29 April 2010


I was thinking of not bothering to reply to the City University Islamic Society’s riposte to me and Rosie Waterhouse (see below) because I thought I’d already made all the substantive points I wanted to make about the ISoc – and its diatribe was beyond parody.
Private Eye’s Dave Spart couldn’t have managed a more contorted statement of evidence-free denunciation than this (mangled spelling, grammar and punctuation retained):
Despite Ms Waterhouse and Mr Andersons political opportunism, their ideological contradictions expose their conscious ignorance, and some may say, out right hatred for the Islamic way of life and all Muslims that adhere to the principles of their religion.

You what? What “political opportunism”? What on earth is “conscious ignorance”? What’s the evidence for our “out right hatred” (sic) for Islam or for Muslims? How did someone who spells, writes and argues as badly as this get a place at university?

But now the ISoc has posted pictures of Waterhouse and me on its website’s home page with links to the diatribe and is claiming – via a post for a blog promoted by the Independent here – that the university has somehow contrived to prevent members of the ISoc talking to the police about a street fight (or rather two fights) that took place outside the university’s Muslim prayer room last November. Reluctantly, I’ve decided that I’ve got to respond.

First, the ISoc’s diatribe against Waterhouse and me. It’s poisonous and stupid, but there is a trace of rational argument to it, which, put simply, is that we are hypocrites, arguing for suppression of freedom of expression in the name of freedom of expression.

I take that charge seriously. Leave aside the fact that it takes some chutzpah to make it if you believe that individual freedoms are based on a “false premise” and if you refuse to allow journalists to ask the questions they want at a press conference or to record the proceedings. (For the record, I did not use “foul language” at the ISoc press conference last month, nor did I “storm out”: I simply said that a press conference without open questioning was a farce and a mark of cowardice, then left perfectly calmly.)

The important point is that the charge is entirely without foundation. I am, as it happens, an atheist, and if anyone wants a civilised discussion about the existence of a deity or deities I’m more than happy to oblige. But I’m above all a secularist. I think that a person’s religion (or lack of it) should be a private matter, given due respect by law and by custom but with no formal role in public or working life – which includes academia.

Everyone has the right to believe what they want and to engage in whatever religious practices they choose (as long as they are not abusive of others’ rights). Everyone has the right to proselytise.

There is, however, a time and a place for everything. There are rules at the heart of a liberal democratic polity and academic culture, both explicit and implicit, about what one should do, where and when.

I don’t worry much about dress codes – though there are limits, and they are legitimate subjects for debate. Some people think it’s outrageous that I’ve always turned up to work in jeans; some consider that overt displays of religious belief through clothing are beyond the pale. I’m relaxed about what people wear, but even I don’t think it would be acceptable for someone to attend university wearing nothing but a g-string or sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Put the Musulman to the sword”.

The crucial question is where you draw the line – and it’s in no sense Islamophobic to draw it below the full-face veil (even though I wouldn’t do so myself). Most of my Muslim women friends are hostile to it. And even those who aren’t particularly bothered believe that most young women who adopt it in the UK do so primarily as a provocation, an “up yours” political fashion statement.

I’m not provoked, but I do care a great deal about preserving certain norms of liberal university life and of the liberal public sphere more generally. The most important is that of free debate, which to me means that all speaker meetings held on university premises should allow participation by all members of the university unconstrained except by the laws and university rules that prohibit hate-speech and incitement to violence.

Just as a Conservative Club – if we had one at City – would be required to allow members of a Labour Club – ditto – to make vigorously critical contributions from the floor, so the Islamic Society should be required at its speaker meetings to allow any member of the university – male, female, gay, straight, atheist, Jewish, Shia Muslim, Christian, Hindu, whatever – directly to contradict its speakers, to argue that its vision of Islam is narrow and small-minded, to question its apparent enthusiasm for some of the most extreme jihadists on the circuit.

This requires gender desegregation of ISoc meetings, so that male and female participants are treated equally, and an end to meetings set up as propagandist rallies at which no one critical of the demagogue on stage (or on video link) is allowed to speak.

As for facilities for worship, it is entirely reasonable for the university to provide rooms that are shared by different faith groups and timetabled so that all can use them whenever different religious observance rules apply. No faith group should be given privileged treatment, and the university should do nothing to encourage religious separatism.

Finally, there’s the bizarre business of the ISoc claiming that the university somehow conspired to prevent a proper police investigation into the incidents last November outside what was then the Muslim prayer room. According to the ISoc at the time, on two occasions Muslim students were subjected to brutal and unprovoked assaults by local youths after leaving the building. The ISoc said that the assaults, in the second of which four people were reported to have been stabbed, were Islamophobic, and the police said immediately afterwards that they were treating the incidents as racially aggravated crimes. The university promptly provided alternative worship rooms with better security.

Three local youths were arrested – but early this year the police announced that they were not going to prosecute. The reason was simple: they didn’t have sufficient evidence because two of the victims of the alleged assaults and several witnesses had not made statements to them. This had nothing to do with any actions (or inaction) of the university and everything to do with the unwillingness of the alleged victims and other witnesses to co-operate with the police – which in turn had everything to do with the ideology of the ISoc’s leaders. No evidence whatsoever has been produced by anyone that the university or the police behaved in anything but an exemplary manner in investigating the incidents or introducing measures to ensure the safety of students.

No one is discriminating against Muslim students at City University, and the ISoc’s claims to the contrary are a cynical attempt to polarise opinion and recruit the unwary to its leaders’ paranoid separatist current of political Islamism. It is not in any sense “Islamophobic” to say so.

16 April 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 16 April 2010

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in nearly 30 years of writing about politics, it’s that it’s very easy to make a fool of yourself by predicting what’s going to happen next.

I haven’t done it – I think – since 1989, when I rashly announced in these pages that we were unlikely to see German unification in our lifetimes, or something like that (the embarrassing article is missing from my file of cuts for some strange reason, and I don’t have the time or the inclination to look it up in the Tribune archive). I’m certainly not going to risk whatever residual reputation I might have by forecasting the result of next month’s general election.

Actually, I twigged the danger of predicting general elections some time before that faux pas, because I’d already managed to get all three elections of my adult life – 1979, 1983 and 1987 – quite spectacularly wrong.

In 1979, I’d expected a close result: what actually happened was a thumping Tory victory. In 1983, I thought that Labour would recover lost ground and that the SDP-Liberal Alliance might be in a position to act as kingmakers in a hung parliament: the Tories won by an even bigger margin. And in 1987, I really believed that Labour had a good chance of winning or at least becoming the largest party in the Commons: it didn’t turn out that way, as the Tories were returned with a safe majority.

OK, there’s not much on the record that shows how wrong I was – a piece in Solidarity, a small libertarian socialist magazine in 1981 (pre-Falklands, all right?) suggesting that the unpopularity of Margaret Thatcher’s government was such that some sort of Labour-Alliance coalition and a return to Keynesian corporatism was pretty much in the bag; and one for New Socialist in 1986 (when the polls showed a slender Labour lead, believe me) chewing over the possibilities for centre-left collaboration when Labour became the largest party, as it surely would.

Still, by the end of election night 1987 I had resolved never again to go public with my incisive predictions of general election results – and I never have. Which is just as well, really, because I got 1992 wrong (I really thought Labour would scrape in, even after the awful Sheffield rally) and I misjudged 1997 (the scale of the Labour victory was much greater than I expected). I was right to think that 2001 would be a big Labour victory, but in 2005 I fretted until the very last about the Tories making sufficient gains to deny Labour an overall majority.

Does all this make me a particularly inept political journalist? You can be the judge of that, but I don’t think so. There were plenty of other people who were surprised by the scale of Thatcher’s victory in 1979, and in 1983 and 1987 there was real uncertainty right up to the last minute about what would happen on election day because the opinion polls were erratic and no one knew how well the Alliance would perform. In 1992, there was the inglorious farce of the BBC’s exit poll suggesting a Labour victory, which prompted premature champagne-cork popping among Labour supporters throughout the country – which was followed as the results came in by the gradual half-cut realisation that the poll had got it wrong.

Since then, Labour has had three victories in a row, with the pollsters getting the victor right each time. But don’t forget that in 1997 nearly all the polls had Labour down for an even bigger victory than the one that transpired, and that 2005 looked likely for much of the campaign to be a much closer-run thing than it turned out to be. Had the Tories not been led by Michael Howard it might have been very different.

So what about May 6 2010? I’m sticking to my policy: no predictions. The polls suggest a Tory lead of between four and 10 percentage points, probably enough to make them the biggest party but possibly not enough to give them a majority. But you can’t trust the polls. No one has a clue whether the pollsters’ sampling techniques are sound, how the parties are getting on in the key marginal seats or what the impact will be of the MPs’ expenses scandal. No one knows how the small parties will fare or what turnout will be. There are three weeks to go before we actually vote, and at the time of writing we’ve witnessed only the preliminary skirmishes of the campaign. The Tories looked slick at the start, but last weekend Labour started punching its weight, and the Labour campaign launch on Monday was impressive. There is everything still to play for.

Get out there on the stump to support your Labour candidate. Keep the Tories out. We can win this. Ooops! I did it again!

12 April 2010


Labour's campaign launch today was very impressive. Gordon Brown was on the ball, and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves. One question. Is Nick Robinson employed by Conservative Central Office?

7 April 2010


In a first step towards open engagement with its critics (see previous post), the City University Islamic Society has published this diatribe against me and my colleague Rosie Waterhouse. I have reproduced it in full as the ISoc wishes and shall respond in my own time. The original is here.

Secularism is not Islamophobia, but secularists are Islamophobic

On Thursday the 18th of March 2010, Rosie Waterhouse, a senior lecturer and course director at City University announced that she and some of her colleagues believed the niqab (face veil worn by modest Muslim women) was incongruous with British values. She said “I was particularly disturbed by the sight of Muslim female students wearing the niqab, a dress statement I find offensive and threatening. Don’t they value the rights and freedoms they enjoy in Britain?”[1]

A few weeks later, on Friday the 2nd of April, Paul Anderson, a programme director at City University stated that the banning of the niqab was “a stance that is routinely adopted by secularists in France and Turkey, but is less commonly taken in Britain.”[2] Although somewhat surprisingly claiming he is “not a niqab-banner,” Mr Anderson then proceeded to say “the leaders of City ISoc (Islamic Society) have relentlessly pushed a separatist and intolerant version of Islam, repeatedly promoting apologists for terrorist violence and the most reactionary social attitudes. They have consistently and insidiously played the role of victimised innocents in order to gain sympathy, without any solid evidence, to further their cause.”

Despite Ms Waterhouse and Mr Andersons political opportunism, their ideological contradictions expose their conscious ignorance, and some may say, out right hatred for the Islamic way of life and all Muslims that adhere to the principles of their religion. Both Ms Waterhouse and Mr Anderson are people who advocate and propagate liberal secularism who have forgotten their intellectual heritage. Liberal secularism rests upon the premise of individualism, in other words, viewing the self – the human being – as an abstract entity divorced from social attachments. Two key values are built from this premise, individual freedom and individual rights. According to individual freedom, also explained as freedom of choice, the niqab and the orthodox classical principle based interpretation of Islam the ISoc follow shouldn’t be a problem and should always be tolerated under British liberal values. So why the contradiction?

You see, Ms Waterhouse and Mr Anderson are liberal secular ideologues who do not want to understand or discuss the Islamic way of life. The Islamic way of life is not based upon the false premise of individualism, rather it views the human being as an entity with social links and obligations. This correct view on mankind develops and builds sublime values, which in Ms Waterhouses case, includes honouring and protecting women far greater than what Western values can ever offer. How else can we explain all four British-born Muslim girls referred to by Ms Waterhouse in her article, who said they began to wear the niqab only after coming to City and joining the Islamic Society say they found it “liberating?” Or male and female Muslim students at City University segregating themselves even when forced to sit in the same room? Islam teaches sublime values that penetrates hearts and souls, making Muslims feel content, comfortable, at ease and “liberated.”

With regards to Mr Andersons claim mentioned above, then surely by being a programme director of journalism he should know better than anyone that citizens of the United Kingdom are given liberties that allow them the freedom of action and freedom of choice, whereby a person is not obliged to pledge allegiance to anybody except the Crown and it may be argued that there are none above it. In this manner, they enjoy a certain quantity of freedom of thought, academic emancipation, and self-expression. After all, it was Franklin D Roosevelt, the 32nd President of America, who in 1941 stated his vision, “A world founded upon four essential freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want . . . everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear . . . anywhere in the world.“[3]

City ISoc are perfectly within their rights of freedom of thought and self expression to follow whatever version of Islam they want to. Let them and another 1.6 billion people around the world worship and remember God in their own way, let them believe and practise what they wish. This is their freedom of action and their freedom of choice and thus it is from common decency for Mr Anderson not to draw upon their religious practises attempting to make them “seem” intolerable and to be working against the progression of society, when in reality he has no knowledge of the aims, goals and objectives of such acts of worship. Indeed it is time Mr Anderson takes a really good look at himself and sincerely contemplates why he possesses so much hate to a society that proudly adheres to principles sent by Allaah and His Messenger. Surely, there must be more to it than what the eye can see.

Finally, it should be noted that freedom of speech does not give one the right to cause disputes, and argue for the sake of quarrelling, but it does however give one the right to a debate and this would only be constructive if done so in a thoughtful and intellectual manner; understanding that a certain level of respect and decency must be maintained at all times. A person has his or her right to freedom of speech, but a certain level of decency and appropriateness needs to be maintained at all times. On the 18th of March, the ISoc organised a press conference to explain its stance and its decisions throughout the past several years. It invited the journalism department to listen and pose as many questions as possible, all be it written on paper and without external recording. Student journalists, the press office and newspapers attended in their numbers, displaying perfect manners and characteristics, benefiting greatly after hearing the ISocs explanation. However, Mr Anderson, as the programme director felt the urge to storm out the room using foul language, making a big scene for himself instead of sitting and debating in a rational and logical manner like some of his students. Surely it is this attitude that is “intolerable,” provocative, backward and works against social integration and cohesion. All too often has the ISoc and Muslims at City University witnessed senior staff members like Mr Anderson who have a tendency of making “a mountain of a mole hill,” attempting to dupe their students and readers into firstly acknowledging, and then accepting their side of the story, which yet again, is merely a snippet of the whole situation at hand. But the ISoc will no longer remain silent and take a back seat whilst innocent students and readers are manipulated into blindly following what some may say are Islamophobic secularists. No, it is time the ISoc stands up, defends itself and fights back against the likes of Ms Waterhouse and Mr Anderson; two confused secularists that promote significantly preposterous views. So where do we go from here? Well, a new vice-chancellor is due to take over in August, indeed it will be a brave vice-chancellor who confronts this issue. But at least we have started a debate at City.

And all praise and thanks are due to Allaah.

6 April 2010


This election is more of a no-brainer than any in the past 30 years. The Tories have a recipe for crashing the economy. Do not trust them. Vote Labour!

2 April 2010


Last week I did what no university lecturer should ever do. I lost my temper in front of a group of students and shouted at them. I might also have used some bad language.

What’s worse, it wasn’t anything they’d done that caused my anger. They were putting together the excellent independent City University London student paper, the Inquirer, and had asked my advice on how to handle a controversial news story.

The week before last, my good friend and City colleague Rosie Waterhouse had a piece published in the Independent in which she argued that Islamist extremism on university campuses is a growing and under-acknowledged threat to liberal academic values. Contentiously, the article called for a ban on campus on the wearing of the niqab, the full-face veil that fundamentalist Muslims believe should be compulsory for women.

This is a stance that is routinely adopted by secularists in France and Turkey, but is less commonly taken in Britain. Whatever, the piece had been vigorously denounced online and several students at City had expressed their disagreement with the call for a campus niqab ban – which made it a perfectly legitimate story on an ongoing row.

The problem was that the key quote the Inquirer team had for their story, from the president of the student Islamic Society at City, Saleh Patel, was blatantly abusive and libellous – both about Waterhouse and about me. He accused us of running a concerted Islamophobic campaign at the university (including inculcating our students into an anti-Muslim conspiracy) and implied that the university’s journalism department should sack us because of our unprofessional conduct.

It’s when I read his comments that I lost it. Both Waterhouse and I have made it clear time and again that we’ve got issues with the City ISoc. We agree that its brand of reactionary Islamism is obnoxious, though we disagree on what should be done about it (I am not a niqab-banner, for what it’s worth). But we have never discriminated against Muslim students in any way, nor would we ever think of doing so. And the only thing we inculcate into our students is the importance of truth and balance in their writing. How dare anyone suggest otherwise?

OK, I shouldn’t have let the red mist descend. The Inquirer team made it clear to me that they weren't going to use the quote – they're a very sussed crew. But it really was the last straw.

For some time now, the leaders of City ISoc have relentlessly pushed a separatist and intolerant version of Islam, repeatedly promoting apologists for terrorist violence and the most reactionary social attitudes. They have consistently and insidiously played the role of victimised innocents in order to gain sympathy, without any solid evidence, to further their cause.

This time last year, the main treat advertised for the ISoc’s annual fundraising dinner was a video link-up with none other than Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni preacher who was spiritual mentor to three of the 9/11 suicide-murderers (and a contact of the December 2009 pants bomber to boot).

The university authorities objected and al-Awlaki’s virtual appearance never happened. But was the ISoc deterred? No way. Next up was an ISoc meeting in autumn 2009 addressed by two other reactionary Islamist preachers, Abu Usamah, who is on record stating that gays should be killed, and Murthadah Khan, who is on record describing Jews and Christians as “filthy”. The university Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Society and the campaigner Peter Tatchell objected, saying that the ISoc was whipping up hatred, but the meeting went ahead. At the end of last year, after it was reported that al-Awlaki had been killed by a Yemeni air attack on a meeting of al-Qaida leaders, the ISoc website praised him and the “staunch al-Qaida fighters” targeted by the raid.

After the Inquirer reported all this, entirely factually, various City ISoc supporters posted none-too-veiled threats on the internet against the students working on the paper. The paper’s editor was assailed (anonymously) for being an Islamophobic Sikh, on the basis of her surname – she’s actually an atheist – and was told that she deserved severe and violent divine retribution for her sins.

In the meantime, the ISoc complained that the university’s Muslim prayer room was not safe. In November last year there was a street fight outside it, in the course of which some Muslim students were badly hurt by local youths, though it remains unclear what the fracas was about. (The building where the prayer room was is on to a dimly lit back street and is rarely used by other students in the evening.)

The university’s acting vice-chancellor, Julius Weinberg, responded, entirely reasonably, by setting up new multi-faith prayer and reflection rooms in the main university block where there is 24-hour security and no exit that can be identified as being used only by Muslims.

Some weeks later, after another controversy over an ISoc speaker meeting at which another gay-hating preacher was billed as the star attraction, Weinberg told the ISoc that its speaker meetings – as opposed to prayer meetings – could not continue to be segregated between men and women and would have to be open debates if they were to take place on university premises.

The ISoc’s next step was to assume the role of aggrieved victim. How could anyone have the temerity to suggest that Muslims should share a space (even if use of it were carefully timetabled) with others? Such arrangements are, of course, the norm in most further and higher education institutions – but the ISoc declared that the new set-up was an outrage against the tenets of Islam and started holding Friday prayers outside the university’s main entrance as a protest, to which it invited supporters from every Islamist group in London to boost numbers. (It also held a press conference at which – laughably – no one was permitted to record its representatives’ statements and no unscripted questions from the floor were allowed. I walked out after announcing that I had problems with these restrictions.)

There is no evidence that the Islamic Society at City has been recruiting for terrorist organisations, or that former members have gone on to commit terrorist acts (although the same cannot be said of other student Islamic societies in the UK of a similar ideological bent). But its insistent pleading for special treatment, its consistent policy of inviting the most inflammatory separatist preachers, its repeated smearing of critics and its refusal to discuss its views in an open and civilised fashion are all intolerable in a university.

The university authorities are quite right to insist that the university is a secular institution in which no faith group has privileged status, and quite right to emphasise that events held on its premises must be both genuinely open to all and free of hate-speech. Those are the rules of the game, they’re not open to negotiation – and it is in no sense “Islamophobic” to say so.

I’m still arguing with the Inquirer team about how they handled the story, incidentally. If they’re anybody’s stooges, they’re certainly not mine – which is just as it should be.