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Mehdi Hasan on Islam and blasphemy: Muhammad survived Dante’s Inferno. He’ll survive a YouTube clip

Like freedom, tolerance is not a western invention or innovation; it is an Islamic virtue.

Dear Muslim protester,

Where do I begin? Having watched you shout and scream in front of the world’s television cameras, throw petrol bombs and smash windows, I reluctantly decided to write this open letter to you.

Let me be blunt: you and I have little in common other than our shared Islamic faith, our common belief that there is no God but God and Muhammad is His Messenger. You live in a Muslim-majority country, where religion (or should that be religious extremism?) defines the boundaries of political debate and the limits of free speech; I was born and brought up in the liberal, secular west as a member of a minority Muslim community.

If I’m honest, I have to say that, listening to your belligerent rhetoric and watching your violent behaviour, I struggle to recognise the Islam in which you profess to believe. My Islamic faith is based on the principles of peace, moderation and mercy; it revolves around the Quranic verses “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:6). Yours is a faith disfigured by anger, hate and paranoia.


Please do not misunderstand me: yes, you have every right to be angry. I have no time for those neoconservatives here in the west who airily dismiss “false grievances” in the Middle East and beyond. Muslims have much to be aggrieved over – from Bagram to Guantanamo Bay, from Abu Ghraib to Haditha, from US soldiers urinating on the Quran to the spate of racist films and cartoons depicting our beloved prophet as a terrorist/murderer/paedophile/rapist/ delete-as-applicable.

Anger, however, is not an excuse for extremism. Have you not read this saying by the Prophet? “The strong is not the one who overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger.”

Today, 14 centuries later, too many of us seem to have lost all self-control. Your fanatical counterparts on the Christian evangelical right have a phrase they often deploy: “WWJD”, or “What would Jesus do?”. Perhaps you and your fellow protesters should ask “WWMD”: what would Muhammad do? Would the Prophet endorse your violent attacks on foreign embassies and schools, on police stations and shops?

We both know the answer. As a child, you will have been taught, like me, about how Muhammad was verbally and physically abused by the pagan worshippers of Mecca – but never responded in kind. The Quran calls him a “mercy for all of creation”.

But your anger has blinded you. You tell foreign reporters you are protesting against injustice – but the fight for justice begins at home. Where were you and your fellow flag-burners when a poor, 14-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan was arrested on trumped-up charges of “blasphemy” in August and threatened with the death penalty? Where are you today when the Syrian regime continues to wage war against its own (Muslim) people? Why do you not protest outside the embassies of the Bahraini regime, which tortures and tear-gasses its (Muslim) citizens?

You say you love the Prophet and cannot bear to see him abused, yet in Saudi Arabia the house of the Prophet’s first wife, Khadija, was flattened to make way for a public toilet, while the house where Muhammad was born is now overshadowed by a royal palace. Where is your rage against the Saudi regime? Or is your selfprofessed love for the Prophet just a cynical expression of crude anti-Americanism?

You and I have long complained of the west’s double standards in the Middle East; it is time for us to recognise that Muslims are guilty of equally egregious double standards. Egyptian state television has broadcast a series based on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pakistani television channels regularly air programmes demonizing the country’s Ahmadiyya community. Islamic scholars appear in online videos ridiculing the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. Yet you and your allies demand special protection for your religion and your prophet. Why? Is your faith so weak, so brittle? Muhammad, lest we forget, survived Dante’s Inferno. Trust me, he’ll survive a 14-minute clip on YouTube.

Own goal

Perhaps the greatest irony, and tragedy, is that by publicising the online insults directed at the Prophet, you have given the wretched “Sam Bacile”, the maker of the offensive movie, and his Islamophobic, evangelical Christian ally, Steve Klein, a victory they could never have achieved on their own. Need I remind you that when the full-length film, Innocence of Muslims, was released earlier this year, it was shown only once, to an audience of fewer than ten people, at a run-down cinema in California?

Meanwhile, the reputational damage done to our faith – exacerbated, I hasten to add, by lazy journalists in the west who cannot seem to distinguish between Islam and its adherents – has been immense. Have you not seen the cover of Newsweek magazine? “Muslim rage”, screams the headline.

But I have some (bad) news for you (and, for that matter, Newsweek). You represent no one but yourself. You do not speak for Islam or for the Prophet. Nor are you representative of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. In a recent Gallup survey conducted in ten Muslim-majority countries, representing more than 80 per cent of the global Muslim population, believers, when asked what they admired most about the west, cited political freedoms, fair trials and . . . wait for it . . . freedom of speech.

Your actions undermine not just the great religion of Islam but a worldwide Muslim community, or umma, whose members want to live in peace and freedom despite the provocations from the bigots, phobes and haters.

Like freedom, tolerance is not a western invention or innovation; it is an Islamic virtue. As the great Muslim caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib once wrote: “Remember that people are of two kinds: they are either your brothers in religion or your brothers in mankind.”

Yours faithfully, Mehdi.

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing writer and the political director of Huffington Post UK.

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.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.