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Who Are the Real McCarthyites?

This is a cross-post from Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens at Standpoint

Why don’t Islamists and those on the ‘left’ read a history book or two instead of spouting ignorant canards about a so called ‘neo-McCarthyite’ movement against Muslims?  The latest example of this flagrant abuse of history is to be found in a blog by the New Statesman’s Mehdi Hasan, in which he attacks Daily Telegraph journalist and blogger, Andrew Gilligan.

In his blog, Hasan responds to Gilligan’s criticism of his recent New Statesman interview with Lutfur Rahman, the new Mayor of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. A short background to this: Rahman was recently exposed by Gilligan as having close links with the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), something which Rahman himself has never denied.  Indeed, one of the main coordinators of Rahman’s election campaign, Bodrul Islam, has himself admitted that Rahman and the IFE share a ‘strategic relationship’.

Gilligan believes that Hasan’s interview with Rahman was more of an attempt to present him as an innocent victim of a vicious anti-Muslim campaign, and failed to ask probing questions about his links with the Islamist-inspired IFE.  Defending the interview, Hasan writes:

If he [Gilligan] and his friends in the right-wing, Islam-obsessed, McCarthyite blogosphere bothered to read the magazine, they’d know that the weekly “NS Interview” isn’t designed to be Paxman-esque.

I have not met Hasan myself, but by all accounts he is a rather bright, if somewhat fiery, man.  I disagree with him on almost everything, but have not been able to point to an example of dangerous ignorance in his work as I am today.  To compare the criticism of certain Islamist organisations in the UK to the efforts of McCarthy in the 1950’s is not only unnecessarily inflammatory but also demonstrates a startlingly poor grasp on what was a very important and dark time in American history. Constantly referring to criticism of radical Islam as ‘the new McCarthyism’ is rather like the false comparisons made between the treatment of Muslims in Europe today to that of the Jews in the decade preceding 1939, there exists zero evidence to make either claim stand up.  Yes, anti-Muslim bigotry exists, and is certainly a problem, but as Russ Smith recently put it in his criticism of Peter Beinart’s use of the term:

If Beinart’s going to raise the Joseph McCarthy specter, shouldn’t he at least provide some evidence of Congressional inquisitions of Muslim-Americans (which haven’t occurred under the presidencies of either Bush or Obama), blacklisted men and women in academia, entertainment or even those applying for a mortgage or credit card, or mass deportations borne of rampant Islamophobia?

References to Congress gives this quote an American focus, but the argument stands nonetheless.  Neither Gilligan, nor any of his ‘right-wing, Islam-obsessed, McCarthyite’ friends (of which this blog is one – friend that is, not McCarthyite or Islam obsessed!), have called for Islamists to be criminalised or deported.  None of us have, nor desire, the power to drag Islamists in front of government committees and ruin both their and their families’ lives as McCarthy’s Tydings Committee did.  No-one in their right mind is calling for an equivalent of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (though this was not directly controlled by McCarthy).

When dealing with domestic, non-violent Islamism, the question is not one of criminality, but of legitimacy.  Their views may go against many of the basic precepts of our society, but Islamists have the right to preach and act as they please as long as it remains within the law.  This does not mean, however, that they should be considered by the British government as legitimate political actors or representatives of British Muslims, they are neither.  In order for their message and ideas to spread, Islamists crave legitimacy, particularly the kind received when they partner with members or institutions of the British government.  Merely pointing out that it is counterproductive and hypocritical for the government to allow this to happen can’t be compared to the actions of Joseph McCarthy.  In the New Criterion, Michael Weiss has an excellent piece about the absurdity of this comparison, albeit from a slightly different perspective, I highly recommend it.

There is also a rather delicious irony here that is clearly lost on Hasan. It is often overlooked that the sources of the closest contemporary comparisons to McCarthyism are in fact Islamists.  In Gilligan’s ‘McCarthyite’ IFE exposé, he shows beyond any reasonable doubt that, at the very least, the IFE and East London Mosque (ELM-the IFE’s parent organisation) support the ideas of the Jamaat e-Islami (JI) and its founder Abu ala Maududi.  Secret video depicted students in the IFE building being taught Maududi’s key texts, and training to propagate his ideas.  According to a recent UK government report, the ELM is also ‘the key insititution for the Bangladeshi wing of JI in the UK.’

If we were to scour the globe for examples of real McCarthyite harassment, it would be hard to miss the actions of Maududi’s JI in Pakistan.  In fact, their campaign of bullying, repression and violence against the Ahmadi sect – a group they believe is involved in a conspiracy to destroy their way of life – remains enshrined in the country’s law to this day.  In 1984, the JI used their influence within Zia ul-Haq’s government to pressure the then Pakistani President to add an amendment, known as Ordinance XX, to the Pakistani constitution which states (this is long but worth reading in full for those students McCarthyism like Mehdi Hasan):

[Bold emphasis added throughout]

Addition of new sections 298B and 298C, Act XLV of 1860. In the Pakistan Penal Code (Act XLV of 1860), in Chapter XV, after section 298A, the following new sections shall be added, namely: 298B. Misuse of epithets, descriptions and titles, etc., reserved for certain holy personages or places.

(1)Any person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name) who by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation,

(a)refers to, or addresses, any person, other than a Caliph or companion of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as ‘Ameer-ul-Mumineen’ [Leader of the Faithful], ‘Khalifa-tul-Mumineen’ [Caliph of the Faithful], ‘Khalifa-tul-Muslimeen’ [Caliph of the Muslims], ‘Sahabi’ [Companion] or ‘Razi Allah Anho’ [May God Be Pleased With Them];

(b)refers to, or addresses, any person, other than a wife of the Holy prophet (peace be upon him), as ‘Ummul-Mumineen’ [Mother of the Faithful];

(c)refers to, or addresses, any person, other than a member of the family (Ahle-bait) of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), as Ahle-bait; or

(d)refers to, or names, or calls, his place of worship as ‘Masjid’ [Mosque]; shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, and shall also be liable to fine.

(2)Any person of the Quadiani group or Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name) who by words, either spoken or written, or by visible presentation, refers to the mode or form of call to prayers followed by his faith as ‘Azan’, or recites Azan as used by the Muslims, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, and shall also be liable to fine. 298C. Person of Quadiani group, etc., calling himself a Muslim or preaching or propagating his faith.

Any person of the Quadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves ‘Ahmadis’ or by any other name) who directly or indirectly, poses himself as a Muslim, or calls, or refers to, his faith as Islam, or preaches or propagates his faith, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations, or in any manner whatsoever outrages the religious feelings of Muslims, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine

Note: for more on the influence of the JI on Zia ul-Haq’s government see ‘Religion and violence in South Asia: Theory and Practice’ edited by John R. Hinnells and ‘Fundamentalisms and the state: Remaking Polities, Economies, and Militance’ edited by Martine Marty and Scott Appleby – the latter even claims that within two years, at least two Ahmadis were sentenced to death under this Ordinance

What we are looking at here is a text that, if one were to substitute the word ‘Ahmadi’ for ‘Communist’, McCarthy could not have improved on.  A constitutional order which not only prevents Ahmadis from calling themselves Muslim because they do not accept Mohammed as the seventh and final Seal of the Prophets, but also makes it an imprisonable offence for them to even practice their religion or carry out any activity which ‘outrages the religious feelings of Muslims’.  In practice, the JI’s agitation and hate mongering against Ahmadis opened the floodgates for violent attacks against this sect which continue to this day (see the attacks against the Ahmadi mosques in Lahore which left 93 people dead for one of the more recent examples).

Looking more broadly at Islamist McCarthyism, how does Mehdi Hasan define the abuse of Western laws by Islamists who haul people they don’t agree with before actual tribunals that have the power to fine and imprison?  Ezra Levant, who in 2006 re-published the Jyllands Posten Mohammed cartoons in Canada’s Western Standard magazine, was brought before the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission at the request of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada and the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities.  The case was finally dropped, but not after a no doubt costly defence council bill for Mr. Levant.

Here we have one example of many where a person or group has had to spend a fortune, and in some cases risk jail time, so as to defend the contents of an article or drawing critical or mocking of Islam.  As a friend commented to me recently, ‘what’s more McCarthyist than that?’

Mehdi Hasan, as the senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman, a publication which is the self-described standard-bearer of the British Left, has a responsibility to offer his readers a clear and well argued debate on what is a very important subject.  Instead, they are let down by lazy, inflammatory and ignorant rhetoric.