Chapter 11

Common Ground?

While there is common ground among the supporters of the Cox Bill, for example that Shari’a discriminates against women and that its recognition would infringe the principle of one law for all, there are also differences which in some cases are matters of emphasis, in others fundamental. The SBS’s approach to minority women, taking both subordination and religiosity seriously, is different from that of many Christians for whom the crucial point is how Muslim women (and members of other faiths including Christians) ‘suffer’ under Islam: a recurring concept in Christian discourse. For the SBS the crucial term is ‘patriarchy’; women’s subordination is embedded in social and political practices which are both local and global, micro and macro, with state multiculturalism privileging faith-based institutions and unequal gender-class relations. For the Christians, Islam threatens the Judaeo-Christian heritage; witness Baroness Cox’s disbelief that the head of religious broadcasting at the BBC could be a Muslim. On the other hand, so do gay rights, and the secularism which the NSS and One Law for All espouse. For secularists all religion is pernicious and should be kept out of public life, while many Christians welcome a greater role for their faith in the public sphere. Meanwhile, Christians and secularists object to multiculturalism’s ‘misplaced sense of “political correctness” and reluctance to criticise “other” cultures and practices for fear of being branded racist or imperialist’ (One Law For All 2013: 42),1 and the moral and cultural relativism which Douglas Murray and UKIP also excoriate.

These differences mean that the coalition may contain ‘problematic allies’, as Rahila Gupta described Baroness Cox:

She is co-founder of One Jerusalem whose stated mission is ‘maintaining a united Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel’, a patron of the Christian Institute, an evangelical group that campaigns against abortion and gay rights, she is infamous for inviting Geert Wilders to show his anti-Islam film Fitna at the House for Lords, and supported the introduction of Christian assemblies in school.2

When asked whether he ‘saw any contradictions in working closely with Cox’, Gupta records, Keith Porteous Wood replied: ‘We will work with anyone on a common agenda, towards retaining one law for all’. The organizers of One Law for All certainly have reservations about some of those working against Islamic practices. In reporting on the Enemies Not Allies seminar, Maryam Namazie argued that ‘standing up against Sharia law and Islamism is crucial in this day and age’, but:

It has to be done to protect humanity, secularism and universal rights for it to bring about change for the better. Groups like the [EDL] and [SIOE] are using real concern about Sharia law in order to promote their racist and anti-immigrant agenda … they blame everyone who they consider Muslim for the crimes of Islamism.3

One Law for All, she added:

has tried actually to get together as large a spectrum of people as possible … It isn’t a question of excluding people just for the sake of excluding them. There are a lot of people [in the campaign] who I would consider right wing and most probably would not want to be friends with. But if we agree on a specific mandate which is to end Shari’a law and to defend secularism and to get rid of all religious laws, then I think it’s important to work together. But I also think that it’s important to draw the line.

The BNP, the EDL and SIOE were essentially racist, she argued, despite protestations to the contrary, because they targeted Muslims, rather than the ideology of Islamism. Further, in an FAQ on the One Law for All website,4 she explained that ‘We attack the far-Right every chance we get. After all, Islamism is our far-Right and we see no fundamental difference between the EDL, [SIOE] and [SIOA] or the BNP on the one hand and the Islamists on the other’. It was this ‘refusal to collaborate with the members of racist and far-Right groups and our insistence on the need to distinguish between Muslims/immigrants and Islamists’ (One Law for All Newsletter, May 2014) which caused the resignation of former colleague Anne Marie Waters.5 With the support of Baroness Cox, Waters subsequently launched Sharia Watch UK,6 whose aims One Law for All strenuously rejected (see Waters 20147).

Douglas Murray, however, also demurred. ‘It will not be possible’, he commented, ‘to defeat Islamic extremism, whilst denigrating, for instance, people in this country who are concerned about immigration … Those people aren’t beyond the pale’. Some of his remarks on this occasion were subsequently interpreted as offering succour to the EDL; the EDL indeed noted his apparent support,8 though Murray himself vehemently rejected that interpretation.9 What he actually said was:

The [EDL], when they started protesting had banners saying things like Sharia law discriminates against women, Sharia law is anti-gay. Well I’m good with both of those sentiments. I’m sure most people in this room are. If you’re going to have a grassroots response from non-Muslims to Islamism, that would be how you’d want it, surely. But of course, we all know there are awkward things around this. There have been exposed links from the EDL with far-right organizations in individual cases, and maybe, and others will know more about this, wider than that. But you know, Louis Amis wrote a very interesting piece in Standpoint magazine a few months ago10 and he said, and others have said that as far as they have seen within the EDL, they have tried to kick out BNP elements. Does that mean that they are racists or they aren’t? I’m not making a definitive point, but I’m just saying these things are extremely complex, and we ought to be careful before dismissing whole swathes of people. Thirdly, these groups [SIOE] and [SIOA], I mean I don’t know enough about them. As far as I can see [SIOE] only has a few members. In America, Robert Spencer is one of the directors, I happen to know Robert Spencer, I respect him, he’s a very brilliant scholar and writer.11

Despite these differences, what unites those backing the Cox Bill remains opposition to Islam(ism). But does this mean that some of them, all of them, might be characterized as ‘Islamophobic’ (whatever that means)? Or, to put it more bluntly, is opposition a disguised form of racism, or racism worked through other, less overt language? Such accusations are bitterly contested by supporters of the Bill as untrue and intended to close down debate, inhibit legitimate criticism of a religio-political ideology and the patriarchal and conservative authorities who uphold it (Miller 2013). The pro-Islamist left, says Maryam Namazie, ‘deems any criticism of Islam or Islamism as racism or Islamophobia … [It] is a political term used to scaremonger people into silence’ (2013a: 59). The consequence, according to Sardar-Ali, is that those ‘working within an environment informed by liberal multiculturalist policies, often fearful of accusations of racism, and lately of Islamophobia if cultural practices are questioned, have tended to allow communities free rein to “police” themselves in cultural matters’ (2013b: 125). Those who make accusations of Islamophobia are, it seems, guilty, like old-time supporters of Stalinism, of a contemporary trahison des clercs, a ‘politics of betrayal’?12

Islam, Islamism and Muslims

Baroness Cox constantly asserts that her Bill does not mention Islam or Shari’a, a claim that opponents take with a pinch of salt (remember Aina Khan’s response, p. 147). The charge that it singles out Islam has been rejected on numerous occasions. Thus a report in The Times (16 June 2011) commented that the Bill ‘would catch any extreme group that adopts discriminatory practices’, and quoted Baroness Cox’s claim that her principal concern ‘is for the law of this land, and the people who are suffering – especially the women’. The Beth Din was not affected because Jewish laws ‘recognise UK law as sovereign’. Likewise, on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme, when she was asked by Edward Stourton ‘whether she is indeed trying to get rid of Shari’a courts’, she replied: ‘Certainly not … Shari’a is not mentioned in the Bill’. Stourton injected: ‘But everyone is clear that that’s mainly what your target is’. Baroness Cox: ‘Well that’s where the women who come to us who have been suffering so much have been suffering from this particular situation’.13 As Frank Cranmer remarks: ‘Though the term does not appear anywhere in the text of the Bill, it is clear that her primary concern is what she perceives to be unequal treatment of women by tribunals operating under sharia’.14 Indeed, despite the Baroness’s insistence that her Bill does not mention Shari’a, the Summary Briefing (Equal and Free 2012d) says, in its first sentence: ‘There is widespread concern that Sharia law is being used in England and Wales as an alternative to the proper legal process, especially in family matters’, and the section outlining the Bill’s specific proposals mentions Shari’a seven times. There is a similar pattern in other publications and speeches and in videos supporting the proposed legislation. Why so much talk about Shari’a if the Bill is not about Shari’a?

Jerome Taylor, a journalist who interviewed Baroness Cox for the Independent, while noting that she ‘insists her chief motivation is protecting vulnerable women who are hoodwinked by sharia courts into believing that these courts have the power to make judgments’, and that ‘few will disagree with the idea of reining in any attempt to usurp British law’, added: ‘I cannot help feeling slightly uncomfortable that the chief proponent of this Bill is the kind of person who extends an invitation to a virulent Islamaphobe like Geert Wilders’ (Taylor 2011). ‘There’s no doubt’, added Andrew Brown, ‘that the bill will be used by some people to stir up distrust and hatred of Muslims’ (2011).

Baroness Cox certainly acknowledged the dangers of Islamophobia a decade earlier, in a debate on the Queen’s Speech: ‘It is increasingly important to do everything possible to prevent the spread of Islamophobia and to extend the hand of friendship to moderate Muslims and to moderate Islamic governments, especially those who are trying to curb the spread of militant Islamism’.15 ‘It is equally important’, she went on,

that the threats posed by militant Islamists are taken very seriously by non-Muslims and moderate Muslims. Otherwise, there is a risk that Islamist activities will generate fear, which blurs distinctions and may promote a backlash against all Muslims. Perhaps the quintessence of the quandary facing the West is that while the vast majority of Muslims are of course not terrorists but peaceable, the vast majority of terrorists in the world today are Islamists.

Her monograph, with John Marks (2006) makes a similar point in similar language, contrasting the peaceable majority with Islamist terrorists; and the book aims to strengthen the hand of the law-abiding, moderate followers of Islam, at the expense of the radicals, by attacking the latter’s Islamism.

The argument that the target is Islamism, not Islam or (moderate) Muslims generally, is deployed elsewhere. Thus, Tony Blair commenting on the murder of Drummer Rigby:

There is not a problem with Islam. For those of us who have studied it, there is no doubt about its true and peaceful nature. There is not a problem with Muslims in general. Most in Britain will be horrified [by the] murder. But there is a problem within Islam – from the adherents of an ideology that is a strain within Islam (2013b).

Appeals to what Blair was quoted as calling ‘insidious and venomous’ Islamism16 deflect the charge of Islamophobia, and Cox and Marks’s monograph is largely a detailed polemic against Islamists and their conspiracies, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged 1982 ‘Project’ to undermine the West and spread Islam through jihad. Yet what they say sometimes belies their stated objectives, and the sources from whom they cite detailed extracts (Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, Steven Emerson, Yossef Bodansky, Commentary magazine and so on) likewise tell a different story in which the distinction between Islamism/Islam/Muslims becomes elided (for example Cox and Marks 2006: 104). Thus: ‘Shari’a law requires inequalities between Muslims and: (i) Christians/Jews; (ii) all other non-Muslims; and between men and women’ (p. 55); ‘Islam shows respect for the rights of women BUT Women are subject to considerable limitations on what they can do compared with men, both in private in the home and in public’ (p. 194); slavery was and is ‘endemic in the Muslim world’ (p. 55).

The monograph in fact reads as an all-encompassing attack on Muslim-majority societies from political, economic, social and religious perspectives. ‘Ideological Traditional Islamic and Islamist Societies’ on the one hand, and ‘Ideological Marxist Societies’ on the other are contrasted equally unfavourably with ‘Western Societies’ (pp. 30–31 and 54–5). The lens of the Cold War is always apparent; the threat of Islamism to Western democracies, they argue, is comparable to that from Communism (and Nazism): ‘Like the Marxists before them, Islamists are using the fundamental values and freedoms of Western societies to attack and to seek to destroy them’ (p. 11). Islamist, Marxist and Nazi ‘ideological societies’ (p. 12) have ‘radically different answers’ to epistemological questions concerning truth and knowledge and the values and practices they entail. These different principles ‘underpin, shape and give rise to very different social and political structures’. Moreover, policies and tactics pursued by Islamists

when integrated into a coherent strategy, enable a relatively small number of people to affect and control the activities of much larger groups and organizations. There are now many thousands of people – both in Islamic countries and in most of the free countries of the world – who are working together to further the cause of Islamism and to undermine Western societies. The preservation of our spiritual, cultural and political heritage can therefore no longer be taken for granted; it will need to be defended with wisdom, courage, understanding and sensitivity in ways which are consistent with the enduring values of liberal democracy and which respect the rights of others to their fundamental freedoms (p. 129).

That critique of Islamism on ideological and political grounds readily segues into an attack on Islam in general and thence on Muslims as carriers of the faith was apparent at the Restoration Weekend. ‘How do you distinguish between a moderate Muslim and a moderate Muslim who practices taqiyya, and how do you expose them?’, Baroness Cox was asked. Taqiyya (‘dissimulation’) refers to the dispensation permitting Muslims to hide their faith if subject to persecution. This may be interpreted by non-Muslims, however, as a strategy enabling Muslims to advance jihad by disguising their true intentions (Bangstad 2013; Ibrahim 2010; Koc 2011), a charge frequently made against Tariq Ramadan among others.17 That ‘We tell the truth; they lie’ is a perennial trope of much propaganda; the accusation has historically been made against Jews, too, meaning that nothing a Jew (or Muslim) says need be believed.

Baroness Cox replied, obliquely, referring to another contested practice, ‘abrogation’, the subject of Lord Pearson’s question in the Lords (p. 191). ‘Well’, said the Baroness

I feel so sorry for Muslims. Their theology does not actually give them a basis for moderation as it now stands. And, you know, that is the real dilemma for the Muslim community. Until they deal with the principle of abrogation, until they can have their ‘reformation’ – inverted commas – not a phrase I would use talking to them, because it’s a Christian one … [but] until they can develop a theology which genuinely allows peaceful coexistence, they do not have a theology which gives them moderation (emphases added).

History, Meaning, Use

The aims and objectives of the Bill and the motives of its supporters must be set in the wider context of hostility to Muslims in the UK and elsewhere, but first, the use and meaning of the term Islamophobia.18

Whatever its origins and historicity (see Allen 2010), the term gained currency in the UK with publication of the Runnymede Trust’s report Islamophobia, A Challenge to Us All (1997); before, ‘Islamophobia’ was rarely used; afterwards, it became ubiquitous. The report defined Islamophobia, by analogy with xenophobia, as ‘dread or hatred of Islam and of Muslims’ (p. 7), a summary definition elaborated in a discussion which contrasted ‘open and ‘closed’ views of Islam, equating Islamophobia with the latter (Table 11.1).

Table 11.1 Closed and open views of Islam


Source: Based on Runnymede Trust (1997: 5)

This way of defining Islamophobia has been widely criticized. Allen, who generally prefers the definition employed by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (‘fear of or prejudiced viewpoint towards Islam, Muslims and matters pertaining to them’, 2006: 61), argues that if the ‘closed’ perspective is equated with ‘Islamophobia’, then the open approach may too readily be interpreted as ‘Islamophilia’ (‘as unwelcome and unwarranted as Islamophobia’ itself), thereby establishing a ‘shield behind which all criticism and questioning of Islam and Muslims, irrespective of legitimacy is deflected or repealed’ (2013: 2), with the further consequence that antipathy towards Islam might be interpreted as racism. Allen also thinks that that the open/closed dichotomy masks ‘nuances and complexity’. It could also be suggested that it is ethnocentric, rooted in European experience; antipathy towards, or conflict with, Islam/Muslims, takes different forms and has different histories in Russia, China, Turkey, Greece or Thailand (Sayyid and Vakil 2010). Another criticism, by Marcel Maussen, is that ‘Islamophobia’ conflates ‘different forms of discourse, speech and acts, by suggesting that they all emanate from an identical ideological core … “fear” or a “phobia” of Islam’ (2006: 101). Maussen is particularly concerned to distinguish between speech and acts and adds that the way in which the term is embedded in an ‘ideology-critical approach to discourse’ entails a ‘problematic conception of democratic debate’ (p. 102). He thus eschews the word, preferring to speak of ‘anti-Muslim sentiments or discourses, and of forms of discrimination and violence against Muslims and Islamic institutions or symbols’ (p. 103), which in fact seems a reasonable way of defining what is intended by ‘Islamophobia’. Nussbaum (2012), who mentions Islamophobia only once, sidesteps the issue by focusing on fear, anxiety and imaginative failure; those opposed to Islam rely on stereotypical imaginations of what Muslims are and do.

A fruitful approach is that adopted by Bleich (2011), who also surveys the history of ‘Islamophobia’ and its usage. He contends that while there are arguments for other terms, ‘Islamophobia has taken root in public, political, and academic discourse, and there is no putting the genie back in the bottle’ (p. 1584). It exists, he adds, ‘because it attempts to label a social reality – that Islam and Muslims have emerged as objects of aversion, fear, and hostility in contemporary liberal democracies’ (ibid.) His own definition involves ‘indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims’, which he glosses as follows: ‘Questioning or even criticizing aspects of Islamic doctrine or practices of specific subgroups of Muslims is not automatically Islamophobia. However, if [an observer] concludes from these examples that Islam or Muslims as a whole are worthy of condemnation, it becomes an indiscriminate attitude that constitutes Islamophobia’ (p. 1585). In this perspective, the ‘closed’ views of Islam, listed above, might be reinterpreted as frames through which ‘fear of or prejudiced viewpoint towards Islam etc.’ might be articulated, irrespective of whether or not a particular view represents legitimate criticism. Thus while it might be legitimate to criticize Islam for insisting that women and men dress in certain ways, or permitting polygamy, if that criticism becomes a reason for individual or collective denigration (or a justification for violence) then that is something else. Similarly, criticism of the policies of the state of Israel, or of Zionism as a political and/or religious ideology, are not ipso facto anti-Semitic, though some claim that they are, or insist anti-Semites hide behind such sentiments, as indeed they may; criticism of Zionism or Islamism may well be proxy for anti-Semitism or Islamophobia in specific cases.