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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser