Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Nick Cohen replies - but won't engage seriously

Nick Cohen has replied. Its a very poor and indequate reply. He now says he has "contempt" for the Fabians. Well, that comes across. But does it mean an Observer columnist should ignore the facts and mislead his readers? I don't have contempt for Nick Cohen: its just that those of us who used to enjoy reading him wish he would think of a new column to write.

Nick says he is reporting what Muslim liberals think. So Nick's idea of how to gauge what Muslim liberals think seems to be that one ex-Trot columnist (having flown over us moderate centre-left types on his way to being a hammer of the left) should sit and bitch with two relatively recent converts from extremism, who are now committed to doing good work challenging it (which I welcome). So I am beginning to doubt the depth of Mr Cohen's own engagement with liberal Muslims.

I don't know Shiraz Maher. I will try to meet him at some point. He is a very atypical Muslim liberal, now playing a useful role. He has written a good, rather wonky and detailed piece on engagement strategies for Policy Exchange. There is a lot that Policy Exchange do that the Fabians would never touch (like their 'depopulate the north' nonsense), but there is a lot of common ground on this issue of community engagement.

Maher "guffaws" that the Fabians could never have published it. Yet the foreword from Ruth Kelly develops the arguments she first set out in her Fabian paper on British identity with Liam Byrne 'A common place'. I have been making similar arguments about community leaders for years.

My guess as to why Maher appears quite so ignorant about what the Fabians or ippr do is that (as Cohen failed to tell his readers) most of his adult political activity was as an extremist Islamist activist, including on his own account being a close associate of the jailed Glasgow bomber. So of course Maher was miles off my radar, because we have been engaging with liberals, not extremists; now, we are happy to engage with ex-extremists doing good work, within the terms of liberal democracy: dialogue, debate, disagreement, negotiation, resolution, etc.

Perhaps because Maher spent too long in some parallel universe, he seems miles off pace of some of the highest-profile debates in democratic society. Last week, he complained in the Daily Mail, will government ministers never mention or promote British identity!

One of the things that struck me most forcefully is the pitiful reluctance of officialdom to promote a sense of British identity. Looking through key Government documents, I could hardly find the word. Yes, there were plenty of jargon phrases such as 'performance indicators'. But Britishness, and the tolerance, decency, fairness and democracy that underpins our way of life? Forget it. It is almost as though our leaders are ashamed of our own country and culture.

Now, one hears many criticisms about the Britishness agenda, to which the Fabian Society has been a significant contributor. Some of us - like me - think it is important. Others - like Polly Toynbee - wish the government would shut up about it. David Cameron argues the tone should be different. Historians, cultural commentators and many others have all had their say. It has been the most high profile of political debates for the last three years.

I think Maher is the only significant opinion former who just doesn't know that any of this happened. Does this shake Cohen's confidence in Maher as an authority on the liberal-left? What about The Observer readers confidence in Cohen's sources?

Instead, our esteemed columnist is now cutting and pasting the contents of a conference which did not involve the Fabians, because the Communities Minister Sadiq Khan - also our Chair - spoke in his ministerial capacity. (And was I responsible for all Treasury policy while Ed Balls was Fabian chair too?). I don't know if Cohen has read Khan's Fabian pamphlet, but I did supply him Khan's quotes on Hizb being like the BNP. What could have been clearer than that? I am waiting for Cohen to suggest the principles which should have been articulated which were not covered in the Khan, Saggar, Modood and Katwala quotations in my post. (Has Cohen actually read the Maher Policy Exchange pamphlet he quoted? If he has, he will know that it praises Sadiq Khan specifically for backing Hazel Blears on precisely the issues at stake).


Nick Cohen said...

Sunder this is completely ridiculous. Read what I wrote. The piece is about the appeasement of Jamaat-i-Islami, a far right party you ought to oppose, by such noted lefties as the Lord Chief Justice, Prince Charles and Her Majesty the Queen. At the end I go through a list of feminists, Bengali socialists and British liberals who are disillusioned by the failure of the Labour government to stand by them rather than their enemies. In passing in the penultimate paragraph of a 1000 word piece, I quote Shiraz Maher saying that an investigation he has done into misogynist, racist, anti-semitic, anti-democratic and anti-enlightenment groups would not have been published by a left-wing think tank, which is true, in my view.
And you all run around screaming with demented rage.
Sit down and have a nice cup of tea, dear.

Sunder Katwala said...


But when do ex-jihadis (about 29 years old), who have written of how they were close associates of the jailed Glasgow bomber, and who have never contacted the Fabians or IPPR, become experts on liberal-left think-tanks in the view of columnists for a major liberal newspaper? And why weren't The Observer's readers told about who your source was.

Your own piece casts enormous doubt on what weight your opinion of the matter has, because it suggests a serious lack of engagement during the 3 years you have spent ranting at us all.

The Fabians could easily have published the Maher argument. If Maher develops some common courtesy, we will try to engage him. And Ruth Kelly's foreword develops an argument she first made for the Fabians on Britishness in 'A Common Place'.

Happy to put the kettle on, but am asking you and The Observer to withdraw the claims made about our liberal democratic credentials, because I believe in liberal democratic media accountability, and am delighted has processes in place for that to be handled.