Terrorism has always had a special ability to act as a catalyst for McCarthyist witchhunts, whether it was the ‘scoundrelly laws’ passed by the French governments of the 1890s in response to anarchist bombings and assassinations, or the emergency laws of the West German government during the Baader-Meinhof during the 1970s.
Over the last fifteen years we have seen the same authoritarian drift in many countries, including our own, but it has become increasingly clear in the last few months that the Conservative government and its supporters in the media are determined to shut down any criticism of government foreign policy and Britain’s conduct in the ‘war on terror’, and that anybody who engages in such activity will be labelled a ‘terrorist sympathizer’ or a morally-depraved apologist for Islamic State and other jihadist groups.
The intensification of these tendencies were already clear last year; in the proposals to ban local councils from supporting campaigns such as BDS or campaigns against the arms trade; in the vilification of the Stop the War campaign, and the new year appears to be continuing in the same vein with the renewed attacks on the advocacy group Cage last week.
First the Daily Telegraph accused the Muslim charity the Muath Trust of ‘boosting’ Cage, in an article insinuating that some of its members approved of the killing of Lee Rigby because he declared jihad a ‘noble act.’ Then on Thursday the Daily Mail published a classic piece of yellow journalism with the banner headline: ‘Fanatics’ campaign of hate on campus is revealed: Islamic zealots who backed Jihadi John are poisoning the minds of students’.
It would be way too polite to say this observation lacks balance and nuance. More accurately, it is a collection of lies and distortions which is aimed to produce exactly the same kind of hatred it supposedly condemns. The Mail’s story was the result of a supposed ‘investigation’ into a series of talks given by Cage outreach director Moazzam Begg and other critics of the government’s Prevent programme, as part of the NUS’s Students Not Suspects tour last year.
As was the case with the media campaign against Stop the War last year, the Mail’s investigation was not just aimed at Cage but at the ‘hard left’ – represented by NUS vice-president Shelly Asquith and one of the organizers of the Students not Suspects campaign – also at Jeremy Corbyn. Asquith is described as a ‘Corbyn girl’ alongside a picture of her sharing a platform with Corbyn, but the Mail‘s less-than-searing exposé is mostly directed against Cage.
The main evidence for its indictment consists of a series of shock horror extracts of Begg and others speaking at various university campuses, recorded with a secret camera by the Mail‘s fearless undercover reporters. On the basis of these clips it is very difficult to see what Begg and his fellow-speakers said that might have ‘warped’ the young minds of the students who listened to them.
There are certainly statements you can take issue with, such as Begg’s observation that ‘We’re hypocrites. As terrible as Paris was – and it was terrible – there were no children reported killed. Why are Syrian children not even worth a mention?’ Personally I don’t like these ‘hypocrite’ allegations, which inevitably occur after atrocities like the Paris massacre. They too easily become a kind of ‘our victims versus their victims’ belittling, regardless of whether or not that is their intention. But that doesn’t make Begg’s point a ‘fanatic’s Paris insult’, as the Mail puts it.
The Mail also quotes Begg telling students that ‘they are being treated in a similar way to Jews under the Nazis.’ Begg does make this seemingly histrionic comparison, but he immediately qualifies it, adding ‘ Now nobody’s saying at all, in any way, that Britain is as bad as that. In fact, Britain is probably the best place to be a Muslim right now.’
It would be interesting to know why one of these ‘hate-filled extremists warping young minds’ thinks that Britain is probably the best place to be a Muslim right now, yet still criticizes British government policy, but the Mail is not interested in exploring these seeming paradoxes.
Nor is Theresa May, who tells the Mail that universities should not be allowing such ‘damaging, extremist rhetoric’ to go unchallenged, and that more work needs to be done to challenge those who spread ‘hatred and intolerance.’
It is not at all clear how the clips compiled by the Mail are ‘damaging’. Rather than spreading ‘hatred and intolerance.’ Begg and his colleagues appear to be criticizing a counterterrorism strategy that has achieved very little of substance, and which has been criticized by many other people as divisive, incoherent and even counter-productive.
Last year, for example, dozens of academics wrote an open letter criticizing the government’s proposals regarding the extension of Prevent to universities under its new counterterrorism bill. No one accused them of spreading hatred and intolerance. Even the Mail admits in a sidebox that ‘ it is still unclear whether the policy [Prevent] is working, and it remains deeply controversial in the Muslim community’ and that ‘ questions are being asked about its effectiveness.’
If such questions are being asked, why can’t Cage ask them? The Mail accueses Cage of ‘sabotaging efforts to fight campus extremism’. But few, if any of the British politicians who use these terms so freely have ever tried to define what these words actually mean without coming up with contorted and often meaningless tautologies.
Prevent constantly refers to ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalization’ without saying what it actually understands by these terms, yet now the government is attempting to force teachers and universities to look out for indications of something that it can’t even define. How will that work?
The answer is it probably won’t. You may not agree with everything Cage says or does, but conflating critical Muslim voices with terrorism is likely to brand people as terrorists and terrorist sympathizers when they may have very different aims and motives.
By focusing entirely on the ‘conveyor belt’ theory of radicalisation, the government makes it difficult, if not impossible to forge alliances with Muslims who may be entirely opposed to the savagery of al-Qaeda and Islamic State, but who are nevertheless critical of the British state’s foreign policies and its prosecution of the war on terror.
Because really, if you regard Moazzam Begg as a fanatic then you don’t know what a fanatic is. And a society that regards any Muslim who says things that its government government doesn’t like as a terrorist sympathizer or an extremist is only likely to fuel the alienation, discrimination and marginalisation felt by British Muslims in general.
After all, it may be pleasant and comforting to have discredited and over-funded stooges like the Quilliam foundation essentially play back to the government what it likes to tell itself, but organizations like this won’t help us get out of the mess we’re all in.
And orchestrated ‘enemy within’ campaigns against organizations and individuals that our government doesn’t like will only make it harder to understand and combat the very real threats that we all – Muslims and non-Muslims – face.