Martin Bright

The Left and Radical Islam

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There is a part of me that hopes I never have to write another word about the troubled relationship between the British left and radical Islam. But I certainly wouldn't appreciate being told I could never write about it.

This is what I find so mystifying about the campaign by Sunder Katwala, the Fabian Society's head honcho, to stop Nick Cohen criticising the left for its mealy-mouthed approach to the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and its south Asian offshoot Jamaat-i-Islami. He says he finds Nick's critcism of the Fabians "politically regressive and personally offensive". So, as a result Sunder has gone on the warpath. I find this very odd. I really like Sunder and always found him a friendly and thoughtful colleague when we worked together at the Observer.

But this is just bullying isn't it? Now Sunder has got his mates to gang up on Nick in a letter to the Observer , it looks even nastier. What on earth do these people think they are doing? Here are their names in full:

Sunder Katwala Fabian Society; Navid Akhtar; Fareena Alam, Fuad Nahdi Radical Middle Way; Yasmin Alibhai-Brown; Anthony Barnett Convention for Modern Liberty; Farmida Bi Progressive British Muslims; Yahya Birt, Usama Hasan, Asim Siddiqui City Circle; Rachel Briggs; Tony Curzon-Price openDemocracy; Sunny Hundal Liberal Conspiracy; Dilwar Hussain Policy Research Centre; James MacIntyre New Statesman; Dr Nasar Meer, Prof Tariq Modood Bristol University; Peter Oborne; Ed Owen; Chuka Umunna Labour ppc for Streatham; Stuart Weir Democratic Audit

And let's have a look at what they have signed up to. Their letter begins: "Nick Cohen needs to find a new column to write." Now I understand that language is a tricksy medium open to misinterpretation. I think they mean that Nick often returns to the same subject and that he should no longer write about it (bad enough). But readers would be forgiven for thinking the signatories to the letter are telling the Observer to stop Nick's column and with it his livelihood (disgraceful).

At the same time, did the signatories to the letter do their due diligence? What does Bristol University feel about two of its academics signing a letter calling to close down free speech? Did they clear it with the university? One of Nick Cohen's main points has been that the left should not make common cause with the radical Islamic right. So why have these individuals signed a letter with Dilwar Hussein, whose innocent-sounding Policy Research Center, is a front for the Islamic Foundation, a Jamaat-i-Islami institution. Yahya Birt also worked there for a long time. I know Yahya Birt. He's a sweet man. Dilwar Hussein also appears to be genuine in his desire to reform the Islamic Foundation. But they still chose to work for a body founded by Jamaat leading light Khurshid Ahmad to promote the authoritarian views of his political party in Europe. The institution is what it is. I share Nick's concern about it. As I explained in my pamphlet for the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange in 2006, there is no point in "engagement for engagement's sake". This appears to be the message of today's Contest 2 strategy from Hazel Blears and I applaud the government's shift in policy. If the MCB can't distance itself from the absurd Hamas-sympathasir Daud Abdullah, then why should the government engage with it?

I'm sure many of the signatories to the Observer letter didn't realise what they were doing. But that makes it all the more shocking. Picking on someone for a purpose is one thing, picking on someone for the sake of it is just horrible.

There are plenty of causes the left could unite around, but I'd have thought one of the obvious ones was the rise of the authoritarian Islamic right. Jamaat-i-Islami was wiped out in the recent Bangladeshi elections and is a minority party in Pakistan. However, in Britain it has credibility through institutions such as the Islamic Foundation, the Muslim Council of Britain and East London mosque. The chattering classes, such as the inveterate letter-signers of the Observer declaration, should turn their fire on targets worthy of their attention rather than trying to silence journalists.