Nick Cohen

Lone voices against Terror

Lone voices against Terror
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I went to the Toynbee Hall, the meeting place for the radical East End, this week to listen to a debate many radicals would rather not hear.

British Asian feminists and their supporters had gathered to launch the Centre for Secular Space an organisation whose work I would say is close to essential. It is not fashionable, however, because its focus is the collusion between the Anglo-American left and the Islamist right, which has betrayed so many Muslims and ex-Muslims, most notably Muslim and ex-Muslim women. Gita Sahgal, Nehru’s great niece, became the movement’s figurehead and eloquent spokeswoman when the once respectable and now contemptible Amnesty International fired her for protesting about its promotion of supporters of the Taliban. She and her allies are now trying to stir Britain’s sleeping conscience.

The failure of Britain’s liberal establishment and white left to combat reactionary religion, or even call it by its real name, stuns them. I can say from experience that if I talk about the 'American Christian right' or the 'Israeli right' no one will blink. Nor should they, I am using specific terms whose meanings are clear. When I use equally precise language talk about the 'Muslim right', one of the great forces of reaction in the world today, my comrades either go blank, because I am using language they cannot understand, or accuse me of 'racism', lack of 'empathy', inappropriate 'language' or some other gross offence against modern etiquette.

Meredith Tax, a battle hardened campaigner, has had the same experience

'Nobody on the left ever objected when I criticized Christian or Jewish fundamentalism. But when I did defence work for censored Muslim feminists, people would look at me sideways, as if to say, who are you to talk about this? This tendency has become much more marked since 9/11 and the “war on terror.” Today on the left and in some academic circles, people responding to attacks on Muslim feminists in other countries are likely to be accused of reinforcing the "victim-savage-saviour" framework or preparing for the next US invasion. This puts anyone working with actual women’s human rights defenders in places like North Africa or Pakistan in an impossible situation.'

Other speakers were from Southall Black Sisters, Bengali secular campaigns against Tower Hamlets’ Islamist establishment and Iranian resistance groups – classic left wing figures, in other words. Yet they are ignored or in the case of Sahgal fired for speaking out.

All emphasized how many in the British state and British left were racists hiding behind liberal masks. On the left, the racism came in the constant postponement of campaigns to improve women’s lives whether they are immigrants or in the poor world. Their suffering must always be subordinated to the struggle against 'American imperialism'. This would be bad enough if we did not see from the far Left way into the liberal mainstream supposed progressives allying with clerical reactionaries and clerical fascists. They ignore the victims of theocracy and accept their oppression.

You might think that Sahgal and her comrades would be inundated with offers of support. At one level they are. Politicians, journalists and honourable people from all backgrounds want to hear the arguments they are making. But they are desperately short of funds. The institutions of liberalism, which ought to be their friends and donors, have been taken over by anti-liberal men and women. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch look with horror on those who speak out about murder, mutilation and oppression if the murderers, mutilators and oppressors do not fit into their script. The Guardian, New Statesman and BBC turn away with embarrassed coughs. The police want to keep the natives of the East End quiet by cooperating with Islamic Forum Europe. Although Labour ministers, particularly Labour women ministers, tried to speak out against the double standards during the last government, the policy of the Labour establishment has been to do nothing to upset the ethnic block vote. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile are as reliably anti-liberal on this issue as on so many others. It tells you all you need to know about the debased state of liberal-left politics that Sahgal and Tax are more likely to get a fair hearing from Cameron than Miliband or Clegg.

To give you an example of how deep the rot has penetrated, take the behaviour of Human Rights Watch. Its executive director Kenneth Roth urged Western governments to support the Muslim Brotherhood governments in the Middle East. (Roth cannot, you see, confine himself to reporting abuses of human rights without fear or favour. He is too grand for that now, and issues orotund statements on foreign policy as if he were Henry Kissinger, a cynical old brute he is starting to resemble.)

Sahgal replied:

You fail to call for the most basic guarantee of rights—the separation of religion from the state. Salafi mobs have caned women in Tunisian cafes and Egyptian shops; attacked churches in Egypt; taken over whole villages in Tunisia and shut down Manouba University for two months in an effort to exert social pressure on veiling. And while “moderate Islamist” leaders say they will protect the rights of women (if not gays), they have done very little to bring these mobs under control. You, however, are so unconcerned with the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities that you mention them only once, as follows: “Many Islamic parties have indeed embraced disturbing positions that would subjugate the rights of women and restrict religious, personal, and political freedoms. But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up.” Are we really going to set the bar that low? This is the voice of an apologist, not a senior human rights advocate.'

I hope you could hear a lot more in that vein. The trouble is that because the Centre for Secular Space argues against our shifty consensus it has no money. They need everything from computers to wages for secretaries. If you can help at all, even by giving them an old laptop, please contact them via the link here