Beware of Islamism with a liberal veneer

A furore has broken out in the UK over whether it is permissable for public meetings on university campuses to be sexually segregated. In their claim to exercise this as a right Muslim fundamentalists are hypocritically exploting liberal principles they do not themselves adhere to.

The recent outcry among British politicians and the London press over gender segregation in universities has shone a light on a relatively new phenomenon: the recourse to the foundational principles of liberal democracy by Islamists in pursuit of their agenda. This approach appears to be working as is evidenced by Universities UK’s (UUK) policy guidance (now withdrawn) on gender segregation at events organised by Islamic Societies. In very reasonable language, UUK advised:

"Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system".

A thoroughly reactionary, sexist, practice was justified on the basis of rights – specifically the right of Islamist speakers and Muslim women to have segregated seating. This demand is thought reasonable because of the importance afforded to religious beliefs – non-religious beliefs are not granted this privilege. Indeed, in an interview on BBC Radio 5, a member of the Islamic Education and Research Academy thought his society was being reasonable and liberal-minded by their allocation of segregated and non-segregated areas within the lecture theatre at a debate they organised in March at UCL. One of the invited speakers, Prof Lawrence Krauss, responded with admirable principle by strongly objecting to the segregation and stormed off.

It is curious – and revealing – that similar ‘liberal-minded’, ‘reasonable’, ‘freedom of choice’ arguments are not invoked for segregation on the grounds of race or ethnicity along the lines of the judgment – that set out the doctrine of ‘separate and equal’ facilities for races – of the US Supreme Court in the notorious Plessy versus Ferguson case of 1896. But, pray, why are so many who would rightly denounce this doctrine on the grounds of race, apply it on the grounds of gender? To this question no satisfactory answer is provided; a simple appeal to respect for religious belief suffices.

Now imagine if Brahmin Hindus applied UUK’s guidance on the grounds of caste, a core aspect of their religion. Would this be acceptable to ‘liberal’ apologists for gender segregation? If not, then on what grounds would it be rejected? Brahmin’s would doubtless consider opposition to the practice as ‘Hinduphobic’.

The General Secretary of the LSE’s Student Union, Jay Stoll, provided a simple answer to the outrage felt by UUK’s policy guidance: on Channel 4 News he baldly asserted that this was a manifestation of ‘Islamophobia’. He naturally hoped that such ‘analysis’ would quell the critics and end the debate. Now Mr Stoll has some form on this: back in October at the Freshers Fair, his Students Union forced two members of the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society to remove their ‘Jesus and Mo’ t-shirts on the grounds that this constituted ‘harassment’ of Muslim (not Christian) students (hence was Islamophobic but not Christophobic). Thankfully, after vigorous campaigning and threat of legal action, Craig Calhoun, the Director of the LSE – but not the Students Union – has apologised to the two students. One should, therefore, not be unduly surprised if the LSESU gives support to requests by Islamic societies for segregated audiences at meetings they organise on campus; and helps with its enforcement.

A more sophisticated argument was, however, provided by the Islamist scholar and activist Tariq Ramadan who opined:

"Depending on who is organising and when they are asking me, I don't have a problem talking in universities, in rooms and public venues where the people are together men and women ... If every time there is segregation I'm not going to talk then I'm not reaching the people that I want to reach and for them to listen."

Tariq Ramadan is a master of using liberal rhetoric for his fundamentalism, that is to say, the demand for liberal tolerance for intolerant beliefs and practices. But his true beliefs were provided in a recorded speech cited by Ian Buruma in an article for the New York Times in 2007: "I will abide by the laws, but only so insofar as the laws don’t force me to do anything against my religion". It is for good reason that he is also renowned for his ‘double speak’.

Another example comes from a recent conference I was invited to present a paper at (coincidentally at the LSE) with the title ‘Anti-Jewish and Anti-Muslim Racisms and the Question of Palestine/Israel’. I was somewhat reluctant to partake given that I do not believe that these two types of ‘racisms’ are of much concern.  Moreover, I have robustly attacked the notion of Islamophobia (in chapter 4 of my 2010 book Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths). The idea that Muslims are a race is patently absurd – a category error; moreover anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia is a distinction without difference.

My concerns were soon proved correct: it seemed that pretty much all the 50 or so attendees (in the main from a Jewish or Muslim background, by invitation only) bought into the notion that Islamophobia/anti-Muslim racism existed and was a serious problem. It is as if a conference of the Flat Earth Society starts under the assumption that the earth is flat and proceeds from there. No interrogation of the phenomenon is undertaken nor rigorous evidence provided as to its validity.

In the presentation made by Maleiha Malik (a law professor at Kings, London), she brazenly asserted that matters in Europe are "much much worse" than is commonly thought (meaning by those who subscribe to the Islamophobia phenomenon). She gave as an example how in some EU countries what she terms "far right" parties are polling at about 20 per cent. She then proceeded to castigate the French parliament for passing a law banning the full face veil (burka/niqab) describing the Communist MP who instigated the bill as a "useful idiot for the far right". Islamists and their apologists have taken this law for scrutiny to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of violation of religious freedom. But Ms Malik also vented fury at the judges examining the law as she worries that they will rule in favour of the French parliamentary system; that is to say, uphold a democratically passed law on the grounds that the veiling of women is oppressive and which runs counter to France’s strong secular values.

Now what is interesting and relevant to this article is that she bemoans the burka-ban law as a failure by the French polity and ECHR to adhere to liberalism and the tenets of a liberal constitution. Again, such chutzpah is a clear manifestation of an Islamist attempting to utilise liberalism to undermine secular, liberal values – in order to defend the most appalling misogynistic beliefs and practices (my reasons for this view of veiling are provided in chapter 5 of my 2010 book cited above).

Ms Malik provides a classic example of how Islamists with a liberal veneer operate. For Islamists, democracy is acceptable only when their demands for religious privileges are met; otherwise it is held in contempt. The fact that an overwhelming majority (80 per cent) of the French population supports the law that was unanimously passed and supported across the political spectrum is of no concern to her and her Islamist allies.  It barely needs reminding that it is extremely rare that such strong consensus is reached in parliamentary democracies. An adage that Islamists excel at is apposite: why let facts and reason get in the way of our ideological stance?

Jacqueline Rose, of Independent Jewish Voices, showed approval of Malheiha Malik’s arguments by stating that her group recognises the harm that has been done to other people, notably to Muslims from Islamophobia. Now I have great respect for groups such as IJV who have bravely spoken out against crimes committed by Israel. But this is a variant of ‘we who have suffered also feel your pain’; and is dangerous because it can lead to a race to the ‘victimhood’ bottom. Doubtless Islamists will nod with approval – and other religious groups avail themselves of the opportunity to play their own ‘phobia card’.

A blunt truth needs pointing out: if it were the case that Europe was becoming a hot-bed of ant-Muslim racism/Islamophobia, why are so many Muslims from around the world clamouring to get in? Surely we should expect them rushing for the exit door in their droves to the 56 Organisation of Islamic Conference countries? Lest one forgets, in the supposedly ‘Islamophobic decade’ of 2001-2011, the Muslim population of Britain (England and Wales) increased from 3 to 4.8 percent, that is, a 60 per cent increase. Such irrefutable facts do not register on the radar of purveyors of Islamophobia.

Whilst recognising that Islamists in Muslim-majority countries – from the Wahabbi House of Saud to Sunni Pakistan to Shia Iran – are contemptuous of liberal, democratic, values, many Islamists in the west now realise that this rejectionist approach is counterproductive to their cause. Hence they are skilfully resorting to arguments coated with liberalism. It is, therefore, imperative that those concerned by the corrosive values of Islamism: gender segregation, attack on freedom of expression, and veiling are only three instances – should see through this liberal veneer to reveal the reactionary agenda underneath and to put up robust opposition to their demands.

See also, 'Why does the media only talk about student sexism when Muslims can be blamed?' by Adam Ramsay

About the author

Rumy Hasan is a senior lecturer at Sussex University and author of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths (2010) and Dangerous Liaisons: the Clash between Islamism and Zionism (2013)