A couple of Sundays ago I took part in a panel discussion at a community hall in Tooting, south London, on the broad topic of Islam and the West. I had been invited as a non-Muslim and the editor of a recent collection of essays on humanism, to give a secular perspective on media representations of Islam, for a Muslim audience. Little did I know that a few days later my participation would be cited on the radio as evidence of the meeting’s respectability. (Everything is relative, I suppose.)
The meeting was organised by the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), and my co-panellist was their media representative Taji Mustafa. I was aware that HT have an aura of controversy, but to my mind being banned by students’ unions and authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes is not necessarily an indication of malevolence. I was curious about what radical Islamists would actually have to say, offensive or otherwise.
The audience was mixed in terms of age and gender, if not religion, with kids running around freely and confounding any expectations that this would be a sinister occasion. Everyone seemed to welcome the opportunity to engage with a non-Muslim rather than simply talking to each other. The discussion was reasonable and intelligent, and the evening rather pleasant. What was a bit frustrating was the incessant focus on Islam and Islamophobia; granted, that was the topic of this particular meeting, but I began to wonder if HT had anything to say about anything else, any more substantial analysis of the war in Iraq, say, or ideas about what Islam means for social policy.
Two nights later, the BBC’s Newsnight ran a story on the ‘radicalisation’ of Muslim youth, which largely focused on Hizb ut-Tahrir and moves to have them banned. The group was accused of leading young Muslims astray, not only by filling their heads with radical Islamist ideas, but even encouraging them to get involved in crime and violence. HT refute the allegations strenuously; all I can say is this is far from the impression I got. In any case, the climate of suspicion and spooky mood-music around even non-violent Islamist politics surely reinforces the sense many Muslims have that everyone is out to get them, encouraging further self-absorption.
When exactly did ‘radicalisation’ become a dirty word? Taji Mustafa argued at the Tooting meeting that what the government maligns as radicalisation is in fact politicisation. Young Muslims are taking an interest in global politics and getting engaged in non-violent discussion and campaigning, which is surely a good thing? I suspect there is an element of wishful thinking here, and that some young British Muslims identify with their co-religionists in Palestine and Chechnya primarily as an expression of their lack of identification with British society. The demonisation of anything but ‘moderate’ Islam surely contributes to this sense of alienation.
In the final analysis, I don’t believe political Islam has anything to contribute to renewing Western politics, but why not let it stand or fall on its merits? Why not call the Islamists’ bluff? The political class seems so unsure of its own ideas that it would rather shut down debate than risk losing the argument. Those of us who are not convinced that ‘there is no alternative’ to liberal capitalism should not be so hasty to endorse the cosy consensus of moderation.
Dolan Cummings is the editor of Culture Wars, and of Debating Humanism, a collection of essays on the future of humanism.