Listen to the real experts on Islamism

March 05, 2015 09:44

Philosophers call it a category error: when we mistakenly believe that a phenomenon should adhere to certain rules. The textbook example is the foreign tourist at Oxford who is shown the great colleges and the Bodleian library and then asks: “But where is the famous university?” In this case, the mistake is not a serious one. It is simple enough to point out to the visitor that Oxford University is more than simply a collection of buildings and cannot be found in a single physical space — it is a concept not a thing.

When looking at the phenomenon of Islamist radicalism, such mistakes have grave consequences. The BBC made a serious category error, for example, when it began describing the organisation Cage as a “human rights” group this week. The mistake is understandable because Cage describes itself in this way and it has been funded by reputable charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and supported by Amnesty International. But when its spokesmen appeared to argue that Islamic State executioner Mohammed Emwazi had been radicalised as a result of harassment by the British intelligence services, people rightly began to ask questions about its human-rights credentials.

It is now five years since the women’s-rights activist Gita Sahgal first raised her concerns about Amnesty International’s links to Cage and its founder, former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg. Ms Sahgal, an internationally respected expert on religious extremism and its devastating effects on women, was working as the head of Amnesty’s Gender Unit at the time. She felt deeply uncomfortable that Amnesty was not only sharing platforms with Cage Prisoners, as the group was known at the time, but carrying out joint research and signing joint letters of protest.

She felt that Mr Begg’s avowed support for the Taliban in Afghanistan was not compatible with Amnesty’s values. Instead of listening to the warnings of a global expert on the issue, Amnesty sided with Cage, the human-rights organisation that never was. Gita Sahgal was forced to resign from her job.

How did this extraordinary state of affairs come about? For an answer we need to look at the latter years of the 20th century when journalists and politicians began to notice that the opposition to oppressive regimes in the Middle East and South Asia had taken on a distinctly Islamist flavour. At the time, there was only one way to categorise such revolutionaries: they were seen as dissidents. We therefore hosted the opponents of the authoritarian Saudi, Algerian, Libyan or Egyptian regimes in the same way that we had hosted members of the ANC or East European defectors.

But these were not dissidents in the same sense. In many cases they were themselves extremists who believed in the introduction of their own totalitarian brand of Islam, intolerant of the rights of women, homosexuals and indeed anyone who opposed the reintroduction of the Caliphate.

What we were witnessing was the emergence of the first dissidents of the extreme political right since the Nazi war criminals who fled to South America.
A further category error was made when the police and the intelligence services briefed journalists and politicians that firebrand preachers such as “Tottenham Ayatollah” Omar Bakri Mohammed and hook-handed cleric Abu Hamza were harmless “clowns”.

These errors occur when we refuse to listen to experts such as Gita Sahgal and instead resort to wishful thinking. This has happened time and again in dealing with Islamist organisations in this country. Successive Home Secretaries were desperate to find a Muslim umbrella organisation to deal with and wishful thinking led them to believe they had found it in the Muslim Council of Britain. Instead, the MCB turned out to be driven by the ideology of Jamaat-I-Islami, a South Asian political party with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood. As it happens, Gita Sahgal was one of the first to warn of the rise of Jamaat influence in the UK, many years before the MCB became an embarrassment to ministers. Tragically, no one was listening that time either.

In 2010, after she was forced out of Amnesty, I wrote “I have no doubt history will vindicate Gita Sahgal”. I have been proved right on that score. But Amnesty’s reputation remains seriously damaged by this association. How are we to prevent such catastrophic errors of judgment happening again?

One answer is to start listening to people who really know what they are talking about in this area of policy and not write them off as “Islamophobes”, “neo-cons” or, worst insult of all, “Zionists”, when they raise serious issues of public concern. This should be of particular interest to the Jewish community because a common narrative thread unites the idea that the British intelligence services radicalised Jihadi John and the conspiracy theory that Israel and the Jews are responsible for the ills of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.

March 05, 2015 09:44

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