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I spent last week in tranquil North Norfolk with its little villages, big skies, muddy fields and sea-shell beaches. I stopped looking at the news. I stopped replying to emails. (Sorry Iain.) I watched a few films – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and Alex Garland’s recently released Annihilation. Note that they all explore similar themes: escape from a dull and cruel present into ‘unfallen’ fantasy worlds; the interpenetration of waking consciousness and the life of our dreams; ecstatic encounters with magic; and belief in the reality of love.
But man is a political animal (viz. Aristotle), and however great the force of your imagination, however hard you try to look the other way, it is impossible to escape British politics at the moment. It is especially impossible to ignore the importance of what has been going on within the British Left over the past week.
I won’t go into the details of the mural because it is well-known. In fact, all of Corbyn’s long association with forms of politics that indulge anti-Semitic kinds of thinking is well-understood, well-documented and widely diffused in the public sphere.
There is a background there. You have to look at the substance. You have to understand the structure of the ideas that Corbyn is prepared to see some value in – their picture of human relations, their emphasis on certain interpretations of the world and their sociological context.
Last November, I wrote about Mend, an anti-Islamophobia charity. Corbyn had appeared at some of their events as Leader of the Opposition. In doing so, he legitimised their platform and gave more air-time to their ideas. The article was quite long and wide-ranging – but I hope that it gave a coherent picture of why Corbyn does the things he does. It explains why joining this or that Facebook group, or liking this or that picture, are informed by ideas that go far beyond each incident in isolation. There is a pathology that informs each new scandal. It is there. It can be analysed. It is not a smear.
Here’s part of what I wrote:
Mend, a not for profit company which claims to encourage British Muslims to get more involved in British politics, draws on tropes of Islamist politics that go far beyond its ‘anti-Islamophobia’ brief.
In his seminal text ‘Milestones’, Sayyid Qutb, the 1950’s Islamic theorist, poet, and the leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, set out the various attitudes implied by the umbrella term ‘Islamism’. Above all, Western life is seen as shallow and inauthentic: “Democracy in the West has become infertile … the period of the Western system has come to an end primarily because it is deprived of those life-giving values which enabled it to be the leader of mankind.” Much like the evangelical Pentecostal movement in America and New Age counter-cultures across the West, Islamism seeks to remedy the perceived anomie of modern life with a concrete sense of belonging.
Qutb sweepingly rejects the massive wealth and diversity of historical Islam. “The Muslim community has been extinct for a few centuries”. Instead, he identifies the ‘real’ Muslim as one who follows a narrowly-defined ‘Islamic system’, “whose manners, ideas and concepts, rules and regulations, values and criteria, are all derived from the Islamic source”.
In his vision, the true ‘Islamic community’ forms a distinct unity of concrete and realisable social goals, in contrast to the jumbled assortment of quietist sects and cultural tradition, legacy and religious attachment that made up medieval and early modern ‘Islam’.
Just like ‘born again’ Christian proponents of the ‘Rapture’, Qutb’s ‘new community’ is animated by a spirit of personal revelation. He urges Muslims to live in daily devotion to Allah, always striving to realise His goals in the world. The true Muslim does not fulfil his obligations in prayer, ritual and obeisance, but instead renews his loyalty to the true faith by fighting in the revolutionary vanguard, agitating for change, forming committees: “A Muslim community comes into being … this power must be at all levels … the power of belief and concept, the power of training and moral character, the power to organize and sustain a community.”
Qutb treats texts in a similarly impoverished light. In the nineteenth century, European scholars, such as the German philologist Karl Lachmann and the liberal theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, began to treat ancient texts with critical thinking, derived from new innovations in the natural sciences. The philological method had a transformative effect on our view of religious texts – no longer divine gifts, but artefacts of human culture, imperfect reflections of a particular time and place, subject to change, decay and renewal.
In this way, scripture was temporarily dislocated from the realm of universal truth, and the Word and the world were estranged: this realisation forms part of what it means to be modern – acceptance of a degree of alienation from the traditional standards of truth.
Qutb uses quotations from scripture in a studied critique of the modern ‘demystification’ of texts. Qutb constantly refers to random quotes from the Quran without any contextual comment. There is never any sense that meaning changes with time and context. The texts are treated as straightforward rule-books, pure expressions of divine and necessarily universal truth. “The Messenger of God … intended to prepare a generation pure in heart … they of the first generation did not approach the Qur’an for the purpose of acquiring culture and information … He rather approached it to act on what he heard immediately, as a soldier on the battlefield reads “Today’s Bulletin” so that he may know what it so be done.”
The choice of metaphor – the soldier who obeys his command – is telling. Just as Jehovah’s Witnesses often refer to sacred texts as objective reality, as the facts of the matter, so Islamism reaches for the purity of a rules-based order that makes sense out of the disorder of modern life.
Mend claims simply to be an anti-Islamophobia charity, but it also embraces many of the characteristics of this Islamist thinking. This goes far beyond Mend’s well-documented indulgence of anti-Semitism, another characteristic of radical Islamism. Qutb published a book in 1950 entitled: “Our Struggle against the Jews”. Take this extraordinary quote from one of Mend’s pamphlets: “The empirical research supporting the identification of “sections of the Zionist lobby” as contributing to Islamophobic prejudice and policies is irrefutable and it is a slur against the rigour of research employed by these academics.”
The appeal to academic objectivity, to the ‘facts of the matter’ is a classic technique of intellectual anti-Semitism and forms of Holocaust denial.
A document on Mend’s website entitled “Islamophobia Khutbah” (part of the promotional material for its “Islamophobia Awareness Month”) declares: “Firstly, Islam is bigger than just you, and your actions alone” and asks: “What were you created for? Just to pray in the Masjid?” It goes on to browbeat the reader: “If you don’t know this already, you have a bigger problem: keeping yourself so ignorant of your very own community’s difficulties is very irresponsible and also against the Sunnah.”
Again and again, true belief is seen as conditional on commitment to collective activism and a stark opposition to secular Islam: “Practising this form of secular Islam is not permissible … keeping yourself to yourself and nothing else is anti–Islamic.” A Muslim who does not identify with the narrowly-defined ‘Muslim’ community is told: “Doing nothing is not an option.”
Random quotes are pulled from the Quran. There is no attempt to interpret or to qualify, just an unthinking deployment of the ‘facts of the matter’: “You are the best community singled out for people: you order what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in Allah. (Ale-‘Imran, 110).” This accompanies the strident sentiment: “If we keep thinking there are enough activists out there doing what’s needed, then there isn’t.”
And most worryingly, political activism is elevated to a privileged place beside the traditional ‘Five Pillars of Islam’, alongside the quietist practices of pilgrimage and prayer: “Just because this act of worship doesn’t have a label saying Namaz, or Zakah, or Hajj, or Charity”, this doesn’t mean “that it is somehow a lesser act of worship”.
This matters. It matters that the leader of the Opposition legitimises these people. It matters that the Labour Party is being held ransom to every kind of prejudice.”
I wrote that article in November. It is now Easter week. And nothing has changed. This scandal is a consequence of decades of thinking which cannot be reduced to cosmetic explanations that insulate this week’s outrage from a broader and deeper pathology. It is a frivolous, stupid and downright dangerous way of thinking. It must be cut out of the Labour party.
Can Corbyn do it? He has been remarkably flexible on Brexit. He needs to engage that sense of acumen. And more significantly, he needs to lead in the spirit of the earliest traditions of the Labour movement – a party that emerged from the non-conformist traditions of the nineteenth century that focussed relentlessly on improving the material conditions of the poor and the marginalized. That strand has no truck with the conspiracy theories and madness of the kind of people that feel that they can call Corbyn’s Labour home.