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.