Boris confronts the scourge of Islamism

Boris Johnson at ELMIn the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 London bombings the then Tory MP and future mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was quite clear what the cause of the attack was.

The problem, he explained in his Daily Telegraph column the following week, was that “we no longer make any real demands of loyalty upon those who are immigrants or the children of immigrants”. The creation of a multicultural society had resulted in a situation where “too many Britons have absolutely no sense of allegiance to this country or its institutions”. And yes, he did mean Muslims.

The solution, Johnson declared, was to insist on the acceptance of “certain values that we identify as British” and “acculturate the second-generation Muslim communities to our way of life”. In an accompanying article for the Spectator on the same theme, he wrote that the “many thousands” of British Muslims who shared the bombers’ alienation from British society had to be made to see that “their faith must be compatible with British values and with loyalty to Britain”. He continued:

That means disposing of the first taboo, and accepting that the problem is Islam. Islam is the problem.

To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia – fear of Islam – seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke. Judged purely on its scripture – to say nothing of what is preached in the mosques – it is the most viciously sectarian of all religions in its heartlessness towards unbelievers. As the killer of Theo Van Gogh told his victim’s mother this week in a Dutch courtroom, he could not care for her, could not sympathise, because she was not a Muslim.

The trouble with this disgusting arrogance and condescension is that it is widely supported in Koranic texts, and we look in vain for the enlightened Islamic teachers and preachers who will begin the process of reform. What is going on in these mosques and madrasas? When is someone going to get 18th century on Islam’s mediaeval ass?

However, one in eight of the population of London is a Muslim, and although he won the 2008 mayoral contest fairly comfortably, Johnson’s record of right-wing commentary directed against Muslims and other minorities proved a considerable embarrassment to him during the election campaign. In order to secure re-election in 2012, he realised, it would be advantageous to mend fences with the Muslim community. So, without offering an explanation or an apology, Johnson changed his tune – to the fury of Harry’s Place and the consternation of Conservative Home.

His response to the Woolwich killing last week found Johnson shifting back to a more hardline position, however. Admittedly, there hasn’t been a regression to the crude Islamophobic rhetoric of July 2005 – in this week’s Telegraph column Johnson told his readers that “we must be clear in our heads that there is no sense in blaming Islam, a religion that gives consolation and enrichment to the lives of hundreds of millions of peaceful people”. Today, it would appear, it is no longer the case that “Islam is the problem”. But Johnson continued:

So we need to make a hard and sharp distinction between that religion – and the virus of “Islamism”. This is a sinister political agenda that promotes a sense of grievance and victimhood among a minority of Muslims. The Islamists want universal sharia law, and other mumbo jumbo. Above all, they want power over others: and so they prey on young men who feel in some way rejected by society, and they fill those young men with a horrible and deluded sense of self-importance. They tell these people that they are not alone in suffering injustice; that they belong to a much wider group of victims – the Muslims – and that the only way to avenge these injustices is jihad. These Islamist evangelists have no allegiance to the Western society they live in and whose benefits systems they abuse: far from it – their avowed intent is to create a sexist and homophobic Muslim caliphate.

This supposed distinction between Islam and Islamism was of course central to David Cameron’s notorious Munich conference speech of February 2011. Asserting (all evidence from Europol to the contrary) that the threat of terrorism in Europe comes “overwhelmingly from young men who follow a completely perverse, warped interpretation of Islam”, Cameron continued:

We have got to get to the root of the problem, and we need to be absolutely clear on where the origins of where these terrorist attacks lie. That is the existence of an ideology, Islamist extremism. We should be equally clear what we mean by this term, and we must distinguish it from Islam. Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority. At the furthest end are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of Sharia. Move along the spectrum, and you find people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist worldview, including real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values. It is vital that we make this distinction between religion on the one hand, and political ideology on the other.

Cameron thus presented the situation in terms of a binary opposition between Islam and Islamism, between “religion on the one hand, and political ideology on the other” – between Muslims’ non-political expression of their faith, which is entirely legitimate, and the political manifestation of that faith, which by definition poses an extremist threat. The response of governments and societies to the latter, Cameron argued, was that they “have got to confront it, in all its forms”.

The idea that political Islam is a category that contains many different and contradictory ideological strands, a few of which may advocate terrorist violence but most of which are committed to democratic reform, was excluded. Cameron’s use of the term “Islamist extremism” in his speech was therefore tautological, because from this standpoint there is no form of political Islam that is not extremist.

The Arab Spring, which revealed mass support for democratic versions of political Islam and resulted in Islamist governments being elected in Tunisia and Egypt, rendered the positions defended in Cameron’s Munich speech untenable, at least with regard to foreign policy. Interviewed on the Andrew Marr Show in October 2011, foreign secretary William Hague was asked about the threat from Islamist extremism in Libya. He replied: “This term ‘Islamist’, it covers a vast range of views. And there are people who could be described as Islamists who are in favour of what one might describe as being a moderate Muslim country. There are others who are what we would call extremists.”

As we wrote at the time: “This distinction is certainly the beginning of wisdom. But the recognition that not all Islamists are dangerous extremists must surely be applied across the board. Otherwise the government will find itself in the ridiculous position of denouncing reformist Islamists in Britain as co-thinkers of Al-Qaeda and refusing to engage in dialogue and co-operation with them, while at the same time attempting to establish friendly relations with reformist Islamists abroad on the basis that they are legitimate participants in the political process.” So far, however, there is no sign that this contradiction has been resolved.

On the eve of Cameron’s Munich speech, and in anticipation of its arguments, which had been well-trailed beforehand, Peter Oborne contributed an insightful article to the Spectator in which he analysed divisions among the Tory leadership and within the coalition government over policy towards British Muslims and their organisations. He identified a politically dominant neocon-Zionist faction in the Cabinet for whom “political Islam is a mortal enemy which the West must confront” and who saw mainstream Muslim institutions like the Muslim Council of Britain or the East London Mosque as dangerous extremists. This faction had promoted a Quilliam-assisted witch-hunt of Sayeeda Warsi, who supported a more informed and flexible approach to Muslim organisations.

Whatever adjustments to the position on Islamism may have been made by Hague with regard to foreign affairs, the neocon-Zionist faction apparently still calls the shots over domestic policy. The witch-hunt of Sayeeda Warsi continues, with the active assistance of Telegraph journalist Andrew Gilligan, who is now part of Johnson’s administration. Student Rights, a front organisation for the Henry Jackson Society, has extended the campaign against Islamism to cover culturally conservative Muslim organisations who practise gender separation at their meetings. For the Israel-firsters of HJS/Student Rights, any Muslim organisations who support the Palestinian cause (i.e. almost all of them) by definition pose an extremist threat and must be smeared and de-legitimised.

It is clear from his latest Telegraph column that Boris Johnson has thrown in his lot with the neocon-Zionist faction. He has adopted their line on Muslim organisations, of whom he writes: “If they are going to show zero tolerance of Islamism, they need support and encouragement.” If not, the obvious conclusion is, then not. (So, no more mayoral visits to the East London Mosque, presumably.) Johnson has also embraced the Student Rights campaign against Muslim organisations on campus: “The universities need to be much, much tougher in their monitoring of Islamic societies. It is utterly wrong to have segregated meetings in a state-funded centre of learning.”

Johnson’s new tough line on Muslims has certainly gone down well with the right-wing press. The Daily Mail (“Boris Johnson has attacked Islamists who want to impose ‘mumbo-jumbo’ sharia law on Britain”) was full of enthusiasm, as was the Telegraph (“Universities should stop pandering to Islamic extremists by allowing segregated lectures, Boris Johnson says today”). The mayor must be delighted.

Johnson’s motives here are not hard to identify. He will not be seeking a third term as London mayor and, although of course he always denies it, his political ambitions are now directed towards replacing David Cameron as Tory leader following what can reasonably be anticipated to be a poor showing by their party at the 2015 general election. The pressure to present a friendly face to the Muslim community, who comprise less than 5% of the population nationally, is now considerably reduced, whereas there are obvious advantages to aligning himself with the dominant faction in the Cabinet while at the same time throwing some red meat to the right-wing press and the Tory party’s reactionary grassroots.

Whatever liberal-sounding flannel Johnson may have given the Muslim community since his election to the London mayoralty in 2008, he has now provided notice of the sort of treatment they can expect if he ever gets to lead the Tory party.