Shami Chakrabarti, who has recently joined the Labour Party, is the Chair of its Independent Inquiry into Antisemitism.
The scope of the Inquiry has been expanded to include other forms of racism, and Islamophobia.
It is perfectly possible to oppose the actions or political beliefs of Zionist organisations and Israeli politicians, or the conduct of the Israeli Government without resorting to conspiracism and bigotry. However, when the line is crossed, and those criticisms become tinged with antisemitism, it is right that action be taken.
The same is true of criticism of Islamist organisations, politicians, and Muslim-majority countries.
It would be shocking to discover that a Labour councillor or activist were peddling anti-Muslim bigotry and conspiracism, either generally, or within the context of an otherwise more focused criticism of an Islamist political organisation or campaigner.
There have not been any recent or notable examples of anti-Muslim bigotry within the Labour Party. That does not mean, of course, that no such examples exist. It is possible that the Inquiry will uncover unpublicised incidents: and if it does, it is right that they should be investigated. Sadly, it is not at all uncommon to see such expressions of hatred directed at any public figure who is Muslim. Comment boxes and twitter feeds testify to that. But this is not a phenomenon which appears to be a feature of Labour and Left circles, more generally.
If there is to be an inquiry into antisemitism and Islamophobia, it is important that it is not conducted by somebody who admires those at the most extreme ends of either Jewish and Muslim politics.
Here is a thought experiment. Do you admire the Jewish Defense League? Would you regard criticism of the Jewish Defense League as presumptively antisemitic, for example. I would imagine not.
But what would you say if somebody you knew praised a leading activist in the Jewish Defense League as an admirable person, and a “wonderful advocate for human rights and in particular for human liberty”? In those circumstances, you might well regard such a person as a very poor judge of character. You might well expect them to regard opposition to the JDL advocate as improper and malicious. You wouldn’t be surprised to hear them say that such criticism was motivated by antisemitism.
That, in a nutshell, is my concern with the choice of Shami Chakrabarti as chair of an inquiry, which is now to consider the question of Islamophobia.
On 11 July 2007, Shami Chakrabarti spoke at the following meeting:
“Detention Without Trial: Lives in limbo in Britain”
The Centre for the Study of Terrorism (CFSOT) with the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC) & Cage Prisoners
held at: London Muslim Centre 46 Whitechapel Road London E1
Gareth Peirce – lawyer for Guantanamo detainees
Moazzam Begg – CagePrisoners
Anne Gray – CAMPACC
Shami Chakrabati – Liberty
Mouloud Sihali – Former detainee
Adrienne Burrows – Peace and Justice in East London
Centre for the Study of Terrorism – www.cfsot.com
Campaign Against Criminalising Communities – www.campacc.org.uk
CagePrisoners, or CAGE as it is now called, will be well known most of you. It is an organisation which we have covered extensively. A strong supporter of the deceased Al Qaeda recruiter, Anwar Al Awlaki, its main function is to advocate for those convicted of terrorist offences. The London Muslim Centre is also a familiar organisation, with close ties to the theocratic south Asian political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. It is a longstanding hoster and promoter of events featuring preachers who have supported terrorism, called for gays to be killed and advocated the establishment of a theocratic Islamic state. The Centre for the Study of Terrorism is an organisation which was founded by Dr Kamal el-Helbawy, who also established the Muslim Brotherhood aligned Muslim Association of Britain, who has supported the killing of Jewish children as “future soldiers”.
What, one might fairly ask, was Shami Chakrabarti doing addressing a meeting featuring organisations which advocate hatred and theocratic politics: the precise opposite of the liberal politics of human rights?
A human rights campaigner might end up on a platform with speakers who opposed human rights, in order to campaign in relation to a specific human rights issue. Although I can’t imagine it happening, it would at least theoretically be possible for such a person to support the claims of the English Defence League founder, “Tommy Robinson”, that he is the subject of a politically motivated campaign of police harassment. But I wouldn’t expect such a human rights campaigner profusely to lavish praise Tommy Robinson, or to hold him up as a figure to be admired.
This is precisely what Shami Chakrabarti did when she shared a platform with Moazzam Begg:
“It is always a privilege to follow Moazzam Begg and Gareth Pierce, so it feels a little like Groundhog Day. I’ve been following them for some years now. But I want to speak a little optimistically, because I think we could all do with a little optimism at 8 o’clock on a weeknight, when we’ve been sitting listening to some pretty awful stuff. I want to say that I’ve been following them for many years, but there is a difference. When I started speaking on platforms with Gareth Pierce and Mr Begg, the Mr Begg was Mr Begg senior: because his son was locked away in Guantanamo Bay. And now I share the platform with Moazzam Begg, and that is a source of hope and optimism for the future. And you hear what a wonderful advocate he is for human rights and in particular for human liberty.”
Moazzam Begg is the Director of CAGE. He shares the politics of that organisation.
Begg has openly and unashamedly expressed his beliefs, right back to his days of publishing the jihadist text, “The Army of Madinah in Kashmir”, written by the now convicted terrorist, Dhiren Barot. Begg was imprisoned in Guantanamo, having travelled to Afghanistan to build schools for the children of Al Qaeda fighters. His comrade was Abu Rideh, who was regarded as a terrorist fundraiser and therefore subject to various restrictions on his liberty in the United Kingdom. Following a campaign by a coalition of organisations, including CAGE and Amnesty, Rideh was finally allowed to leave the country to join his family. Instead, he travelled to Afghanistan, where he was killed in a drone strike.
Shami Chakrabati’s presence on this platform was not a one-off error. Here she is in November 2007, at a Parliamentary lobbying event, with CagePrisoners. And in October 2005, speaking alongside Ken Livingstone – whose conduct she will now have to evaluate – and Azzam “Kaboom” Tamimi: a man who wished to become a suicide bomber in Israel. And earlier that year, she spoke alongside George Galloway and Massoud Shadjareh, who runs the Al Quds day organising Islamic Human Rights Commission: where pro-terrorist and antisemitic discourse is standard.
Shami Chakrabarti is, at best, a very poor judge of political character. At worst, she regards individuals who advocate for terrorist and theocratic Islamist politics as admirable: as comrades who deserve our solidarity.
But she is wrong. The one thing that Moazzam Begg is not is “a wonderful advocate for human rights and in particular for human liberty”. He is an advocate only for the liberty of those detained and convicted in relation to terrorism, in pursuit of Islamist political goals which, where achieved, are utterly destructive of human liberty.
It is possible that her views have changed since 2007. I would hope that they have. But if that is still her perspective, she is unfit to determine the point at which opposition to Islamist organisations tips over into anti-Muslim bigotry.
None of this will be of concern to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, of course. Here is Corbyn joining forces with Moazzam Begg in 2012, to oppose the extradition of terror suspects to the United States.