We can’t allow extremists to make the truth taboo

Earlier this week, a Birmingham based housing association, Midland Heart, suspended Lord Ian Austin as chair of its board, following a social media post in which he referred to Hamas as “Islamist rapists and murderers”. The housing association is even considering his removal.

The former Labour MP’s post on X ridiculed the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) claim that it was unaware of the Hamas operations centre underneath their offices in Gaza, saying: “Everyone, better safe than sorry: before you go to bed, nip down and check you haven’t inadvertently got a death cult of Islamist murderers and rapists running their operations downstairs. It’s easily done.”

Whether this is fair to UNRWA is not relevant here. The criticism sparked by the post specifically related to its ‘Islamophobic’ use of the term “Islamist”, not its mockery of UNRWA. Lord Austin later deleted the post, stating: “It was not my intention to offend anyone” and that “the vast majority of Muslims are just as appalled by racism and terrorism as everyone else”.

Lord Austin also received death threats and a police visit. The police told him a “non-crime hate incident” (NCHI) would have been recorded against his name for this joke about Hamas, had it not been for new guidance on NCHIs issued last year.

Midland Heart initially took no action against Lord Austin, saying that he had “since clarified the points made in this tweet and deleted the post”. However, it soon surrendered to the mob and suspended him.

Midland Heart’s actions, based on largely manufactured outrage, have disturbing implications for free speech. Not only is criticism of a proscribed terrorist group responsible for the rape and murder of civilians now considered unacceptably ‘offensive’, but so too is the use of accurate and useful terms like ‘Islamist’.

To identify Hamas as Islamist is to express a view for which there is a broad consensus amongst academics, counter-terror experts, and the Government. ‘Islamism’ refers to a political ideology which seeks to impose a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on society. Just as “Christian nationalism” and “Hindu nationalism” are not the same as “Christianity” and “Hinduism”, “Islamism” is not identical with “Islam”. Indeed, the term “Islamism” was coined to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and those who seek to impose Islam on society (Islamists).

Lord Austin’s use of the term “Islamist”, and his subsequent comments, demonstrate he understands the importance of this distinction.

Islamists do too, but purposefully seek to undermine it in order to enable them to cry ‘racist’ when their ideology is criticised.

The campaign against Lord Austin has been spearheaded by Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND), which described his comments as “highly offensive and distressing to Muslims”. This conflation of Islamists and Muslims is somewhat surprising, given MEND’s claim that it wants to “improve the media/political literacy of British Muslims”.

In so doing it is MEND, not Lord Austin, that risks stigmatising all Muslims based on the actions of Islamist terrorists. Its taking offense on behalf all Muslims is also obviously absurd. Indeed, it is far more likely that most British Muslims share Lord Austin’s animus towards terrorism.

MEND says hate against Muslims cannot be allowed to be normalised. I absolutely agree, but surely condemnation of terrorism should be.

Hamas murdered around 1,200 people in its 7 October attack on Israel. The UK government is also calling for a full investigation into the widespread and credible evidence that Hamas committed sexual violence against civilians during this attack.

The description of Hamas as “a death cult of Islamist murderers and rapists” is therefore a reasonable one, whatever view one takes of Israel’s assault on Gaza following the attacks.

If freedom of expression means anything at all, it must mean an individual is able to publicly criticise a proscribed terrorist group accused of appalling acts of murder and rape without losing their job.

By suspending Lord Austin, Midland Heart is playing straight into the hands of extremists who have nothing but disdain for liberal values such as freedom of speech. It is also contributing to a growing climate of fear of speech around Islam and religion in general, leading to a de facto return of ‘blasphemy’ codes.

Given the alarming polarisation of British society being fuelled by the Israel-Gaza conflict, it is advisable that we all take care over how our views and feelings are expressed. But that doesn’t mean robust, open and honest discussion that causes offence is no longer worthy of protection.

And when offence is being weaponised by Islamists to drive people out of their jobs for condemning extremism, a principled defence of free expression is urgently needed.

As Lord Austin says, “This madness has to be stopped. We have to be clear about what constitutes extremism. It must be opposed and not appeased.”

If an ideology cannot be named, then it cannot be opposed. Attempts by organisations such as MEND to make terms like ‘Islamist’ unusable are ill disguised efforts to make criticism of their political beliefs impossible. Secularists have long argued that the concept of Islamophobia is being used by Islamists to challenge legitimate criticisms of their extremism. If the concept is even chilling criticism of terrorism, we’re in very dangerous place indeed.

The National Secular Society has written to Midland Heart to express its concerns.

Source link

Add a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Keep Up to Date with the Most Important News

By pressing the Subscribe button, you confirm that you have read and are agreeing to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use