Saturday, 9 September 2017

Open letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center

Whether or not Maajid Nawaz's personal story is exactly as he says, and in retelling any history numerous times omissions and elaborations are the inevitable result of incomplete recollection and confirmation bias, it is one that is familiar to us in the UK.  Your bracketing Nawaz with American hate-mangers and alt-right apologists is unfair and damaging to the process of reforming Islam in the U.K., let alone around the world.  His name should not be on your list of Anti-muslim extremists, and if you have any integrity you should remove it and make an apology.

You say that Nawaz is anti-Muslim because he advocates active monitoring of extremism.  Your simplistic and misleading analysis fails to provide any details, suggesting his position amounts to wholesale monitoring of Muslim citizens.  This however is not what he has said and you should check your facts.  

Widespread monitoring is an attack on the freedoms of citizens in a democratic society, which liberals should rightly jealously guard.  Ironically of course it is also opposed by the very extremist groups who seek to undermine democracy and its freedoms because they know it is there to seek them out and prevent them from doing harm.   So there is a balance to be had between state oversight and monitoring and freedom.  Different nations have different solutions; the USA values individual privacy above collective security, at least in public, more than perhaps we do in the U.K. (gun laws are probably the most extreme example of that). In any event there is a political debate to be had, in the open, about this.  Advocating more or less monitoring is not a hate crime, it is freedom of expression.  In Maajid Nawaz's case you are welcome to call him on his radio show and debate the point.  You will be sure to get a fairer hearing that most people who call in to American radio "shock-jocks". 

The USA is not alone in suffering Islamic fundamentalist terrorism; we have had a number of incidents in recent years (and there have been many more throughout Europe).  We know that there is a group of hard-line islamists in the U.K. who are plotting further incidents, of whom the security forces admit to be monitoring around 3000 (as many as their resources will allow).  This is further evidenced by their success in preventing at least 15 attacks we know of.  Surely you are not advocating that surveillance of these people, many of whom have returned from being actively involved in violent  jihadism in Asia or the Middle East.  That would be negligent and an abrogation of state responsibility for maintaining the peace.  

There are also the ideologues who are actively promoting jihad (in this context I am sticking with the Islamic model, but this applies to any form of extremism).  If they are explicit enough they can be prosecuted for incitement, but many are just on the right side of the law in public.  These people invariably endorse an alternative political narrative that entertains overthrow of our democracy and its values, even though ironically they only survive because of it.  Generally they are anti-democratic, theocratic and usually endorse cultural practices that are inconsistent with western liberal ideas of individual freedoms.  That is their right in a liberal democracy, but the corollary is that the ideas are in the open, subject to challenge and debate.  Too often however these regressive ideologies are shared only in private, in restricted groups or in languages that most of the population do not understand.  Where veiled by religious dogma and the vague and ambiguous wording of scriptures it is all-too easy to make a defence that they are not threatening, when they are.  I suggest that the State would also be failing in its responsibilities if it did not try to monitor what they are saying.

For every committed violent jihadist there will be 10(s?) of people who share the extreme ideas even if they have not yet, or do not, endorse the violent means.  These people provide hiding ground for violent extremists, even (unknowingly) material support to their projects.   And for every person who endorses extreme ends, there will be another tranche who are ambivalent or neutral but who share cultural norms that are supported by the extreme Islamic vision. A Gallup World poll in 2005-2006 (see "Who speaks for Islam? What a billion Muslims really think" Esposito and Mogahed, 2007) showed conflicting support for sharia (but not for religious leaders in charge of legislation) and cultural conservatism on the one hand, and for democracy and greater freedom for women on the other.  Western advocacy of "women's issues" for example was eyed with suspicion by women as well as men. It is easy for extremists to hide themselves in this population while seeking to persuade the vulnerable, disaffected, or even "idealistic" to join their cause.

In the U.K. The British government has implemented the "Prevent" strategy,  intended to identify people who are at risk of becoming radicalised and to provide them with support.  This depends inevitably on people, teachers, other professionals, friends, neighbours and even family, "informing" on the persons concerned.  This has been criticised as intrusive by segments of the Muslim community in the U.K. and, inevitably, as racist, if only because the vast majority of Muslims are not white.  The most vocal critics are inevitably the more radical.  

The authorities recognise that "Prevent" is not perfect.  But if you think it is an unwarranted intrusion on the liberty of British Muslims, then what alternatives do you offer?  Extremism will not magically disappear if only racism and discrimination stopped, because it is ideological.  And as to Maajid Nawaz's position, if you think he should be on your blacklist, then you had better put the British government there as well.  

Today in the U.K. Most mosques are led by Immams who were flown in from the Middle East or South Asia.  They are not the product of our society, they know little of our ethical and moral framework or of our culture.  Applying the culture and ethics of Peshawar in Britain today makes no sense, any more than inviting a pastor from a Ugandan charismatic church to lead an American Anglican Church.  Maajid Nawaz and Quillam make the case for a moderate, modern, liberal form of Islam, arguing against an Islam based on medieval ethics that is the foundation of extreme fundamentalist and occasionally violent Islam and jihad.  They do so in an open way that is consistent with our liberal democratic ideals.  You are free to disagree but attempting to suppress their views is anti-democratic and will damage the slow process of developing an alternative narrative to that which underpins Islamic extremism today.  To say that they are anti-Islamic is to imply that there is only one form of Islam (the position of course adopted by all the ideologues who think they are right and everyone else is wrong) which suggests you know very little about the religion.  

During the reformation the Catholic Church denounced all protestants as heretics, and they burned a good many of them at the stake.  There is a reformation needed in Islam today and you are not helping by metaphorically burning the reformers at the stake.  I urge you to withdraw your "fatwa" against Nawaz and to use your not inconsiderable resources to help and not silence the opposition to extremism.

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