Last night the BBC screened a documentary called ‘When Tommy met Mo’. It was good television, challenging and thought-provoking in a way that public broadcasting ought to be, is often said to be, but too rarely is. I would urge you to watch it.
The programme followed Tommy Robinson during the period in which he was stepping away from the organisation – the English Defence League (EDL) – which he founded. It showed Robinson travelling around the country with a Muslim ‘spokesman’ called Mohammed Ansar.
A number of people had criticised the programme, and its premise, in advance and there has already been some tussle over the credit, not least Ansar’s attempt to get ahead of events which had in fact overtaken him by suggesting that his meetings with Robinson were the cause of Robinson leaving the EDL. In fact the cause appears to have been Robinsons’s spell in prison, an increasing loss of control in the organisation and his serendipitous meeting, while making the programme, with Maajid Nawaz and Usama Hasan of the Quilliam Foundation.
As it happens, Ansar’s involvement was one of the reasons I was sceptical of the programme from the start and one of the reasons I declined to take part when asked earlier this year. If the former leader of the EDL is going to travel around with a moderate Muslim in order to introduce him to a more enlightened version of Islam then it is important to choose such a moderate carefully. Ansar is not a person who would be at the top of my list. So far as anyone can tell he is a self-appointed figure who dresses, and otherwise acts, as though he is a great Muslim leader. Yet until Twitter and Sunday morning television he had no particular identity and it is hard to find any actual work that he has done (he said last night that he has been ‘working for gay rights for the last 15 years’. Really? How? Where? When?) Furthermore, although the BBC often describe him as such, Ansar is not what I or many others would describe as a ‘moderate’.
The programme makers ensured that it was 'Mo' as well as ‘Tommy’ who rightly had his views tackled and in this there was a refreshing balance and some genuinely open and interesting debate. The programme was filled with points of interest thanks to excellent appearances by Ann Cryer, Usama Hasan, Tom Holland and others. For instance there was the moment when Ansar, under questioning from Maajid Nawaz showed that he does not know what attitude to take towards those portions of Islamic scripture which call for the chopping off of hands and similar acts of violence. Nor was he (or Mohammed Shafiq who also appeared) willing to admit what Usama Hasan and Tom Holland were willing to note – that the Quran appears to permit the taking of sexual slaves. Though I suppose some viewers will find this shocking, I thought these discussions were nuanced, balanced and extremely well-informed.
By the end several points stood out. The first is the clear and continuing problem of ‘who speaks for Islam’. It is unlikely that this centuries-long debate is going to be solved in the course of one 50 minute documentary, but it is always worth being reminded of this problem's existence. It remains the case that there are many people who hold themselves out as ‘Muslim leaders’ who 'condemn' terrorism and otherwise talk of what they are doing to ‘tackle’ various problems, who are either not moderate or not sufficiently moderate for the task in hand. And it need hardly be said that when so many people can proclaim themselves Muslim 'leaders' or 'representatives' all sorts of people can step in and proclaim themselves to be whatever they want to be.
Secondly the programme was a stark reminder of the problem of ‘hearts and minds’. There was a fascinating moment of congruence towards the end when Muslims and non-Muslims agreed on the need to tackle Islamic extremists. Then Robinson said that one of the things that Muslims must do is to tackle the problems in Islam's foundational texts – at which point one of those Muslims who had previously been in agreement with him became furious with anger. The fissure between opposing the extremists and not opposing the extreme verses is one that very many Muslims live and try to breathe in. Addressing it is not going to be easy and may prove impossible.
And then finally there was the issue of priorities. Since its founding the EDL has been a highly troubling and troublesome group. Its marches and demonstrations regularly descended into thuggery and violence. But the EDL was always a reactive problem. It sprang up in response (as I reported in my recent interview with Robinson) to the perceived leeway that the police were giving to Islamic extremists. Had the police dealt with Islamic extremists with less lenience we would probably never have heard of Tommy Robinson or the EDL.
But Islamic extremism is not only a policing fault. It is also the fault of ‘Muslim leaders’ and others. It remains a melancholy fact that very few actual Muslim ‘leaders’ or individuals are willing to properly deal with the priorities we all face in the appropriate order. Many spend so much of their energies criticising ‘Islamophobia’ that they leave themselves only the occasional moment to nod to their disagreements with the fundamentalists in their own faith. If rather than spending 95 per cent of their time criticising the EDL and so-called ‘Islamophobes’ these people actually spent 95 per cent of their time not just criticising but actually stopping the extremists in their own religion and perhaps the remaining 5 per cent defending their religion against its perceived critics then not only might the primary problem be solved but we wouldn’t suffer such secondary problems either.
But, as I have noted here before, the number of Muslim leaders willing to do this - and we must thank and support those there are - remains depressingly small. This is unsurprising since there is a high price to pay for standing up at all. If we needed a reminder of this it would be in the fact that almost everybody in last night’s programme – Usama Hasan, Tommy Robinson, Mo Ansar, Mohammed Shafiq – was earlier this month named by al-Shabaab on a UK death-list. If everybody – Muslims and non-Muslims, ex-EDL leaders, Muslim moderates, sort-of moderates, non-moderates and others - all find themselves on the same death list, you would think they could find some agreement over what the primary problem facing all of us actually is.