This morning I came across a thought-provoking piece by Mehdi Hassan, now of Huffington Post but writing here in The Guardian, about the rising tide of Islamophobia in British political commentary, and what he considers to be the insidious attempt to smear or question the pro-western credentials of all moderate Muslims in public life so as to create the impression that there are no moderate Muslims to be found.
Hasan speaks in candid terms about the effect that the ignorant, baseless abuse which he has received in response to his work at the New Statesman magazine has had, both on himself and his family:
To say that I find the relentlessly hostile coverage of Islam, coupled with the personal abuse that I receive online, depressing is an understatement. There have been times – for instance, when I found my wife curled up on our couch, in tears, after having discovered some of the more monstrous and threatening comments on my New Statesman blog – when I’ve wondered whether it’s all worth it. Perhaps, a voice at the back of my head suggests, I should throw in the towel and go find a less threatening, more civilised line of work. But that’s what the trolls want. To silence Muslims; to deny a voice to a voiceless community.
And the money passage, summing up the aggregate effect of this abuse, and the fact that too few commentators in the mainstream media are willing to take a stand and denounce it when they witness sloppy or prejudicial reporting of Muslim life or the rise of radical Islam written in their own publications:
The truth is that the fear-mongering and negative stereotyping is out of control. I’ve lost count of the number of websites that try to “out” every Muslim in public life as an extremist or Islamist of some shape or form. The promotion of Sayeeda Warsi to the Conservative frontbench in 2007 provoked the influential ConservativeHome website to describe her appointment as “the wrong signal at a time when Britain is fighting a global war against Islamic terrorism and extremism”. Labour’s Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, was accused of holding “extremist” views after he called for a “more independent foreign policy” and was spuriously linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir. In April, Labour peer Lord Ahmed was suspended from the party after he was falsely accused of having put a £10m bounty on Barack Obama’s head (the suspension has since been lifted).
If Muslims such as Warsi, Khan, Ahmed and me are all secret extremists, who are the moderates? That, of course, seems to be the implicit, insidious message: there aren’t any. But if those of us who try to participate in public life and contribute to political debate are constantly painted with a broad brush of suspicion and distrust, then what hope is there for the thousands of young British Muslims who feel alienated and marginalised from the political process? I used to encourage Muslim students to get involved in the media or in politics, but I now find it much harder to do so. Why would I want anyone else to go through what I’ve gone through? Believe me, Muslims aren’t endowed thicker skins than non-Muslims.
The targeting of ConservativeHome here is a little unfair; I followed the link and the quote about the “wrong signal” refers to a press statement by the pathetically-named “Margaret Thatcher Center [sic – yes, American] for Freedom” at the Heritage Foundation, not the most intellectually robust of groups these days and certainly not representative of ConservativeHome editorial positions or the views of their readership (though I concede that there is likely to be a degree of overlap in this case).
But Hasan’s broader point is valid – if even those Muslims in British public life who have impeccable records of patriotism and public service have their motives and allegiances called into question, this most certainly does feed the perception that there is no such thing as moderation within the Muslim community, a situation that no one interested in reasoned, free debate should allow to stand.
The only area where I would take issue with Hasan is where he states:
I’m a fan of robust debate and I’m not averse to engaging in the odd ad hominem attack myself. This isn’t a case of special pleading, on behalf of Britain’s Muslims, nor do I think my Islamic beliefs should be exempt from public criticism. But the fact is that you can now say things about Muslims, in polite society and even among card-carrying liberal lefties, that you cannot say about any other group or minority. Am I expected to shrug this off?
Are Muslims getting a rough deal at the moment, and is it shameful and wrong and concerning? Absolutely. But are they the only group? Hardly. Has no one reading this moaned about gypsies lately, or perhaps laughed at a “pikey” joke?
Let’s take a stand when we hear untruths being spoken about moderate Islam, Muslim public servants or commentators. But let us also apply this same standard to every community; trying to silence people with threats, or drumming them out public office based on false evidence or highly selective interpretation of their past statements is not a route that we should be going down.