British liberals should learn from their Arab counterparts

The truth is it seems to be more taboo to criticise Islamism in Britain these days than it is here in Beirut.

Alex Rowell is a reporter for NOW Lebanon in Beirut. He tweets @disgraceofgod

Catching up last week on yet another milestone in the sorry emaciation of free expression in Britain, documented in this case by Nick Cohen (who has after all written the book on this), I took to Twitter to quote his elegant synopsis of the problem with far too many of London’s self-styled radicals and insubordinates: “We only challenge religions that won’t hurt us, and governments that won’t arrest us.”

Within seconds, a prominent Lebanese atheist blogger, Gino Raidy, had replied, pointing out the curious and conspicuous fact that the same could not be said of the average disbelieving scribbler in the Arab world.

He’s exactly right. The truth is it seems to be more taboo to criticise Islamism in Britain these days than it is here in Beirut, where it’s taken for granted in liberal circles that theocracy is the enemy (and where, incidentally, the religious bigots are Christians as often as they are Muslims). The takfiris whose “legitimate grievances” right-thinking Britons are so anxious to locate and placate are treated with open contempt by liberal and leftist Arabs, and for very good reason.

It’s not just the proximity to the daily sectarian slaughter in Syria and Iraq, or the residue of the heady Arab nationalist days when the titanic Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser urged Saudi Arabians to revolt against their “reactionary” Wahhabi-Salafist rulers and openly ridiculed the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is, crucially, that Arabs – who naturally know their own language, culture, and history best – have the least difficulty seeing the Bin Ladenists for the crackpot criminals they are, and consequently have the least inclination to respect them.

Take the recent murder in Woolwich of Private Lee Rigby by two unapologetic Islamists. British jihadism’s savviest self-promoter, the former head of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s UK franchise and founder of the now-banned al-Muhajiroun, Omar Bakri, quickly made headlines by defending one of Rigby’s killers and claiming that, “To people around here [in the Middle East] he is a hero for what he has done.”

One pictures it all too easily: the furious throngs of bearded young men, burning Union Jacks, and bellowing for the infidels to be put to the sword. But there’s a reason Bakri didn’t repeat that claim when I interviewed him for a local publication: none of it happened. There were no demonstrations, no posters plastered on the walls, no festive sweets jubilantly doled out in city squares. Even the fringe militant Islamists, who successfully torched a KFC during the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ furore, made nothing of the occasion.

There was, quite simply, no evidence to suggest anyone in Lebanon felt anything but ordinary shock and disgust.

Yet the impressionable British mujahid-in-the-making two thousand miles away wouldn’t and couldn’t know that (and, incidentally, would have been little enlightened by the BBC’s invitation of Bakri’s protégé, Anjem Choudary, on to Newsnight to explain that the real victim in Woolwich was the killer, who had only acted in self-defense).

Maajid Nawaz, the former Hizb ut-Tahrir zealot turned liberal democracy activist, writes in his memoir, Radical, of how easily enthralled he and his fellow east Londoners in the 1990s were by the mere fact of Bakri’s being an actual Arab:

“Everyone wanted to see him and hear what he had to say […] Here was someone who did have a beard, who spoke Arabic, and who had the theological authority from having studied shari’ah (Islamic jurisprudence) at Damascus University.”

Western liberals have for decades permitted themselves to be fooled by these charlatans, even while secular Arabs have consistently and vocally opposed them (some, like the Egyptian Farag Foda and the Algerian Tahar Djaout, paying with their lives for doing so).

Recall that when Salman Rushdie was being vilified by John le Carré and Germaine Greer for the malicious “insult” his novel had been to a “great religion”, no fewer than one hundred Arab literary heavyweights, from Edward Said to Mahmoud Darwish to Adonis to Amin Maalouf, jointly published a book unambiguously rejecting the pro-censorship arguments (let alone the pro-murder ones) and explicitly identifying Rushdie’s cause as their own.

Indeed, in this, they were only following a Middle Eastern tradition identifiable since at least the irreverent poetry of Omar Khayyam, and much revitalized by the intellectual nahda (“awakening”) that flourished in the 19th century, of combating clerical and faith-based stupidity and asserting the superiority of reason and free inquiry. (My favourite example is the 1882 ‘Lewis Affair’, when university students in Beirut boycotted classes and even dropped out in protest at the firing by a Christian missionary administration of a Darwinist professor.)

The day can’t come soon enough that Britain’s liberals realize that, so far from extending a hand of “solidarity” to their Arab counterparts by making excuses for religious fundamentalists, they are on the contrary sharpening the daggers of those who are, and have ever been, their great adversaries.

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10 Responses to “British liberals should learn from their Arab counterparts”

  1. Ulysses

    I don’t agree with the premise that Islamism or religious terrorism isn’t criticised or condemned in the UK. When an attack like Woolwich happens the news coverage and commentary from the left is always referencing how horrendous and callous the attack is. The reason why it’s a priority for liberals in Lebanon is because it’s far more of a threat to their way of life than it is in the UK. There is a negligible possibility of the British government being overthrown by a theocratic tyranny or descending into sectarian civil war but Lebanon is always on the cusp of this happening hence the need to treat it with such importance.

    For those who genuinely care about civil liberties in the UK, the focus should be on the government using terrorism as pretext to violate our privacy, liberties and human rights and for those in the Middle East ensuring neither the theocrats or the generals use religion or nationalism to do the same. They are different weapons used to attack the same freedoms.

  2. Themadmullahofbricklane

    There are several issues here. Yes there is more chance of an Islamist coup in the Lebanon than here and we should be worried about the government intruding into our emails and private lives. But it is also true that Cohen’s criticisms of the liberal elite over the Rushdie affair were and are valid. There was total cowardice from a whole range of people who are now probably ashamed of the stance that they took at the time.

    There are many, if not the majority, of Muslims in this country who are profoundly unhappy with the stance taken by their self appointed leaders on a number of issues but are afraid to speak out, it would be a brave Muslim who will break ranks especially after Rushdie spending ten years in hiding. Things change however, they have to otherwise they would stay the same and nothing does.

  3. Monkish

    It’s actually quite simple: if you criticize Islamism you’re either a racist Islamophobe (Islamists consider their politics to be the organic outgrowth of the Islamic religion) or a racist “Zionist”, or both! Islamists are very adept at using the rhetoric of anti-racism, widespread hostility to Israel and the post-colonial white guilt pervasive in the middle class to cast anathemas on anyone who dares to take a public stand against their ideology and agenda.

    I do not share Ulysses’ complacency. The Islamist influence on British Muslims, particularly the younger generations via university Islam societies, is strong and growing in strength. With the financial backing of foreign donors (usually Muslim Brotherhood affiliated, but Saudi Salafis also) and the UK government (funding is co-opted by means of sham interfaith schemes and, increasingly, bogus “anti-radicalization” programmes), Islamists have gained a secure foothold in the UK from which they will extend their efforts well into the 21st century.

  4. John

    Why the left started embracing Islam as the new must have thing is beyond me. Just like Christianity but contemporary worse, Islam is a fascist ideology. Liberals should never have sacrificed its reverence of liberalism and secularism for the embracment of multiculturalism. Part of living in a liberal tolerant society is NOT tolerating intolerance. The left have alienated working-class and liberal people for a long time. By ignoring the Islam problem all you do is hand to the right a huge field to dominate and reveal that you are out of touch.

  5. Riffak Ledifni

    The truth is it seems to be equally taboo to criticise Islamism in Europe these days as it is in the Arab world due to the large 5 million Arab diaspora.

  6. Themadmullahofbricklane

    Islam isn’t a fascist ideology at all, you make the mistake of playing into the hands of the Islamists and their far left apologists in this and other countries. The far left use attacks such as the one you have made to claim that all criticism is Islamophobia. Prominent in this are the ridiculous Bob Pitt and a number of Labour MP’s that Milliband needs to have a word with such as Corbin, Slaughter et al.

    The reason why the far left have taken on the mantle of the protectors of Islam is that all of the other causes are lost to them. They have never forgiven the working class for letting them down and not accepting their leadership and overthrowing the capitalist system.

    From the late seventies onward the revolution was to be led by minorities, gays, women, the disabled and above all ethnic minorities. There were theorists that actually proposed this kind of united front but most of them were French so nuff said!

    The fact that that bit of theory didn’t work out didn’t phase them and they soldiered on regardless until the anti war demo of 2003 when they saw the new shock troops of the revolution, Muslims. Nick Cohen is really good on this and I recommend his ” What’s Left” to those who haven’t read it.

    The honeymoon is nearly over although the faithful of the Trotskyist left, which is all that’s left are reluctant to admit it. The intellectuals of the SWP are still trying to work out what happened to Respect, the collapse of which will hamper the far left in this country for a generation.

    We are left with an evolving Islam in this country which is changing but the forward elements in those Islamic societies have not been helped by the failure of the far left, a clutch of elderly Labour MP’s and the usual suspects around the Guardian to face reality and that there is no global conspiracy either by Islam or against it.

  7. John

    I agree with most of what you have said, and I will be looking into Nick Cohen’s book. I do however standby by position that Islam is a fascist ideology. Christopher Hitchens drew the following similarities; Non-intellectual, violently conformist, hostile to modernity, anti-Jewish, radically authoritarian, subordination of the female. It is an ideology that is at odds with the modern liberal democracy of which we live, and with secular/Christian birthrates in decline, and muslim birthrates very high, Islam is a problem that must be addressed.

  8. Themadmullahofbricklane

    The definitions that Hitchens used for Muslims could also be applied to Spain just after the Reconquista and continue to do so for a century or more. It isn’t possible to make a generalisation about the Muslim world any more than it is about any world. The world view of an Irish or Spanish semi or illiterate peasant two centuries ago would have nothing in common with that of the aristicratic recusant Catholic Dukes of Norfolk.

    Birth rates among Muslims in some countries are falling dramatically. The population of Iran is actually falling below the level needed to sustain the current population which puts it on a level of some European countries and the birth rate of the Bangladeshi community in the UK is decreasing to the level of the white population.

    Anti semitism is a feature of many cultures and its consequences in Europe within living memory we all know about.

    It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that women had the vote in this and many other European countries as well the USA and equal pay was a late twentieth century phenomena.

    You must also define what fascism is before you can talk about the ideology of such. My bookshelves are groaning with learned tomes on that very subject alone.

    What should be addressed is how the UK is changing with Eastern European immigration. I am pretty sure that Poles now outnumber Pakistanis and are doing as well economically as the best achieving Asians.

    Dinner is served so I will come back later.

  9. Themadmullahofbricklane

    I disagree with your take on the left responses to events like Woolwich. The far left, for I speak of them, went through the rituals but then blamed the soldiers death on Iraq/Iran/Imperialism more or less echoing their take on 9/11 which was that America and by definition the rest of us had it coming.

  10. John

    The apathy set in halfway through reading that.

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