When Islamophobes fall out

The recent spat between Paul Goodman and Douglas Murray (see here, here, here, here, here, here and here) has attracted some attention, including coverage by Hugh Muir in the Guardian Diary. For those who haven’t followed this dispute, the initial cause of the conflict was a difference of opinion over gay marriage, which Goodman opposes and Murray strongly supports (making this one of those rare occasions where I agree with Murray). A bizarre exchange of insults ensued, with Murray accusing Goodman of conniving with homophobes in the Muslim community in order to block the right of lesbian and gay couples to marry, while Goodman claimed that by refusing to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples Murray was opening the door to “multiple sharia marriages”.

At the same time, in an attempt to deflect Murray’s charge that he is an anti-gay bigot, Goodman struck a not exactly convincing pose as an opponent of Islamophobia and accused Murray of bigotry against Muslims. Specifically he sought to discredit Murray by quoting from the latter’s notorious “What are we to do about Islam?” speech at the 2006 Pim Fortuyn Memorial Conference, in which Murray demanded:

Why is it that time and again the liberal West is crumpling before the violence, intimidation and thuggery of Islam? … It is late in the day, but Europe still has time to turn around the demographic time-bomb which will soon see a number of our largest cities fall to Muslim majorities. It has to. All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop…. Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition.

Murray posted an article at Conservative Home last weekend in which he claimed to have disowned that speech long ago. The text, which had originally been published on the Social Affairs Unit website, was “de-published at my request some years back”, Murray stated. He continued: “The simple fact about it is that the phrases that Goodman complains of are not opinions that I hold. I realised some years ago how poorly expressed the speech in question was, had it removed from the website and forbade further requests to publish it because it does not reflect my opinions.”

As Goodman pointed out in a lengthy reply at Conservative Home earlier this week, this is in fact the first self-criticism we have ever heard from Murray in connection with his speech to the Pim Fortuyn Memorial Conference. Only a year ago Murray was still belligerently defending the content of that speech and denouncing an unnamed Tory MP – Goodman himself, it now turns out – who had approached him on behalf of the party leadership before the last general election and asked him to repudiate the outrageous anti-Muslim sentiments he had expressed at the 2006 conference. “I refused to change my opinions”, Murray stated emphatically. As a result of this refusal, Goodman claims, at his instigation the Tory leadership severed relations with Murray and cold-shouldered the Centre for Social Cohesion, of which Murray was director.

However, as Murray notes in his reply to Goodman, this hasn’t prevented the Tory leadership from relying heavily on the CSC’s arguments and research in various government reports. As for Goodman’s supposed concern about countering Murray’s negative political influence, there is no sign that he has raised any objection to the Henry Jackson Society serving as the secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homeland Security, despite the fact that the HJS merged with the CSC earlier this year and Murray is one of its associate directors. Evidently Goodman doesn’t see it as problematic that a man who has advocated the collective punishment of Muslim communities should be linked to a parliamentary group that seeks to influence government policy on counter-terrorism.

Nevertheless, Goodman’s critique of Murray has been well received in some quarters. Cristina Odone applauded Goodman’s stand in posts at the Free Faith website – “Douglas Murray and his brand of anti-Muslim thinking must not destroy tolerant Britain” – and on her Telegraph blog – “Why Paul Goodman is right (and brave) to take on Douglas Murray’s Muslim-bashing”. A couple of our own contacts have also expressed a positive opinion of Goodman’s attack on Murray. I’m afraid I can’t share that view. It’s to our advantage when leading Islamophobes fall out with each other, of course, but that’s not an argument in favour of taking sides between them. Murray himself condemned Ed Husain’s support for state spying on Muslim communities, but that was hardly grounds for regarding the CSC as a progressive alternative to Quilliam.

The fact is that Douglas Murray’s extremist views have long been a source of embarrassment to other prominent figures in the Islamophobia industry, who are worried that their own rather more sophisticated approach to anti-Muslim witch-hunting will be undermined unless they dissociate themselves from him. Quilliam’s James Brandon, for example, attacked Murray in an article for Comment is Free back in 2009. In his previous job at the CSC, Brandon complained, he had faced “a constant struggle to ‘de-radicalise’ Murray and to ensure that the centre’s output targeted only Islamists – and not Muslims as a whole”. Murray’s central failing, according to Brandon, was his refusal to “distinguish Islam from Islamism”.

This is the same charge that Goodman lays against Murray. “The struggle against Islamist extremism demands the separation of Islam, a complex religion, from Islamism, a political ideology”, he writes. “It also requires … the acknowledgment that while the ideology is a threat to Muslim and non-Muslim alike, the religion is not.” Of course, from Goodman’s standpoint, the term “Islamist extremism” is tautological – he has never, to our knowledge, recognised any tendency within Islamism that is not extremist.

Goodman doesn’t necessarily have a problem with politically engaged Muslims – so long as they engage in the right politics. On that basis, he has expressed support for fringe groups within British Islam such as Quilliam, Centri and Minhaj-ul-Quran. But Muslim organisations that oppose the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq or support the Palestinian resistance are condemned by Goodman as Islamist extremists. Goodman therefore differs from Murray in that the latter regards the entire Muslim community as a potential threat, whereas Goodman holds that the threat comes from mainstream Muslim organisations who are involved in political activities of which he disapproves.

In line with this approach, last year Goodman declared his support for Khalid Mahmood’s disgraceful attack on the North London Central Mosque in Finsbury Park, based upon the entirely false allegation that the “Christmas Day bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had attended a lecture by Anwar al-Awlaki at the mosque. Goodman conducted an extended campaign against the 2010 Global Peace and Unity event (see herehere and here), which culminated in the Tory party leadership banning Baroness Warsi from speaking at the GPU. “The aim of the organisers is to exploit politicians by using their presence to gain muscle, influence and credibility among British Muslims”, Goodman declared. “Politicians shouldn’t play their game.” He also waged a struggle to remove ENGAGE as the secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia, wrongly accusing them of being an extremist organisation (although, as we have seen, Goodman has no apparent objection to the Henry Jackson Society serving as the secretariat to the APPG on Homeland Security).

This mindlessly hostile approach to political Islam, all proponents of which are viewed as dangerous extremists, has unfortunately become common currency within the Tory Party, as was demonstrated by David Cameron’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February, in which he stated:

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.

In Cameron’s defence, it could be argued that he is unfamiliar with the complexities of political Islam and therefore relies for advice on others, including Paul Goodman. But then Goodman doesn’t know much about Islamism either. Douglas Murray suggests that after Goodman’s election in 2001 as MP for Wycombe, a constituency with a large Muslim community, he “took it upon himself to read a lot of material very fast on Islamic and Islamist theology”. Murray draws the ludicrous conclusion that this has led Goodman to sympathise with Islamism. In reality, Goodman’s lack of any in-depth knowledge of political Islam has led him to parrot the usual right-wing clichés on the subject.

It is notable that Goodman’s attacks on “Islamist extremists” rarely involve any independent research but uncritically repeat accusations made by others. His attack on the North London Central Mosque was derived from a blog post by James Forsyth at the Spectator, and his witch-hunts of the GPU and ENGAGE were based on articles by Andrew Gilligan.

Goodman’s ignorance is underlined by the elementary errors that fill his articles. His call for an investigation into the NLCM was based on a garbled Canadian radio report claiming that Anwar al-Awlaki had spoken at the mosque “in the fall of 2006 or 2007”, a period during which Awlaki was in prison in Yemen. In a reference to his role in ousting ENGAGE as secretariat to the APPG on Islamophobia, Goodman boasts about “stopping the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami from infiltrating Parliament” – when, as ENGAGE point out, they have no affiliation to either of those organisations.

In an article on the Muslim Brotherhood published at Conservative Home in January this year, Goodman referred to Tariq Ramadan as “Brotherhood aristocracy”, whereas Ramadan has made it clear that he has no organisational links with that movement and has developed his own interpretation of Islam outside its ideological framework. In the same article Goodman revealed the extent of his understanding of Islamist politics in Egypt by informing his readers that “Brotherhood members sit in its parliament as independents”, when in fact the Brotherhood won a single seat in the 2010 Assembly elections which they refused to take up in protest at massive vote-rigging by the Mubarak regime.

Goodman’s article was headed “Ministers mustn’t be talked into backing the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (or anywhere else)”. In justification of his argument that the British government shouldn’t give any support to the main democratic opposition movement against Mubarak, Goodman insisted that mass-based organisations like the Brotherhood are fundamentally no different from terrorist groupuscules inspired by Osama bin Laden. “Al Qaeda and the Brotherhood aren’t separated by a firewall in ideological terms”, he asserted. “Rather, they’re like different rooms that are linked none the less by a common corridor.”

Since Goodman wrote this the Mubarak regime has fallen and parliamentary elections are scheduled next month from which the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party will almost certainly emerge as the strongest political force in Egypt, with a substantial role in government. Tomorrow elections will be held in Tunisia and the Ennahda party, which also derives from the Ikhwan tradition, looks set top the poll. The Libyan Islamic Movement and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood will undoubtedly play a prominent part in the transition to democracy in Libya. Everywhere across the Arab world, in fact, where dictatorships fall, Islamist political parties will almost invariably emerge as contenders for power, demonstrating that they possess a significant base of popular support.

If the British government attempts to address this process on the basis of Paul Goodman’s crude and ignorant analysis of Islamism, and treats these parties as though they are part of the same movement as Al-Qaeda, it will not only end up looking very stupid but also seriously damage its chances of exercising any future influence in the region.

Unsurprisingly, the government has been forced to reassess its one-sided attitude towards political Islam, at least with regard to developments in North Africa and the Middle East. Interviewed on the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday, foreign secretary William Hague was asked if he was worried that “Islamist extremist elements” might come to the fore in Libya following the fall of Gaddafi. Hague 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.”

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. If the government is to resolve this contradiction between foreign and domestic policy towards political Islam, it will have to reject the advice not only of Douglas Murray but of Paul Goodman too.