Rev Steven Saxby: an embarrassment to Christians on the Left

This is a guest post by James Mendelsohn

Christians on the Left, formerly known as the Christian Socialist Movement, is an umbrella group for, well, Christians on the left. Like other, comparable organisations, it is a broad church (pun inevitable), which is both good and bad. Good, because it includes a number of decent, non-Corbynist Labour MPs/candidates like Jonathan Reynolds, John Woodcock and Gavin Shuker, plus other activists such as Rachel Burgin. Also good, because its Executive clearly includes people prepared to challenge antisemitism robustly. Bad, because it is also broad enough to include Rev Steven Saxby on its elected management committee.

Rev Saxby, the vicar of St Barnabas, Walthamstow, has featured on Harry’s Place before. In January 2016, he was called out for supporting extremists and for denouncing the government’s counter-extremist Prevent scheme, as well as for his crass comments on Holocaust Memorial Day and his evident admiration for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. In April 2016, he was again called out for promoting and whitewashing extremists, including the appalling Lea Bridge Road Mosque (aka Waltham Forest Islamic Association). Such criticisms have not prompted Rev Saxby to reflect and reconsider. On 5 February 2017, he attended that mosque’s open day:

(Nor, evidently, is he bothered about associating himself – not for the first time – with the toxic Palestine Solidarity Campaign.)

A number of organisations and individuals have distanced themselves from Stand Up to Racism, a front group for the Socialist Workers Party, itself notorious for covering up a rape scandal. Rev Saxby, in contrast, appears not to share such scruples:

To cap it all, second from the right in the above photo is the notorious Azad “Kill British soldiers” Ali of MEND .

You get the idea.

Back to Christians on the Left: a few weeks ago, I tweeted my concerns about their connection with Saxby, and included a link to HP’s January 2016 piece on him. Rev Saxby took umbrage at me “reading lies and nonsense on that hateful blog.” At his invitation, I emailed him, asking him to substantiate his comment. This is what he wrote to me:

In relation to the blog post, I would point out the following:
1) I did not and never have defended violent extremists;
2) I did not defend extremists in the video at the mosque;
3) I was not part of a rabble but a peaceful demonstration against bombing Syria; both the BBC and Tom Watson apologised after the erroneous accusations in the media quoted on HP;
4) I did not join up with Islamisist agitators (the blog makes various false allegation’s about my co-presenters at the meeting at which I spoke; the Telegraph article cited has now been withdrawn from the Telegraph website following legal representation and an apology published by the Telegraph to Ifhat Smith);
5) I did not disagree with the Jewish headteacher at the school where I spoke (the first priest ever to do visit it, such is my good relationship with the head) but quoted her comment; her response to the HP article was that I am extreme: “extremely nice”;
6) I was not wearing a sad t-shirt (matter of opinion perhaps).
The attempt to associate me with hurling fire extinguishers at people and with a would be terrorist is an example of the hatred within the article.
Perhaps you will think twice before quoting HP in the future and even consider deleting your tweet which cast unfair judgement upon my character and actions.
To which I replied as follows (links and emphasis in original):
In relation to the points you make:

(1) & (2) Inasmuch as you decried PREVENT and the then US flights/visa decisions as “forms of extremism”, even as there was a history of people from your area turning to actual extremism, then yes you effectively defended violent extremists. I know people involved in counter-terrorism who recognise that PREVENT is yes, a bit of a mess, but is getting better and is needed. That option is also available to you, rather than denouncing it as a “form of extremism”. You could also recognise that yes, US flights/visa policies can be heavy-handed, but are both understandable and necessary.

(3) These people sound like a “rabble” to me, though I don’t think quibbling over the definition of that word is really the issue here. I notice you don’t deny that your fellow speakers included Raza Nadim of MPACUK. I’m not sure what you mean by “the erroneous accusations in the media quoted on HP.” I notice also that you don’t deny speaking up for Ajmal Masroor.

(4) The fact that The Telegraph withdrew an article following the threat of legal action suggests that that newspaper sadly has a legal strategy called “run away”, which is why (I am reliably informed) many working within counter-extremism and counter-terrorism no longer want to work with it. It does not show that the allegations in the article were false. I refer you to this piece by the author of the article, Andrew Gilligan, in particular his conclusion: “I was rather surprised when yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph published an apology to Mrs Smith. Either she must have very good lawyers, or the Telegraph – which got rid of many of its excellent and robust legal team at the same time as it got rid of many of its journalists – must now have very bad ones. Either way, the forces trying to undermine this country’s fight against terror had a result yesterday. I set out this evidence about the good Mrs Smith so you can make up your own minds – and if she wants to sue me, she knows where to come.”

I am not aware that the evidence Gilligan sets out has been found to be faulty or that Smith has sued him.

(5) All well and good, but that does not deflect from the suggestion, in the HP piece, that it was “crass” of you, in your talk, to (a) say very little about the Holocaust itself and (b) refer to a discussion about Israel/Palestine and to the low levels of knowledge of Srebrenica among Hasmonean pupils. I am sure that you did not deliberately set out to downplay the significance of the Holocaust; I nevertheless agree with the description of your approach as “crass”, a description which is hardly hateful. (Incidentally – it is commendable to want to raise levels of awareness of Srebrenica. While you are seeking to do so, you may also want to have a word with the leader of the Labour Party about flirting with genocide denial.)

(6) You’re right, “sad” is a matter of opinion. What should not be a matter of opinion is that it is concerning that a man of the cloth is so clearly enthusiastic about a man who is or has been pro-Hezbollah, pro-Hamas, pro-IRA, pro-Raed Saleh, pro-Stephen Sizer, etc etc.

You then state that, “The attempt to associate me with hurling fire extinguishers at people and with a would be terrorist is an example of the hatred within the article”. With respect, I think you misunderstand the article. Firstly, the article does not associate you with hurling fire extinguishers at people: it merely shows that you are very keen to associate yourself with John McDonnell, who has supported those indulging in such behaviour. I find it difficult, again, to understand why a Christian minister would be so keen to associate himself with McDonnell. Nor, secondly, does the article associate you with would-be terrorist “Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Walthamstow lad and airline bomb plotter”. Its point is simply that, by denouncing and seeking to work against PREVENT (see above) and US counter-terrorism measures, you are effectively giving cover to those like Mr Ali. To make this point is by no means “hateful”.

With all this in mind, then, I am afraid I see no reason either to think twice about quoting HP, to revise my opinion of you, or to delete my tweet.

Following this, I didn’t hear back from Rev Saxby, other than tweets accusing me of “bullying” him.

In my opinion, Steven Saxby is an embarrassment to Christians; the left; and to Christians on the Left. Members of that organisation deserve to know about the toxic politics and allegiances of their elected committee member. I hope that they will vote to remove him from that position, at the earliest possible opportunity.

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