Climate of Fear: “The Battle for British Islam,” a Critical Review

Earlier this year Sara Khan published a confused book with the ambitious and progressive-sounding title The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism. But the book is far from ambitious or progressive, quite the opposite in fact. In rare moments the book sneaks in glancing criticisms of the British government’s “draconian” (p.189) methods of fighting Muslim extremism, but on the whole The Battle for British Islam is best seen as another tedious defence of the government’s PREVENT strategy – a strategy which ostensibly aims to stop people (most particularly Muslims) from becoming terrorists, but in reality does nothing of the sort.

Nevertheless despite the books glaring faults, a few bits of useful information can still be salvaged from its troublesome pages. For a start, Khan is at least willing to state the unpalatable truth that “As Muslims in the UK face increasing anti-Muslim attacks, there is a sense that the media are only too happy to report Muslims as perpetrators of violence but never as its victims.” (p.147) “Since the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989,” Khan writes, “British Muslims have become a regular subject for the media.” She therefore acknowledges that “the media has not captured the life experience of most ordinary Muslims who are not involved in these activities.” (p.147)

To provide further evidence of the long-standing demonization of Muslims in the British media she refers her readers to two important studies. Quoting directly from the conclusion to the first academic study (“The Media and Muslims in the UK”) Khan highlights how “representations of Muslims in the British media are persistently negative, unfair and discriminatory and have subsequently contributed to establishing a climate of fear or a ‘moral panic’ with the Muslim ‘folk devil’ at its heart.” (p.147) She then refers to a more recent Cardiff University study which “found that reporting on refugees was more ‘polarised and aggressive’ in the UK than any other country in Europe.” (p.148)

But in keeping with Khan’s inability to interpret the world around her in a coherent way (unbefitting of someone who has written a contentious book about global issues) she chooses to downplay the systematic nature of the aforementioned demonization of Muslims by commenting: “British media outlets have inadvertently provided grist for the far-Right propaganda mill.” (p.147) It seems to have slipped Khan’s attention that the majority of the mainstream media are owned by rightwing media moguls who take pride in actively encouraging their media outlets to demonise Muslims.

The Daily Mail has — as most people will realise — been at the centre of the relentless spreading of hate and fear about Islam (something made clear in the two aforementioned studies of the media). But Khan knows better, and notes that “Some newspapers have attempted remedial action.” (p.148) Here Khan is referring to just one rare instance in which the Daily Mail retracted one of their smears against Muslims. This impression of a commitment to “remedial action” is therefore misleading to say the least. Thankfully a few pages later Khan at least ignores her own feelings on this matter to conclude that “the myth persists that the ideology of Islamism [that is, what she decries as a socio-political that ‘advocates an expansionist Islamic state governed by sharia law’] is the true expression of what it means to be a Muslim.” (p.150)

Given the fact that such a divisive myth persists, it is clear that there is a major misunderstanding of what Islam constitutes in the British context. As Khan explains, “a March 2015 poll conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Programme reveal[ed] that over half of British voters (55 per cent) believed ‘there is a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society…’” (p.19) Khan is thus correct in stating that “Such emotional responses are further exploited by the far Right to nurture anti-Muslim hatred.” (p.19) No surprise there really.

Yet contrary to the incessant lies that have been told about Muslims in the mainstream media (since at least 1989), Khan notes that Muslims are remarkably patriotic. Hence:

“Most opinion polls among Muslims evidence a strong endorsement of being British. A study by the think tank Demos showed that British Muslims tend to be more patriotic than the average citizen.” (p.17)

Unfortunately Khan then adds her own negative proviso: “This may be the case, but a parallel trend over the past twenty-five years has seen some British Muslims become ever more conservative on social and equality issues.” (p.17) She adds: “Islamic extremism has wreaked havoc on the lives of British Muslims” and, as she goes on to explain, “The seemingly unstoppable growth of puritanical and Islamist ideology in Muslim communities troubles me deeply.” (p.17) But the irony here is that the article that she chose to cite in order to launch into her argument about the rightward drift of “some British Muslims” (“So, what do British Muslims really think?” by PREVENT critic Kenan Malik) makes it clear that…

“…most studies show that Muslims are rarely drawn to jihadist groups because they already hold extremist religious views; rather it is their involvement in jihadism that leads them to accept religious extremism as a justification for their acts.  As the former CIA operation officer, now an academic and counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments, Marc Sageman, has put it, ‘At the time they joined jihad terrorists were not very religious. They only became religious once they joined the jihad.’ That is why we need to rethink our ideas about radicalisation and how to combat it.”

This is an argument that runs entirely counter to the illogical posturing presented in Khan’s own book-length defence of the British government’s PREVENT strategy. Alternatively, one reasonable explanation for why “some British Muslims” may have adopted more conservative politics in recent decades might be said to be related to the work of CIA officers like Marc Sageman who, during the 1980s, actually contributed towards the US government’s recruitment, radicalisation, and financial support of Islamists and Salafists in Afghanistan, as part of the ongoing ‘Cold War’ being waged against communism.

Although not given prominence in Khan’s government-sanctioned tale of radicalisation she does at one point point towards the roots of Britain’s current problems: “Islamist groups [like the Muslim Brotherhood] have been present in the UK since the 1960s, but from the late 1980s faced ‘a significant challenge for community support from militant Salafists who had returned to the UK after fighting in Afghanistan and regarded the Brotherhood as ineffective.’” (p.53) A few pages later Khan even explains how a group that was founded in 1984 by Abu Muntasir actually “spearheaded the spread of Salafism in the UK.” And while Abu Muntasir has now turned his back on this violent past (that used to be funded by western governments) Khan notes that he had previously “waged jihad in the 1980s and 1990s fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Burma, Bosnia and Chechnya.” (p.55) Khan notes that Abu Muntasir now rejects violence, but at no point does she make the obvious connection between the support given by the British and American governments to such militant Salafists and the growth of conservative Muslim ideologies in Britain.

On the other hand, this tragic connection between the violent anti-democratic foreign policy of western governments and the growth of Islamism is something that is central to the political arguments that have been made by Seumas Milne. Discussing terrorist attacks in his December 2013 article “Woolwich attack: If the whole world’s a battlefield, that holds in Woolwich as well as Waziristan”, Milne observed:

“To say these attacks are about ‘foreign policy’ prettifies the reality. They are the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others in eight direct military interventions in Arab and Muslim countries that have left hundreds of thousands of dead. Only the wilfully blind or ignorant can be shocked when there is blowback from that onslaught at home. The surprise should be that there haven’t been more such atrocities.”

Rather than learn anything from this article, Khan refers to Milne’s article to make the point that some writers (not her) suggest that young Muslims may become radicalised by our government’s foreign policy. Khan goes on to add that Milne…

“…has set out in other articles a prevalent view among many in the mainstream Left that ISIS is not just an accidental bi-product of military action by the West in the Middle East. Milne previously cited a 2012 secret US intelligence report that countenanced a ‘Salafist principality’ in eastern Syria. Milne does not assert that the UK and US directly created ISIS but that it exploited the existence of the group against other forces in the region. Essentially, he sees ISIS as fitting into an imperialist project of classic divide and rule.” (p.46)

But after citing such damming evidence, Khan concludes that “grievance over foreign policy is not enough” to explain radicalisation of individual Muslims; apparently it is more complicated than this. Khan explains: “The reason why some young people in Britain find the ISIS ideology attractive is in part based on the discourse that has developed within British Islam in recent years.” (p.50) It is truly amazing how Khan feels able to belittle the blowback caused by the massive support that was provided by the west for the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan (in the 1980s) and in Bosnia and Chechnya (in the 1990s) and then simply shift the blame to a separate narrative of extremism that grew in dominance within Muslim communities.

So in the same way it is unsurprising that Khan should also brush aside the influence of social deprivation on the radicalisation of poor communities, Muslim or otherwise. Khan thus writes that “Some believe the overriding factors [driving radicalisation] are poverty and social deprivation feeding a grievance against western society.” (p.45) Here she points to the writings of French economist Thomas Piketty as one prominent proponent of this commonly made socialist argument. Khan says such an argument “brushes over the fact that many convicted terrorists” come from middle-class backgrounds. (p.46) But it is hardly controversial to think that better educated (perhaps slightly less impoverished) individuals might become radicalised by the ever-increasing levels of social and economic inequality within society, even if they personally do not suffer its worst ravages.

Following on from Khan’s inability to see the wood for the trees, Khan spends a good proportion of her book attacking the legitimacy of the democratic concerns of trade unions — the primary organisations of the working class that fight for economic and social justice worldwide. It is for good reasons that the two main unions in the education sector (the National Union of Teachers, and the University and College Union) are opposed to the governments regressive PREVENT strategy. But Khan is having none of their substantial and reasonable worries, and instead seeks to besmirch all legitimate criticisms of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy. One simple way in which Khan attempts to do this is by dwelling on the opportunist and problematic political approach that has been promoted by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), as if it is identical with the actions of all other socialists and trade unionists (the overwhelming majority of whom are not members of the SWP). Khan of course neglects to mention that other socialist organisations — like for instance the Socialist Party (of which I am a member) — have always been vocal in our criticism of the SWP’s uncritical orientation and accommodation towards rightwing Islamists, whether that be within the Stop the War Coalition or within electoral coalitions like Respect (see “Socialism and Left Unity – A critique of the Socialist Workers Party”).

Perhaps the most significant source of Khan’s criticisms of socialists who brush over important class-based criticisms of rightwing Islamist groups is Maryam Namazie’s 2013 pamphlet Siding with the Oppressor: The Pro-Islamist Left. But while Khan only draws upon this pamphlet to misrepresent and attack the Left, it should be noted that if Khan had properly engaged with the arguments made within this pamphlet she would have reflected upon Namazie’s concluding statement which explained:

“What’s most ironic is that Islamism is a force that came into existence as a far-Right, anti-Left movement, supported by Western powers. It’s only after 9/11 that their relationship has changed and only to some extent. It’s still a close ally in helping to manage revolutions and rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa.” (p.60)

Given this history of western support for the rise of rightwing Islamists it is ironic that Khan, in attempting to ridicule the National Union of Students (NUS) for opposing PREVENT, feels able to write that, according to the NUS, “Prevent has apparently launched a new ‘Cold War’ against Islam and Muslims; and the battle against ‘Islamic extremism’ parallels that against communism and the Soviet Union, which gave rise to McCarthyite hysteria.” (p.107) But such snide commentary on Khan’s part only goes to demonstrate how naïve she is about the cynical way in which successive imperialist British governments have sought to divide the global working class.

So while Khan is quick to chastise all groups with genuine criticisms of PREVENT as having sinister ulterior motives, she is a little too keen to think that whenever the government acts in way that can be construed as racist it is largely by virtue of an unforeseen slip-up. A case in point was provided in January 2016 when David Cameron announced “a £20-million fund to help Muslim women with little or no command of English.” Keeping to form, Cameron put a racist spin on this announcement by linking his statement to the need to counter the rise of Muslim extremism. Khan says drawing such a link was pure “miscommunication” and so was “counter-productive and unnecessary.” She can only come to this ill-judged conclusion because she imputed only positive aspirations on the part of the Tory government; stating that the fund “had plenty to commend it, advocating gender equality and real freedom of choice for both women and girls – all good progressive stuff.” (p.188) Once again all historical context had evidently passed by Khan’s critical faculties, because as many commentators made clear at the time, this new £20-million fund was announced shortly after the government had just slashed £45 million from their ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) programmes.

The current Tory government, much like the New Labour government that preceded it, are proud representatives of the interests of the 1% establishment at the expense of the rest of us, the 99%. So in much the same way that the political establishment sought to demonise both socialists and communists during the Cold War, since the end of the Cold War, ruling governments of the day have found a ready scapegoat for all society’s ills in Islam. The government has also found a willing partner in arms to mystify the roots of Muslim extremism and how we might go about countering its threat in the bodily form of Sara Khan.

Contrary to what Khan has to say on the matter, the government’s PREVENT strategy is not part of any real solution to “The Battle for British Islam.” And as genuine socialists like Jeremy Corbyn fully understand, PREVENT is a critical part of the government’s counterproductive counter-terrorism strategy that, not only demonises Muslims, but also creates a climate of fear that can only continue to the radicalisation of young and rightfully angry Muslims. Sara Khan might not have a vested interest in learning any lessons from history, but the rest of us certainly do, especially if you have any interest in the promotion of peace, justice, or equality.

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).