Reporting "Extremism": Inaccuracy and Censorship

It’s a truism that how journalists report “extremism” is a central issue of the day. The controversies over two Dispatches programmes, one broadcast in January and other in August on the topic of British Muslim “extremism”, usefully highlight difficult issues around standards of accuracy in journalism and the forms of censorship that emerge from the political pressures around this issue. A lot of disentanglement needs to be done for the sake of preserving serious and accurate reporting that helps to inform public debate around what is one of, if not the, key policy issues of our times.

Issues of Inaccuracy: How far is the media getting the story right on “extremism”?

Firstly it’s important to address the accuracy of the journalism in these two programmes. The chief problem is one of description. Using terms like “extremist” often obscure rather than explain the phenomenon at hand. “Extremist” is used in a cultural sense to mean “non-liberal” and in a political sense to mean “violent” and the conflation of the two in journalese often has major implications for community relations. It is also a term that replicates sophisticated war-on-terror political rhetoric rather than queries some of its assumptions. However there is a more generic problem here: one of the public register of understanding and level of interest. In other words, there is only an interest in establishing the binary category: “extremist”/”moderate”, or analogues, “Islamist”/”non-Islamist”, “jihadist”/”non-jihadist” and so on, and not in the more complicated task of understanding various groups with their internal disputes, disputes with other groups, their distinct positions and so on, for fear of loosing the audience rather quickly. However I am still confident that a bit more framing of the material in these terms would have made a significant difference.

In January, Channel 4 aired the Dispatches programme, “Undercover Mosque“, an undercover investigative documentary about preachers at certain British mosques. The programme focused mainly on conservative Salafi mosques, a minority trend within British Islam, and, in particular, those Salafis who have opposed al-Qaeda and terrorist violence. (Whatever their political inclinations, all modern-day Salafis believe that Muslims must return to the authentic textual sources of the faith in order to renew it, by discarding about 1200 years of intellectual history and cultural manifestation, with a few notable exceptions. At the centre of Salafi criticism is that too many Muslims are no longer true monotheists and have taken up polytheistic practices and beliefs, which is the most serious charge that one Muslim can level at another.) Most Muslims, however, have found the da`wah (mission) of conservative non-violent Salafis to be highly critical and dismissive of non-Salafi Muslims and of non-Muslims. There has been introspection and rethinking since 9/11 in Salafi circles, which the programme did not acknowledge, yet at the same time I found the programme disheartening because it also showed a sometimes shrill, defensive and occasionally militant faction still carried some weight among British Salafis. I had thought that things had moved on a bit more; I have written about “Undercover Mosque” at greater length here.

The second Dispatches documentary broadcast in August, “Britain under Attack”, portrayed two strands of jihadi Salafism present in Britain, but didn’t distinguish between them sufficiently, which I shall attempt to do at some length here. (And it should be added that if “Britain under Attack” focused on jihadi Salafis, “Undercover Mosque” mostly looked at conservative non-jihadi Salafis.)

The first strand, which one might dub “the jihadist internationale” is concerned with the defence of Muslim lands (including Muslim minorities within state borders, e.g. the Chechens on the Trans-Caucasian borders of Russia) through a mobile and permanent jihadist international vanguard that was originally comprised of veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s. Its chief theorist was Abdullah Azzam (1941-1989). He broke with traditional Islamic scholarship on jihad to the extent that he allowed jihad to be called by non-state actors, he characterised jihad as a standing, perpetual obligation (rather than as sporadic, i.e. as rationally conditioned by the failure of peaceful conflict resolution), and he overwhelmingly emphasized it as a compulsory individual obligation on Muslims everywhere. But in this case, as in most others, theory followed the political fact of the creation of an international jihadist vanguard in Afghanistan, supported by many Muslim states and by the Americans as part of a Cold War proxy conflict against communism. From the eighties onwards, some British Muslims were drawn to such theatres of conflict (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo) for any variety of reasons — for high jinks and adventure, out of romantic solidarity for the Muslim oppressed and so on. It is and was not altogether unlike the example of the British Left who went to fight Spanish fascism in the 1930s, whose locus classicus is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, if one considers it at the basic level of solidarity with a foreign oppressed group with whom one strongly identifies. Some of these romantic jihadists went to disburse charity, some to do some military training and some to fight with their Muslim brothers. What was not very clear to most until the late nineties was the extent to which this strand of romantic jihadism was defined by a hardline Salafi theology and how much it had come to be the target of recruitment by the second strand of jihadist Salafism led by al-Qaeda.

There are two important differences between “the jihadist internationale” and the al-Qaeda strands of jihadist Salafism. The “romantic jihadis” did not endorse the killing of civilians or “attacking the far enemy” i.e. those Western nations deemed generally hostile to Muslims, targeting them directly as well as their interests in the Muslim world, which was the tactical switch endorsed by the al-Qaeda leadership in the nineties. There is no evidence — and I have asked several knowledgeable people about this — that Azzam endorsed either suicide bombing or targeting civilians in general.

To give a practical illustration of this, Moazzam Begg, whilst in Guantánamo, recalls an argument between himself and a self-declared al-Qaeda member, Uthman al-Harbi, in which Begg argues clearly against the targeting of innocents (see Enemy Combatant, London, 2006, pp. 304-309). Begg sticks to a romantic notion of honourable jihadism in an era of total war and the post-9/11 US “doctrine of pre-emption” and “full spectrum dominance”. Al-Harbi replies that modern weaponry is indiscriminate, and that the wide collateral damage inflicted upon the Muslim world deserves a similar response. Thus it seems that in Islam, as with other religious traditions, traditional codes of ethical conduct in wartime are under immense pressure to accept the “realpolitik” of civilian casualties. Begg is viewed by his American captors as just another al-Qaeda member like Uthman, despite the crucial differences between them. The danger of escalation with such conflation is obvious: it merges causes of self-determination in the Muslim world with terrorist attacks upon civilians within the Muslim world and in the West.

The chief similarity between “the jihadist internationale” and al-Qaeda is that their political framework is anti-national and resolutely globalised, and tied to an imagined politics of the umma (Muslim supernation). This historically places both at odds with the majority of jihadi Salafis who are nationalists, as experts like Fawaz Gerges, who has interviewed hundreds of them, attests.

Since the late 1990s, the lines between the two globalist strands have become more blurred. Firstly al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups targeted people who went over to train or fight. Although more research is required to confirm it, it would seem that Dhiren Bharot (Abu Eesa al-Hindi) shifted from the “jihadist internationale” strand to al-Qaeda in late nineties. Secondly, the military invasion and occupation of Muslim countries by America and its allies also brings the two strands closer together. In the programme, both strands were clear in articulating the right to the self-defence of Muslim lands, a position that is more widely held among Muslims generally. This, in and of itself, is unsurprising as self-defence is an orthodox position in nearly every religious tradition as well as in secular international law. Al-Qaeda was able to turn itself into a formidable presence on the back of the invasion of Iraq on the basis of this argument. Later on al-Qaeda became split on the question of whether Shiites in Iraq should be systematically targeted, to foment Sunni discontent at the Shiite-majority government. On the face of it, Zarqawi’s view that the deliberate targeting of Shiites should continue, as opposed to Zawahiri’s view that it would corrode Muslim support for al-Qaeda, seems to have prevailed.

However, as far as the obligation on British Muslims is concerned, the difference between the two strands lies in their response to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Al-Qaeda’s supporters and fellow travellers deem “the convenant of security” between Muslims and the British state to have been rendered null and void by the “war on terror” at home and abroad. This means that they work clandestinely and through deception to target Britain through terrorism, as argued by Abu Muhammad in the programme. Also featured were their apologists, among whom are Omar Bakri Mohammed and his followers, who refuse to distance themselves from al-Qaeda’s position, merely saying that they understand the response of the 7/7 cell and their likes to British foreign policy. This circumlocution is necessary in public statements given that they would otherwise face prosecution under the Terrorism Act 2006 for encouraging the “emulation of terrorism”.

The “jihadist internationale” strand endorsed the position that the legal contract between British Muslims and the state should be honoured, but there was less unanimity about the implications of that position. None supported attacks on Britain, but some appeared to endorse British Muslims joining the jihad against British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq so long as they publicly renounced their British citizenship before leaving the country. It should be noted that the government has placed a few British citizens under control orders for leaving to fight with Iraqi insurgents, from which a few have absconded. Others, like Moazzam Begg, while upholding the right to self-defence in principle, seemed to advise British Muslims to pursue a political path of protesting against the occupation of Iraq and providing emergency relief aid and the like to Iraqi civilians. Anti-extremist campaigners, like Imam Musa Admani, also upheld the right to self-defence while attacking “extremist ideologies”.

In short, while the presenter Phil Rees, of Dining with Terrorists fame, seems to have talked to the right people, more could have done more to frame the programme in terms of these “strands”. One complaint I would have is that while one might have some sympathy with the argument aired here by both Rees and his interviewees, that makes “foreign policy” the central driving causal factor, the framing of this issue by many of those interviewed here, which dictates the manner of their responses, should have been put any much more rigorous scrutiny. Finally by placing the intra-jihadist Salafi theological debate centre stage, Rees did not do enough to show that this is a minority trend within British Islam. How much are British Muslims truly self-defined by the traditional legal categories, formulated in age of the caliphate, of dar al-kufr, dar al-islam and dar al-aman that were discussed here?

Issues of Censorship in the Reporting of “Extremism”

Subsequent to the transmission of “Undercover Mosque”, the West Midlands police investigated the statements of three preachers featured in the programme to see if any criminal offence of inciting hatred had been committed. After reviewing 56 hours of tape, and referring the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service, it was found that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge anyone. In fact, the West Midlands police then went on to investigate if there were grounds for prosecuting Channel 4 under the Public Order Act 1986 for including material likely to stir up racial hatred. In her summary comments, CPS reviewing lawyer Bethan David said:

The splicing together of extracts from longer speeches appears to have completely distorted what the speakers were saying. The CPS has demonstrated that it will not hesitate to prosecute those responsible for criminal incitement. But in this case we have been dealing with a heavily edited television programme, apparently taking out of context aspects of speeches, which, in their totality, could never provide a realistic prospect of any convictions.

There is insufficient evidence to charge either the preachers or the programme makers, but in investigating both parties thoroughly the West Midlands police have sent a clear signal that it matters very much that we make ourselves responsible for what we say, being mindful of the context and representing other people’s positions without distortion. The West Midlands police have now referred the matter to Ofcom, the media regulator, although — strangely — none of the mosques featured in the programme appear have done so themselves.

Inayat Bunglawala, commenting recently on the CPS-West Midlands joint statement on the matter, said:

Hate speech must be combated. Documentary makers have an important responsibility, however, to do their research properly and carefully identify those who actually incite hatred. They must take great care to avoid unfairly stigmatising whole institutions and groups of people.

This is obviously true. But it doesn’t take us far enough as we have only established that there is insufficient evidence to bring charges, and that journalists should be responsible in how they report Muslim communities. That’s all well and good. As the deputy secretary-general of the MCB, Inayat Bunglawala would be expected to publicly defend the Council’s affiliates in cases of journalistic misrepresentation. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is the question of how “hate speech must be combated” by Muslim communities themselves, which requires a critical discussion about how some preachers play a divisive role. As I wrote in a previous blog on the programme:

We do need to think about the importance of what our imams and visiting preachers/lecturers say in our mosques…. Not because of outward respectability or out of fear of monitoring but because of what is right and proper. How can we expect a balanced form of Islam to emerge from such a hate-filled discourse? That’s the main question.

Why should we put up with the peddling of false dreams of future domination and merely waiting to fight some grand global jihad later on (when the reality is that Muslim countries cannot even secure their own basic sovereignty), of the insecure proclamation of our inherent superiority (surely conditional on our actual conduct), the need to continually demean the ‘kuffar’ (as if to bolster one’s own precarious faith, for as the saying goes: ‘hate’ is the opposite not of ‘love’ but of ‘indifference’; in other words, obsessive hatred reveals something of a fixation akin to attraction), the nasty denigration of women and speaking as if they were in a position to enforce, with relish, the fixed penalties (hudud) of Islamic sacred law (rather than as being, as in fact their congregation is, subject to English common law).

We British Muslims should take careful note of the fact that the West Midlands police acknowledged “the concerns that some parts of the programme may have been considered offensive”, despite the journalistic distortions. A point of disagreement remains as to what level of distortion we are talking about here. Many of the quotes featured in the programme were either lengthy or unambiguous in their content, so — even if there may have been a lack of contextualisation here — it did not amount to the outright falsification of the positions aired by some preachers. As for the context, the key question here is whether their “bark” was worse than their “bite”: many religious conservatives (not just in Islam) hold misogynist or homophobic positions, but how far do they recognise that this rhetoric is decisively framed by their legal and social context in terms of practical implications, and remind their mosque congregants of that context? By and large, in legal terms, the state aims not to censor non-liberal views but to foster an atmosphere in which the media and public opinion seeks to censure them away and set out a human rights framework based on the principles of reciprocal non-discrimination between all disadvantaged groups and the promotion of equality. Having said that, I believe British Muslims should argue for a “responsibility for rhetoric” given the multifaith, multicultural society that we are a part of, even if, at the same time, most would contest legal restrictions on free speech and many would also feel uncomfortable with intrusive “liberal moral policing”.

Therefore, the lesson is not only that there is lacklustre, sometimes malacious, journalism that should be challenged but also that we British Muslims have to do more to take on the intolerant, sometimes hateful, views that some preachers peddle. They need to reconsider their attitudes to other Muslims and the rest of society, as do the mosque committees that employ them. It would have been opportune for Inayat Bunglawala to have said more about the positive work the soon-to-be launched Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, which includes the MCB, is doing around raising service standards in mosques and setting more stringent job descriptions for imams, which will include a requirement to work pro-actively on inter-community relations and interfaith.

It has also emerged that the Metropolitan Police have now also asked Channel 4 for all evidence and footage collected in relation to “Britain under Attack”. Rees has already been criticised for giving airtime to an al-Qaeda supporter, Abu Muhammad, now exiled in the Middle East and debarred from entering Britain. Rees has defended interviewing Abu Muhammad on the basis that journalists have to reflect all sides of the argument, even the most radicalised and extreme voices. I would tend to agree with him while saying that the propositions upon which they base their argument should have been subjected to more scrutiny.

I would also like to support an argument, bound to be unpopular with many British Muslims, namely that we should be alive to an additional danger here, of allowing over-zealous prosecution, which, even if it fails legally, sends out a tacit signal to curtail proper investigative journalism around this crucial issue out of fear of legal reprisals. Many would like an easy life and have no investigative journalism at all; equally, some journalists would likewise invoke “free speech” rights without considering more measured criticisms of their efforts. After all, there is a middle ground here: the recognition that careful investigative journalism, duly sensitive to context, that tries to get to bottom of these complex issues, is desperately needed. This is a difficult enough thing to get right.

One has to wonder of course if the Crown Prosecution Service and the police by wading in here, presumably on behalf of beleaguered British Muslims, are taking unspoken signals from government on this. It is better to muzzle the media sufficiently so that “political handling” of the Muslim community is left to government and is not derailed by sensationalist reporting. As this case shows, broadcast media is the obvious target here as it is much more heavily regulated than is the press to provide editorial balance in news and current affairs. But isn’t this the same profession that also puts the government on the spot too, which, has also, at times, become very politically contested, as was the case with the BBC and the Hutton Inquiry. Shouldn’t the CPS and police prosecutions not be read within this context too?

So while one might argue for better reporting of “extremism”, surely improving it is a matter of open debate and of producing better alternatives than is the threat of legal prosecution which will leave all of us none the wiser and very much in the dark.



Filed under Ghuluw, Media, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics, war-on-terror

8 responses to “Reporting "Extremism": Inaccuracy and Censorship

  1. AA Yahya,

    Many thanks for this. Just three quick points:

    1. I am an Assistant Sec-Gen at the MCB, not Deputy!

    2. You said: ‘A point of disagreement remains as to what level of distortion we are talking about here. Many of the quotes featured in the programme were either lengthy or unambiguous in their content, so — even if there may have been a lack of contextualisation here — it did not amount to the outright falsification of the positions aired by some preachers.’

    The fact is we – as viewers – simply cannot know whether the C4 documentary falsified statements made by several of the speakers. Only the CPS and the West Midlands Police have seen the 56 hours of unedited footage and they have gone on the record to say that C4/Hardcash Productions had ‘completely distorted’ the meaning of what the speakers were trying to say. That is a very grave charge. We can only wait and see what Ofcom does.

    3. ‘You said: ‘It would have been opportune for Inayat Bunglawala to have said more about the positive work the soon-to-be launched Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, which includes the MCB, is doing around raising service standards in mosques and setting more stringent job descriptions for imams, which will include a requirement to work pro-actively on inter-community relations and interfaith.’

    MINAB – as you acknowledge – has not been launched yet and it is by no means clear what level of buy-in it will secure from UK mosques and Imams who as we know are usually very wary of any interference in their affairs. So I think it would have been rather premature to praise MINAB for work that has not yet been done. Again, we will have to wait and see how it develops.



  2. Yahya Birt

    wa alaykumus salam, thanks for your points, Inayat.

    On the point about distortion…it will be interesting to see what Ofcom will say, but having watched the programme it be interesting to see how the excerpts were decontextualised. Certainly the video rebuttal issued by one of the preachers did not seem to substantively voice notably different positions on various issues.

    Secondly I’m supportive of MINAB’s intent in this area; its impact and effectiveness is a matter, as you say, of its performance after its launch. It is going to have a quasi-statutory status given that it will be the designated point of reference for checking the bone fides of foreign nationals applying to work as imams in the UK. Similar bodies will be set up for other faith communities as well. This will make mosque registration with MINAB mandatory for any who wish to employ an imam from abroad.

    Finally, sorry for the inadvertent promotion. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time!

    Salams, Yahya

  3. Dear Yahya,
    that’s an excellent article with which I find myself in general agreement. As you know we have been looking at these issues at POLIS ( or and it’s clear there is no easy framework for this vital debate. This is the nature of difficult issues. It has taken you a few thousand words to set out the context as you see it, the journalist has far less space or time. I do agree with you on the dangers of binary terminology, though, and I thought that at times Rees’ work races through an accumulation of charges instead of telling us more about what these people think. however, I am strongly critical of the bizarre actions of the CPS. their lawyer appears to see some sort of equvalence between some real examples of hate speech and the documentary editing process. She is either being very unclear or rather crude in her reasoning which has been neither transparent nor accountable (unlike C4 which is making its material available). as you say there were some very clearly offensive statements made by people in the films which one can hardly imagine being inoffensive when put into ‘context’. Try to imagine if those comments had been made about Muslims – would Muslims have tolerated them, however ‘edited? The experience of the Cartoons and the Pope’s remarks suggest not. As for the journalism, I agree we need more, not less serious analytical work on extremism (sorry, but I think the word has validity. I believe that homophobia, misogyny and the advocacy of violence against civilians because of their race or faith IS extremism, even when only ‘rhetorical’). but what we really need above all is more Muslims taking part in this investigation as journalists or representatives or simply as citizens.
    I am delighted to see you and Inyat engaging on this and Polis will continue to contribute.

  4. Azad Ali

    Salam Akhi Yahya,

    Good post and agree with much – though I reserve the right to be wary of agenda laden journalism.

    There is a genuine discourse yet to mature on issues that are religious belief, i.e. homosexuality is a sin and should be shunned, and those that are hatred, i.e. “kill all kafirs”. One wonders how these matters can be understood without being labelled “extremist” or “sell-out”.

    How will it be for those that work against the hate mongers whilst holding on to that which Allah has revealed?

    Finally, you said, “There is no evidence — and I have asked several knowledgeable people about this — that Azzam endorsed either suicide bombing or targeting civilians in general.”

    I am glad that you have brought this to light, there are many conflations going on and the rehtoric seems to be one that seeks to tarnish and conflate notable figures, whether in the past or current.

    Keep you eye open on this one bro.



  5. Why people out of line with how the mainstream thinks, talks and acts were invited to comment on CNN’s God’s Muslim Warriors. Many viewers wonder if there are some common characteristics of people who get invited as experts on
    television documentaries about Islam.

    Take the example of Ayaan Hirsi Ali who was once expelled from Holland for claiming asylum by lying.

    According to The Observer’s Anthony Andrew, “Hirsi Ali doesn’t really do small talk… because she really only wants to talk about ideas. To some readers, especially Muslim readers, it may seem that she only wants to talk about one idea: the danger of Islam. Certainly, it’s a major preoccupation.” But of course in voicing her opinion in the style she does, she risks lumping together over a billion people from different nations, cultures and traditions as a single ‘problem’, notes Andrew.

    A recent review in Times Literary Supplement on Hirsi Ali’s book The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam noted: “By disregarding the struggle for women’s rights — both the progress and setbacks — in Muslim-majority countries, Hirsi Ali does those committed to the cause, and consequently those she claims to want to help, a grave injustice. The very title of her book reinforces stereotypes while providing no new information about the evolving status of Muslim women in their own and adopted countries. It overlooks Muslim women’s participation in economies, elections and government. Likewise, in discounting the contributions of fruitfully integrated first-generation Muslims and immigrants to their societies, Hirsi Ali fuels the isolationism she claims to oppose.” “I do not despise Islam”, she says, without offering a shred of evidence to the contrary. While acknowledging that her criticism has been called “harsh, offensive and harmful”, Hirsi Ali is undeterred. Although Hirsi Ali states that it was not her intention to provide Islamophobes with ammunition, this is exactly what her one-dimensional portrayal of Islam does, notes author Maria Golia.

    Another example is Ed Hussain, whom some individuals have criticise for being opportunistic and profiteering from the current climate of fear and anxiety.
    He is happy to reinforce sterotypes and justifies this by saying he knows what inspires terrorists – the likely inference being that his book is an educational tool. Husain provides no new answers and no fresh information, notes Riazat Butt in The Guardian and asks why Ed Hussain is being greeted with an adulation that is both embarrassing and unwarranted?

    Why then marginal, disbalanced and unrepresentative people with irrational and irresponsible views are much sought after for their views in news programmes on CNN? This certainly goes against the principles of fair representation, consistency, evenhandedness and the right to objective reporting.

    Does CNN really need to give a platform on news and documentary programs to elements driven by either xenophobia or zealotry? Do certain sections of media purposely seek rant-bites to attract viewers’ attention?

    The media has a clear choice when venturing to inform viewers on delicate but important matters.

    Ask any scholar, student or observer of Islamic Studies if they ever saw any contribution by, say, Taji Mustafa in a mainstream publication. Make CNN researchers check through Index Islamicus or the participation list of academic conferences in US, al-Azhar,Aligarh University India or Islamia College in Pakistan. No recognized and credible forum ever invites their views. They don’t ever get mentioned by Muslim channels in UK or elesewhere.

    It is the irresponsible media that retains their favourite fringe fanatics on the oxygen mask of publicity when it accords them undeserved and unjustifiable attention on prime time without which the rantagogues are far feeble than a fish without water.

    If opinions are not solicited by the networks for a few weeks those loudmouths who survive on soundbites with no following will be reduced to their actual size – trivial, insignificant and unworthy.

    By giving undue coverage to extremist expression, we will make the real issues hostage to militancy and mulishness.
    Hence, there is no wisdom in bringing people on the media who are unwilling and unable to offer a way out of dilemmas that we encounter and the consequences that we face?

  6. Hello Yahya,

    As usual, some very thoughtful comments on your blog.

    Regarding the Dispatches programme, Britain Under Attack, I wanted to add a few points to your otherwise valid and interesting critique of my programme. Naturally, a greater time to explain is always wanted but that is a diminishing quantity in the mainstream media. (I have been a past defender of your father’s ‘mission to explain’).

    The aim of this programme was to try to understand WHY some Muslims have attacked Britain. The media debate amongst most terrorism ‘experts’ is, in my opinion, sterile and Occidentalist. It rarely steps into their shoes and simply concludes that they are either ‘mad’ or have been beamed in from Mars.

    Nor, in practical terms, does the ‘terrorist’ debate address the ‘tipping’ point. In order to attempt to understand that, the debate between two strands of jihadi-Salafism took ‘centre stage’ for part two (ie one third) of the programme. The purpose was not to reflect the overall views of British Muslims – that was not the aim of the programme – but to understand the motivations and justifications held by some who believe violence against the British state is justified.

    I would also take up issue with you on two points.

    Firsty, the right to a defensive jihad, eloquently explained by the always articulate Moazzam Begg, is a rather more serious issue than you imply by writing that “This, in and of itself, is unsurprising as self-defence is an orthodox position in nearly every religious tradition as well as in secular international law.”

    This stance actually means that British Muslims should support those who are attacking British soldiers who are occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. That is not a statement to be dismissed lightly, when this nation is at war. The tabloids would no doubt describe it as treachery. (While no doubt most Muslims would prefer that British forces were withdrawn and the lives of British troops could be out of harms way). I think many Muslims have ducked this issue in order to avoid its logical conclusion.

    Secondly, you speak of an ‘Imagined politics of Umma’. In my understanding, the notion of Umma runs deeply in the holy texts and from my practical experience, through the blood of Muslims globally. In the Middle East, for example, Arab nationalism is so discredited and corrupted in the minds of the majority poor that ‘Islam is the solution’ (the cry of the Muslim Brotherhood) has a resonance throughout the region. Osama bin Laden has the respect of almost half Indonesians. (see While I was recently in the West bank, I noticed that almost every café had pictures of Sheikh Nasrallah (a Lebanese Shi’a by the way) on their walls.

    While the roots of much al Qa’eda’s ideology and motivation lies in the internal rebellions in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and so on, the importance of the 1998 declaration forming The World Islamic Front (ie AQ) is that it formally concluded that fighting these governments had failed because the West was propping them up. Therefore, the West (Crusaders and Jews) must be the primary enemy. For a large number of Muslims, this conclusion has tapped into solid theological foundations concerning the Umma.

    As a footnote, I refuse to use terms such as ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’: I believe that such a binary lexicon is now being used by non-Muslims to simply divide Muslims into those who support (or do nothing to oppose) western foreign policy and those who challenge it. (See the Rand Report, The Muslim World After 9/11, and its recent addition:

    Much of the criticism I received from some ‘moderate’ Muslims stems, in my humble opinion, from the lack of meaningful public debate on these matters and the paralysing fear that many ‘moderates’ have about the reaction their words may have in the non-Muslim community. Now these two conditions can’t be healthy for anybody.

    Salams, Phil

  7. Dear Phil,

    Thanks for your post which is fair comment. On the two specific points your rise I’d like to reply to these:

    1. On the question of the right of nations to self-defence. The important point here is that British Muslims support this in principle whilst aruging for peaceful diplomacy rather than war to resolve conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere. They support political campaigning on issues like this. Only a few British Muslims would argue for supporting the insurrgents financially or going over there to fight against British troops. In other words, support for the principle of self-defence is widespread but in terms of a practical reponse, the vast majority of Muslims don’t seek to thereafter act treacherously against their own country. They voice their objections within democratic and civic norms.

    2. When speaking about an “imagined politics of the umma” I don’t mean that such politics is imaginary, i.e. that it is unreal. What I mean by “imagined” is that people imagine an attachment towards a group of people most of whom they have never met but with whom they identity, either weakly, moderately or strongly. So their attachment is not based on face-to-face knowledge and experience but on an imagined attachment that is much larger than the number of people they will know either casually or intimately. This is as true of “nationalism” as it is of the politics of the umma. Of course this kind of imagined collective belonging was facilitated by the rise of the mass media in the first place.

    All the best, Yahya

  8. A controversial documentary on the threat of radical Islam, promoted by the two most-watched U.S. cable news networks, was marketed and supported in part by self-described “pro-Israel” groups, according to an IPS investigation.

    Abbreviated versions and segments of “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West” ran on FOX News and CNN, but neither station disclosed the film’s connection to HonestReporting, a watchdog group that monitors the media for allegedly negative portrayals of Israel.

    HonestReporting marketed “Obsession” but denies it produced or funded the project.

    “We initially gave some guidance to the ‘Obsession’ staff,” wrote Pesach Bensen, editor of, the organisation’s weblog, in an email response to IPS. “We’re thrilled to see it succeed beyond our wildest expectations.”

    When “Obsession” was released last year, news pundits and anchors on FOX and CNN praised the independent film for its candid look at Islamic militancy. FOX incorporated footage from the film into a one-hour special, which aired seven times in November 2006. CNN’s right-wing pundit Glen Beck called it “one of the most important films of our time”. Sean Hannity of FOX News described it as “shocking beyond belief”.

    While such enthusiasm from right-wing talk show personalities comes as no surprise, mainstream cable news programmes also appeared to accept, without question, the premise of the film, which explicitly compares the threat posed by radical Islam to that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

    Consider, for example, CNN news anchor Kyra Phillips’s exhortations during an adulatory interview in December 2006 with Raphael Shore, the film’s producer: “I encourage everybody to see this movieà you definitely get an incredible education from watching this filmà The movie left many of us speechlessà We appreciate what you’ve done.”

    HonestReporting was founded in 2000 by British university students who objected to what they considered anti-Israel coverage by European media in response to the second Palestinian intifada.

    There is no mention of HonestReporting’s connection to “Obsession” on the film’s website, In an online “Ask the Filmmakers” segment on the FOX News website, Shore stated that he could not identify the film’s funders for fear of retaliation by the “radicals” the filmmakers exposed.

    Brian Gaffney, executive producer of the FOX News Documentary Unit, declined to comment on whether HonestReporting’s connection was disclosed to the audience, or whether FOX was aware of the organisation’s ideological perspective.

    “There is no mistaking that this was a film with a clear point of view,” Gaffney wrote in an email to IPS. “Its forceful case against Radical Islam spoke for itself.”

    In the case of CNN, which ran segments of the film in the context of a joint interview with Shore and cast member Nonie Darwish, it appears that producers were unaware of the connection.

    “I was told that HonestReporting was not involved with this film,” said CNN spokeswoman Megan Mahoney.

    Any relation between HonestReporting and “Obsession” is also missing on the film’s website, but the organisation’s name does appear at the end of the film’s credits. In addition, a call for tax-deductible donations to help “launch” the film appeared on HonestReporting’s website, promising a free DVD of “Obsession” upon release. Contributors of 250 dollars or more were promised a free copy of the book “Israel: Life in the Shadow of Terror”. An entry on, the organisation’s weblog, also describes HonestReporting as a “proud partner” of the film.

    “Obsession” features interviews with Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, investigative journalist Steve Emerson, Itimar Marcus of Israel-based Palestinian Media Watch, and Daniel Pipes, a controversial scholar of medieval Islamic history whose website sparked criticism in 2002 for its alleged McCarthyesque attacks on Middle East studies professors.

    Its production credits include the Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI, a translation service founded in 1998 by Col. Yigal Carmon, who spent more than 20 years in Israeli intelligence and later advised two Israeli prime ministers; and the Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli group founded by Marcus, that monitors Palestinian news organisations for alleged anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic propaganda.

    “Obsession”, for all its fans, has engendered contentious debate on U.S. university campuses not only for its disquieting barrage of video footage culled from the Arab media, but also for the film’s distribution network.

    According to the New York Times, when a Middle East discussion group organised a screening at New York University earlier this year, distributors of the film required those in attendance to register at, the official website of the Hasbara fellowships.

    The programme, also known as the Jerusalem fellowships, was started in 2001 by Aish Hatorah — an Orthodox Jewish outreach organisation and yeshiva based in East Jerusalem — in conjunction with Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to its website, the group “educates and trains university students to be effective pro-Israel activists on their campuses” by providing its participants with “tools, resources and confidence to return to their campuses as leaders in the fight for Israel’s image.”

    Aish Hatorah helped found HonestReporting. Rabbi Ephraim Shore, the president of HonestReporting, also helped found Hasbara.

    According to the St. Louis Dispatch, a summer screening of “Obsession” in St. Louis was sponsored by the local branch of Aish Hatora and featured a post-film discussion with Walid Shoebat, an ex-Palestine Liberation Organisation militant who was interviewed in the film. In the summer of 2006, Shoebat, a convert to evangelical Christianity, also spoke at the “Night to Honour Israel,” a three-day event presented by Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, a lobby group that aims to mobilise Christian Zionists as a political force, according to the San Antonio Express.

    While watching the film, it becomes clear that the controversy surrounding “Obsession” has less to with what it says about the threat of radical Islam, than how it presents the information. While the film contains disclaimers stating that “it’s important to remember most Muslims are peaceful and do not support terror,” critics argue that it makes little distinction between the religion of Islam and the political realities that inform terrorism.

    “It’s all part of that industry of Muslim bashers,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

    “The sentiment is there, you can see in the [1995] Oklahoma City bombing that it was originally seen as an act of Islamic terrorism,” said Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. “It’s almost a default position for the media, so you’re going to have work like this received uncritically.”

    The Oklahoma City bombing, initially attributed by the mainstream media to Islamic terrorists, was actually perpetrated by right-wing extremists from the U.S. midwest.

    The film’s director, Wayne Kopping, argues that it aims to uncover the mixed messages propagated by radical Islamists in the Muslim world, who moderate their voices only when they speak in Western media outlets.

    “Children in the Arab world are… breastfed on a diet of hatred for the West. Not only that — the entire culture is permeated with it,” said Kopping in a FOX interview. “The question is what are they [the spokespeople] saying in their own language, on their own TV stations to their own people. That’s when you really hear what they think, and they call for jihad.” *****

    +Council on American-Islamic Relations (

    +HonestReporting (

    +POLITICS-US/IRAN: The Religious Right’s New Bugbear (

    +RELIGION-US: Who Says Halal and Kosher Don’t Mix? (

    +POLITICS: Engage or Oppose Political Islamism?

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