| || ||Following on from the blog article by Andrew Gilligan on ENGAGE’s appointment as secretariat to the new APPG on Islamophobia, Paul Goodman, former Conservative MP for High Wycombe, has contributed his own thoughts on the matter in an article for Conservative Home. |
Goodman is a MP notable for having served in a constituency with a large Muslim population and a constituency that has been the target of early interventions by Government on preventing violent extremism (some Muslims from High Wycombe were implicated in terrorist plots
in August 2006).
Goodman is notable too for having followed with a degree of interest some of the policies implemented as part of the Prevent programme, matters that we have covered here and here. It was also Goodman who faced a grilling in a Newsnight interview following the PM Question Time debacle when David Cameron, then Leader of the Opposition, accused the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation (ISF) run schools of having links to HT. Allegations that ended with a apology to the House by Cameron for making a case on a wrong set of facts, as well as a repudiation of the claims made against ISF by the Charities Commission.
It is with considerable disappointment then that we read the Conservative Home article by Paul Goodman and take this opportunity to respond to another set of false claims and risible arguments.
It would seem from having read the Goodman piece that the former MP has made some effort to familiarize himself with ENGAGE linking as he does to various articles from our website. Disconcerting then that while he reiterates the principal objections Gilligan raised in his criticisms of ENGAGE, Goodman makes no effort to quote from our response to Gilligan’s claims. Worse still that Goodman doesn’t appear to have taken the time to read the briefing document we prepared on Islamophobia – something one might have thought rudimentary if you were intent on arguing that “a different secretariat should be appointed.”
Goodman begins his article introducing Gilligan’s criticisms and writes, “It would be easy to fix the spotlight on Engage, and ask further questions about the organisation. However, it would also be wrong, at least at this stage.” Bizarre then that Goodman proceeds to counsel parliamentarians to take note of three conditions he stipulates should be observed if the project is to flourish, the first of which is to appoint a different secretariat.
Goodman seems to share Gilligan’s view that ENGAGE is unsuited to the role of secretariat arguing that were the APPG on Islamophobia to mirror the work of the APPG on anti-Semitism an inquiry into Islamophobia would be conducted something that would be better served by a secretariat that “must be representative of British Muslims” if it is to “have enough authority to support such an inquiry.”
How the APPG sets about its work is up to the MPs and peers that are members of it so whether an inquiry will be held with invitations sent for written evidence and the hosting of oral evidence sessions is a bit of a moot point for the moment. But assuming that the Group does progress to hold such an inquiry like the anti-semitism Group, does the APPG on Anti-semitism also set a precedent of the secretariat being representative of all British Jewry? Was such a qualification required before parliamentarians set about investigating and tackling anti-semitism in the UK? Is such a requirement part of the process of registering all party groups in parliament? Well, actually no, so why should parliamentarians require ENGAGE (or any other Muslim organisation) to demonstrate representative credentials?
Consider the APPG on Race and Equality of which the secretariat is the Runnymede Trust – is the RT representative of all racial groups in the UK? Does it need to be to serve as secretariat?
More significantly, this demand that any Muslim group serving as secretariat should be “representative of British Muslims” is a false qualification. Take for example the Muslim Council of Britain which with its 500+ affiliate organizations is among the most representative of Muslim organizations. But then by the same token, the MCB is criticized and its representative credentials questioned because the sum of Muslim opinion, it is argued, cannot be channeled via a single organisation. It would seem this argument is a simple case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, something that just can’t be done.
Goodman’s argument appears to rest on the following reservations:
a) “It’s essentially a monitoring website or an attack website (depending on one’s point of view) which targets non-Islamist Muslims in particular [links inserted to some of our articles on the Quilliam Foundation, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Dr Taj Hargey and Haras Rafiq].”
It is baffling to us that Paul Goodman should review our website and miss completely the various submissions we have contributed to Government consultations, our campaign during the election to “Get out and vote” or the public hustings we organized around the country during the election campaign. Strange too that of the more than a thousand articles that can be found on our website, from attacks on Muslim places of worship to reviews of TV programmes, or coverage of legislation and court judgments impacting on ongoing search for the right balance between security and liberty, the articles to attract Goodman’s attention are the ones on “non-Islamist Muslims”.
Anyone familiar with our articles would know that we don’t particularly like the use of the term “Islamist”. Largely because the term is so prone to abuse that it carries little analytical utility. But also, and this is the real problem, the term seems to be used as a euphemism for politically engaged Muslims with the label thrown about to effectively cast non-Sufi inclined British Muslims aside and turn them into untouchables.
Where Muslims exercise their moral agency in the political sphere they are deemed “Islamists”, followers of “Islamism,” but the same moral agency exercised by say Christians in the US or UK is termed, to use an old phrase, “the moral majority.” Why the differentiation? Should Muslim political engagement adopt a strict separation of church and state, where Muslims must as a prerequisite to political engagement, leave their faith at home all the while observing quietly as other faith groups in the UK adopt positions on issues, whether political, economic or social, from a position that acknowledges that their religious orientation and beliefs play some part in the opinions they hold?
Pope Benedict XVI on his recent visit to the UK spoke eloquently and passionately of the discrimination faced by people of faith in the public sphere as he reflected on “the proper place of religious belief within the political process” and asked “where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?”
For Pope Benedict “the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief - need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.”
It is a view with which we would concur and to frame this in terms of “Islamist” or “Islamism” is, in our view, profoundly wrong and profoundly myopic.
Furthermore, there is only so much one can learn about an organisation from its website. Sad then that Goodman chose not to call us or email us to ask how we might substantiate our ethos of working “promoting greater media awareness, political participation and civic engagement amongst British Muslims,” if all he could glean from the website is that we are “essentially a monitoring website or an attack website.”
We will repeat again that it’s not individuals or the faiths they profess that come to our attention but the views they put in the public domain which have a bearing on Muslims in the UK.
b) “It’s unclear who staffs it”
We’re unclear on who staffs Harry’s Place but it doesn’t seem to have inhibited individuals from reading articles on that website or on engaging with its (delusional and histrionic, in our view) attitudes and viewpoints.
It is worth pointing out also that the Quilliam Foundation, among the organizations Goodman cites in the article, took its list of advisors offline because they wished not to expose their advisors to abusive emails or other harassment.
Worth pointing out too that Haras Rafiq, who Goodman mentions twice in his article, formerly led the Sufi Muslim Council which, as we covered here, is no stranger to secrecy and lack of transparency on its use of public funds.
When character assassination becomes one of the most frequently used tools to deter individuals with contrasting opinions from making any headway, is it any wonder that full disclosure is not forthcoming? Trust engenders trust and respect engenders respect. This is not to suggest that the names of individuals working for ENGAGE or serving as its Trustees are things that we will not disclose at any time. But the decision to do so and its timing should not dictate our suitability for the role of secretariat. Many of the parliamentarians approached to sponsor and support the APPG have been invited to meet with us, some of whom did, and should Paul Goodman like to visit us and chat about our work, we would be more than pleased to host him.
c) “Over the last two weeks, its 37 posts have prompted a mere 47 comments. Its Newsletter section contains only two items: the last one is dated October 2009. This doesn’t suggest it has a large readership, or is representative of any significant interest.”
That few individuals comment on articles posted on our site is well known to us but to assess popularity by the posting of comments is a specious litmus test. Again, it seems surprising to us that Paul Goodman should conjecture on the size of our readership without looking to ask us.
Had he dropped us a note we’d have happily told him that the reason the newsletter section only contains two items, the last dated October 2009, is that producing a summary of our work in hard copy is costly and we’ve opted for weekly electronic newsletters instead to communicate with our readership.
We’d also have told him that we frequently encourage people who send us emails thanking us for articles on our website to comment directly below the article – the better to share their thoughts with other readers and not just us (grateful though we are for the compliments!).
But the point here is more fundamental that the issue of whether sufficient output is accessible on our website to demonstrate a wide readership. We know that the Quilliam Foundation’s lack of grassroots support has not hindered its access to the corridors of power nor has it prevented policy makers and politicians from lending the organisation an ear. Why then should Goodman’s conjecturing on the size of ENGAGE’s readership, which he claims is not “large” serve as reason to disqualify us from acting as secretariat to the APPG?
Goodman goes on to stipulate two further conditions essential to the APPG’s success as a venture:
2. “Any enquiry must take a wide range of evidence”
Goodman goes on to provide a list of useful contributors to the APPG. He writes, “no enquiry would be worthwhile without evidence from such former Ministers as (Hazel) Blears and (Ruth) Kelly”.
Of course, but why exclude their successor John Denham and Shahid Malik? Did they not also serve in the Department of Communities and Local Government and would not their evidence be similarly “worthwhile”?
Goodman also lists organizations and individuals – British Muslim Forum, Dr Tahir Al Qadri, Quilliam Foundation, Centri, Searchlight, Community Security Trust, Abdul Hakim Murad, Robin Simcox from the Centre for Social Cohesion, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens and Shiraz Maher.
Indeed his list is illuminating not for those mentioned but for those ignored. What of the Runnymede Trust – the organisation that coined the term Islamophobia and organized both the initial committee and its ten year review? What of the Institute of Race Relations and the marvelous work of Arun Kundnani and A Sivanandan, or Islamophobia Watch and the European Muslim Research Centre, which have just produced a new report on Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime? And what of Unite Against Fascism who have organized many of the counter-rallies to the EDL demonstrations in many towns and cities around the country? We would consider these organizations equally worthwhile in the “wide range of evidence” parliamentarians ought to hear. But as Goodman rightly argues, it is parliamentarians that are “responsible for the project,” and it will be for them to determine whose evidence they wish to solicit and why.
3. “Any conclusions must be practical. A diatribe against Fleet Street would be futile. Suggestions of new religious hatred laws would be both wrong and counter-productive. A new state monitoring apparatus, or anything like it, would be wasteful.”
We fully concur that the conclusions must be practical and our briefing document lists a number of recommendations which, as Goodman argues, asks for “refining data; improving reporting; protecting mosques, worshippers, schools, pupils, events and citizens.” In this we are in agreement. But our greater concern with Paul Goodman’s contribution to Conservative Home centres on what we perceive to be the demonisation of Muslim groups and organizations loosely described as “Islamist” for no other reason than that they don’t subscribe to the Sufi-inclined school of thought.
There is something greatly discouraging and gravely devastating about what is happening to the democratic space in Britain and the place of Muslims within it, or the lack of place to be precise. The dichotomy created of the “good Muslim” (ie non-Islamist, Sufi-inclined) “bad Muslim” (so-called “Islamists”) has left the vast majority of British Muslims disenfranchised, unable to voice an opinion or a political perspective on matters facing our country and in particular matters facing British Muslims, unless they cohere with the views of “non-Islamist Muslims”.
Our country has a proud history of liberal thought reflected in the wide parameters of our democratic society. We have over time entertained waves of refugees and intellectuals enamoured of our liberal political rights and the freedom of political expression which has compared favourably to restrictions experienced in other countries. But this is changing and it’s changing with huge negative consequences for British Muslims. If the Quilliam Foundation once criticized the former Labour government for installing ‘gatekeepers’ to the Muslim community, this role is being reprised with a new type of ‘gatekeeper’ installed.
It would seem the password to entry into the democratic space is uttering political views that fall behind those expressed by the Quilliam Foundation, Centri, Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion. Forget for a second the notorious work of any of these organizations on British Muslims or the extent to which their output is unfavourably viewed by British Muslims. What is of grave concern is that a ‘policy of exclusion’ is being played out with claims of “Islamism” and “Islamist” thrown at Muslim organizations, like ENGAGE, in order to deter any politician from engaging with British Muslim citizens that do not come with a Quilliam Foundation, Centri, Policy Exchange or CfSC pre-approved stamp. The policy and its effects are unreasonable, undemocratic and unconscionable.
A democracy is supposed to be a political system devised “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, unless, it would seem, the people happen to be Muslims that do not subscribe to the political views of Gilligan and Goodman or the groups and individuals that sport their badge of approval. If Goodman’s condition that a new secretariat be appointed is taken on board and entertained seriously by the parliamentarians that are, as Goodman argues, “responsible for the project,” it will only reinforce the view that has taken hold in sections of the British Muslim community that some Muslims are more equal than others and if you don’t happen to be with the “in-crowd” your disenfranchisement and marginalization from mainstream politics is of no great concern. It will be a sad day indeed for our democracy and for Muslim engagement with the political process beyond the sham of the “non-Islamist Muslim” prism if this were to happen.