Tuesday 17 March 2009

Fact-checking Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen has written, and not for the first time, his usual megaphone column on how the liberal-left has ignored and betrayed liberal Muslims. Nick is a former colleague and a talented polemicist. But he is simply unwilling to let his favourite rant risk contamination by anything resembling a fact.

Cohen writes this:

When I asked Shiraz Maher, the co-author of the Policy Exchange report, why he had not offered his work to the leftish Fabians or Institute for Public Policy Research, he guffawed. They would never print what he wrote. For this Muslim liberal, the left was no longer a home but an obstacle.

Ed Husain did not laugh but exploded with anger. "Where is the centre-left movement combating extremism?" he thundered. "Who on the left stands on the side of Muslims who want to support secularism and pluralism? Do they think that fascists only have white skins?" I had no answer for him, but sensed that his furious questions were a better indicator of the bankrupting of the long period of Labour dominance than any opinion poll.

I will set out why I think Cohen, Maher and Husain are wrong to make this charge - and why I think it suggests a lack of serious engagement on their part. Let us find out if they will, on reflection, wish to withdraw it.

I find this lazy slur factually wrong, politically regressive and personally offensive. And it reflects very shoddy journalism on Cohen's part. Despite specifically choosing to identify the Fabians (and the ippr) in his Observer column as responsible for, at least, an abdication of democratic responsibility, Cohen did nothing whatsoever to get in touch with those he lambasts. Have we done nothing? What's our excuse? Or would it have all got too complicated if it had to engage with the real world. In my view, the column would be more interesting - if harder to write - if tackling extremism demanded more than a catch-all 'betrayal' thesis of the kind so beloved by parts of the left, yet also now by some of those who turn on it.

And I believe that Cohen had every reason to already know he was spouting nonsense, even if he could not be bothered to pick up the phone to check. So I am going to send a formal complaint to The Observer's readers editor, to request a retraction and apology, and a right of reply. Let's look at the evidence.

1. Unwilling to platform liberal Muslim voices (particularly those Cohen approves of).

Firstly, does Nick Cohen have amnesia?

Or was that a different Ed Husain speaking at the Fabian new year conference 2008 on 'Hearts and Minds: How should democracies fight terrorism?' alongside Home Office Minister Tony McNulty, former intelligence chief Sir David Omand, Sadiq Khan MP, and Liberty Chair Shami Chakrabarti (with whom Husain had a heated spat).

And were we spoofed by a hoaxer when we thought we had Nick Cohen himself at probably the highest profile event yet held (on left or right) on these issues: the Fabian 'Future of Britishness' conference in January 2006? If it was Nick, who thinks we never engage with liberal Muslims or involve them with the broader liberal-left, the good chap obviously didn't notice that his fellow speakers that day included Ziauddin Sardar, Tariq Modood, Shamit Saggar, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Fuad Nahdi of Q Magazine, Sarah Joseph of Emel magazine, Sadiq Khan MP, Iranian feminist Haleh Afshar, Tariq Ramadan, Zia Sardar, the novelist Gautam Malkani, Shahid Malik MP, Madeleine Bunting of The Guardian,Timothy Garton-Ash, David Edgar, Billy Bragg and many more. Sir Iqbal Sacranie of the MCB was robustly challenged over gay rights by Ben Summerskill of Stonewall. Would Cohen please point to any occasion where any right-wing group has done as much to engage liberal Muslims or to robustly interrogate the challenges of integration with such a wide range of voices? Our themes included "Islam of the West: Will the reformers win?"; free speech and cultural diversity; integration and segregation; and foreign policy.

Not all of those speakers agree with Nick Cohen (though some did), but then our audience wanted a public conference, not a one-man show.

But what about some follow through? Well, we marked the anniversary of 7/7 in 2006 with a major event 'Being a British Muslim' , holding the event with City Circle, Q News magazine and the Muslim student federation FOSIS on the issues of creating a positive British Muslim identity. More quietly, I asked John Denham MP (then Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee) and Sadiq Khan MP to lead a series of roundtable seminars across 2006 and 2007 with a wide-range of Muslim and non-Muslim voices. We held further public events on citizenship and integration. These fed into the pamphlet 'Fairness not Favours' last Autumn, written by Sadiq Khan: that was unusual in being praised as important and constructive in a long positive editorial in the Muslim News, and welcomed in its efforts to constructively reframe the debate by the Muslim Council of Britain, and yet praised too by the Daily Mail and Daily Express.

I last spoke on British Muslims and the secular state at a seminar last month,speaking alongside Tariq Modood and Ted Cantle with Participants including the IPPR and the Fabians from the left, Civitas from the right, a range of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other faith and inter-faith advocates, the British Humanist Association and other secularists. I think this is precisely what Cohen says the liberal-left never does?

Cohen mentions Bangladesh. I certainly celebrated the landslide victoryfor secular democracy over Islamism in the election. Yet Cohen constantly accuses the liberal-left of betraying the need for solidarity with democrats in the developing world, once again ignoring all evidence to the contrary. Could he tell me which other organisations have held public events on themes like 'What do Iranian democrats want from us?' as the Fabians with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung of Germany did, to bring a range of Iranian democratic voices to the Labour conference fringe?

I don't think an organisation of this size could have done more on this issue. And the reception has suggested to me this is where the Labour party mainstream is. (For me, Nick Cohen often confuses and conflates the fringe left - which he has bang to rights - with the democratic left most of us belong to).

Would Nick Cohen - on reflection - accept any of this as evidence of at least some level of engagement with liberal Muslim voices in the interests of positive integration and anti-extremism? And I challenge Cohen, Husein or Maher to show me when we have platformed anybody who could sensibly be regarded as an anti-democrat? (The one exception is that we have platformed some reformed ex-anti-democrats - such as Husain himself, who has embarked on a welcome - if belated - journey towards liberal democracy).

2. Unwilling to criticise Islamist extremists, and thinking that fascism and extremism are the preserve of the white far right.

But are we willing to speak clearly about democracy and extremism or - as is alleged unwilling to? Of course, we do challenge the BNP (and Cohen has written warmly about our work). So can Cohen or Husein provide any statement from the Fabian Society (or indeed from the IPPR) which suggests support for, or tolerance of, Islamist extremism?

No doubt, they think we have been very careful to sit on the fence, and refuse to articulate clear democratic values or to challenge extremism for fear of causing offence? Can they please substantiate Husein's claim (assuming Cohen has quoted him correctly and in context) that "they think that fascists only have white skins"? Of course, this can easily be seen to be nonsense too.

Here is Sadiq Khan MP is July 2006 (when a backbench MP) in his Fabian lecture 'Being a British Muslim', offering an extensive analysis on the 'mirrors of extremism and mirrors of exclusion' within those mobilising hatred in white and Muslim communities. This was a high-profile speech: it led the ten o'clock news, and was prominently reported in the press. Khan concluded that:

Let me be quite clear. Hizb-ut-Tahrir quite deliberately have the same effect on race relations as their mirror image the BNP. They encourage hatred and their preaching is used by the BNP to foster fear of Islam.

Here is Shamit Saggar in Fabian Review (December 2005):

The rise of religious extremism and political violence among some parts of British Muslim communities can not be ignored. Better focused policies to address social exclusion are important. So is facing up to the long tail of tactical support that is often found surrounding men of violence.

Here is Tariq Modood writing for us on Britishness too:

One of the lessons of the current post 7/7 crisis is that multiculturalists and the left in general have been too hesitant about embracing out national identity and allying it with progressive politics. The reaffirming of a plural, changing inclusive British identity which can be as emotionally and politically meaningful to British Muslims as the appeal of jihadi sentiments is critical to isolating and defeating extremism. We cannot both now ask new Britons to integrate and go around saying that being British is, thank goodness, a hollowed-out meaningless project whose time has come to an end.

I included this point in my own charter for a new Britain, stressing the important point that I did not think there was any sole 'representative' voice of any diverse minority community:

Invest in British Muslims: Billions of overseas dollars have been invested in promoting a narrow extremist politics in Muslim communities in recent years. We need to do more than simply hope this fails. An intelligent integration agenda would take advice from those seeking to create a confident British Muslim identity about what outsiders can do to help, or cease to hinder, their efforts which, if successful, would have the potential to lead and influence debates about Islam and integration across Europe and beyond. Above all, we should recognise the diversity of these debates and tune into the many different voices urgently contesting major political and social debates within Britain's Muslim communities. With a couple of exceptions, major media organisations seem to have lacked the interest or knowledge to capture this

A later initiative, in which I was centrally involved along with Sunny Hundal and others, was the New Generation Network manifesto calling for 'a new agenda on race and faith'. We managed to get The Guardian to take a commentary, run a report, and run a week of debates which tried to show we could talk about race and faith, defending clear liberal values, without descending into a "culture wars" shouting match which polarises debate.

We need to wrest the debate away from the extreme ends of the spectrum and provide a voice to the silent majority ... Media organisations need to do considerably more to inform themselves about and to tune into the debates going on within multi-ethnic Britain today. Too often, extreme and highly unrepresentative voices are presented as authoritative or representative in part due to the shock value they provide.

Question: What do Cohen and Husain think needs to be said that is not being said?

And what is the point of their perpetuating the myth that it is not said?

3. Unwilling to stand up for liberal values, unlike right-of-centre think-tanks like Policy Exchange.

So whose liberalism is it anyway? Nick Cohen lauds of Policy Exchange. But I do not think Policy Exchange can claim a liberal agenda in this area. Does Cohen think they can?

I think that the Fabian Society's engagement in this area has been of higher quality, more liberal and more constructive. (Well, I would, wouldn't I, so let me see if I can convince neutrals). Let me concede that Policy Exchange try to generate more sensational headlines. I think their work has been of very variable quality. Cohen sees this as important truth telling. He must of course know that Policy Exchange faces some significant credibility questions about the quality, motivation and methods of their work, from serious sources.

I would not lump all of it together. The Martin Bright pamphlet (criticised in some quarters) seemed to me an important, well researched and challenging contribution to the genuinely difficult issues of engagement strategies. (Fabian work has argued that the key point - so often missed - is that the 'who' must follow from 'on what' and 'to what end').

Policy Exchange had a very serious spat with Newsnight, in which the professional ethics and integrity of each party was challenged by the other. The programme planned to report the think-tank's investigation into extremist literature, but found that the evidence did not stand up to due diligence, and ended up asking important qu estions about whether the think-tank's researchers might have forged it. (You can watch it online on the link below: Policy Exchange promised to pursue legal action "relentlessly, to trial or capitulation" if the allegations were broadcast, but they did not do so. And PE promised an internal investigation, but then gave the BBC some very flimsy-sounding reasons for dropping it. (Newsnight tell me today they have heard nothing from PE about this since this update last May).

On a different occasion, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg wrote to Policy Exchange's director to complain of their "bizarre and underhand behaviour for a think-tank supposedly interested in open public debate".

Has Policy Exchange been consistent and serious on civil liberties? Cohen was rightly concerned by the bugging of Sadiq Khan MP. Yet how did Dean Godson, Research Director of Policy Exchange, respond to cross-party concern about this? He wrote a disreputable column suggesting that Sadiq Khan was "no shrinking violet" and "the most Islamist-friendly of MPs". (Coincidentally, police sources were offering similarly shadowy briefings, leading Andrew Grice of The Independent to note "if he's a subversive, I'm a banana"). The Times printed my letter pointing that out that Godson was talking nonsense. Khan has been a strong advocate of civil liberties - as Chair of Liberty, he was responsible for the appointment of Shami Chakrabarti.

So will Cohen now also please lambast Policy Exchange's failure to support liberal Muslims? Does he disagree with my view that this innuendo against the British Muslim MP with the strongest liberal track record seemed to send the quite poisonous message that no amount of integration can ever quite meet some additonal, impossible 'loyalty test'? (Declaration of interest: Khan has worked with us - well, we do engage with liberal Muslim voices - and has since, this year, become Chair of the Fabian Society; he was also made Communities Minister last October, so we now get to push him to implement the arguments of his own pamphlet!)

Personally, I think Policy Exchange's liberal credentials are seriously in question.
And their work is driven by a neo-conservative agenda. I hate people throwing such terms around too lightly. (Anybody who calls Martin Bright a neo-con, as some do, is an idiot). I favour it having an accurate meaning. And Dean Godson seems to be the real deal; my sense is that Godson would accept that as a badge of pride: he certainly has the track-record. Indeed, Godson came to Policy Exchange because his views were just too right-wing, too pro-Bush and pro-Ariel Sharon for the Daily Telegraph, at least according to Telegraph editor Martin Newland's account in a Guardian interview of why he needed a new chief editorial writer to replace Godson:

The comment page has seen some of the biggest changes during the interregnum. "I soon came to recognise we were speaking a language on geopolitical events and even domestic events that was dictated too much from across the Atlantic. It's OK to be pro-Israel, but not to be unbelievably pro-Likud Israel, it's OK to be pro-American but not look as if you're taking instructions from Washington. Dean Godson and Barbara Amiel were key departures."

If Nick Cohen thinks that being quite so far to the hard democratic right is "liberal", then he and I differ about what being liberal means. Personally, I will take the Telegraph editor's judgement about that over Cohen's.

Question: Does Nick Cohen still think Policy Exchange's work has been more consistent in supporting liberalism and liberal Muslims than that of the Fabians? If so, could he please tell us what he means by 'liberal'?

Is Ed Husain a liberal? I don't know him well enough to judge conclusively. (We recently exchanged friendly messages, after he suggested we meet up, so I look forward to that). On the positive side, Husain did sign the Guardian letter coordinated by Sunny Hundal, and which I helped to draft against the 42 day detention proposal - another example of liberals and liberal Muslims working together, noting in particular the danger of these undermining "the efforts of those involved in the difficult task of building confidence in the intelligence work and policing efforts among all British citizens and British Muslims in particular on which our security depends".

But Husain's piece in this Sunday's Telegraph suggests he needs to read more on liberalism. What do we make of this argument?

As Charles Colson, chief counsel to President Nixon, once said, "if you grab them by the balls, the hearts and minds will follow".

Does Husain really think this? Again, has he been paying attention. I hope he will not be advocating that President Obama keep Guantanemo open. Richard Nixon was not a liberal. (Can we, Nick, at least agree on that?). Neither, in this mode, is Husain.

And Husain demonstrates a very shaky grasp of political strategy and delivering democratic change. He wrote on Sunday that his main test of the success of the government's anti-extremism strategy will be how loudly the Muslim Council of Britain denounce it. (Hmm. I would prefer a robust preventing extremism strategy, as part of a broader integration agenda, with the MCB engaging in delivering change).

Thankfully, 'by the balls' or 'appeasement' are not, in fact, the only choices: I very much hope Cohen, Husain and Maher have read Shamit Saggar's excellent and well-informed recent OUP book 'Pariah politics', which I think and many others think is probably the most important and serious engagement with these issues yet published. (If they have not, here's the the first chapter). Nobody could say it was soft on extremism -and it is innovative on the difficult problem of circles of 'tacit support' short of violence - while also showing how we could avoid tackling it counter-productively too, and gets us out of the trenchlines so many are stuck in.

So Shiraz Maher - who has never been in touch with me, despite apparently being quite certain that he knows exactly what the Fabians and ippr think - is free to take any view he wants of the left-liberal think-tanks, even if his seems like a very lazy and ill-informed caricature. But if he thinks we are not interested in these issues, I suggest that might just as much reflect Maher's failure to pay much attention to the debates that have been going on as to our failure to seek him out.

Maher has also made a recent and very welcome conversion to anti-extremist advocacy, after he had spent four years as an activist for the anti-democratic Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. (Maher has himself written of how he was a close associate of Glasgow bomber Bilal Abdulla, recently jailed for 32 years). Cohen does not tell The Observer's readers about any of this history: he simply identifies him as a "Muslim liberal". I can't judge whether Cohen's assessment of Maher's liberalism stands up, but surely this background is of very central relevance to whether Observer readers' might gauge Cohen's reliance on maher as an authority to pronounce on the work of liberal democratic think-tanks?

In any event, Maher's inference that the Fabians and the ippr are seeking to censor debate is clearly ill-informed nonsense. I genuinely hope he and Husein will also now graciously withdraw their silly straw man charges. They might then engage more seriously with what the liberal democratic left is doing, having belatedly sought to become part of it themselves, and we would certainly welcome their serious engagement.

I commented positively at the time of the launch of Husain's Qulliam Foundation, so disagreeing with Zia Sardar's critique. But I did understand Sardar's fear that excessively lionising ex-extremists means that "we prove again that radical extremism is the way to get attention. We make flirtation with violent ideology the way to be heard and become acceptable". Despite that risk, I think the ex-jihadi element can be particularly valuable at the sharp end of understanding why the minority are attracted to extremism - as long as that does not crowd out the majority from public debates. (I do wish groups like the City Circle got more attention, instead of being crowded out by those who shout loudest). The jihadis are a small minority, and the ex-jihadis a fragment of that: they can not claim a monopoly of wisdom.

But we also have here the well-known phenomenon of the zeal of the convert. That is why several of the keenest neo-cons and Thatcherites had been Marxists; and why the most robotic control freaks in New Labour always seemed to have a Trot history. Now we have the far lefties and ex-jihadis telling us to make common cause with the neo-cons who have dug many of the holes we find ourselves in. It is the personal politics of exchanging one set of absolute certainties for another, and proclaiming them with equal conviction and lack of nuance.

Nick Cohen is another case in point. He offered an absurd 'agitprop left' response to 9/11 and the initial military action against Afghanistan, then accused anybody who couldn't agree with him over Iraq as being in bad faith. As we all pick up the pieces, he is now shouting about the betraylal and failure to engage liberal Muslims.

So let us defend the values of democracy without reservation. But let us remember what they are, before grabbing people by the balls, and be confident too that democratic values are rather more robust and less fragile than Cohen and Husain seem to think, though the obituary has been written many times before. So let us defend the best of our values, not retreat from the open society we should believe in.

With a much more prominent media platform than most of us, Cohen endlessly bewails the lack of engagement between the liberal-left and liberal Muslims. This is urgent, important and - right under his noise - many of us are trying to make it happen. Perhaps one day Nick Cohen might care to join in - and start being part of the solution too.


Tom said...


Stuart White said...

This is a terrific reply.

Calix said...

Well done for challenging lazy and negative jounalism: the easy option is always the cynical one.

These complaints are becoming a habit Sunder!...but one you should keep up.

Rachael Jolley said...

Good point.

Tom Griffin said...

The debate about Islam in Britain has been hopelessly compromised by the neoconservatives' determination to employ Cold War propaganda techniques (many of which were brought to the West by 'zealous converts' from communism).

The Pentagon neocons were looking to run psyops at Muslim communities in Europe from at least 2002: http://tinyurl.com/dh59kq The alliance between the Left and Muslim communities in the antiwar movement in 2003 was profoundly disturbing to them. That's when you see the 'Scoop Jackson Democrats' of the Social Democrats USA calling for a new initiative along the lines of the Cold War-era Congress for Cultural Freedom. http://tinyurl.com/dafx5f

I think they set out to undermine that popular mobilisation by using secularism etc as a wedge issue. No doubt some of the concerns about political Islamists and the hard left were valid in themselves, but they were subordinated to a propaganda campaign aimed at serving a neoconservative geopolitical agenda. I have to say, I think that there was a big element of this in the Euston Manifesto.

I appreciate the point about the importance of nuance, but on Martin Bright, I find it hard to see past his documentary hauling out the standard neocon charge sheet against Ken Livingstone, in the midst of an election campaign in which the only possible beneficiary was the distinctly neocon-friendly Boris Johnson.

Steve Yeardley said...

Is it me or is this debate very insular.
I know so and so and they know so and so who is not what so and so says.

To the normal man in the street, this is all rubbish.

What real action is being taken to deal with the issues, other than conferences and debates between the "experts" and assorted nobodies?