Books: The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism by Sara Khan with Tony McMahon

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Sara Khan has spent years battling the excesses of British Islamism -Review by Justin Marozzi, first published Sunday 11th September in The Sunday Times

It is a measure of the success of the vigorous campaign waged by some British Islamists against the government’s counter-extremism policy that I began this book with a sense of foreboding. It is a tribute to Sara Khan that by its conclusion the dread was directed entirely at the noisy proponents of Islamophobia, a cottage industry of extremists who do a great disservice to British Muslims and our wider society.

Thought the EU referendum campaign was marked by lies and disinformation? Not a patch on certain British Islamists’ relentless battle against the government’s counterterrorism Prevent programme. As Khan demonstrates with great acuity, they have sought to discredit it at every level within the Muslim and non-Muslim communities and, to a large degree, have succeeded, using lies and smears to achieve their ends. Khan, the co-founder of Inspire, a counter-extremism and human-rights organisation, and her colleague, Tony McMahon, have spent years fighting on the frontline against extremism and know what they — make that we — are up against.

Their work challenging the Islamist (for which read extremist) brand of the faith, fighting gender discrimination and intervening to protect youths flirting with extremism has become considerably more difficult in recent years with the convergence of two traditionally antagonistic groups, the Salafists and Islamists, both equally undesirable. Much of the extremists’ work is promoting sharia, railing against democracy and spotting Islamophobia on every street corner. Say it often enough, and people start to believe it. Repeat it in the media, and the wider public starts to think Islam and democracy are irreconcilable.

This book reveals that just as the hard left has hijacked the Labour Party, so Islamists are seeking total control of their faith so that Islamism, with its fundamental tenets of prejudice, violence, intolerance, extremism and rejection of democracy, becomes Islam.

All ideological battles have their heroes and villains. Islamists need their useful idiots and none comes more obliging than the left and the sundry anti-racist and feminist movements that collectively refuse to address Islamist extremism “in the misguided belief that such action would be Islamophobic”. Khan names and shames them with gusto. Take a bow Shelly Asquith of the National Union of Students and Exeter University’s Feminist Society, happy to join forces with Cage, an organisation that considered Isis’s British executioner Jihadi John “a beautiful young man”.

No criticism from these quarters, Khan notes, about female genital mutilation, the widespread view of gays as a “scourge” or the appropriateness of stoning as a punishment for adultery. She diagnoses an “identity catastrophe among a small but significant section of British Muslims” who hold views entirely at odds with the British tradition of pluralism, democracy and human rights.

The section in Khan’s book on how militant Islamists have commandeered the heights of British student life makes worrying reading. Who knew, for instance, that the Federation of Student Islamic Societies constituted by far the largest voting bloc at the annual NUS conference? It helped elect the student body’s first Muslim president, Malia Bouattia. Admirable at one level, her election looks less encouraging when one realises that she has called for the dismantling of the government’s Prevent programme, considers Birmingham University a “Zionist outpost”, denounces “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets” and said that condemnation of Isis was “a justification for war and blatant Islamophobia”. Ah, that word again.

If this is dispiriting, relief comes with Khan’s pen portraits of Muslim counter-extremist activists whose bravery in fighting terrorist recruiters and their sympathisers generally goes unacknowledged. These are the people who collectively provide “antidotes to poison”. If the media wanted to hear from Muslim voices beyond the usual haranguing suspects (exhibit A, Anjem Choudary of al-Muhajiroun infamy), they could do a lot worse than speak to people such as Mina Topia, a campaigner for Muslim women’s rights, Mustafa Field, a proponent of inter-faith dialogue, and Usama Hasan, an astronomer and scholar at the Quilliam Foundation. Predictably, this trio has been vilified by the Islamists. Topia was trolled and called “drunken liberal garbage”; Field was told the Prophet would have put a spear through his head because he is a Shia; and Hasan received death threats. That is what happens when you stand up against Islamists.

It is a comforting irony that some Muslim commentators believe the West leads the way in Islamic values. Khan cites Professor Hossein Askari of George Washington University, who rated Ireland, Denmark and the UK as far more Islamic than Malaysia or Kuwait. Many purportedly Islamic countries, he wrote, are “unjust, corrupt and underdeveloped”. One thinks of Saudi Arabia, whose malign influence in propagating a rigid, intolerant and puritanical brand of Islam over many years is not dwelt on here but accounts for many of the problems we are encountering today.

Let us not despair. As an open, free and tolerant country, Britain is well placed to withstand the extremist assault. Government, activists and the media all have important roles to play. As Khan says, “our greatest defence lies in the defence of our shared values”. This is an important book full of compelling, disturbing and inspirational material, required reading to understand what is happening in our midst and what we can do about it.

Read the first chapter on the Sunday Times website

Saqi £14.99 pp256
Justin Marozzi’s books include Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood. Sara Khan is at the Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on Monday, October 10, at 1.45pm; cheltenhamfestivals.com

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