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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA