippers, but investigations into Islamic extremism are routinely hampered and disrupted by cries of Islamophobia and racism – charges that are also paradoxically levied at the Muslim anti-extremism organisation The Quilliam Foundation. When compared against the Muslim reaction in response to the actions of the Israeli State or even to potentially offensive cartoons, books and films being published in free democratic societies; this noticeable and vocal outrage against their own co-religionists dragging their religion into apparent disrepute is suspiciously absent.
A shocking statistic published recently suggests that more than twice as many British Muslims have joined jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq than currently serve in the British Armed Forces. Indeed the executioner of journalist James Foley spoke with a British accent. There is a clear problem facing the UK as well as many other democracies whereby many of the Muslims citizens, if not directly participating in jihad, are at least unwilling to roundly condemn extremism and instead concentrate on providing enough of a smokescreen to divert attention away from the real issue and its root cause.
These ad homonym attacks, equivocations, diversions and tactics of downplaying legitimate concerns need to be seen for the red-herrings they are and I would urge truly moderate Muslims to stand up against the extremists in their communities and help to combat the ideology of Islamism.
I recall a story from last year where a group of English Defence League supporters had congregated in protest outside a mosque in York. The reaction of the Muslims inside was to hand out cups of tea and custard creams. They invited the protesters inside and listened to their concerns and then culminated the whole affair with game of football. In the spring of last year the English Defence League and the Muslim charity JIMAS marched side by side in memory of Drummer Lee Rigby in Ipswich. Indeed Ivan Humble (former regional organiser of the EDL) and Manwar Ali (chief executive of JIMAS and former Jihadist) were guests on BBC Radio Suffolk recently and spoke of their dedication to working together and addressing each other’s concerns.
Gestures like this seem to be something of a rarity but are absolutely paramount to the advancement of intercommunity relations and are vital in tackling the issue of extremism and radicalisation.
Now, more than ever, it is vital that we engage in honest and open dialogue for all of our sakes.
[i] There are a number of Twitter users that suspect “Ann Fields” to be one of the many sock puppet accounts of Muslim spokesman Mohammed Ansar whose pseudonym in this instance is derived from the name of Liverpool FC’s home ground.