Sara Khan : We need interaction to challenge extremists

“In some quarters of Muslim communities there is a normalisation of antisemitism. It is toxic.” says the anti-extremism campaigner


Rarely does a day go by without Muslim anti-extremism campaigner Sara Khan being on the receiving end of abuse and death threats.

Her critics — from within Islam, and outside — label her everything from a government stooge to an Islamophobe to an apostate, or demand that she “get out of our country”.

The Bradford-born campaigner mostly takes it on the chin, aware she is everything male Muslim extremists “don’t believe a Muslim woman should be”, not least that she is keen to build bridges with Jews.

But it is the criticism from the far-left — including “white lefty feminists” — that bothers her most.

“You know what you’re going to get on the far-right,” she says. “What I find really distasteful about the far-left is how they claim to be the ones who champion equality and speak out against Islamophobia but then they go around attacking Muslims who they think don’t represent authentic Muslims. It’s so hypocritical.”

As a Muslim who does not wear a headscarf — although she did wear the veil as a teenager, shocking her Pakistan-born parents — Ms Khan suggests that the left doesn’t think she represents what a Muslim should be.

“They think a conservative Muslim is the most authentic Muslim and anyone who doesn’t fit that circle is not a proper Muslim.”

Ms Khan is co-founder of Inspire, which campaigns to promote human rights, oppose Islamist extremism and empower Muslim women, and has sat on a number of government taskforces on radicalisation.

She works in schools and with women across the country; occasionally she is called in by headteachers worried about their pupils, where her approach is to challenge conspiracy theories and “rip out from underneath the ideological underpinnings of the views”.

Yet in recent years she has become a target for hard-left activists given her willingness to speak out against groups including the National Union of Students and Stand up to Racism for forming “an unholy alliance with far-right Islamists” and challenging the prevalence of political correctness around discussing Muslims. Many of the groups she is critical of have also been challenged over their stance on antisemitism.

“Anti-racist groups genuinely don’t understand Islamist extremism, and that these groups stand on the far-right spectrum,” she says. “They refuse to challenge it because they misguidedly think we have to defend them at all costs, because they think all Muslims are the same.”

If human rights and anti-racist campaigners really grasped what extremists say about women, gay people, minorities and Jewish people, “they would be at the forefront of the campaign against them”.

Following the general election, she is very worried about the Labour Party leadership’s perspective.

“There’s a critical battle taking place between Muslims in this country who subscribe to very humanistic interpretations of the Koran, who advocate human rights and equality and oppose homophobia and antisemitism, and Islamist extremists who promote vile views,” she says.

“I don’t think the leadership, including Jeremy Corbyn, understands that.”

In Ms Khan’s view, this failure to distinguish between Muslims hinders progressive voices, and actually promotes a kind of anti-Muslim hatred, because it assumes all British Muslims are responsible for each other’s behaviour.

Rather than denying that the UK faces a security threat from some Muslims — “you can’t gloss over that three quarters of the terror attacks we’ve had in the last few months have come from Islamist extremists” — she says the media needs to stop treating Muslims as a homogenous community and, at the same time, that Muslims should not see hostile coverage as a personal attack.

“Other Muslims get very defensive but it’s like [the extremists] don’t represent us, we have to speak out against them,” she says.

“I don’t feel defensive because I don’t see these extremists representing me.”

Sadly, she thinks many ordinary Muslims are afraid to put their heads above the parapet: “There is without a doubt a climate of fear, a climate of intimidation, which extremist groups have deliberately created.”

Extremists and Muslim antisemites, she adds, have also deliberately turned Israel into a religious issue, making it, “about Islam and Muslim persecution by Jews, as opposed to seeing it through the lens of a political issue”.

Ms Khan echoes journalist Mehdi Hasan, who has described Muslim antisemitism as the community’s “dirty little secret”, saying that it would be dishonest to suggest this is limited to extremist circles.

“In some quarters of Muslim communities there is a normalisation of antisemitism” she admits. “It is toxic.”

It is this that convinces her of the need for more interaction between faiths; shared meals, or school exchanges.

“If you have no engagement with Muslim communities and you live in your own little bubble the result is seeing them as the other and not seeing the common humanity,” she says. She worries communities are becoming more segregated, creating an increasingly polarised society.

“We need to bring people together.”

Jews and Muslims, says Ms Khan, are like cousins or siblings.

“We have cultural and theological similarities. Why that’s not being translated on the ground, some of it is political, some is segregation, but that we’re not capitalising on that makes me think we still haven’t got this fully right,” she sighs.

As she points out, many Jews have similar concerns to many Muslims, not least on issues like tackling misogyny within their communities.

Interfaith relations have improved in recent years, she says; but fighting to challenge extremism can be lonely work.

“You do have your moments, because it feels like an uphill struggle,” she says. “What would help is if more ordinary people challenged groups promoting hatred, whether on the far-right or the far-left or Islamic extremists.

“There’s not enough of that happening right now.”

In the meantime, she says, she won’t give up, but will carry on being “the thorn in the side” of Islamist extremists.

“I worry about the future of this country,” she says. “What choice do I have?”

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