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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As we reach the 50th anniversary of China's Cultural Revolution, are we seeing echoes of Mao?

With the official verdict being that Mao was “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”, his legacy is never far from the mind of today's politicians.

The Great Hall of the People on the western side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing is normally the scene for formal occasions, such as the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. In early May, however, it resonated with singing by a group of young women, 56 Flowers, at a concert staged by an organisation calling itself the “Propaganda Department Office of Socialist Core-Value Propaganda and Education”. Tickets sold for up to £200.

The repertoire of the singing group was of a kind heard only rarely in China today. It consisted mainly of anthems from the Mao Zedong era, among them “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman”, which compares the chairman’s thinking to “the sun that never sets”. The maverick politician Bo Xilai used such songs in his campaign to challenge the central leadership earlier this decade but he is now in prison, serving a life sentence for corruption.

The singers, who describe themselves as “the socialist band fallen from heaven”, wear the sort of scarves worn by Young Pioneers in the Cultural Revolution that Mao launched, 50 years ago this month, to shake up China and assert his leadership.

Some other songs praised the current leader, Xi Jinping, but the event was determinedly retro, demonstrating nostalgia for the era before China embarked on its race for economic growth and before society modernised. In a country where the leaders shape history to their purpose, this was a distinct political statement, and that the performance was permitted at all raised eyebrows among China-watchers. There was even more puzzlement when the organisation that put its name to the show turned out not to exist. Speculation spread that the whole thing had been staged by opponents of the current leadership in an attempt to embarrass it.

While Mao remains the biggest figure in the narrative of the People’s Republic, his three decades in power were marked by killings on a huge scale and the repeated use of terror, ending with the ten-year disaster of the Cultural Revolution. His heritage poses a problem in a country with a vastly changed society that has little affinity with the rampaging Red Guards. The Communist Party-run state needs the Great Helmsman at the centre of its history and its conquest of power. But the kind of nostalgia peddled by 56 Flowers has little relevance in China today, where materialism is more important than Maoist Marxism and where the pressing issues are how to deal with a mountain of debt and reduce excess industrial capacity.

In an unprecedented move in mid-May, the party newspaper People’s Daily ran a severe condemnation of the Cultural Revolution as a grave mistake. However, Mao’s body still lies embalmed in Tiananmen Square, his head is on the banknotes and the official verdict is that he was “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad”.

Mao launched the movement that convulsed his country after a politburo meeting on 16 May 1966, which identified “representatives of the bourgeoisie who have sneaked into the party, the government, the army and various spheres of culture” but were merely “a bunch of counter-revolutionary revisionists”, aiming to instal “a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.

The man who had led the Chinese communists to power in 1949 had been feeling disgruntled. He had been marginalised by his lieutenants Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping following the collapse of his attempt to industrialise the country in the Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s and the ensuing famine, which some estimate to have killed more than 40 million people. Mao was nearly 73 but he was not yet ready to be kicked upstairs into a ceremonial post.

Rousing himself for a final power play, Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to assert himself, to destroy the Communist Party’s “bourgeois” bureaucracy and to give China a shake-up as he led the nation’s young people on a crusade to “destroy the old”. Once more, he ruthlessly turned Chinese against Chinese to consolidate his power and to pursue a supposedly revolutionary adventure.

The effects were, as with earlier initiatives, catastrophic – politically, economically and socially – above all, for the many millions who suffered death, injury, torture and deprivations. The party, the army, schools, universities and practically all other institutions were caught up in the maelstrom.

The wrecking of the regime’s control mechanisms cleared the way to the economic reform that was officially approved by Deng after Mao’s death in 1976, as Frank Dikötter shows in his magisterial new book, The Cultural Revolution: a People’s History, 1962-76. But loosening control is the last thing that Xi Jinping has in mind. Since taking power in November 2012, he has pursued a crackdown on dissent and is centralising authority in a way not seen since Mao. At the same time, and in the lead-up to a crucial party congress at the end of 2017, he is trying to use his campaign against corruption to root out opponents and change the way that China works.

Some commentators have described it as a new Cultural Revolution, even though the attempt to impose draconian control from the centre under Xi hardly chimes with the Red Guards’ invocation to “storm the fortress” and destroy the centres of authority. Still, there are echoes of 50 years ago. In a speech published this month, the president denounced “careerists and conspirators” who were undermining party governance.

“We . . . must make a resolute response to eliminate the problem and deter further violations,” Xi added, in a tone that Chairman Mao might have used. The context changes but China’s leaders have always been adept at finding adversaries to be used to advance their own ends – though what happened under Mao should stand as a warning of where witch-hunting can lead.

Jonathan Fenby is the author of “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” and “The Penguin History of Modern China”

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad