Na'eem Jeenah at University of Johannesburg Palestine Solidarity Forum seminar, 2014.Some rights reserved.British Prime Minister David Cameron is a calculated hypocrite on the question of Muslim radicalisation. In July, in the wake of the attack on British tourists (among others) in Tunisia, he announced a counter-extremism strategy to stop the spread of extremist movements such as the Islamic State (IS).
His four-pronged strategy includes de-legitimising the ideology that underpinned these movements – especially those that argue for an Islamic caliphate - and emboldening the Muslim community to counter extremism from within. For Cameron: ‘The adherents of this ideology are overpowering other voices within Muslim debate, especially those who are trying to challenge it’.
Yet in a self-defeating move, his government has prevented one of the most prominent voices countering radicalisation of the IS variety from entering the United Kingdom (UK), a South African called Na’eem Jeenah.
In April 2015, in a delayed response to a visa application made in 2014, a Home Office’s entry clearance officer said in a letter that s/he was not convinced that Jeenah’s reasons for travel ‘were of a sufficiently compelling nature to override my belief that your exclusion from the United Kingdom is conducive to the public good on national security grounds’. The officer was not satisfied ‘on the balance of probabilities’ that Jeenah satisfied UK visa regulations.
Jeenah was invited to a roundtable meeting hosted by the European Council on Foreign Relations. At this roundtable, policymakers and academics intended to discuss appropriate responses to IS, among other issues.
At times, such discussions can be very useful. As Chatham House rules apply, participants from conflicting perspectives can open up and explore problems in ways that are not possible under ordinary circumstances. UK citizens could have benefited from a genuine exchange of ideas on these issues, which makes the Home Office’s banning of Jeenah all the more shortsighted, as he was unable to bring his perspective to bear on these discussions.
And what precisely are his perspectives? Jeenah is the director of the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC), based in Johannesburg. He is also a prominent Muslim scholar and left-wing activist. He has the political and theological knowledge to make the arguments, with great authority and authenticity, that Islam cannot and must not be reduced to the perverted ideology that IS and others like it propagate in the name of Islam.
Jeenah holds no truck for the IS; in fact he has argued they need to be isolated, including by military means. However, he argues that these interventions must be led by state and non-state actors in the region, not the coalition forces (including the UK), as the latter will inevitably put their own interests before the interests of the region’s citizens. Jeenah has also argued that the IS’s growth needs to be stopped at the level of its recruits, as its purpose is to attract Muslims into the self-declared caliphate.
For Jeenah, the IS and their ilk ‘… are the enemy of all reasonable people’. He goes on to argue, ‘You need to deal with [the problem] at the ideological level. You need to engage with the Islamic theological battle, and that needs to be conducted from within the Muslim community. You need to counter all the arguments outside of the territory that they hold, including in the west. Successfully conducting that battle will strangle the IS’.
For Jeenah, the wisdom or otherwise of re-establishing a Muslim caliphate must be subjected to democratic debate, not censorship. The fact that such violence is being committed in the name of this idea makes a democratic response all the more urgent. However, this response should come from all democrats, not just Muslims, as the IS and what it stands for threatens all humanity.
If Cameron was serious about countering extremism, then what better person to allow into the UK than Jeenah? Arguably, such censorship serves the Conservative administration. By controlling the discourse, they can play divide and rule of the Muslim community into what African intellectual Mahmood Mamdani has called ‘good Muslims’ and ‘bad Muslims’, and handpick the ‘moderates’.
So, for instance, ‘moderates’ must not be too critical of the UK’s policy fundamentals. It is these fundamentals that allow it to pursue its geopolitical interests to the benefit of its defence industry. The Conservative’s poodles must not be anti-imperialist in outlook, and Jeenah is. In fact, within his critique of IS, Jeenah has a great deal to say about the contributions of the west to the problem, including that the IS was a creation of the coalition forces’ folly in Iraq.
The UK and the other five eyes countries (the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia) have pursued the war against terror outside the human rights frame, thereby contributing massively to global insecurity and at least partly creating the very problem it was designed to solve. If the UK doesn’t want extremism, then it shouldn’t create extremists.
But Cameron’s administration needs a simplistic narrative of radicalisation, where its own contribution to the problem is ignored, and where ideas that it finds unpalatable are criminalised on the tenuous pretext that they create a climate for terrorism. This narrative makes the case for more securitised responses to the extremist threat, and a massive expansion of the state’s surveillance capabilities.
With the skill of a seasoned securocrat, Cameron has seized on the IS attacks in Tunisia to justify greater censorship. But he is taking the UK, and in fact the world, down a very dangerous path. It is one that the UK has been down before, and it is one that has created more terrorist threats than the country and its allies can ever hope to deal with.
For instance, the UK and other countries cannot possibly ward off the threat posed by so-called ‘self-starting terrorists’ or ‘lone wolf attackers’ using state security agencies, without waging a protracted, divisive war on its own citizens. Its spy machine has shown that it cannot even get the basics right when it comes to protecting national security. In fact, several recent terrorist attacks both in the UK and elsewhere have been made possible by basic intelligence failures. Yet it and other five-eyes countries continue to seek ever-more invasive spying powers.
The denial of Jeenah’s visa in the circumstances is a form of censorship, as it prevents him from contributing to exchanges of views on an issue of extreme public importance. But the UK’s drift towards punishing words - and not just deeds - to counter extremism has been developing for some time now.
Cameron’s speech deepened the drift. He has committed his administration to disallowing ideas, even those that preach non-violence. They accept the anti-democratic premise there doesn’t have to be a causal link between terrorism and extremism, for extremism to be criminalised.
Cameron’s administration still has to present evidence of Jeenah having engaged in any actions that threaten national security. If such evidence exists, then they should do so. But then probably, to their minds, they don’t need to. Given the mindset prevailing in Whitehall, the fact that Jeenah’s views are disagreeable is reason enough.
Jeenah has made, and continues to make, a significant contribution to the struggle to bring about a democratic South Africa. At a time when Cameron’s conservative predecessors (like Margaret Thatcher) were propping up apartheid, Jeenah contributed to the anti-apartheid struggle at great personal cost. His brother was killed by the apartheid police in 1994.
The post-apartheid South Africa that he and others helped to bring about is by no means a perfect country, and these imperfections extend to its intelligence agencies. But at least South Africa has had the good sense not to align itself overtly and consistently with the war against terror. In its national security posture, the country remains critical of how this war has been prosecuted.
In South Africa, Jeenah can speak freely. The country faces no major terrorist threat, and there is little Islamophobia. It is a country where Jeenah’s contributions, and that of his organisation, are valued greatly. Government officials often participate in AMEC’s events, and relations are cordial and constructive, although this does not prevent critical engagement.
Its own problems notwithstanding, perhaps South Africa needs to teach the UK a lesson or two in democracy. Its current crop of political leaders certainly seem to need it.
This article was first published in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper on August 7, 2015.