‘The Silence of the Liberals’ criticises the British left-wing for damaging the voices of progressive Muslims, but this criticism lacks a nuance

Columnist, Nick Cohen, discusses how the British left-wing fail to support, and sometimes undermine, liberal progressive Muslims who are fighting inequalities endorsed by culture and religion in their community in his documentary for BBC Radio 4 (which has so far not sparked significant online reaction). He argues these inequalities would never be tolerated if they applied to white people, and calls the British left-wing’s failure to engage with these issues the ‘Silence of the Liberals’[1].

Cohen reveals that progressive Muslim activists, such as the founder of TellMAMA, Fiyaz Mughal, and the founder of the Quilliam Foundation, Maajid Nawaz, are often labelled un-believers and blasphemers by Muslim extremists. While Cohen was making his programme for BBC Radio 4, Nawaz was also featured on a watch-list by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, which has a long history of fighting for civil rights and against the KKK, a list which also includes right-wing extremists[2].

He interviews Amina Lone, who was a councillor and stood for Parliament until she was de-selected by her local Labour party. She blames her de-selection on her outspokenness against extremism and sexism within her community. She says that women in her community are often afraid to speak out for their rights because of prominent extremist Muslim views amongst community leaders[3].

Lone comments that white feminists are afraid to stand up for the rights of Muslim women because they are worried about being accused of racism or Islamophobia[4].

This is just one example of the phenomenon of the ‘Silence of the Liberals’, which thus produces a “cycle of intolerance and hatred”, as while the far-right people promote Muslims as a threat, the left-wing view Muslims as under-threat and thus make it their mission to ‘defend’ Muslims. All other voices in the debate are silenced, including centrist voices[5].

Cohen appears to attribute part of this sentiment to the perceived rise in Islamist terrorism in recent years, although he does not explore this argument in any depth. However, he ultimately posits that the ‘Silence of the Liberals’ can be explained by “a racism of low expectations”, the colonial patronisation Edward Said discussed in his theory of “orientalism” forty years ago. He says, to view the Muslim community in this way is to ignore the plurality of community[6].

In order to understand the contemporary mind-set of the British left-wing in such issues, Cohen says we have to understand the “strangeness” of the left. Detached from the socialist principles which once inspired it, the left maintain an anti-imperialist narrative, which is hypocritical because it is used to justify regimes which themselves target left-wing values[7].

This signifies a jump in Cohen’s focus from domestic issues to foreign policy issues, which he continues by discussing the British tolerance of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm for intervening Iran as examples of the ‘Silence of the Liberals’[8].

In response to this, a Labour party spokesperson issued this statement, “Jeremy and Labour are persistent critics of human rights abuses all over the world, including in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Jeremy has personally raised human rights issues with the Iranian foreign minister. The next Labour government would appoint dedicated global ambassadors for women’s rights, LGBT rights, and religious freedom to fight discrimination and promote equality globally.”[9]

Cohen also interviewed an activist protesting outside the Saudi Arabian embassy, who said there is a double-standard between the left’s support for interventions in Chile and those to stop apartheid in South Africa, but silence and inactivity in Iran. He said the liberal left-wing cannot be credible in British politics because of the hypocrisy of its emphasis on international solidarity[10].

Returning to the UK context, Cohen examines the basic reason why politicians are unwilling to challenge more inequalities within the Muslim community. He interviews Dr Maria Sobolewska from the University of Manchester, who has conducted research for the electoral commission which found that voting in the Muslim community is influenced by a “paternalistic clan based network”, which is hierarchal and controlled almost exclusively by older men. It has thus historically been thought that it is easy to get votes from this community, and other post-colonial communities, because politicians only have to appeal to the men who lead the community. The result is that politicians only consider the views of these leaders, which it is implied will often fall towards the more conservative end of the spectrum, and not the other voices in the community, which may be more progressive. These communities have not been encouraged and empowered to shed this archaic approach to politics as a result[11].

He questions what the left are doing when they fight the activism of progressive liberal Muslims who are fighting against the reactionary ideas of other Muslims in their community; “We are watching non-Muslims telling Muslims they are anti-Muslim bigots”, he argues[12].

The absence of left-wing voices in the documentary, apart from a few statements given in response to specific allegations, is explained by Cohen to be because, when asked, Labour leadership and membership from all walks of the left spectrum would not comment[13].

Cohen concludes that what is being witnessed in Britain and around the world, is a civil war in Islam, which he wrote of in a recent article for the Spectator[14], and which could be considered a significant over-simplification of the issue. He also uses the term ‘liberal westerners’ to refer to non-Muslim activists. This is perhaps problematic, as it implies a separation between the West and Islam which many would consider to be indicative of an ‘us and them’ understanding of the interaction between the two[15].

One issue that Cohen returns to repeatedly throughout the programme concerns whether hijabs should be banned in primary schools, one of the issues Lone campaigned on which she believes led to her being de-selected. While Cohen does interview a rising figure on the pro-left who says that the wearing of the hijab is not really a safeguarding issue and cannot be simplified to solely being about women being regarded as sex objects in Islam, Cohen’s argument regarding the issue, which is currently very publically relevant, could be criticised for lacking appreciation of the issue’s nuance[16].

Over the last few months, Ofsted has come under fire for saying it will question primary school age girls wearing the hijab[17] and have repeatedly used discourse which frames young girls wearing the hijab as an indicator of extremism. Extremist actions are thought by some to be increasingly defined by actions which are interpreted as running contrary to so-called ‘British values’, and critics have said that as a result, Muslims are being singled out and are subject to enforced “cultural conformity” in public institutions, such as a schools, in a way that many other religious communities are not. For example, Jewish boys are allowed to wear the skull cap at school, and Sikh boys the turban, so it can be questioned why the same right should be doubted for Muslim girls[18].

The issue also thus raises serious questions of women’s choice; while some might argue these girls are denied choice by being forced to wear the hijab, the same charge could be made to banning them from wearing it, never mind the debate that must be had about whether they are being forced to wear it at all[19].

The issue of the British Muslim community being alienated as a result of policy and measures designed to counter extremism is larger than just the issue of primary school-age girls wearing hijabs. The recent appointment of Sara Khan to the position of chief of the government’s Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) has been criticised for excluding diverse Muslim voices, including calls that Muslim women’s voices will be especially silenced because of Khan’s claim to represent ‘the voice’ of Muslim women[20].

While Cohen suggests he equates conservative Islam with ‘extremism’, which he sees as counter to the western understanding of equality and rights, those on the other side of the argument view recent government and policy rhetoric as all too readily dismissing ordinary expressions of religious belief as conservative, and thus extremist. There is a clear need for a comprehensive understanding of the many nuances of these opposing viewpoints, including the theological nuances, instead of viewing the situation through the right-wing/left-wing, conservative/liberal, extremist/British, Muslim/white dichotomies which are currently informing debate (and which Cohen employs in his documentary).

[1] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[2] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[3] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[4] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[5] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[6] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[7] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[8] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[9] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[10] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[11] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[12] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[13] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[14] https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2018/01/two-muslim-cultures-are-emerging-in-britain-2/ – a Euro-Islam piece on this should be posted around the same time as this piece.

[15] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[16] BBC Radio 4, 2018.

[17] St Stephen’s primary school in London has also recently come under fire for banning girls under eight from wearing the hijab to school (see Researcher, 2018a).

[18] Researcher, 2018a.

[19] Researcher, 2018a.

[20] Researcher, 2018b.

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BBC Radio 4. (2018) ‘The Silence of the Liberals’.

. 7 March. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09tcvp2. [Accessed 8 March 2018].

Researcher. (2018a) ‘Ofsted’s mission to tackle extremism in British schools criticised for unfairly targeting the Muslim community’. [online] 13 February. http://www.euro-islam.info/2018/02/13/ofsteds-mission-tackle-extremism-british-schools-criticised-unfairly-targeting-muslim-community/. [Accessed 8 March 2018].

Researcher. (2018b) ‘Sara Khan’s appointment as chief of Commission for Countering Extremism stands to alienate British Muslim community’. [online] 21 February. http://www.euro-islam.info/2018/02/21/sara-khans-appointment-chief-commission-countering-extremism-stands-alienate-british-muslim-community/. [Accessed 8 March 2018].