Hannah Baldock, journalist and former research fellow at the Centre for Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, spoke to a September 9th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Sam Westrop, director of the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch project, about the British media's legitimization of Islamist groups as representatives of Muslims in the United Kingdom (U.K.), despite the presence of new reformist groups within the British Muslim community.
Baldock said that Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood associated factions in the U.K. mobilized after the 1989 Salman Rushdie affair to form the "core" of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), and its affiliate, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS). The MCB, an "umbrella organization" claiming five hundred affiliates, has established itself with policy makers, and even more so with the British media, as "the voice for British Muslims."
Baldock said that given the UK government's acknowledgment that the MCB is "rooted in extreme orthodox patriarchal politics of South Asia" which seek to impose the Islamic religion as law, she finds it "baffling" that the British media still turn to the Islamist group as the "go-to outfit" for issues concerning the Muslim community.
Baldock said the media need to overcome "cultural relativism" to understand that the ideology of Islamist groups is "hostile to secularism and [Western] democracy, and social freedoms."
While paying lip service to the requisite condemnations of Islamist violence in the U.K., the MCB claims that it has a "large constituency" and could help the U.K. government "deconstruct" violence emanating from extremist Muslim groups. In actuality, Baldock said, the MCB deflects and denies "that Islamist ideology even exists." MCB conflates Islam and Islamism, planting "the seeds of doubt" in the minds of news editors and producers by obfuscating Islamist ideological motivation behind jihadi terror attacks.
Baldock said the media's problem of courting U.K. Islamists exists "across the board." For example, MCB member Sahar Al-Faifi appeared on a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television program, where she defended her right to wear a niqab [full face veil] in the West, claiming she was the victim of "Islamophobia" [criticism of Muslims]. Although she was encouraged by the publicity she garnered from her BBC appearance to run for the Welsh parliament, Al-Faifi was later suspended by the party when "antisemitic tweets" she had posted were exposed.
Baldock noted the ability of Islamist groups to engage in expensive litigation against journalists whose investigations they regard as threatening. She also noted speculation that Gulf states may be bankrolling these organizations, saying that "I think the best indicator of how Gulf states may be supporting these groups is just how deep their pockets are. How many people they employ. How slick their media campaigns are, which continue to be quite relentless."
She said the British public, repeatedly exposed to MEND, an MCB-aligned "political lobbying" organization, has little knowledge of its speakers' worldviews.
Baldock noted Islamist efforts to impede the Prevent program, one of the British government's key counter-terrorism policies. She said that journalists who have "diligently" reported on Islamist groups and their activities, such as Andrew Gilligan, and Andrew Norfolk of the Sunday Times, have faced legal action. "Deep pocket" clients hire pricey U.K. law firms such as Carter Ruck, who employ lawfare by bringing libel suits against investigative reporters. Those suits are intended to prevent closer scrutiny of Islamist groups.
Noting the impact of Islamist groups such as MCB in the UK on policy, Baldock said that they have "contributed to a definition of Islamophobia, which was widely adopted in 2019, despite the opposition of counterterrorism experts, women's groups, minority, rights groups, who said it failed to distinguish between criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim hatred."
In this regard, Baldock said that Islamism, as a "twentieth century political ideology," needs to be "deconstructed and debated" by the media. She said, "it's not a sacred spiritual project," but an ideology to be understood along with all other political ideologies. The media in the UK, she asserted, need to "realize that the Muslim Council of Britain with its line of narratives of grievance and victimhood and Islamophobia - They need to just take it with a pinch of salt and then carry on to debate the issues." Baldock quoted in this regard Elham Manea, a visiting fellow at OIBI and author of The Perils of Nonviolent Islamism, who has referred to the "huge elephant in the room of ideology which everyone knows is there but isn't discussing."
Baldock noted the emergence of a new, reformist Muslim group called the OIBI, (Oxford Institute of British Islam), which she regarded as a potential counterweight to Islamist groups, and which sees itself as part of an effort to encourage "young Western Muslims to reinterpret their faith in a way that's just more conducive with living in the Western world and in an open and free society and obviously a pluralistic society
This, Baldock said, contrasts with Islamist groups who refuse "to look inwards and discuss the possibilities of reform." The OIBI, founded by Dr. Taj Hargey, a South African-born Muslim, "could be very valuable to the national debate," she suggested.
Baldock expressed her hope that OIBI, a pluralistic group dedicated to creating "a modern, progressive" British Islam, will provide a long-overdue alternative to the MCB for media and policy makers. OIBI is committed to debate "controversial" verses of the Quran openly and determined to "counter divisive interpretations of Islam they reject." OIBI rejects the "manmade parts of Islamic doctrine" such as Sharia, and fatwas, according to Baldock.
Baldock explained that OIBI figures such as Usama Hasan argue the OIBI provides a "port of call" for British Muslims, who are told in mosques that "pro-secular democracy" is at odds with Islamic values. Hasan said that OIBI offers "young Western Muslims" a way to "reinterpret their faith" and reconcile the "cognitive dissonance" between their British identity and values, and their Islamic identity, "which they've been told in many mosques is at odds with those values."
Baldock noted that in contrast to other European countries, such as France and Belgium, the UK has been largely "sitting on its hands" on this issue. She quoted Sara Khan, former Lead Commissioner for the UK Home Office's Commission for Countering Extremism, who has observed the dearth of groups to "debate" and counter the Islamist narrative. Furthermore, Khan has observed that those who did seek to engage in this debate were "smeared" as Islamophobes or "part of a neocon or Zionist conspiracy."
Baldock said that OIBI and other organizations, such as British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), are now stepping up to counter Islamist groups like the MCB. The Islamists may have "had loud voices [and] lots of funding," Baldock concluded, but studies have shown that Islamist ideology does not have the support of a majority of the British Muslim community, "and that's what needs to be consistently repeated."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.