The Left should mobilise against religious extremism as well as the far right

Anti-fascists who happily march against the BNP or EDL rarely show that level of commitment against Anjem Choudhary’s group. Why?

On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York 18 months ago, I found myself in front of the American embassy in London being heckled by Muslims Against Crusades (MAC) activists, and praised by English Defence League members. While our motley group held up placards aimed at Anjem Choudhary’s group, a small group of religious Muslims (sporting beards and hijabs) arrived and set up a table with biscuits and Union flags. Then they started handing out flyers explaining why MAC were distorting Islam. The MAC activists were momentarily confused. Then they started heckling them too. The EDL almost felt ignored.

A week earlier, a friend had called to express his anger that MAC were planning a demonstration that day, and wanted to show that not all Muslims agreed with them. So we organised our own counter-demonstration and made our own banners. EDL members, who had come to throw abuse at MAC, were so pleased by our presence they wanted to take pictures with us (we declined). It was a bizarre day, but we also decided that this had to become a regular thing.

One thing we know – at least one of the key suspects in the Woolwich attack on Lee Rigby was a member of Anjem Choudhary’s inner circle. Before Muslims Against Crusades they called themselves Islam4UK and before that, Al-Muhajiroun. During the Danish Cartoons controversy of early 2006 they held an infamous demo in London calling for the beheading of "those who insult Islam". They are banned from almost every mosque in the country and ostracized by almost every British Muslim community group.

It was Al-Muhajiroun that sparked the formation of the EDL after a protest in Luton as British soldiers marched by. It is always Al-Muhajiroun that pull publicity stunts designed to inflame the media: burning poppies on Rememberance Day, marching on Wootton Basset and so on.

This makes it all the more remarkable that left-wing groups don’t mobilise against these religious extremists as they do against the far-right. Anti-fascists who happily march against the BNP or EDL rarely show that level of commitment against Anjem Choudhary’s group. Why? There even seems to be a reticence to admit that the EDL feeds off Muslim extremists. I’m not saying the Left embraces or even excuses away these clerics, but this strange reticence across the Left not only allows them to fester, but has other consequences.

For a start, taking on Muslim extremists denies a space for the English Defence League to flourish. Sure, many EDL members are looking for any excuse to express their racism, but the far-right group also draws in recruits who don’t consider themselves racist but want to oppose religious extremists. Having a range of Muslims and non-Muslims publicly opposing the likes of MAC is also the best way to silence rightwing critics who use the latter to demonise and generalise about all Muslims.

Secondly, building a broad alliance against religious extremists would also shed light on other unsavoury groups. In recent years university campuses have invited xenophobic preachers such as Haitham al-HaddadKamal El Mekki and others, despite their extreme views on women, homosexuals and integration. Islamic Societies at KingstonLondon South Bank and London Metropolitan universities have all come under deserved criticism, while the UK-based Islamic Education & Research Academy has a whole roster of xenophobic preachers. These groups and socities shouldn’t be banned – after all we must value free speech – but they should be actively opposed by left-wingers who care about the proliferation of bigotry in our society. Otherwise its painfully obvious that we are not applying our principles consistently.

The third and perhaps the most important reason we must do this is to support more moderate Muslims. Take imam Usama Hasan for example. Two years ago he received death threats after giving a talk at his mosque backing evolution and women’s rights. After a futile struggle he was eventually forced out by extremists who made his life hell. He told me he isn’t alone, and that extremists preachers who are less publicity-hungry than the likes of Anjem Choudhary and Abu Hamza are diligently working to take over mosques and oust more moderate Muslims who preach integration. By ignoring Muslim extremists we also abandon the likes of imam Hasan, who want to preach a more incusive version of Islam.

In 2010, after a poppy-burning stunt by Al-Muhajiroun, campaigners from Hope Not Hate adopted a "plague on both their houses" approach, with the approval of their members. But within days they were branded as "Islamophobes" by certain other anti-fascists and came under a surprising amount of criticism. This has to stop. In the aftermath of Woolwich, if we are serious about undermining the EDL and tackling all forms of bigotry, we cannot ignore religious extremism.

Flowers lie outside Woolwich Barracks. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit