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Deeyah Khan: She succeeds in persuading British jihadis to open up about their motivations (photo: UN Geneva)

When confronted with radical Islamists who murder without limit, too many want to rationalise the irrational. Leftists say that the murderers cannot truly believe that they must slaughter non-Muslims and Muslims who do not follow their version of Islam to the letter. Rather, and rather conveniently, they explain away religious totalitarianism as an understandable response to Western foreign policy, Israeli oppression, racism and poverty; to, in other words, the very evils that were already agitating the Left. “Don’t say we didn’t warn you,” they say with grim satisfaction, as they make murderers their allies and turn corpses into debating points.

Conservatives also use crimes against humanity to shore up their barricades in the culture wars. To them, the distinction between Islam and Islamism must be a distinction without a difference. All Muslims are tainted because Islam is an alien and barbaric creed, which makes every believer a potential criminal. Once again, they conscript psychopaths, but in this instance they use them to justify immigration controls, law and order, and a recognition of the superiority of the “Judaeo-Christian” culture. (Given that the Christians spent two millennia persecuting the Judaeos, I am not sure conservatives should offer such a warring “culture” as an example to anyone.)

Not the smallest of the virtues of Deeyah Khan’s documentary Jihad: A British story (ITV) is that she provides evidence to back every attempt to rationalise Islamism and then knocks it away. I should declare an interest and say that I think Khan is completely bloody marvellous. She was originally a glamorous and gifted pop star; music critics predicted she would become the “Muslim Madonna”. But religious reactionaries do not take well to “their” women getting ideas above their station. Their threats to her and her family forced Khan to flee twice: first from her native Norway and then from Britain, which she naively believed was a liberal haven, whose citizens would not tolerate the violence of the Muslim far-Right. She abandoned her ambitions, and went into exile in America. Rather than go under, as many would have done, she came back — rejuvenated and reinvented — as a feminist filmmaker. Her first documentary on the “honour” killing of a Kurdish girl in Britain won all kinds of awards, and her Jihad: A British Story (ITV) shows her skill and insight once more.

Over 18 months she convinced two generations of jihadis, ex-jihadis, and men and women teetering on the edge of committing to jihad to open up. Her central character is the remarkable figure of Abu Muntasir, a Bangladeshi immigrant to Britain. In the 1980s and 1990s he was a vicious and charismatic Islamic extremist preacher, who went to fight in Kashmir, Burma and Afghanistan and inspired hundreds of young men to imitate him. How?

A simple but to my mind plausible answer is that the police never stopped him. Muntasir was never arrested, never even interviewed. Looking back on the policing of radical Islam in the last years of the 20th century, you can see that the authorities were as naive as the academics. Like the shallow theorists, they could not believe that Islamists meant what they said. Surely they were just letting off steam or striking poses?

It helped that Muntasir looked like the leader of a warrior band. Standing at 6ft 7in, muscular and with a flowing beard, he was the heroic father figure the young men who followed him had never had. Interviewed by Khan long after their frenzy had passed, a few of his former followers cited motives that would please the Left. One described how whites would shout “Paki go home” at him “as regularly as the call to prayer”. Racism changes how you think, of course. It has changed an old friend of mine, a secular British Pakistani, who has seen what Islamists do close-up as a reporter in the Middle East and Asia. He’s still an atheist, but says now, “My father was called a ‘coon’, I was called a ‘Paki’ and my children will be called ‘Muslims’.” The name changes, the prejudice remains the same. When I talk to him, he can barely abide criticisms of the Islamism he once denounced because he is so worried about the racism around him.

Another of Khan’s interviewees spoke of how he was angry against society because he was born with a withered arm and leg. A woman said she was angry because she had been sexually abused, but the British police had done nothing. Maybe these aren’t convincing “root causes”, but they would pass muster in some left-wing circles.

Conservatives, meanwhile, could find much to boost them. Muntasir believed the non-Muslim world was Satanic, and the allies of Satan had to be destroyed. He appeared to be justifying every clash-of-civilisations hypothesis.

Yet the rationalisations did not make full or even partial sense. Khan cleverly intercut her interviews with men on the edge of jihadism with clips of two men from Birmingham who were diverted from petty crime, and became better people, by finding Islam. The determinism which holds that Islam must produce a clash of civilisations not only ignores the vast range of contradictory beliefs within a supposedly monolithic religion, and that Shias and Sunnis are currently slaughtering each other across the Middle East, but forgets that Muslims are more likely to be the victims of Islamism than Islamists.

As for my comrades on the Left, if you are a victim of racism, why join a racist and anti-Semitic movement? If you are a victim of sexual abuse, why join a movement that demeans, rapes and enslaves women? Maajid Nawaz, a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir who rejected theocracy so thoroughly he could soon be the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, put it best when he wrote: “Ok far-lefty fellow-travellers of Islamism, I’m a state-school, brown, stabbed-at-by-neo-Nazis, falsely arrested at gunpoint by Essex police, Muslim, divorced, estranged from his child, ex-Islamist, tortured ex-prisoner who’s been mandatorily profiled & DNA’d under schedule 7 at Heathrow airport & blacklisted from countries. I am every grievance you harp on about. And yet your first-world bourgeois brains malfunction because I’m not spewing hate & fitting in your little angry Muslim box. Are you feeling slightly privileged yet?”

Fascism and Communism ought to have taught us that if totalitarian thought systems give men the power and the ability to commit enormous crimes in the name of Utopia they will do it. But it seems as if we have to learn that all over again, just as we must learn to fight all over again.

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ObjectivityPlatform
August 9th, 2015
1:08 PM
++'He’s still an atheist, but says now, “My father was called a ‘coon’, I was called a ‘Paki’ and my children will be called ‘Muslims’.The name changes, the prejudice remains the same. When I talk to him, he can barely abide criticisms of the Islamism he once denounced because he is so worried about the racism around him.”' Interchanging 'racism' and 'prejudice' so freely only serves to legitimize (the falsehoods inherent within) the term 'Islamophobia'. To be called 'Paki' or 'Coon' is certainly racist; whereas being called a 'Muslim' is a valid value descriptor and even if it connotes something akin to 'I strongly disagree or am concerned by your belief-system', it is far from racism. For some to hear that as a racist, denigratory term, evinces that substantive part of the social pathology that Islam inculcates. It is by no means axiomatic nor remotely credible. ++ '...the vast range of contradictory beliefs within a supposedly monolithic religion, and that Shias and Sunnis are currently slaughtering each other across the Middle East, but forgets that Muslims are more likely to be the victims of Islamism than Islamists.' All of which is neither here nor there. Like political-correctness, Islam is eating itself. What needs to be discussed is the net effect of the prescriptions of mainstream Islam, rather than the fringe exceptions of its quietist sub-cults or this 'secular friend' or that other who The Faith saved from a life of crime. How many of those Muslims who were killed by the depredations of their fellow-religionists would, in other circumstances, have heartily joined with their executioners in the stoning of a woman accused of adultery? The hanging of a gay man? Or the vilification and persecution of the Jews?

amcdonald
August 5th, 2015
1:08 PM
Excellent article. So when is Nick Cohen (and the Leftists and Rightists) going to advocate the creation of a Leitkultur (as Zizek explains at Spiegel International online, 31st March) ? It`s time Standpoint had an article on the subject.

TonyR
July 30th, 2015
3:07 PM
What 'Muslim far-Right'? Islamist extremism is not just facilitated and apologised for by the western secular left. It is in its essential characteristics - collectivist, conformist, intolerant, ideologically-driven - totally left wing in its mentality and practices.

Anonymous
July 25th, 2015
6:07 PM
I have read a few books by Cohen and it seems to me that while he obliviously sees the threat of Islamism he sees all political issues through a 20th century prism - hence the constant references throughout his work to communism, fascism, old lefty battles against racism etc. But we are in the 21st century. Communism has about as much relevance to me as the Roundheads must have had to Dr. Johnson. Hence Cohen will never understand these young Jihadis or their younger western opponents. He doesn't share the younger generation's logical picture of the world. There is a lot to learn from the past but things and people do change.

Dubs
June 26th, 2015
3:06 PM
"The name changes, the prejudice remains the same. When I talk to him, he can barely abide criticisms of the Islamism he once denounced because he is so worried about the racism around him." Why does the subject of racism always come up in these articles. Muslim extremists are not committing acts of terror because of racism. They do it because that's what their ideology tells them to do. Stop trying to spread the accountability to everyone in the community. Its a copout and its cowardly. Hold these Muslims accountable to the same standards as you would hold anyone else.

Mike B
June 26th, 2015
12:06 PM
I agree with the main thrust of Nick Cohen's argument but think his terminology a bit faulty. The 'leftists' he talks of do not desearve that respected appellation. Groups of distopians have no place on the left. Orwell (a great fighter for human rights) was a leftist. Followers of Respect etc are confused bigots.

Anonymous
June 26th, 2015
12:06 PM
Yes, let's ALL remember that being a Muslim - evidently that means supporting that the Quran is a book entirely of great wisdom which should be a basis for one's sense of morality, and that Mohamed's character was utterly perfect and unassailable - is a CHOICE. People stop being Muslims and people start being Muslims, no matter what 'race' they may be. With respect to the Quran, one can emphasise the few conciliatory passages or one can emphasise the many belligerent ones. The point is that they're from the SAME book and that the belligerent passages ARE there and cannot be dismissed as a twisted perversion. It is equally as easy to claim that the conciliatory passages are twisted perversions. Once we're drawing satirical cartoons of Mohamed, because so much of his actions are deserving, then we'll be approaching some sort of equilibrium with Islam as just another of the many types of ideology open to equal treatment in terms of criticism. Why should this be difficult?

Pat Yale
June 26th, 2015
12:06 PM
But Nawaz WAS in the past filled with that jihadi rage so I don't think he was the best person to cite in this particular piece.

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