Nick Cohen

Tell Mama and the battle for the future of British Islam

Unless we’re to have a religious underclass, we need activist groups like this one

Tell Mama and the battle for the future of British Islam
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Tell Mama is Britain’s most prominent opponent of anti-Muslim prejudice. It monitors everything from criminal assaults to everyday abuse. The far right loathes it, and the Conservative press sells the grotesque pretence that the group exaggerates prejudice to divert attention from the horror of Islamist violence.

But attacks from the right only wound. Tell Mama’s ‘friends’ in the Muslim community have turned out to be far more dangerous and are threatening to destroy the organisation. ‘I am on a knife edge,’ one activist told me. ‘I may just leave. I’m so fed up.’

Two weeks ago Andrew Gilligan reported in the Sunday Telegraph that Baroness Warsi’s Whitehall working group on anti-Muslim hatred has been infiltrated by men with backgrounds in organisations that can hate for England. Muddassar Ahmed, for instance, worked with the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, a fanatical outfit with Jews on the brain. During the last two elections it devoted its energies to campaigning against ‘Zionist’ MPs. Labour’s Lorna Fitzsimons lost her seat after the organisation told local Muslims to sack her because she was ‘Jewish’.

Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of Tell Mama and a former adviser to Nick Clegg, told the Sunday Telegraph he was so concerned ‘about the kinds of groups some of the members had connections with, and some of the groups they were recommending be brought into government’ that he left Warsi’s committee.

The baroness presents herself as a plain-speaking politician. But as with Nigel Farage, her relaxed image hides the soul of a control freak. I hear rumours of a threatened libel action, and of intense lobbying of the board of Tell Mama to force Mughal to back down.

While pressure was applied in private, a public campaign began on Twitter under the hashtag ‘Don’t Tell Mama’. It urged Muslims to wreck the organisation by boycotting it. Tell Mama’s critics accused it of being soft on the ‘heretical’ Ahmadi sect, soft on liberal Muslims who say cartoons of Mohammed don’t offend them, and soft on Jews. ‘So you do have supporters of Israel on board?’ one accuser asked. Mughal replied that Tell Mama’s backers opposed the Israeli occupation but some thought that Jews had a right to a state. Such heresy horrified his critics.

Tell Mama knows a truth that it has taken my generation of liberal leftists half a lifetime to learn: there are two far rights in Britain. The group documents the behaviour of mainly white racists: thugs who spit at women in headscarves. But because it believes in universal values, it works with all who are victims of bigotry. Tell Mama’s board includes a Muslim support group for lesbians and gays, and Peter Tatchell, that indomitable fighter against homophobia, is also on it. Just as Tell Mama attacks prejudices against Muslims, so it defends homosexuals when Muslim clerics compare them to murderers and paedophiles.

Tell Mama has learned from attempts by Jews to protect themselves, and recruited Richard Benson, from the Jewish Community Support Trust, to be its co-chairman. As well as condemning violence against Muslims, it condemns violence against Jewish people.

But the group’s enemies care nothing for consistent principles. They want others to condemn hatred against Muslims from white extremists, but not Muslim extremists’ hatred of Ahmadis, liberal Muslims or Jews.

Tell Mama may win through. But the people I’m talking to sound as if the stress is too much for them. If they go under, we will measure the triumph of sectarianism in yet more demands for double standards and restrictions on free speech, and yet more excuses for terror. In ways too few appreciate, however, we will also measure the awful consequences for British Muslims. In the East End of London, just down the road from where I am writing, the unemployment rate among Bangladeshis is astonishingly high. Hardly anyone talks about it, because blocks of British Asians are now identified as ‘the Muslims’, men and women interested only in religion. Their accepted leaders are clerics who are happy to leave potential employers with the impression that Muslims are prickly and paranoid, and perhaps best avoided.

If this carries on, we will have a religious underclass. The rest of society will notice only when it turns to violence. Most of the time, we will be secretly happy that our children are not facing competition from bright Bangladeshis or Pakistanis. We will mouth all the PC platitudes, of course, and make a great show of avoiding ‘offence’. The usual hypocrisies out of the way, we will then shrug our shoulders and carry on as if Muslims don’t exist.

The battle for Tell Mama is a battle for the future of British Islam, and it looks as if the wrong side is winning.