Last year, with assistance of the Sunday Telegraph, the Tory right waged an extended campaign to remove Baroness Warsi from her position as co-chairman of the Conservative Party. They succeeded in accomplishing that particular objective last September, but their victory was far from complete. Although he did replace her as co-chair, at the same time David Cameron gave Warsi a senior ministerial position in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and also appointed her as Minister for Faith and Communities.
This was probably enough to appease the reactionary membership in the shires who had been outraged that a Tory party chairman should be anything other than white, Christian and male, but the neocon-Zionist component of the anti-Warsi opposition was far from satisfied. It was obviously only a matter of time before the latter faction would make another attempt to remove Warsi from her position of influence in the party and government.
An opportunity afforded itself last month when Warsi appeared as a platform speaker at a conference in the House of Lords organised by the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, which was billed as a “critical discussion around the way Islamic societies and Muslim students are represented in the media”. FOSIS is the NUS-recognised representative organisation of Muslim students in the UK, and among those speaking alongside Warsi at the conference were Universities UK CEO Nicola Dandridge, NUS president Liam Burns and the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Hussain, who also hosted the event. This didn’t offer much of a pretext for relaunching a witch-hunt against Warsi, you might think.
However, Warsi’s participation at the FOSIS conference was seized on by the misleadingly titled group Student Rights, which in fact includes few if any students and functions as a front organisation for the right-wing propaganda organisation the Henry Jackson Society. They launched their attack on Warsi with a piece (“FOSIS conference at the House of Lords hides its promotion of extremists”) that appeared on the Student Rights website on 3 April. Tellingly, the first of their objections to Warsi’s participation was that “FOSIS openly endorse a boycott of Israel”, which Student Rights held to be an example of FOSIS’s “divisive methods”. They then went on to accuse FOSIS of associating with “extremists” such as Hamza Tzortzis of iERA, the Muslim group who were recently the victims of a stitch-up over a meeting at University College London, and of questioning the reliability of the conviction of Dr Aafia Siddique.
There were no takers for this attempt to relaunch an anti-Warsi witch-hunt, so on 8 April the Director of Student Rights, Raheem Kassam, tried to give the campaign a kick-start with a post on the HJS blog The Commentator entitled “British Cabinet Minister attends ‘extremists’ event in House of Lords”. (In addition to his role at Student Rights, Kassam also holds the posts of Director of Communications at the Henry Jackson Society and Executive Editor of The Commentator – although, given that there is no actual separation between these three nominally distinct organisations, it’s questionable whether in practice Kassam’s various titles amount to more than a single job.)
Again, Kassam made clear that the main motive for Student Rights’ attack on Warsi was FOSIS’s support for the Palestinian cause. In addition to attacking FOSIS for criticising government policy towards Israel, the main evidence Kassam offered for the “extremist” character of the House of Lords conference was that one of the speakers, Carl Arrindell of the Islam Channel, formerly worked for the pro-Palestinian charity Interpal and once had his photo taken with Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniyeh. Alas for Kassam, the campaign against Warsi still failed to take off.
To anyone familiar with the Henry Jackson Society’s political record, the idea of an HJS front like Student Rights condemning “extremists” and “divisive methods” is really quite laughable. Marko Attila Hoare, a founder member of the HJS who resigned in protest at its subsequent evolution, has described how the organisation was taken over by staff from the now defunct pro-Israel pressure group Just Journalism and became ”an abrasively right-wing forum with an anti-Muslim tinge, churning out polemical and superficial pieces by aspiring journalists and pundits that pander to a narrow readership of extreme Europhobic British Tories, hardline US Republicans and Israeli Likudniks”.
“Anti-Muslim tinge” is putting it mildly. In 2011 the HJS fused with another right-wing think-tank, the Centre for Social Cohesion, which resulted in Douglas Murray becoming an Associate Director of HJS. Murray is the author of a notorious speech at the 2006 Pym Fortuyn Memorial Conference (“Why is it that time and again the liberal West is crumpling before the violence, intimidation and thuggery of Islam? … All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop…. Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board”) and two years ago he suggested that the emergence of the English Defence League should be viewed in a positive light (“If you’re ever going to have a grassroots response from non-Muslims to Islamism that would be how you’d want it, surely”). More recently Murray has enthusiastically backed Lars Hedegaard, the Danish Islamophobe who was acquitted on appeal through a technicality after being successfully prosecuted for his inflammatory comments about “Muslim rapists”.
Within the HJS, Murray is not alone in holding such rabidly Islamophobic views. In 2011 its Director of International Affairs, Robin Shepherd, posted a comment piece at The Commentator in which he attacked a BBC News report for failing to blame Islam for honour killings and called for those responsible for this supposed cover-up to be sacked. It was, as we noted at the time, “the kind of foam-flecked rant you might expect to read on some extreme ‘counterjihadist’ blog of the sort that inspired Anders Breivik”. Earlier this year it was The Commentator that broke the “story” of the so-called “Muslim patrols” in East London, portraying this small-scale stunt by a handful of deluded idiots as a serious attempt to “control London streets”.
Given this history of anti-Muslim extremism on the part of leading figures in the HJS, it was hardly surprising that Student Rights’ attack on Warsi initially failed to make any impact. No responsible journalist would use material from such a tainted source. Witchfinder general Andrew Gilligan, however, had no such qualms. Last weekend the Sunday Telegraph published an article by Gilligan headlined “Warsi and extremist Muslim students” (the online version is entitled “Baroness Warsi and the demons of hate”, making it sound like a Hammer horror movie) in which Warsi was accused of having spoken at an “event staged by group that has been linked to terrorists”.
Gilligan’s report was derived from and expanded on the original accusations by Student Rights, whom he describes approvingly as an “anti-extremism group”, despite the fact that they evidently have no problem with the extremists in the leadership of the HJS (so far as I’m aware, Student Rights have yet to raise any objection to Douglas Murray receiving an invitation to speak at an educational institution). The article also includes a pompous quote from Raheem Kassam: “For those who believe that extremism on our university campuses is an issue that we cannot afford to ignore, to see government figures working alongside those who promote extremist narratives is deeply concerning.”
As usual with Gilligan, the method behind his article is to create a lot of smoke in the hope that readers will assume there’s a fire. Here’s Gilligan (using material taken straight from the Student Rights website) trying to suggest that there’s a link between FOSIS and a convicted would-be terrorist:
Khobaib Hussain, one of the Birmingham men sentenced last week for his part in a terrorist plot, described by police as the “biggest since 7/7”, was a student at Wolverhampton University at the time of his arrest. Before he was detained, members of the university’s Islamic society, which is affiliated to FOSIS, posted online comments stating that “nothing is more honourable than dying for the cause of Islam” and that “America’s time will come”, though it is not known whether Hussain was a member of the society or was radicalised at the university.
In other words, Gilligan and Student Rights fail to establish any link whatsoever between Khobaib Hussain and FOSIS.
Gilligan also cites Student Rights as an authority for the claim that over the past month there have been “at least 10 incidents on British campuses involving Islamic extremist speakers or the promotion of extremist ideology to students”. Gilligan doesn’t provide details of these incidents, or indeed specify the criteria according to which the HJS judges Muslim speakers and ideology to be extremist. However, as he goes on to indicate, one sign of extremism is apparently the practice of gender separation at meetings. Again taking his cue from Student Rights, Gilligan just parrots the false accusations of imposed gender segregation at recent iERA events at UCL and the University of Leicester. Moreover, if gender separation is indeed a sign of extremist ideology, as Gilligan and Student Rights affect to believe, then Orthodox Jewish synagogues and Sikh gurdwaras would have to be defined as extremist organisations too. Is that what they are really arguing?
In his Telegraph article Gilligan omits the belligerently Zionist element that has featured prominently in Student Rights’ own anti-Warsi propaganda, perhaps reasoning that it would weaken his case if it was tied overtly to an anti-Palestinian agenda. However, Raheem Kassam once more left no doubt what the HJS’s real purpose was in targeting Warsi. He followed up Gilligan’s Telegraph piece with a blog post on The Times of Israel website entitled “Cameron’s Cabinet minister and her anti-Israel allies”, which encouraged readers to contact David Cameron and demand whether Warsi’s appearance at the FOSIS conference showed that “Britain is about to monumentally shift it’s [sic] policy to being anti-Israel, advocating boycotts, being pro-Hamas”.
Given that Warsi spoke at the FOSIS meeting back in March and the original Students Rights attack on her participation at the event was published at the beginning of April, without either attracting any media interest at the time, you might wonder why the Sunday Telegraph decided to run this story so late in the day. I suspect that the decision was not unconnected with last week’s broadcast of Warsi’s short anti-Islamophobia film by the BBC, which clearly raised the hackles of Warsi’s enemies, being immediately attacked by Douglas Murray (“Islamophobia is a government priority. What about Islamism?”) in the Spectator.
Although Gilligan’s attack on Warsi took its inspiration from and relied heavily if not exclusively on material provided by Student Rights, the fact that the HJS’s accusations regarding the FOSIS conference have now been “laundered” by appearing a mainstream Tory newspaper has provided them with the cover of respectability they previously lacked. Given his earlier dust-up with Murray over the latter’s extremist anti-Muslim views, Paul Goodman would have had difficulty using the HJS accusations directly as a basis to attack Warsi for her supposed association with extremists. But the publication of those same accusations in the Sunday Telegraph allowed Goodman to post a piece at Conservative Home under the headline “Downing Street must impose its authority over Sayeeda Warsi. If necessary, she should be sacked”.
Goodman asserts that Warsi’s decision to attend the FOSIS event was in breach of government policy, in particular its Prevent strategy, but his evidence for this is very thin. The 2011 Home Office review of Prevent did include the following passage:
The NUS has taken positive steps towards tackling extremism, including building their relationship with a number of their affiliated societies including the umbrella body for Islamic societies, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS). We judge that FOSIS has not always fully challenged terrorist and extremist ideology within the higher and further education sectors. FOSIS needs to give clearer leadership to their affiliated societies in this area.
However, not only did FOSIS vigorously contest these criticisms, but the review contains no recommendation at all that government departments and ministers should refuse all co-operation with FOSIS and boycott its events. If anything, the fact that the NUS are applauded for “building their relationship” with FOSIS as a necessary component in their campaign to counter extremism would imply that the government should do the same.
To bolster his claim that it is indeed government policy to boycott FOSIS events, Goodman points to Theresa May’s decision later in 2011 to cancel a Civil Service Fast Stream/FOSIS workshop for Muslim graduates. However, according to Goodman’s report at the time (“The Government planned to recruit from a terror suspect’s supporters to the civil service fast stream”) the immediate cause of the cancellation was that May was made aware (by Goodman himself, perhaps?) that 8 of the 26 prospective student attendees at the event had publicly expressed their opposition to the extradition of Babar Ahmad. If May were to apply this absurd principle consistently, the Home Office would have to boycott meetings with Boris Johnson as well. Unsurprisingly, Goodman reports that the Department of Communities and Local Government have made it clear that they don’t necessarily share May’s approach to FOSIS.
The other evidence Goodman comes up with in order to justify his charge that Warsi has acted in defiance of government policy is Cameron’s February 2011 Munich speech, although the speech itself contains no reference to FOSIS or indeed to any other Muslim organisation. In any case, some of the central arguments presented in the Munich speech have been rendered null and void by subsequent developments. Cameron’s crude identification of political Islam with extremism didn’t survive the Arab Spring and the election of reformist Islamist movements to governments in Tunisia and Egypt. While Goodman no doubt still holds to his ignorant opinion that the Muslim Brotherhood is essentially part of the same movement as al-Qaeda, foreign secretary William Hague has been obliged to adopt a more nuanced approach, conceding that the term Islamist “covers a vast range of views” – some violent and extremist, others moderate and reformist.
In other words, even among the top ranks of the Conservative Party there are different opinions over relations with FOSIS specifically and over issues regarding Islam and Muslim political organisations generally. What Goodman wants Cameron to do is suppress discussion and close down the debate, by gagging Warsi and those who think like her.
What we have here, to summarise, is an anti-Warsi witch-hunt initiated by a hardline Zionist organisation whose objective is to discredit and marginalise supporters of Palestinian rights in furtherance of what they see as the interests of the state of Israel. Their campaign is then taken up by Andrew Gilligan who, to be fair, probably has no particular political axe to grind – he’s just an unpleasant, vindictive and rather sad individual who evidently gets some warped psychological satisfaction from trying to ruin other people’s lives. And finally the obsessive anti-Islamist Paul Goodman seizes on the issue in an attempt to stampede the Tory party leadership into disciplining Warsi over her failure to implement a government policy towards FOSIS that doesn’t actually exist.
It will be interesting to see how this pans out. From Cameron’s standpoint, the lessons of Romney’s defeat in the US presidential election, after his concessions to the Republican right drove minority community voters into the arms of Obama, can only have reinforced the Tory leadership’s worries over Lord Ashcroft’s earlier revelations about their party’s shockingly low levels of support among non-white sections of the electorate. Any attempt to discipline Warsi over her entirely legitimate appearance on the platform of a mainstream Muslim student organisation would certainly reinforce the perception that the Tories are a party isolated from and contemptuous of the concerns and interests of minority ethnic communities. Is Cameron willing to risk that?
Nor are the problems facing Cameron over the anti-Warsi campaign restricted to his own party. The other component of the governing coalition, the Liberal Democrats, are hardly going to respond favourably to action being taken against Warsi on the basis of slanderous right-wing Tory accusations that a Lib Dem peer hosted a meeting of terrorist sympathisers at the House of Lords. As for Labour, is it too much to hope that the party leadership will break with its past practice of supporting the Tory right against Warsi and show some political backbone? After all, taking a stand against Islamophobes in the Conservative Party isn’t just a matter of principle – it would help to consolidate support for Labour in one of the communities whose votes will be vital to winning the next general election.