Reactions to the appointment last week of human rights campaigner Sara Khan as the Government’s Commissioner for Countering Extremism were as disappointing as they were predictable. Rather than focusing on her qualifications or the extremist ideas and behaviour she wants to challenge, hostile responses to her selection from Islamists and their bedfellows on the left dominated the subsequent coverage. Sadly, the grievance-mongering prevalent in attacks on Khan on social media – and journalists’ willingness to report fringe bullying as representative of Muslim opinion – show just how necessary the new Commission is.
The loudest voice the press led with was former Government minister Baroness Warsi, who claimed Khan was “simply a creation of and mouthpiece for the Home Office” and said her appointment was “another Toby Young moment”. Labour MP Naz Shah used the BBC’s Today programme to level vague accusations of Khan’s lack of independence – seemingly over Home Office funding her women’s organisation Inspire had taken (and disclosed) for a 2014 campaign to empower women to protect children from Islamic State’s pernicious online propaganda. Within 24 hours, there were reports of a petition signed by 100 Muslim organisations and scholars calling for Khan to be removed – telling the Home Secretary, “We have no confidence in this appointment and are concerned that Muslim communities will refuse to liaise with Ms Khan.”
Very little coverage examined the future role of the new Commission, nor considered the radicalisation that inspired last year’s dreadful terrorist attacks or the recent growth of recorded hate crimes. Both are identified by the Government’s 2015 Counter-Extremism Strategy as social harms that can result from extremism, and that Khan’s experiences make her uniquely placed to help lead the challenge against. Khan started Inspire at her kitchen table ten years ago – and went on not only to draw young people away from involvement in terrorism but also to call out hatred and intolerance among her Muslim co-religionists, culminating in her 2016 book which sought to reclaim British Muslim identity from Islamist extremism.
Baroness Warsi could not have been more wrong when she likened Khan’s appointment to that of Toby Young. Khan’s selection, the mostly manufactured outcry – even the existence of a Commission for Countering Extremism – are about much more than one person’s suitability for public office. This is about representativeness, engagement and intimidation. It’s about who claims to speak for British Muslims, whom the Government endorses within communities and who seeks to define the acceptable contours of faith in public life.
Firstly, representativeness. The allegation that Khan is not representative of British Muslim communities is a red herring. The role of the Commission is not to represent, but rather to identify extremism and to advise Government. The Government has committed to tackling all forms of extremism and currently prioritises those on the far right as well as Islamist extremists. Yet it’s worth noting that those who previously called the Government racist for focussing overly on Muslim communities in counter-extremism efforts are also the same voices now criticising Khan for not being the right kind of Muslim to lead the Commission.
“Anti-extremism tsar Sara Khan has no credibility, say Muslim groups”, ran The Times. Yet who are these 100 Muslim groups and how representative are they? Those openly involved are the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND). Cut off from Government in 2009 after one leader signed a statement which appeared to condone violence against UK armed forces were they to support an arms blockade against Gaza, the MCB and its leaders still equivocate on Hamas terrorism, downplay the full threat from extremism and display intolerance towards Ahmadiyya Muslims – all while denouncing any criticism as “Islamophobic”. MEND too has been accused by some of having associated itself with individuals who have espoused extremist or intolerant views – and the group’s former director lost a libel case with a newspaper that labelled him “a hardline Islamic extremist” in the context of comments he had made supporting the killing of British and American soldiers in Iraq by fellow Muslims.
It should come as no surprise that Khan has criticised both the MCB and MEND for tolerating extremism among its affiliates or personnel. The Luton Sunni Council of Mosques (LSCM) has also publicly joined the criticism of Khan, claiming that she fails to inspire “trust and confidence across Britain’s diverse communities”. What the LSCM omit from their statement is that one of their members, the Jamia Islamia Ghousia Trust, has hosted the anti-Ahmadi Pakistani hate group Khatme Nubuwwat– and did so even after religiously-motivated murder of Ahmadi shopkeeper Asad Shah in 2016 – and that Khan had publicly condemned the mosque for doing so. It is unlikely that the LSCM would inspire trust and confidence within Ahmadi Muslim communities, and one wonders what they – and other victims of Islamist incitement – think of Khan’s appointment.
To date, the full list of Khan’s critics has not been published, but many of those we are aware of should be understood as promoting narratives of victimhood and grievance that echo Islamist ideology; they are not merely religious organisations. Neither should they be considered representative. In 2016, Policy Exchange did one of the largest quantitative and qualitative surveys ever of British Muslim communities – and found that a mere 2% of Muslims believed the MCB represented them. Groups of this kind represent just a fraction of Muslims in the UK and, given their sectarian record, the full anti-Khan list is likely to exclude many groups – such as Ahmadis – with whom radical Sunni movements habitually disagree.
Secondly, engagement. Successive Governments have pledged to tackle extremism tout cort, rather than solely violent extremism – and Khan’s appointment consolidates this position. The 2011 review of the counter-radicalisation strategy Prevent committed the Government not to fund or engage with groups or individuals that many would regard as holding extremist or intolerant views. This included Islamist organisations whose equivalence towards terrorism or whose intolerance towards Jews, homosexuals or other Muslims were overlooked because they were thought to act as a bulwark against jihadist violence on British shores. There are some who oppose this principle of non-engagement and therefore oppose Khan’s appointment – not least the umbrella Muslim organisations, such as the MCB, who found themselves without Government funding or patronage. Baroness Warsi too has shown herself to be a determined opponent of non-engagement and continues to engage with both the MCB and MEND. Despite a recent push for re-engagement by the MCB, Khan’s appointment signals to many that the Government does not want a return to ‘gatekeeper’ politics, whereby Muslims are engaged via self-appointed community groups.
Many Islamist or Salafi groups who had previously worked with the authorities for the purposes of community engagement and counter-terrorism argued that only they had the credibility to influence disaffected Muslim youth. This issue of credibility – another red herring – arose in the criticism of Khan’s appointment. For example, Babar Ahmed, convicted in the United States for providing material support to the Taliban and early facilitator of online al-Qaeda propaganda in the 1990s, tweeted on the day of the appointment: “Do you think young British Muslim men who sympathise with Manchester and London Bridge attacks look up to as a role model whom they would respect?” Winning the respect of a convicted terrorist and terrorist sympathisers, however, is a low bar for any public appointment, not least one designed to challenge the very ideas than can fuel division and support for violence.
Some Islamist groups have persuaded the political left that they, and they alone, speak for Muslim communities. Khan refuses to play this game. In her book, for example, she shows how an unrepresentative anti-Prevent lobby has dominated public discourse on Prevent by spreading misinformation that characterises the strategy as a racist attack on Muslims. Khan argues that it is simply not true that all Muslims oppose Prevent. (Policy Exchange’s 2016 survey also shows that Muslim communities are generally relaxed about Government intervention to tackle extremism). It is perhaps no surprise then that Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott criticised Khan’s appointment as “ill-advised” owing to her support for Prevent. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party has more than ever aligned with Islamists in their condemnation of Prevent – and in doing so has sacrificed a successful Muslim women’s rights campaigner on the altar of “progressive” anti-imperialism.
Finally, intimidation. Khan and a number of other Muslim anti-extremism campaigners regularly face abuse and threats from Islamist extremists who disapprove of her work with Prevent and her commitment to pluralism, both within Muslim communities as well as wider society. The vitriol evident in much of the online reaction to her appointment speaks to this intimidation from Islamists. One egregious example came from Roshan Salih, editor of Islamist website, 5Pillars, and journalist for the Iranian-backed Press TV. Salih tweeted a photoshopped poster of the 2017 film Victoria & Abdul which replaced Queen Victoria with Prime Minister Theresa May and Indian clerk Abdul Karim with Khan and was subtitled “the extraordinary story of the PM’s closest native informant”. Muslim anti-extremism campaigners like Khan are routinely denigrated as traitors of their religion – which in radical circles is tantamount to a death threat.
In recent weeks, MEND and others have mounted a campaign against the decision taken by St Stephen’s primary school in Newham to restrict girls under the age of eight from wearing the hijab. The Times reported that the chair of governors, who was concerned that undue influence from local religious leaders was restricting pupils’ opportunities and undermining gender equality, has been forced to resign and the headteacher likened to Hitler in a film circulated online. While Islamist groups often use the language of human rights to conceal their authoritarian tendencies – MEND’s call for parents’ right to practice their religion is undermined by the intolerant and intimidating nature of the campaign.
St Stephen’s is a useful reminder not only of the challenges the new Commission for Countering Extremism faces but also of the bona fides of Khan’s detractors. Khan has a proven track record of confronting gender inequality in schools – her organisation was involved in Ofsted’s legal challenge against the practice of gender segregation in a co-ed Muslim faith school. Conversely, MEND is party to a campaign to label a Muslim chair of governors with whom it disagrees as an “Islamophobe”. Arguably, the Commission’s biggest challenge will be reconciling faith-based communalism with rights-based individualism in an era of identity politics – and what provokes Khan’s detractors most is her commitment to calling out divisive ideologies and those who peddle them in the name of faith.