In the same way as the Windsors are Britain’s best royal family and George W Bush is the best President the USA has at the moment, the Evening Standard is London’s best evening newspaper. As long as I can remember, it has included on its banner “incorporating the EVENING NEWS”, the market having demonstrated however many decades ago that, however many newspapers we can sustain in the morning, in the evening there’s only room for one. Or perhaps it was just that the Standard was able to force the News down because it also had the power of the Daily Mail. Whatever. What’s clear is that the lack of competition does not exactly motivate the Standard to get its facts right. In the wake of the 7th July bombings, it has circulated demonstrably false information on several occasions.
I’d like to use my inaugural posting to debunk a few myths which have been circulating in the last two-and-a-half weeks.
1. Brixton mosque is a hotbed of Islamic extremism
The mosque we’re talking about is in Gresham Road, across the road from Brixton police station. The Standard, on page 6 of the 22nd July “West End Final” edition (headline “Get Them”), printed a story headlined “Anonymous mosque that is hotbed of radicalism”, with a picture of the Gresham Road mosque.
The story contains nothing whatsoever about the present administration of the mosque or its regulars. Instead, there’s the usual story about how Abdullah “el-Faisal” used to be its imam and how Richard Reid passed through there on his journey to al-Qa’ida and that aeroplane he tried to blow up.
Facts: Brixton mosque is controlled by the wing of the Salafi (Wahhabi) sect influenced by the Saudi scholar Rabi’ ibn Hadi al-Madkhali, which is opposed to all of the political movements which have attached themselves to Wahhabism since the 1950s. This is the same clique which runs Salafi Publications, based in Birmingham, and TROID (The Reign of Islamic Da’wah, based in Toronto). Their various websites contain myriad condemnations of Sayyid Qutb and his followers, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Gulf and Jordanian scholars who are influenced by them, and unequivocally condemn suicide bombing. In fact, the issue of Abdullah Faisal was raised by Abdul-Haqq Baker, the chairman of the mosque – the first time I heard him called “el-Faisal” was when I heard Baker interviewed on the radio, before the Times broke the story.
Having listened to a number of Faisal’s tapes myself, I can state unequivocally that Faisal is no longer associated with them. In his tape The Devil’s Deception of the Saudi Salafis, he states that the “worst Salafis” are those of south London, particularly Brixton mosque. He calls them “mega hypocrites” and accuses some of them of trying to deceive the Muslims about their piety with big beards and thobes (Arabian robes). His attacks on their black Saudi-trained preachers are vitriolic.
The mosque has not always been controlled by the present group; it was set up initially by a Jamaican who had travelled to Ethiopia in search of Haile Selassie and was disappointed (not surprisingly as he had been overthrown). He subsequently became Muslim and opened his house to offer Islam to men who were coming out of prison. The mosque has seen many changes of control, with the Murabitun and the pseudo-Islamic Ansarullah sect at one point being dominant. But the present group were in control certainly by 1998 when I became Muslim.
2. Tariq Ramadan is a dangerous extremist who supports suicide bombings
The news that Tariq Ramadan has been invited to address Muslims (and others) in Birmingham has caused a predictable uproar in both the Sun and the Standard. Various accusations have been repeated over and over again despite having been proven false, or only half true, on more than one occasion.
Facts: Tariq Ramadan is accused of being “an Islamist” and some sort of extremist mainly because of his family heritage, being the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has a number of modernist ideas and is seen as liberal, in some cases too liberal, in the Muslim community. Apparently some right-wing commentators are better judges of who is a threat to public order than the Metropolitan Police.
The Standard managed to cram five factual errors into a report published on the 18th of July this year, which Tariq Ramadan answers for himself on his own website. Daniel Pipes, as one might expect, was at the forefront of anti-Ramadan agitation at the time of his invitation to teach at Notre Dame, subsequently prevented when his visa was revoked. In the aftermath of Pipes’ visa revocation, Pipes wrote on his weblog that the victory was not total, because it was based on his (supposed) links to violence and not his ideas – he hoped that “being an Islamist will in of itself Ã¢â‚¬â€œ without necessarily having ties to violence Ã¢â‚¬â€œ be grounds for keeping aliens out of the United States, much as being a communist was grounds for exclusion in an earlier era”, which opens up the possibility for some sort of inquisition of any intending Muslim visitor.
3. Hizbut-Tahreer are an extremist, racist party and a conveyor belt for terrorism, and propaganda pieces for HT have appeared in the Guardian.
This has so far not made it into the Standard to my knowledge. It has merited comment by Mark Steyn in the Daily Telegraph. The buzz is that the Guardian employed, as part of its trainee scheme, a guy called Dilpazier Aslam who turned out to be a member of HT, who subsequently managed to sneak two propaganda pieces for HT into the paper, one of them an interview with Shabina Begum, the other a comment piece following the 7th July bombings. (The Times has also covered it, erroneously stating that HT were involved in the disruption in the run-up to the election. In fact, the group are believed to be an offshoot of the disbanded Muhajiroun.)
Facts (and an alternative view): An inappropriate action, that of authoring two pieces without having declared one’s interest, did take place. While the articles are conducive to HT’s positions, this does not make them propaganda pieces. The jilbab issue in particular is of interest to Muslims beyond HT. The conclusion to “We Rock the Boat”, published after the bombings, may give the impression of threat in the light of knowing Aslam’s HT membership:
The don’t-rock-the-boat attitude of elders doesn’t mean the agitation wanes; it means it builds till it can be contained no more.
But there is some truth in this, and “can be contained no more” does not mean “leads inevitably to a terrorist attack”. Remember that there have been riots in the north in the very recent past involving local Muslim youths.
Whether the conflict of interest is of sufficient weight to merit Aslam’s dismissal is a different matter. In cases where journalists have been sacked in the recent past, it has involved the fabrication of stories (as with Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley), which has not happened here. The Guardian eventually decided they didn’t want him around because they discovered an anonymous anti-Jewish tirade issued under the banner of HT, which although removed from their site, still existed elsewhere. Dilpazier Aslam himself is not a racist, but told the editor, Alan Rusbridger, that “he did not consider the website material to be promoting violence or to be anti-semitic”, which in the racial sense in which the term is correctly meant, it isn’t – and remember, we are assuming that the document is authoritative, when it has no name attached to it and is no longer on their website. HT was founded by a Palestinian in Jordan, a country in which hostility to Israel (and the experience of Jews in that part of the Arab world is dominated by experience of Israel) is widespread. This is not a case of Muslims rehashing the anti-Semitic propaganda of Medieval Europe, Tsarist Russia or Nazi Germany – as I have encountered certain other Muslim groups doing.
The campaign against Dilpazier Aslam has been tainted by prejudice, inaccuracy and hypocrisy. One of the campaigners, Scott Burgess of the Daily Ablution, misses no opportunity to nit-pick at the Guardian. (His application to the same programme in which Dilpazier Aslam was accepted was not made with the expectation of being accepted; it seems to be just another excuse to have a go at the Guardian, and not a grudge factor motivating his attacks.) In other cases, an anti-Islamist agenda is apparent or, indeed, clearly stated; one blogger even called Aslam an “Al Queda (sic) Columnist”, when in fact HT are not part of al-Qa’ida. As on so many other occasions, people only complain about inconsistencies in the media when weight is given to opinions other than their own; in this case, a paper has lost what could have been an important contact with the Muslim community, all because of a noisy group of bloggers who didn’t like his opinions.
(And no, I’m not a member or supporter of HT, and never have been.)