Sunday 5 April 2009

The Observer on Nick Cohen and the Fabians

The Observer readers' editor writes a column about the Nick Cohen column of March 15th, which I challenged as inaccurate and unfair.

I appreciate The Observer's willingness to practice the media accountability it advocates. Stephen Pritchard has dealt with this in a very fair and reasonable way. You can read his column here.

He rightly notes that commentators should be outspoken, provocative and fearless, while acknowledging that they have a responsibility to be fair too. Pritchard agrees with me both that Shiraz Maher's background as a former extremist activist should have been revealed to Observer readers, and that the charge which Cohen and Maher made against Fabian Society lacked credibility or foundation.

Shiraz Maher, Cohen's "Muslim liberal", is a former Islamist activist who associated with Glasgow bomber Bilal Abdulla, recently jailed for at least 32 years. Readers should have been told that.


Maher wrote in the Mail on Sunday last month about government ministers being unwilling to promote the idea of Britishness, yet the concept of what it is to be British is central to Gordon Brown's government and has been a major Fabian theme. If Maher really is this out of touch with democratic public debate, it calls into question his credibility on the subject of think-tanks.

Katwala told me that Maher had never had any contact with the Fabians or the IPPR, but "his co-authored paper is quite good; it contains nothing we could not have published", so it would appear that Maher and Cohen's accusation of censorship is without foundation in this case.

I should stress that I have absolutely no interest in denying the right of columnists to discuss any topic which they wish to write about, while believing that the opportunity to challenge what they do say in the public square is also important. I think Martin Bright's main concern was that a group letter about a column was excessive: our intention was to demonstrate that there has been good engagement between the liberal-left and liberal Muslims. The tone of the letter was intended to be gentle and to offer an olive branch after a blog spat which somewhat reflected Cohen's own fiercely polemical style.

I haven't met Shiraz Maher, though he has been in touch by email. My blog posts drew on his own published accounts of his four years as a Hizb-ut-Tahrir activist, including his friendship with Bilal Abdulla, the jailed Glasgow bomber. In fairness, it is also worth noting that Maher has stated that he had no contact with either of the Glasgow bombers after he graduated from Cambridge in 2005, two years before they attempted their failed terrorist attack, and Maher gave evidence for the prosecution at the trial about that earlier period.

In any event, this is obviously a good moment to draw a line under that episode, and to ask how the debate about countering extremism and the liberal-left's role in that should move forward.

I have met with Ed Husain, co-director of the Quilliam Foundation and the other voice quoted in the column, shortly after Nick Cohen's column was published. Husain is a member of the Fabian Society, as well as the the Labour party, and spoke at the Fabian new year conference a year ago. He has also been engaged with the counter-terrorism work which ippr is doing. I think the goals and mission set out by the Quilliam Foundation - founded just a year ago - are important ones. Tacking extremist fundamentalism should merit liberal-left engagement so I certainly hope there are practical ways to develop that with the Quilliam Foundation itself.

In my view, that will also require Husain and Quilliam to ensure that they do more to engage with the real liberal-left, rather than an imaginary, caricatured construct more suited to media polemic than practical civic politics. Challenging the liberal-left to do more is legitimate and valuable. Another valid concern is that liberal democratic values can be damaged if governments pursue liberal goals by iliberal means (exemplified, for example, with the counter-productive narrative of the "war on terror" which did far too much to play into an extremist Islamist worldview of a 'clash of civilisations', and which has now been dropped from anti-terrorism strategies in Washington and London. Tackling extremism, addressing tacit support and winning hearts and minds of broader communities requires a sophisticated strategy which addresses each of these levels of the type advocated by Shamit Saggar in his important book Pariah Politics. I can't agree with Ed Husain that "if you grab them by the balls, the hearts and minds will follow".

But, whoever is right about that, the central point must be that the content of these complex issues will inevitably be the subject of democratic debate and disagreement: those who share these objectives will need to show that these debates can themselves be conducted in a democratic spirit of mutual respect. Quilliam has sought to challenge the idea of monolithic claims to community leadership or the representation of British Muslims. An acknowledgement of the legitimate democratic pluralism within British Muslim communities and our democratic society as a whole ought to follow from that.

I think that ex-extremists can have a particularly valuable role in challenging extremism, particularly in helping us all to understand the psychology and trajectories into extremism for the minority who are attracted by such groups. Ziauddin Sardar's concern that this can become the primary route to a voice and media platform is also important but I believe that Quilliam, like any think-tank or NGO, should be judged on the quality of its work over time.

I think there is a broader challenge here is for media organisations. Stephen Pritchard mentions the case of Hassan Butt, which seems to me an important cautionary tale. Butt wrote a column for The Observer back in 2007. Nick Cohen wrote a column last year lauding Butt's bravery: he was not the only person taken in. Butt told a court case, on which restrictions were lifted in February, that he had been a fantasist and professional liar who had sought to cash in by telling the stories he believed that the media wanted to hear.

Cross-examined by Andrew Edis QC, prosecuting, Butt was asked: "So, you were a professional liar then?

Butt replied: "I would make money, yes."

Edis continued: "If the money's right you'll say absolutely anything?"

"Absolutely anything, yes," Butt said, "If I wasn't going to cash up on it, someone else was going to cash up on it."

I hope other media organisations which reported on Butt will follow The Observer's example and correct the record.

But there is a broader challenge too. I wrote back in 2005 as part of our work on integration and Britishness that there was a failure to tune into debates within British Muslim communities.

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. Nobody can accurately claim to speak for all 1.6 million British Muslims.

Sometimes this reflects political agendas. Often, I suspect it reflects the entertainment and shock value which leads to some of the most extreme views being so frequently platformed, as over the recent Luton protests. Of course, extremist views should not be ignored, and must be interrogated and challenged. But they are too often in effect lauded in a way which implies they speak to the views of many more British Muslims than is the case. (Should hecking John Reid in public catapult you straight onto the Today programme and Newsnight, as was the case with Abu Izzadeen of the banned Al Ghurabaa/Al-Muhajiroun group, who has since jailed for four and a half years for supporting terrorism?).

But, in part, I expect it also reflects a lack of knowledge about where to find different voices and perspectives. The Observer letter about the Nick Cohen column highlighted a number of civic intiatives which are often crowded out of public and media debates - such as City Circle, Progressive British Muslims, Radical Middle Way and British Muslims for Secular Democracy and the debate begun by the New Generation Network.

These are all attempts to contribute to the conversations we need to have.

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