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.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.