A very strange open letter to the Prime Minister was published today in the Guardian. A group of Muslim "community leaders" - whatever that means - joined together to threaten Britain with more terrorist outrages if the government didn't do more to criticise Israel.
Of course, they didn't put it in so many words. Instead we got some finely-worded equivocation. The self-described "friends of the UK government" - who include Ed Husain - want to warn Gordon Brown of the "possible repercussions of the serious on-going conflict in Gaza". It's not that these moderate "leaders" would view a resurgence in terrorism with anything other than regret. It's simply that their traction over the hotheads would be much diminished:
As you are aware, the anger within UK Muslim communities has reached acute levels of intensity. The Israeli government's use of disproportionate force to combat threats to its security has revived extremist groups and empowered their message of violence and perennial conflict. For Muslims in the UK and abroad, we run the risk of potentially creating a loss of faith in the political process.
After a bit of buttering-up - "the UK – bilaterally and as part of the EU – has an important role..." and demands for action, the letter-writers (who clearly have a high opinion of their own influence) end by requesting a face-to-face meeting with the PM "to relay our concerns to you in person at your earliest convenience". This "would provide us with an opportunity to subsequently inform our national and global networks of the UK government's efforts to hold Israel accountable to its obligations". What can that mean? What are these networks? What would they do with this information? Call off their planned terrorist operations?
Now this letter, you might think, isn't particularly unusual - it's the sort of thing we've grown used to from the likes of the Muslim Council of Britain and similar Islamist groups. The hand-wringing, the claim to speak on behalf of "mainstream" or "moderate" Muslim opinion, above all the faint air of menace, as though the authors are running something akin to a protection racket - all wearingly familiar. Familiar, too, is the simplistic analysis, in which Israel is ever the aggressor, Palestinians invariably the passive victims. Indeed, the MCB issued its own statement the other day which makes similar points:
"We welcome our Prime Minister's call for an urgent ceasefire, but it is a tragedy that our own leaders in government have yet to issue a clear, firm censure of the Israeli action. We are at a loss why our elected representatives have apparently frustrated efforts to condemn what world leaders have described as 'barbaric and criminal aggression' emanating from the state of Israel" said Dr Daud Abdullah, the Deputy Secretary General of the MCB.
The MCB statement was at least as condemnatory of Israel as the Guardian letter. Missing from it, however, was any direct hint of increased terrorist activity if the government didn't follow their advice. Indeed, on the MCB website, alongside invitations to attend anti-Israel demonstrations, Muslims are reminded of "the power of prayer". The MCB has in the past been criticised for its apparent equivocation over issues such as Israel-Palestine or the Danish cartoons, on the one hand condemning violence, on the other regretfully alluding to what might happen if the British government didn't do what it wanted. It would seem to have steered clear of such language on this occasion, at least so far. Instead, the language of the protection racket was left to the avowedly moderate signatories to this new letter.
Particularly intriguing, to the Heresiarch, was the prominence among the signatories of Husain, author of The Islamist (an account of his adventures in radical Islam), founder of the Quilliam Foundation and (his many enemies allege) all-round government stooge. Ed Husain and QF have been extravagantly praised by politicians, journalists, anti-terror thinkers and believers in multicultural utopias. QF's glitzy, celebrity-packed launch last April was attended by a kind of euphoria among elements of the chatterati. The likes of Jemima Khan, Michael Gove and the very silly Rev Giles Fraser graced the event with their fashionable presence. At a time when the government seemed to have repented of its previous patronage of the MCB, Husain appeared to be the great new hope of pro-Western, moderate Islam. Even Melanie Phillips seemed to like him.
Largely because of his policy of tacking close to the Establishment, Husain has previously been thought to have little or no credibility among Muslims - or, to be more precise, among those who publicly claimed to speak for Muslims. (Because "Muslims", in all these discussions, is really a shorthand for "politically and religiously engaged Muslims" - the sort of Muslims, in short, of interest to the government.) He has been painted by longer-established "community leaders" as a Neocon, a turncoat, a useful idiot - or, alternatively, a clever con-artist, telling the government what they wanted to hear. The MCB's Inayat Bunglawala has accused Husain of developing a "narrow sectarian outlook" and being "devisive". Others have wondered how a man who has swung from radical Islam to Establishment favourite with such alacrity could be considered representative of anyone, while he has become as much of a hate-figure to the anti-war Left as to British political Islam.
According to Seumas Milne, a reliably bad judge of everything, Husain has
compared Hamas to the BNP, described the Arab "psyche" as irredeemably racist, criticised the director of MI5 for "pussyfooting around" with extremists, poured cold water on the idea that western policy in the Muslim world makes terror attacks in Britain and elsewhere more likely, dismissed the idea of Islamophobia and defended the government's decision to ban the leading Muslim cleric Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi from Britain because he had defended Palestinian suicide attacks.
I was surprised to find myself in such company, but the QF struck me (for reasons I couldn't quite explain) as a very rum affair. I found it odd, for instance, that it should honour in its name a man - 19th century convert to Islam William Quilliam - who was at various times suspected of treasonable activities and seems to have been in the pay of the Turkish and Persian governments. And while its statement of aims warmly invoked the supposed golden age of Moorish Spain, it was notable that this was a period of "mutual tolerance and respect" under Muslim rule, and thus a strange model for life in a secular society. It explicitly rejected the Islamist path of violence, yet the panel of senior Islamic scholars it retained included men who had previously supported suicide bombing or denounced the Danish cartoons, and who were thus more-or-less indistinguishable from the old-style Islamists they were supposedly attempting to counteract. It was all very strange.
According to an article on the foundation's own website, the sainted William Quilliam had been "Britain's first Muslim activist" and his "fervent advocacy of Muslim solidarity and united resistance against anti-Muslim imperial policies were a prominent feature of his discourse." If this ran counter to what was being said about Ed Husain and his colleagues last spring, it seems quite close to the language of today's Guardian letter. Indeed, it seems probable that Ed Husain himself is the letter's prime instigator or even its author. It is, if nothing else, remarkably similar in its terms to a statement on the QF website dated December 28th. In language which would do Mr Bunglawala proud, Husain is quoted as saying:
The UK Government cannot seek to win hearts and minds across Muslim communities while failing to stop Israel from murdering Palestinians en masse. Gordon Brown and David Miliband have reached out to Damascus and Darfur in recent weeks in an attempt to bring peace and stand for fairness. That is commendable. And in that spirit, where is the outright condemnation of Israeli atrocities and pressure on Israel to stop its inhumane operations?
Perceived double standards from our Government and the current green light (from Washington and London) to Israel's killing machine will strengthen Al Qaeda's metanarrative and radicalize yet another generation of young Muslims.
Isolating and angering millions of Muslims by sitting on the fence will not aid the PREVENT agenda, or the moderate majority of Muslims. The FCO and Downing Street has a duty to stand, condemn, and call for immediate cessation of Israel's military operations, and end the siege"
In an article for Comment is Free on December 30th, Husain went still further in what seemed like an effort to inflame British Muslim opinion:
After Israel's massacre of innocent Palestinians in Gaza, out on the streets of Cairo and Damascus it would be impossible to find credible voices that condemn suicide bombings in Israel. Thanks to its ruthless air strikes and economic blockade of Gaza, Hamas is stronger today than it was last week. Friday sermons across the Muslim world this week will see the worst condemnation of Israel, rightful support for the bealeagured Palestinian peoples – and a boost to the popularity of Hamas by default.
It may be a measure of Husain's poor grasp of Muslim opinion that this, by and large, did not occur. There have been demonstrations, complete with amusingly illiterate signs, but little evidence of violence in Britain or abroad. Some of Husain's comments about Israel seem partly deranged, as well as extremely ill-considered. For example:
The ideology that justifies and advocates suicide bombings already exists. Israel though, through its recent actions, has just provided the fire that will now re-ignite this poisoned gas. Prevented for now by Israel's wall and heavy security, the suicide bombers' will to kill, to avenge will not calm. And where there is a will, victims will always find a way to lash out.
Poison gas? Does Husain have any conception of what he is implying? Rather like the Vatican official who compared Gaza to a "concentration camp", Husain jumps too easily to the language of Nazi atrocity when faced with Israel's action. It may validly be asked why.
He then referred to "Israel's calculated killing and attempts at deception". Well, indeed, Israel's killings have been calculated - they have been targeting Hamas, and the launchers of rockets into southern Israel. Whether or not they have been wise to do so isn't really the issue. But it is not indiscriminate: innocent civilians have been killed, in too great numbers, and their deaths are the tragic consequence of the built-up nature of Gaza, the fog of war and, not least, the deliberate use of civilian infrastructure by Hamas for its operations. But, and even after the unfortunate deaths of around 40 people in what was described as a UN school, civilians deaths have been in the minority. Mostly, the Israelis have killed the Hamas militants they were aiming for. Such is the consequence of "cold calculation".
Hamas, meanwhile, is described by Husain as "irresponsible, senile and fanatical". That sounds like condemnation, but it is the language of excuse: the implication is that Hamas is not responsible for its actions, lashing out blindly, whereas Israel is "calculating" and "cold". While claiming to be "no friend of Hamas", Husain spoke warmly of the Arabs' "strong notions of collective honour, dignity, and respect". Such notions of honour, of course, lead some of them in other circumstances to the brutal murder of female relatives accused of bringing "shame" - but that's another story. I mention it to point up the sentimentality inherent in Ed Husain's argument. He continues in similar vein. "An attack on Gaza is being seen as an attack on the Arab people as a whole," he writes, "from Yemen to Morocco, Arab anger and sense of powerlessness is palpable. How much more can the Arabs take?" Once more the Arabs - and Muslims generally - are not imagined as rational beings, still less as individuals, but as a kind of undifferentiated mass, moved (or potentially moved) to violent actions, not responsible for their actions. The Western powers and Israel are thus to blame, not merely for their own actions, but for whatever angry Arabs/Muslims do.
Husain, for his part, puts himself forward in this article, in his statement and in the Guardian letter, as a mediator and interpreter of that inarticulate mass of angry and discontented Muslim opinion, although it is far from clear what legitimacy he has to speak for anyone. The threat of "radicalising" Muslims is (at least implicitly) held over Israel, Britain the US and everyone else who doesn't follow his advice. He even claims to have "made huge headway" before the current crisis began, planning a "high-profile regional event... to help reshape the discourse surrounding Islam and the west." The Israeli action is therefore not simply unwise, or "disproportionate": it is, more importantly, a slap in the face to Ed Husain.
Husain's arrogance permits him to decide the fate of nations. "I've spoken out in support of Israel's right to exist, beside a strong Palestinian state," he writes. "But Israel's cold, politically timed killing of more than 300 Palestinians makes me, and millions more, rethink our attitude towards Israel." Once more, it's not clear who the millions are for whom Ed Husain is speaking. His views, however go some way towards explaining some of the remarks by MI5 boss Jonathan Evans at the beginning of the week that the invasion of Gaza would see "extremists try to radicalise individuals for their own purposes". Husain is known to have close contacts in the security services.
Husain would seem to be repeating the tired narrative - Jews bad, Palestinians innocent victims - which quite apart from its intrinsic bias serves mainly to entrench the conflict. What is almost never mentioned is the role of Arab regimes - almost all Arab regimes - in perpetuating this conflict over decades. With their vast oil wealth, Saudi Arabia and other gulf states - or the Iranians, for that matter - could have solved the conflict decades ago be offering the Palestinians generous resettlement. It is a sad truth that the creation of Israel led to the displacement of many Palestinians. But short of the eradication of Israel - surely unthinkable, however much it remains close to the hearts of the leadership of Hamas (or, perhaps more accurately, their international supporters) - nothing is going to undo that. The fact that the Palestinians have been refugees for six decades has less to do with the creation of Israel than with the usefulness of that open sore for the ruling elites of Arab countries, who had a convenient scapegoat and excuse for domestic repression. As the continuing blockade of Gaza by Egypt reveals, or ought to, the Palestinians are the victims of Egypt - and Syria, and Iran, and Saudi Arabia - at least as much as they are victims of Israel.
One might have hoped that an "anti-extremist think-tank" such as the Quilliam Foundation would have proved itself open to the bold thinking without which a lasting solution to the Middle East conflict is impossible. But Husain prefers to parrot the lines of his former Islamist mentors. Perhaps his intellectual journey - chronicled so lucratively in his autobiography, and exploited so successfully as a career - hasn't taken him so far after all. "The Islamist", indeed.