Book review: The Battle for British Islam
Sara Khan's book is essential reading for those who care about building and maintaining a peaceful, plural society.
This article is a preview from the Spring 2017 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
The Battle for British Islam (Saqi) By Sara Khan with Tony McMahon
Sara Khan calls her short, fact-packed book “a call for reason and hope”. It is a wake-up call. She does not mention that BBC Woman’s Hour included her in its 2015 “Power List” for “influencing young people and women to stand up to extremist ideologies”. To her enemies this engagement makes her a “native informant”. Yet, Khan writes, Islam is “a core part” of her identity that frames her “humanistic outlook”.
The eponymous “battle” is between those who want to see British Islam as an integrated, constructive presence in a plural society based on democracy and human rights, and those who place Islamic supremacism ahead of citizenship and equality. She calls her enemy “Salafi Islamism”, a combination of a religious ideology that sees “true Islam” as an austere, back-to-basics Salafism and an Islamist political ideology that, in an ideal world, would like to see everyone living under an Islamic Caliphate with sharia law.
She says that in recent years, especially at universities, progressives have been eclipsed by Salafi Islamist voices such as Islamic Education & Research Academy, Islam21c, Muslim Engagement and Development, and Cage. Haitham al-Haddad, preacher for Islam21c, is sympathetic to FGM, refers to homosexuality as a “scourge” and advocates a judicial process enabling apostates to be executed.
Khan describes how many on the left have sided with the Islamists – apparently their anti-imperialism trumps their reactionary ideology. The leftist buy-in enables Islamists to conflate any criticism of their ideology with anti-Muslim bigotry, to the extent that Muslim women activists fighting sexism have been accused of promoting anti-Muslim prejudice. Meanwhile far-right populists claim, “All Muslims are de facto Islamists” and mirror the Islamist view that Islamic and European values are inherently incompatible.
While she does not suggest that Salafi Islamism can simply be equated with support for terrorism, or that there is a “conveyor belt” leading people from one to the other, it becomes clear that the ideology – including its grievance narrative and black-and-white view of the world – creates a climate in which those behind the online effort to radicalise young people can thrive. Ordinary British Muslims have to cope both with anti-Muslim bigotry from the right and the fear that their children will be drawn into violent extremism.
An element of the counter-terrorism strategy dating back to the last Labour government is Prevent, which aims to pre-empt people supporting or engaging in terrorism. Despite recent improvements, it remains controversial. Teaching unions worry about inhibiting free speech, and many in the Muslim community feel unfairly targeted. While there are genuine concerns, Khan explains how Salafi Islamists have stoked a sense of hostility and suspicion through false stories and exaggeration.
But the threat of radicalisation is real. Khan accepts that sometimes Prevent operates imperfectly, but remains a strong supporter. Her organisation, Inspire, has used Prevent funding. That damns her in the eyes of her opponents. The 5Pillars website, which backed George Galloway over Sadiq Khan for London Mayor, called her book “A 250 Page Prevent Press Release”, claiming that that “the British authorities ... are the real power behind Khan”.
Perhaps these “authorities” have not read the sections which criticise the government’s crass communications to Muslim communities, its unwillingness to view social cohesion other than through an anti-terrorism lens, and her fears that proposed new counter-extremism measures will feed the victim narrative and violate human rights.
Khan accepts that “Islam can be a religion of violence, as much as a religion of peace”. Those who care about building and maintaining a peaceful plural society should read her book, and be prepared to fight alongside her.