The anti-blasphemy bigots must be confronted

The anti-blasphemy bigots must be confronted

Islamic hardliners are menacing Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Free Speech UK

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Michael Gove’s crackdown on extremism – launched last week in the British parliament – is outrageously authoritarian and doomed to fail. I argued as much on spiked at the time. Allowing the government to define and go after ‘extremists’ is bound to chill freedom of speech to the bone while driving the haters underground where we cannot challenge them. But at least Gove gets that there is a problem with extremism in our midst, unlike his more hysterical critics. In response to his speech, there was a desperate attempt to pretend that Britain hasn’t been rocked by Islamic extremism and full-blown Islamist terrorism of late, from the pro-Hamas protests to the murder of David Amess MP just two-and-a-half years ago. Meanwhile, the chattering classes have said that Tory right-wingers are the real extremists, as if Jacob Rees-Mogg banging on about small boats is the same as Islamists screaming ‘From the river to the sea’ on Whitehall.

A new report, published by the government’s Commission for Countering Extremism and produced by extremism academic Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, has lifted the lid on a form of extremism that the great and good are also desperate to downplay: Islamic anti-blasphemy extremism, which appears to have gained a grim foothold in the UK of late. Indeed, as Meleagrou-Hitchens details, the string of ‘blasphemy’ scandals we’ve seen in recent years – from the Batley Grammar school teacher, who was suspended and forced into hiding after he showed his students Muhammad cartoons; to the Lady of Heaven protests, which managed to shut down a supposedly ‘blasphemous’ film; to the Wakefield Koran incident, in which an autistic child and his family were menaced with death threats – were motored by activists with links to extremist anti-blasphemy groups.

The activists and imams who came to the fore during those shocking scandals – in which politicians, school leaders, cinema chains and police fell over themselves to cancel and condemn those accused of ‘blasphemy’ – were often at pains to say they did not support violence. As Adil Shahzad, one of the leading Batley Grammar protesters, put it, Muslims should make their views known in the ‘democratic way’. But, as Meleagrou-Hitchens diplomatically puts it, ‘the possibility of further anti-blasphemy violence is heightened by the activism of the groups and individuals’ in question. Not least because so many of the activists discussed in the report condemn violence with one breath and then praise murderous anti-blasphemy groups with the next.

Since the Satanic Verses controversy, Britain has developed a considerable network of groups posing as the voice of British Muslim outrage. While these activists failed to have Salman Rushdie’s supposedly ‘blasphemous’ novel banned, or have anti-Islamic blasphemy criminalised by law, the movement was institutionalised via an array of organisations, charities and campaign groups. Iqbal Sacranie – a leading anti-Rushdie activist, who once said ‘death, perhaps, [was] a bit too easy’ a sentence for the author – went on to found the Muslim Council of Britain. (In 2005, Tony Blair gave him a knighthood.) The Muslim Action Forum, Meleagrou-Hitchens notes, also has its roots in the Rushdie Affair, and today is the semi-respectable face of anti-blasphemy activism in the UK, mobilising against blasphemy while condemning violence. The MAF was involved in protests against Batley Grammar and The Lady of Heaven.

But the MAF have still put supposed blasphemers in grave danger. In a letter dated 28 March 2021, the MAF named the teacher at the heart of the Batley controversy, who was then being hounded for showing his pupils Charlie Hebdo cartoons during a religious-studies class on freedom of expression. The letter also ‘used severe language in its attack on the teacher’, the report notes, accusing him of ‘inciting hatred’ and accusing his supporters of being ‘guided by their blind hatred of the Muslim community’. These inflammatory falsehoods were made despite the ‘well-established record of danger such public identifications can place people in’. Purpose of Life, a local Islamic charity, also named and denounced the teacher, accusing him of ‘terrorism’ and ‘insulting Islam’ and demanding the school sack him. (This led to an official rebuke by the Charity Commission.)

More chilling still are the revelations that violent anti-blasphemy movements in Pakistan appear to be in conversation with anti-blasphemy activists in Britain. Over recent years, various reports have charted the malign influence of Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), an extremist anti-blasphemy political party in Pakistan drawn from the Sunni Barelvi sect, and Khatme Nabuwwat, a movement devoted to the persecution of Pakistan’s Ahmadi Muslim minority. These groups have openly called for the murder of ‘blasphemers’, whipping up mobs against the accused. They both shot to prominence following the 2011 murder of politician Salman Taseer, a vocal opponent of Pakistan’s stringent blasphemy laws, by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri. Since his execution, Qadri has taken on the status of a martyr to Pakistan’s brutal anti-blasphemy movement.

As Meleagrou-Hitchens demonstrates, supporters of the TLP crop up time and again when examining Britain’s recent spate of anti-blasphemy scandals. Adil Shahzad, who led the charge at the gates of Batley Grammar, insisting Muslims act in a ‘democratic way’ of course, has also praised Khadim Rizvi, the TLP’s founder, and addressed events commemorating his death. This is the same Khadim Rizvi who once said: ‘There is only one punishment for those dishonouring the Prophet: to remove their heads from their bodies!’ There is also evidence, the reports argues, that members of TLP UK were involved with the 2022 protests against The Lady of Heaven, a Shia-made film accused of ‘blasphemy’ by Sunni activists for daring to depict the Prophet Muhammad on film and for its unsympathetic portrayal of certain figures in Islamic history. (In response, Cineworld pulled the film from its cinemas.)

Then there is the Wakefield Koran-scuffing scandal of 2023, arguably the most shameful of the lot. An autistic schoolboy and his family were bombarded with death threats after a rumour spread that he and his friends had ‘desecrated’ a copy of the Koran at school. (In truth, he had brought in a copy on a dare and it was accidentally knocked to the floor.) All this culminated in a despicable public meeting at the local mosque, the Jamia Masjid Swafia, where the boy’s mother apologised profusely for her son’s behaviour, effectively begging for his safety, flanked by local imams, a police chief inspector and her son’s headteacher. If that wasn’t morally obscene enough, the menaced schoolboy also had a ‘non-crime hate incident’ recorded against his name.

At the meeting, the mosque’s imam, Hafiz Muhammad Mateen Anwar, denounced violence. In a live-streamed video of the event, he can be seen saying anyone who resorts to threats or violence ‘is not truly following the teaching of Islam’. But he also made it clear that Muslims ‘will never tolerate the disrespect of the holy Koran. We will sacrifice our lives for it.’ Which, to my mind at least, is a bit of a mixed message. Now, Meleagrou-Hitchens has found that a ‘senior member of the mosque and guests invited to the mosque have close connections to the TLP and have praised Mumtaz Qadri and Khadim Rizvi’. That senior member of the mosque is one Hafiz Abdul Qadir Naushahi, who can be seen sitting next to Anwar in that notorious video.

Britain’s anti-blasphemy activists are within their rights to demand the censorship of things that upset them. Militant offendedness is a depressingly common political persuasion these days. But our institutions should not be so readily capitulating to them. The reason they are capitulating to them is out of a not-unfounded fear of being called ‘Islamophobic’ – which these activists, who accuse free-speechers of ‘blind hatred of the Muslim community’, cynically play on – and a not-unfounded fear that threats or violence will be visited upon alleged blasphemers, their workplaces and supporters. While British anti-blasphemy activists are quick to decry violence, their vocal support for violent anti-blasphemy movements in Pakistan, and their willingness to name and shame supposed blasphemers and thus place targets on their backs, suggests otherwise.

Our institutions undoubtedly need to be braver, to face down this intolerance rather than give in to it. But we also need to acknowledge the genuinely menacing nature of this Islamic cancel culture. Indeed, we need to oppose it – to make crystal clear that this violent, unhinged behaviour will not be tolerated – precisely because the stakes are so high. Not only are the Batley Grammar teacher and his family still in hiding, three years after he showed his pupils those cartoons, but Britain has also witnessed some stomach-turning cases of anti-blasphemy violence in recent years. The reason more people haven’t heard about them is because they have tended to be directed at liberal Muslims, dissenting Muslims and ex-Muslims. And so, these inconvenient victims explode the simplistic narrative, shared by Islamists and wokesters alike, that those of us who are concerned about anti-blasphemy bigotry are just racist maniacs.

There have been two murders in Britain over the past decade related to supposed Islamic blasphemy. Both the victims were Muslim, both were killed in 2016, and both sparked little in the way of commentary. Jalal Uddin, a 71-year-old imam, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in a Rochdale playground in February 2016. Mohammed Kadir and Mohammed Syeedy, two ISIS fanboys, plotted and carried out the murder. They were, notes the BBC, ‘consumed by hatred of Mr Uddin for his practise of Ruqyah, a form of exorcism, which the terror organisation considered “black magic”’. A month later, Asad Shah, an Ahmadi Muslim, was stabbed and stomped to death in his shop in Glasgow. His killer, cab driver Tanveer Ahmed, drove up from Bradford to murder Shah after stumbling across his YouTube videos.

Ahmadis are among the primary targets of the anti-blasphemy activism that has been roiling Pakistan of late, and is now spilling over into the UK. Ahmadis are considered heretics by many Muslims, because they do not believe Muhammad is the final prophet. Shah’s family fled Pakistan in the 1990s after his father’s pharmacy was set on fire. How unspeakably tragic and shameful that he should find the same deadly intolerance visited upon him in supposedly free Britain. Ahmed, his killer, was an admirer of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who murdered Salman Taseer, and of Khadim Rizvi, the founder of Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP). According to Meleagrou-Hitchens, ‘Rizvi began to use images of Tanveer Ahmed alongside Mumtaz Qadri at TLP rallies in Pakistan and placed special status upon Ahmed due to his willingness to attack and kill blasphemers in a non-Muslim country’.

In Pakistan, the Khatme Nabuwwat movement has for decades called for the marginalisation and murder of the Ahmadi minority. In 1974, members of the movement successfully campaigned for an amendment to the Pakistani constitution, declaring Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. Today, they demand Ahmadis – who they refer to using the sectarian slur, ‘Qadiani’ – be tried for blasphemy and executed. And, like the TLP, Khatme Nabuwwat has its fair share of supporters in the UK. As the report notes, ‘Tanveer Ahmed issued recorded messages from his prison cell expressing views identical to those spread by Khatme Nabuwwat movement groups’. In Forest Gate, east London, there’s a Khatme Nabuwwat Academy. There’s also a Khatme Nabuwwat Centre attached to a mosque in Stockwell, south London. Just a few weeks after Shah’s murder, leaflets encouraging Muslims to ‘kill Ahmadis’ were found there.

So let’s junk the ridiculous notion, which has become ingrained among the Western great and good, that to allow ‘blasphemy’ against Islam is to indulge in some species of religious intolerance or racism. The precise opposite is true. When you allow anti-blasphemy fury to take hold in a society it is the minorities, or the minorities within minorities, who truly suffer the most. Take Turkish-born Brit Hatun Tash, the ex-Muslim and Christian convert who has for years preached against her former faith at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, the spiritual home of free speech in Britain. She was repeatedly stabbed in 2021 while wearing a Charlie Hebdo t-shirt. The knifeman was never caught. In 2023, a British Muslim convert called Edward Little was jailed for a minimum of 16 years, on terrorism charges, for plotting to shoot her dead, along with any police officers or soldiers he came across.

The bizarre sensitivity our supposedly secular institutions now show to anti-Islamic ‘blasphemy’ only legitimises this barbaric bigotry. It also betrays an anti-Muslim bigotry all of its own. When schools or cinema chains or politicians capitulate to the demands of anti-blasphemy activists, they burnish the idea that Muslim Brits are not really Brits – that, unlike any other community, they are deemed incapable of living as full citizens in a free society. Apparently, they simply cannot be expected to endure having their beliefs challenged. And so they must be tiptoed around forever, as if they were beasts. This is the mirror image of the claim made by the jihadists and anti-blasphemy extremists, who insist ‘free speech’ is just an excuse to bash Muslims. For the sake of all the would-be heretics, blasphemers and apostates, we must stop indulging these lies.

Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Picture by: Youtube.

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Topics Free Speech UK


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