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.

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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain