Who are you calling an Islamist?

"My life and career", by Mehdi Hasan, "part 2"

It was Andy Warhol who remarked that one day we'd all have our fifteen minutes of fame. I'm now into my fifth day of online infamy - thanks to the blog, Harry's Place (as well as a blog on the Spectator). The former has devoted much time and energy, over five separate posts, to quoting selectively, and out of context, from various informal talks that I have given in recent years, in front of numerous British Muslim (and non-Muslim) audiences.

The end result? Commenters at Harry's Place have decided that I am an ally of "Andy Choudary" (I assume they mean Anjem Choudary, from the radical Muslim group, al Muhajiroun), that I come from a Hizb ut Tahrir "background" and that I'm a "raving Islamist bigot". One commenter says, "we are considering a misguided, arrogant, dangerous Muslim shit-head for a form of hate speech in the same genre as a Hitler rally, based on the Koran."

But consider this:

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who have written a piece entitled "There's nothing Islamic about a state" , as I did for the New Statesman in April, in which I concluded, with the words of secular Muslim professor Abdullahi An-Na'im, that "the Islamic state is a historical misconception, a logical fallacy and a practical impossibility"?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who challenge senior members of Hizb ut Tahrir in public debates, as I did with HT's Dr Imran Wahid in a debate on the future of European Islam in June 2006?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who believe not simply in parliamentary democracy but who passionately and publicly immerse themselves in the current campaign for the introduction of proportional representation via "AV plus", as I did earlier this month in the Vote for a Change campaign rally at Methodist Hall, where I shared a platform with Peter Tatchell and Polly Toynbee?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who chair and shape public debates on the future of the social-democratic centre-left, as I did at the annual Compass conference last month?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who tell an audience of Muslims that Islam is a "humanitarian" faith and insist that Muslim nations in the Middle East would be under an Islamic obligation to come to Israel's help were the Jewish state to suffer, God forbid, from a horrible natural disaster like an earthquake, as I did in a speech in February this year (a speech, incidentally, singled out for praise by former counter-terrorism minister Tony McNulty who was present in the audience that afternoon)?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who publicly denounce "those in our community who decry any collaboration any cooperation between Muslims and non-Muslims, who describe all non-Muslims as kafirs whom we owe nothing to, whom we need not offer any help or charity to" as I did in a speech in February this year ("I want to disassociate myself and all of us here from such extremist Muslims," I said at the time)?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who chastise Muslim audiences for daring "to criticize the way this country is run.... complaining and whining and moaning about how we're treated" when "we don't bother to exercise our basic right to vote", and who urge British Muslims to be "an engaged and outward-looking community....politically and socially proactive", as I did in a speech in a north London mosque in October 2007?

* How many Islamists or Islamic extremists do you know who tell a Muslim audience that "nowhere in the Quran, when we read it properly, can we find any justification for violence against civilians, for indiscriminate attacks of terror against noncombatants, against women, against children. Nowhere!", as I did in a speech in Manchester in September 2007, called "Disconnecting Islam from Violence" (and, again, quoted out of context by my anonymous critics at Harry's Place)?

I have spent my entire life, from secondary school to university to my professional life as a journalist, encouraging Muslims to be moderate, and to integrate, rather than remain outside the mainstream of British society. And I have had innumerable stand-up rows with extremist Muslims who think I am not Muslim enough; as well as with aggressive atheists who think I am not liberal or secular enough. It is par for the course.

So, what did I say, back in February, prior to joining the New Statesman, that has sent one corner of the blogosphere into such an angry frenzy? In the section from the speech quoted prominently (and, once again, out of context) at Harry's Place, I seem to refer to atheists as "kafirs", as "people of no intelligence" and as "cattle". In fact, I am quoting from the Quran - where the word "kafir" simply means "non-Muslim" or "non-believer" and it is in this sense (in fact, in its atheistic sense), and no other, that I used it. I do, however, acknowledge that in the hands of a few Muslim extremists, the word has taken on more sinister connotations. Perhaps it is a time for a debate on the future of this term - or, alternatively, to reclaim it from the bigots and radical Islamists. The Quranic phrase "people of no intelligence" simply and narrowly refers to the fact that Muslims regard their views on God as the only intellectually tenable position, just as atheists (like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris) regard believers as fundamentally irrational and, even, mentally deficient. As for the metaphorical use of the word "cattle", that has no more pejorative charge than does the word "sheep" when applied by atheists to religious believers - plus, you will note that I also refer to unthinking Muslims as "cattle" in the same speech, which was addressed primarily as a critique of my co-religionists (as you can see here and here).

Thankfully, many of my closest non-Muslim colleague and friends over the years have recognized that I am neither an Islamist, nor an extremist of any kind - Jonathan Dimbleby, for example, has said: "Mehdi is a devout Muslim but is at all times entirely within the framework of liberal democratic society. He typifies the best of British."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
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How Rome's new mayor Virginia Raggi is leading a normality revolution

The first female Roman mayor has promised an end to posturing public figures.

The Ottavia area of Rome, on the northern periphery of the Italian capital, is a part of the city that tourists rarely visit. In a sense, this is the real Rome, with problems that are typical of the rot that most residents have to put up with every day. It is a jumble of decaying concrete eyesores from the 1950s and 1960s – the legacy of rapid economic development and Mafia corruption – surrounded by parks where drug deals go down, and piles of refuse that sit uncollected for days.

It was here that the young mother of a newborn baby – who after her marriage had resettled in the area from the middle-class Roman neighbourhood where she was raised – started to become interested in politics. Seven years later, Virginia Raggi has been elected as Rome’s first female mayor and, having just turned 38, its youngest mayor ever. She is a symbol of change in Italy after two years of rule by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, another young leader, which have left millions of Italians disenchanted. Her rise is a sign that the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, may be coming of age after years as a protest vehicle.

Raggi not only won the run-off on 19 June but did so by the biggest margin in the history of Roman mayoral elections, trouncing the candidate whom Renzi supported by a ratio of 67:33.

Her story begins far from the glamour of the Capitoline Hill, on the dreary streets of Ottavia, where she pushed her baby boy, Matteo, in his pram and was forced to weave in and out of traffic, walk along “non-existent” footpaths where cars were double- or triple-parked, and negotiate the perils of abandoned municipal parks. “Rage at seeing my splendid city reduced to an undignified state” is what pushed her into politics, she writes on her website. It was a path that led to her unlikely victory as mayor of Rome (a post equal in importance in Italy to the mayor of London in the UK and a launchpad for campaigns to become prime minister).

Raggi, who was a lawyer before she became a politician, grew up largely indifferent to politics. When she became a parent, she joined neighbourhood committees and volunteer groups and started to press for sustainable organic farming and decent public transport. In 2011, disillusioned by the centre left after years of voting for Renzi’s Democratic Party (she comes from a family of progressive intellectuals), Raggi joined the Five Star Movement, having been dragged to its meetings by her husband, a radio technician.

Her rise was rapid. She ran in 2013 as a Five Star candidate for Rome’s 48-member city council and picked up one of the movement’s three seats (she received 1,525 votes; her husband also ran but failed to make it on to the council, with only 132 votes). When the former Rome mayor Ignazio Marino, an ally of Renzi, resigned after an expenses scandal, Raggi – already the Five Star Movement’s spokesperson for Rome – stepped forward as a candidate in the party’s primaries.

She defeated four rivals in the online balloting in February. It is a startling tale in an age of unlikely political narratives, reflecting a global pandemic of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. Italy’s Panorama magazine described her election, perhaps with a touch of hyperbole, as “a cultural revolution without precedent”.

There is a paradox at the heart of the upheaval that Raggi has caused. In Italy’s sordid and grimly entertaining political landscape – with its tales of the former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” parties, as well as Grillo’s clownish antics – the most surprising thing about the new mayor is that she seems normal. Raggi calls her campaign the “revolution of normality” – refreshing, perhaps, for Italians tired of posturing public figures. Inevitably the subject of Italian chatter for her fetching looks, Raggi comes across, above all, as serious, low-key, articulate and compassionate. She is selling policy over persona.

There have been shadows over her ascent. Her Rome law firm has past associations with Berlusconi’s long-time right-hand man Cesare Previti – a convicted criminal – and Raggi launched her legal career as an apprentice in Previti’s office. She has vehemently denounced whispers that she may be a double agent for Berlusconi’s centre-right party, Forza Italia.

Graver doubts arise from concerns that she may turn out to be a pawn of her anti-establishment party’s own establishment, in the form of Grillo. And because of the city’s Gordian knot of vested interests, being the mayor of Rome is in many ways a tougher job than being the prime minister of Italy. It has been a poisoned chalice for many an ambitious leader.

Yet the truth is that, even for Italians, Raggi remains a mystery – and that opens up intriguing possibilities. She may turn out to be a blank canvas on to which Romans, of both the left and the right, can project their hopes and frustrations. If she succeeds in steering her own course, however, she could position herself as a viable alternative to Renzi. Recent opinion polls indicate that the Five Star Movement may have edged past his Democrats and become Italy’s most popular party, with about 28 per cent of the nation’s support.

It is worth considering that Renzi rose to national prominence as the mayor of Florence – a city whose political significance pales in comparison with that of Rome – and went on to become prime minister. Could Raggi do the same?

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue