Which Islam are you afraid of?

Fear and obsession narrow the mind

It cannot have escaped the attention of anyone who regularly reads the blogs on the NS website, and particularly those of my colleague Mehdi Hasan, that many who post comments are obsessed with and fearful of Islam. When I blogged the other day about the American Justice of Peace who refused a marriage licence to a mixed race couple the first comment, from "Matt", was: "Good call there, Sholto. Any excuse to ignore the Islamisation of Europe."

Quite apart from the fact that this seemed a rather off-beam response (should I not have blogged about it?!), I am left less angry and more saddened and baffled that so many people appear to identify this one major world religion as such a threat - to their way of life, to their values, even to the very future of western civilisation, according to some. Because what they are doing is taking the views and actions of a minority of extremists and then claiming that they are representative of all Muslims.

It's one thing when controversialists use this odious tactic to further their media presence. When I interviewed the US commentator Ann Coulter in New York a few years ago, she consistently used the world "Muslim" when she meant "Muslim terrorists". Her response when I picked her up on this was merely to say: "You can make that argument, but all I see is Muslims killing people." (A further flavour of the irrepressible Ms Coulter's views can be found in her response when I asked her to imagine how she might feel if she had been brought up as a Muslim. "In that case," she said, "I would like a steak knife, please, so I can cut your throat and disembowel you. And then I shall kill all the Jews!")

It's another when otherwise reasonable, well-intentioned people -- and I am willing to admit that some of those posting pretty vehement comments may be precisely that -- do so too. Over lunch after the London bombings a very old friend of mine, who might be regarded by some as such a caricature of the relativist British liberal that he is even the son of a "gay vicar", told me he was scared about "Muslims". "What do you mean," I asked. "Which ones?" "All of them," he replied.

I found this honest response profoundly chilling -- not least for the ignorance it showed about the many and varied shades of Islam as it is practised around the world. Yes, there are countries that have incubated terrorism and blind hatred of the West. But that is just one extreme. What about the other hundreds of millions of Muslims? What about the liberal, syncretist cultures of Malaysia and Indonesia, the compromise with state secularism in Turkey, and the many countries, such as in the Maghreb, where Islam is more identified with than observed?

Even in Saudi Arabia, a country always viewed as a stern, backward-looking, Wahhabist monoculture, my family found plenty who differed when we lived there in the 1980s. "Please don't think this is true Islam," were some of the first words spoken to us by the Qureshis, our Pakistani neighbours in Riyadh, a family who exemplified the warmth and hospitality I have found in every Muslim country I have visited.

Some may consider these virtues, as well as an interest and appreciation of different cultures that makes an embarrassingly large proportion of British expats appear unblushing philistines in comparison, to be cultural rather than specifically religious. Perhaps so. Perhaps the ingrained sense of family, respect and courtesy that the west has discarded in favour of an individualism that celebrates freedom above all else -- too often failing to realise that it is a brutal indifference that is being placed on a pedestal -- is also primarily cultural. Nevertheless, they are characteristics that can be found in Muslim countries; and I think that religion can claim credit for their presence too.

So, two points to end with:

1.I don't know what "Islamisation" of Europe means. Again, I ask, which Islam? (Let's leave aside quite how this is supposed to happen; base scaremongering about millions of immigrants overwhelming the continent is just too ridiculous to bother engaging with.)

2.But if "Islamisation" means learning from what is best in Muslim countries around the world -- certainly the ones I spend a lot of time in -- then frankly, I'm all for it. The idea that the West could be some kind of liberal utopia if only "alien" religions are kept out or kept underfoot is not only offensive but nonsensical. Anyone who thinks so needs to collect a few more stamps on their passport.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear