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Challenging our Cultures of Intolerance

The Muslim Institute’s conference on ‘Cultures of Intolerance’ could not have been timed better, or worse, depending how you look at things.

In the few weeks prior to the event we witnessed the Charlie Hebdo killings; the passing of the Counter Terrorism Act; a political and media backlash against CAGE, and young teenagers seemingly setting off to Syria almost every week. On the eve of the conference, Theresa May declared “the game was up” for (non-violent) extremism.

The aim of the conference was to debate and discuss how Muslims should respond to what is now a historic crisis.

On one side of the debate were ranged those such as Merryl Wyn Davies (MI), Catherine Heseltine (MPAC), Liz Fekete (IRR), and Myriam Francois Cerrah who argued that the principal questions at issue were Islamophobia and the role played by Western policy in creating conditions in which terrorism and extremism could flourish. On the other Pavan Dhaliwal, Rashad Ali (CENTRI), Inayat Bungawala and Sunny Hundal, who to differing degrees, argued responsibility had to be placed at the door of the Muslim community itself. The two sides were also divided on the extent that one could argue that there was a liberal core to British society that had to be defended.

The result was a ferment of discussion that lasted until the conference closed and all credit is due to the Muslim Institute for holding it. (I would recommend their publication ‘Critical Muslim’ to anyone’s subscription list and certainly for your institution library).

The conference opened with a session by Ziauddin Sardar on “Freethinking the Muslim World”. I must confess to having long been painfully conscious of my own ignorance of Islamic history. Ziauddin’s discussion of the different traditions within Islam drove home the importance of that understanding. References were duly noted for my ‘must read’ list. 

 ‘Cultures of Intolerance’ has a double edge. Are we referring to Muslim intolerance of others or intolerance towards Muslims and their faith? The obvious answer would be both… except things are never quite so simple.

Four sessions covered satire and freedom of speech; terrorism and jihad; Muslim responses since Rushdie, and last but not least, ‘Do Muslims in the West face an Islamophobic future?’.

Here I feel I should declare my hand. Although a non-Muslim, I do not consider myself to be an ‘outsider’ to these debates; I do not think any of us can be. I must also make clear that I take a side.

Catherine Heseltine from MPAC made an important observation. She noted that Muslim responses tended to take one of two forms: the first response was to disavow ‘bad’ Muslims, extremists and the like, and proclaim oneself a ‘good’ Muslim. The second response was to retreat into spirituality and religious observance and ignore politics ‘out there’ altogether.

I certainly recognise these responses but they neglect a third, one that Catherine herself is an eminent example of: open defiance of the establishment narrative of Muslims as ‘the problem’. Indeed the conference discussion was often marked by a debate as to what form such defiance should take.

The session on Charlie Hebdo exemplified the issues. On one hand Pavan Dhaliwal from the British Humanist Association articulated the case for ‘freedom of speech’, the freedom to criticise religion and the need to challenge ‘intolerance’ of these principles. Merryl Wynn Davies of MI challenged an understanding of satire that did not ‘speak to power’. Socialist cartoonist Tim Saunders picked up on precisely this theme. Holding up the Hebdo cartoons one by one, he challenged the audience to view them as anything but racist in form and content, arguing that his own responsibility as a satirist was to attack the powerful not ridicule their victims.

Context is everything. Far from being an exculpation, Charlie Hebdo’s much touted radical origins only speak to the depths to which Islamophobia has penetrated French society (and the French left). This point was made by Jim Wolfreys, from Kings College, a specialist on French politics, who spoke powerfully on how divisive the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ moment has been in France.

‘Intolerances’ cannot be balanced one against the other within a ‘liberal’ bubble. We have to address the question of power and oppression and take sides on these questions. Here the conference was under a certain constraint. Inevitably most of the discussion was over the positions Muslims should take as Muslims. This is necessary and important. However, it needs to take place in the context of how unity between Muslim and non-Muslim is to be forged, in the face of rising Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism across Europe.

I am afraid here Sunny Hundal’s final summing up revealed how all too dangerous getting this wrong can be. Apparently dismissing unity as a naïve project; Sunny outlined a list of ‘suspects’ he said would never march side by side with. As the election campaign here becomes more racist by the day; as fascist parties seek to ride the tiger of Islamophobia across Europe, this I would suggest, is a recipe for disaster.

It is easy (and thus empty) to call for unity between those you agree with. The challenge for all of us is to forge unity with those whom we disagree with, even when sometimes we disagree on questions of fundamental importance. Those who tout Islamophobia do not just have Muslims in their sights. While acting together against the greater foe we need to widen the debate and perhaps begin to challenge some of our own ‘cultures of intolerance’.

Rob is a teacher in east London and convenor of Newham Unite Against Fascism.