Comedy

Setting the record straight: comments at Cheadle mosque, 2014

This is a cross-post from Sufyan Ismail, CEO of MEND

I want to take the opportunity to address some questions and comments that have attempted to hinder MEND’s work on the ground and with stakeholder communities by vested interests who try, to different degrees, to criticise our work without paying much attention to what it is we actually do.

Last year, I gave a talk at Cheadle mosque in Greater Manchester. The event was recorded and a video of the session was put on YouTube. Excerpts from the session later appeared on Harry’s Place, the notorious pro-Zionist, Islamophobic website which constantly tries to tarnish politically engaged British Muslims with the “Islamist” label and spares no expense in rubbishing their reputation with the use of half-truths, distortions and misrepresentation. The blog’s motto, “If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” has got to be the single biggest irony out there given the antics of its prolific, pro-Zionist bloggers.

I won’t bother addressing the nonsense that passes for blogposts on HP but I do want to address comments that appeared elsewhere, on the CST’s blog and in the column of Observer columnist, Nick Cohen.

What I said:

First off, I should state in full what it is I said in my speech at the Cheadle mosque in response to question regarding the need for Tell Mama. I stated:

“We don’t want the government to fob us off with some phony thing called Tell MAMA, which has got a pro-Zionist pretty much heading it, or in a very senior capacity, and is making all sorts of comments we might not agree with when it comes to homosexuality, to be recording Islamophobia.”

I accept that my choice of words could have been better and clearer. In hindsight, I would have expressed my thoughts more clearly and more accurately.

There are a number of things that I want to clarify in relation to my comment in order to distinguish what I did say and what I meant to say, but didn’t do so clearly enough. The reason I take pains to set this record straight is because I do not want my cavalier remark to obscure a very real problem.

Anti-Semitism

My words have been used to suggest that I, and MEND generally, have “a troubling attitude to antisemitism.” The accusation has been levelled by the Community Security Trust and first emerged during the “campaign” (led by the Jewish Chronicle, according to former Blackburn MP Jack Straw) to oust its predecessor, ENGAGE, from the role of secretariat to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia. The remark was attributed to the CST’s Mark Gardner, in an article published in the JC, and though he suggested we had “a troubling attitude to antisemitism” there was nothing put forward to substantiate the accusation.

Elsewhere, it has been suggested that in an attempt to deride the reputation of Tell MAMA, we have decided “the best means…of turning it [Tell MAMA] into a satanic organisation, is to say that it associates with gays and Jews.”

Now, I point blank reject the suggestion that I or MEND, (or ENGAGE), are anti-Semitic. Suggestions to the contrary are absolutely false and I would challenge anyone who thinks that we have “a troubling attitude to antisemitism” to provide evidence in support of the allegation. Put up or shut up I say because the allegation is a very serious one and not to be bandied about lightly.

We have from the outset argued that our work was dedicated to seeing Islamophobia become as socially unacceptable as racism and anti-Semitism and we did this knowing full well that as a country, with the support of society and Government, we have made tremendous strides in challenging racism and anti-Semitism. Though current data on growing levels of racism and anti-Semitism in society indicate that we have a long way to go in challenging manifestations of hatred on racial and religious grounds (and other protected characteristics), I firmly believe that over the years the UK has led the way by legislating for race equality and tackling anti-Semitism through targeted interventions and regular progress reviews. We clearly have a lot to learn from the tremendous work of the APPG on Anti-Semitism and early on in our efforts to lobby for the establishment of an APPG on Islamophobia, we met with officers from that group to discuss common interests and goals.

I have no problem whatsoever with Tell MAMA associating with “gays and Jews.” Why would I when MEND is proud to co-operate with both those groups, and others, in joint efforts to tackle hate crime and hate speech?

It would be a bit like the pot calling the kettle black if I were to criticise one group for working with “gays and Jews” while comfortably doing the same. But you see, Nick Cohen has never met me and did not bother to inquire about my work at MEND when he took to maligning me in his Observer column.

What is relevant, and perhaps explains why Mr Cohen is not interested in what I do (preferring to judge – badly – from a distance) is that Cohen in his column on me in particular and more generally belongs to what is called the “pro-war left” or the “decent left” or in other words, one of the five pillars of Islamophobia which seeks to distinguish between “moderate” Muslims and “Islamists” based on their own presumptions and prejudices about politically engaged Muslims.

Professor David Miller of Spinwatch and his colleagues have brilliantly captured the role of the pro-war left/decent left as one of the five pillars of Islamophobia and I would enthusiastically refer you to their fantastic work. It carefully details the animus present among the pro-war left/decent left towards “Islamists,” as they like to call them, and how this contributes to Islamophobia.

Anti-Zionism

The crux of the allegation about having “a troubling attitude to antisemitism” actually rests on a different point of contention: my stance on anti-Zionism.

The CST have said of ENGAGE (presumably extending to MEND), that we portray ““Zionist” or “pro-Israel” groups in conspiratorial terms and portrayed them as hostile to Muslims.”

In its submission to the Home Affairs select committee inquiry on Countering Extremism, the CST revisited my comments at Cheadle mosque and saw fit to suggest to that committee that “MEND endorses the conspiracy theory that “Zionists” are partly responsible for encouraging anti-Muslim hatred.”

The first thing I want to say here is that, as featured in a piece by David Hearst the Guardian, the CST has been accused of conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism and criticism of the Israeli state. I share that view and believe, with particular reference to the comments cited above from the CST, that it has indeed conflated MEND’s staunch criticism of certain pro-Israeli groups and individuals with anti-Semitism.

I want to direct readers to the marvellous essay by Hilary Aked, of Spinwatch, on sections of the Zionist movement and its composing one of the five pillars of Islamophobia. The essay is part of a broader body or work much of which is captured in the Spinwatch report, ‘The Henry Jackson Society and the degeneration of British Neo-conservatism: Liberal interventionism, Islamophobia and the War on Terror’.

That report, and Aked’s essay, demonstrate the financial and other links between sections of the Zionist movement and organisations and individuals who perpetuate Islamophobia. It is far from a “conspiracy theory” to identify individuals and groups who espouse pro-Israeli or Zionist sentiments, or indeed who are members of the British Jewish community, and who are linked to some of the worst perpetrators of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred. Indeed, Aked argues that there is “a meaningful link between Zionism and Islamophobia”. Links which are rigorously explored in her essay.

Spinwatch have uncovered a wealth of information in their analysis of the Counter-Jihad Network and the Five Pillars of Islamophobia which can be discerned from it. For example, on page 62 of the Spinwatch report on HJS, there is an illustration which shows that in 2013 “The CST received funds from all but two of HJS’s top donors”. Now given the Islamophobic rhetoric that has emerged from the HJS over the years, this is a matter of huge concern to all.

A second point of relevance which has a bearing on what I said about Richard Benson, is that he was at the helm of the CST at the time of the Shaykh Raed Salah affair in 2012.

Shaykh Raed Salah is the leader of the Islamic Movement in Palestine and in 2012, he was barred from entering the UK on grounds that his presence was considered “not conducive to the public good”. Shaykh Raed Salah challenged the Home Secretary’s decision and at the hearing conducted by the Upper Immigration Tribunal it transpired that Theresa May’s decision was largely based on a dossier prepared by the CST.

Justice Ockelton who ruled the Home Secretary’s exclusion order “entirely unnecessary” said that the case presented against Shaykh Raed Salah was “very weak” and that the Home Secretary had been “under a misapprehension as to the facts”.

Now, at the time, Shaykh Raed Salah endured what can only be described as appalling media coverage blasting him as a “vile militant extremist”. David Hearst in the Guardian referred to the “well-orchestrated and poisonous campaign against Salah in the media, who so swiftly and conclusively condemned him as a “hate preacher”.”

Now I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with Mr Benson actively supporting organisations that are tackling anti-Muslim hatred. I think it is a laudable enterprise and a very generous commitment to the transfer of knowledge so that Muslims may be availed of the expertise of Jewish individuals who have made so much progress on tackling anti-Semitism.

But I do think there are important questions that arise from the CST’s involvement in the Shaykh Raed Salah affair and the anti-Muslim hostility that prevailed in coverage of his case.

I think these questions are made all the more pertinent by the qualitative and quantitative data sourced by Spinwatch which points to the CST’s links, via donor groups, to groups that foment anti-Muslim prejudice.

It is wholly wrong of the CST to suggest my views are “conspiratorial” when the evidence is there for all to see. It is also wrong for it to mistake my remarks about sections of the Zionist movement and its links to perpetrators of Islamophobia as “anti-Semitism”.

Homosexuality

The second strand on which I have been attacked is in relation to my comments about homosexuality.

Now there are a number of things that I want to clear up here because, frankly, the accusation is disgraceful in intent and effect.

I used to have a gay chauffeur for many years (and, incidentally my award winning and remarkably gifted PA is Jewish). I also have worked closely with members of the legal profession who happen to be gay in relation to my former business interests. I want that on record because anyone who wants to portray me as homophobic should produce the evidence to prove it.

It is important to recognise the full context of my remarks at Cheadle mosque. I said “[Tell MAMA] is making all sorts of comments we might not agree with when it comes to homosexuality”.

I stand by that remark because it is based on a blog which appeared on Tell Mama’s website in 2014 which seemed to suggest that Islamic theology’s position on homosexuality as sinful in the eyes of God was a position taken only by “ultra-orthodox” Muslims.

It is telling that the blog in question is no longer available at the original link on that website (that last time I checked).

More important is the claim made and my assessment of it.

Islamic scripture, as with Christianity, is clear in its reference to homosexuality being a sin. This is a religious belief held by Muslims who adhere to the faithful teachings of their religion and the consensus of Islamic scholars through the ages. It is not a belief or view held by the “ultra-orthodox” unless “ultra-orthodox” means the vast majority of Muslims. I somehow doubt they would want to be pigeonholed as “ultra-orthodox” for adhering to mainstream religious teachings.

Does this make Muslims homophobic?

Absolutely not. No more than it would a Christian or a Jew who faithfully observed the teachings of their respective religion. The vast majority of Muslims, like Christians and Jews, practice their religion while adhering to the rule of law and more significantly, the requirements of the Equality Act which prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability and gender.

Muslims know all too well what it is like to be a victim of discrimination and hatred. We don’t go about seeking to demonise others or visiting on them the sort of hostility and prejudice we suffer from ourselves.

The Equality Act has been known to create tension between faith communities and same sex groups who each feel that their beliefs or interests are not sufficiently protected. A report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2012 clearly highlighted the discontent among religious groups on what they perceived to be a “hierarchy of equalities” which diminished the rights of religious groups respective to other groups with protected characteristics. But this has not stopped Muslims, Christians or Jews from working together with same sex groups, despite their differences, to tackle common goals – like challenging all forms of hate equally and without favour.

I support this work wholeheartedly and will continue to do so despite desperate attempts to portray MEND and I as having “a troubling attitude to antisemitism” or being “homophobic”.

The accusations are without foundation and are repeated to serve the parochial interests of those who cast aspersions on others while ignoring pressing questions about their own conduct.

I should have expressed myself more clearly, I accept that. I will certainly make the effort to do so in the future. I hope others will duly reciprocate and exercise introspection too. The challenges we face in tackling Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia are too important for our attention to be diverted by mud-slinging, politicking and egotism.

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