We mustn’t let the hatemongers win

Published in the Evening Standard 21 September 2006

It’s unusual to watch a contest and feel unsympathetic to both sides, but that was the sensation yesterday, watching John Reid do battle with a couple of Islamist extremists in Leytonstone.

The first impulse was to loathe the barrackers, led by Abu Izzadeen, the extremist formerly known as Trevor Brooks. Those who have traced the wilder shores of Islamist radicalism in Britain have seen Brooks before: as the spokesman for the recently outlawed al-Ghurabaa group, he has form. Which makes you wonder how, as George Galloway put it, he was able to get within “punching distance” of the Home Secretary. (Nice, incidentally, to hear the member for Bethnal Green and Bow, who recently declared that the assassination of Tony Blair would be “morally justified”, voicing his concern for the security of government ministers.)

Still, there he was, relatively moderate by his standards, branding Reid a “tyrant”, an “enemy of Islam” and accusing Britain of “state terrorism.” Usually Abu Izzadeen is more to the point, telling BBC Newsnight last year that the July 7 bombers were “completely praiseworthy” and confessing his own ambition to die as a suicide bomber.

Indeed, Abu Izzadeen and the handful of activists like him are almost too bad to be true. They emerge at regular intervals, apparently bent on confirming every one of the worst accusations levelled against Muslims. So, in protest at the cartoons of Muhammad, they gathered outside the Danish Embassy carrying placards that declared: “Behead those who mock Islam” and “Europe you’ll pay, Bin Laden is on his way.” One can only imagine the reaction of moderate Muslims as they saw those slogans, sinking their heads into their hands and sighing that their worst enemies could not have produced a more damaging image.

The Islamist ultras were up to the same trick a few days ago, this time stirred by the Pope’s inept digging up of a 14 century quotation which accused the Prophet Muhammad of introducing into the world “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Right on cue, as if to vindicate the Pope’s incendiary point, the lunatic Islamist fringe were off torching churches in the West Bank and killing a nun in Somalia. Meanwhile, their admirers in London headed to Westminster Cathedral with some new slogans, “Islam will conquer Rome” and “Jesus is the slave of Allah” among them.

All of this behaviour adds up to British Muslims’ worst nightmare. The Islamist hardcore seems determined to bear out the Islamophobic claim that Muslims are prone to violence and intolerance. Take this example. Islamophobes argue that Muslims have no place in a western democracy. It’s an indefensible statement – yet during the 2005 general election campaign, these fringe sects broke up both a Muslim Council of Britain event aimed at urging Muslims to vote and a Galloway rally in the East End, shouting that any Muslim who dared mark a ballot paper would be facing a “death sentence.” It was, they insisted, unIslamic to vote – thereby endorsing the bigots who claim Muslims have no place in a democracy.

Abu Izzadeen and those like him do Muslims’ enemies’ work for them: they are propaganda in human form, walking advertisements for Islamophobia. And my own trade should admit its share of responsibility in this regard: because the hatemongers make gripping television and great copy, we give them far more publicity than their numbers deserve. (Yesterday’s performance was another example, an obvious stunt which garnered huge coverage.) The result is the inflation of these marginal figures, leaving an impression that they are somehow representative of the British Muslim mainstream. They are not.

So in a contest between them and almost anyone else, I’d want them to lose every time. And yet I could hardly cheer on John Reid yesterday. When faced with the desperately important challenge of healing relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in this city and beyond, I fear the Home Secretary is not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

He deserved credit for delivering his speech to a Muslim audience rather than to a cosy thinktank in Westminster. That always risked a hostile reaction, and so it proved. But he made some bad errors.

First, he should have tackled head-on the anger many Muslim Londoners feel over the heavy-handed arrests of innocent men, most notably at the Forest Gate raid in June. As Home Secretary, he carries some political responsibility for the police and it shouldn’t have taken a heckler to raise the subject. He has a solid defence to make – that the police have to act on serious warnings, even those that turn out to be false alarms – and he should have made it.

Second, it strains credulity for Reid to tell Muslims that one potential cause of terrorism is insufficient vigilance by parents, failing to spot “the tell-tale signs”, while refusing any discussion of the factor identified again and again by British Muslims themselves – namely the role of British foreign policy in radicalising Muslim youth. The effect of his speech was to shift responsibility onto the shoulders of ordinary mums and dads, while dodging the government’s own responsibilities.

Of course he is right that the spread of violent jihadism is a grave challenge to British Islam and something which that community has to face up to and root out. But he is, after Tony Blair, one of the last people who can plausibly carry that message. His macho posturing after the August terror alert, warning that Britain faced its greatest threat since the second world war, did the terrorists’ work for them, dignifying their murderous crimes with the status of acts of war. Instead of calming this conflict down, he has talked it up.

All of which makes yesterday’s scene an odd one: Islamist radicals who help the Islamophobes, pitted against a Home Secretary who ends up boosting the extremists. Two sides at each other’s throats, and not one of them you could cheer.