Book Review: ‘The Battle For British Islam’

While sparks fly between Islam and the West, with sporadic terror attacks on European targets by religious extremists and inflammatory responses from right-wing nationalists grabbing the headlines, Sara Khan wants to shift our gaze to the deeper fault lines within Islam itself. In so doing, she reveals how those dominating Islam’s internal struggle are manipulating Westerners’ perceptions of ‘Islam’, a religion and/or theocratic ideology whose final definition is yet to be determined.

Khan’s book, The Battle for British Islam: reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, shows how Western political naïveté about Salafi-Islamism and its rhetorical tactics has led to a de facto merger of segments of the Left with an ideological movement antithetical to classical liberal ideals and hostile to progressive egalitarian principles. Not only is the intra-Islamic conflict choking the lifeblood out of an arguably more authentic Islam, it is also distorting the West’s political spectrum – altering the content and substance of ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing positions beyond all recognition.

There is no consensus among Muslims about what the word ‘Islamic’ means, who best represents its values, or which activities deserve the appellation. While many Muslims are at pains to stress that acts of terror or coercion have no foundation in the Islamic faith, others who engage in terrorist slaughter or ‘honour’ killings describe their actions as ‘Islamic’. The sheer brutality and scale of their violence, whether in Nigeria, Pakistan or France, impacts on Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  At the core of the battle within Islam is the question whether Muslims believe that Islam is reconcilable with secularism and human rights, or whether they adhere to religious supremacist ideas that transcend the rule of law in democratic nation states while reviling ‘man-made’ concepts like gender equality and democracy. Khan’s book provides an up-to-date detailed account of how these tensions have played out in the British context since the new millennium.

As co-founder and director of the civil society group Inspire, a counter-extremism organisation that has cooperated with the Government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, Khan has observed first-hand how a politicised Islamist ideology has torn families apart, groomed youngsters for violence, fed sectarian rifts and encouraged intolerance and dehumanisation of both non-Muslims and other Muslims. Like so many British Muslims, Khan has watched with trepidation both increasing sectarian hard-line interpretations of Islam within Muslim communities and growing anti-Muslim prejudice from without. The former act as moral police, pouring scorn on the ‘filthy kuffar’ (non-believer); the latter speak the language of white supremacy. As a reward for her work countering extremism, Khan has been labelled an ‘apostate’, an ‘Islamophobe’, a ‘sell-out’ and a ‘native informant’ by Islamist extremists. Turning to the Left for solidarity, Khan found only more rejection from liberals who had aligned themselves with the Islamists in the mistaken belief that the latter represent true Islam.

Khan’s book traces the recent convergence of Salafists and Islamists, two ideological strands that had previously competed for the loyalty of young British Muslims. Ideologues from the theologically puritanical and ultra-conservative Salafist movement and activists for a global political Islamist order exhibited a new willingness to collaborate in the post-9/11 pressure cooker that melded them together in a climate of defensiveness. In the past fifteen years, Salafi-Islamism has attracted an increasing number of the younger generation attempting to define their identity, and has exerted a powerful influence within British Islam, crowding out other Muslim voices and promoting a compelling victimhood narrative that has won them many left-leaning allies among student unions, academics, the media and even politicians.

The movement has effectively hijacked key liberal terms and concepts, deploying them in new contexts in defense of an illiberal ideology, transferring the moral prestige of liberal political language into the service of an ultra-conservative theocratic movement. Using the language of civil rights, multiculturalism, diversity and even equality, Islamists win over audiences and neutralise opposition. This, says Khan, is part of a multi-stage, long-term strategy to reach the goal of achieving Dar Al-Islam (state under Islamic rule) and to revive a global political order based on Islamic principles (a caliphate). Getting there might involve gradual Islamisation via the mechanisms of democracy or violent upheaval – or a mixture of both. A tactical and sophisticated ‘soft Islamism’ disseminated by organisations like the iERA (lslamic Education and Research Academy), essentially the movement’s public relations arm, promotes Islamist norms through the discourse of diversity, multiculturalism and inter-faith outreach, while always keeping the victimhood leitmotif spinning and misrepresenting its political aims as “combating Islamophobia”. The outcome has been to marginalise non-Islamist and secular Muslim voices within Islam.

Question Begging:

While Islamism (a socio-political system which advocates an expansionist Islamic state governed by sharia law) is not definitive of Islam (the faith), the pro-Islamist Left has been credulous in accepting the Islamist conflation of the two.  Embracing multiculturalism and moral relativism, the pro-Islamist regressive Left now regularly bolsters group identities it would have once opposed. Consequently, would-be liberals have contributed to the erosion of their own progressive political philosophy, not only by ignoring internal Muslim dissent from fundamentalist and ultra-conservative narratives, but actively assisting Islamists in stifling it. Aligning themselves with the guardians of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no platforming’, Islamism’s Western identity politicians silence liberal voices within Islam and shut down free expression.

While organisations such as 5Pillars, iERA, the Muslim Research and Development Foundation (MRDF), and CAGE claim representative status for “Muslims” in Britain, in so doing they persistently beg the central question at issue.  The notion that their Islamist ideology is synonymous with normative Islam is treated as a foregone conclusion. Statements by leading Islamist pundits invariably assume without argument that their version of politicised Islam is normative rather than a selective or distorted rendering of Islam, which is exactly what needs to be proved. When FOSIS[1] proposed gender segregation at university events, Muslims who attempted to debate the issue were summarily accused of vilifying ‘Islamic’ societies and ‘Muslim’ students. The underlying assumption was that none of those opposed to gender apartheid were authentic Muslims, since apparently all Muslim students would agree on the practice of gender segregation. Another textbook example was the claim by the Islamist organisation CAGE that Prevent was engaged in a Government-directed policy of attacking ‘Islam’ (in its totality). In actual fact the Prevent Duty has to do with safeguarding children from terrorist indoctrination (of any kind, whether right-wing nationalist or Islamist radicalisation) and nothing to do with basic Muslim practices such as dress codes or beards, as a CAGE protest letter misleadingly suggested.

A familiar line-up of Islamist activists (Dr. Abdul Wahid, Haitham Al-Haddad, Abdur Raheem Green, Sufyan Gulam Ismail, Mozzam Begg, et. al.) increasingly claim to speak for all British Muslims. In January 2015 a group sent a letter to the House of Lords complaining about the government’s proposed Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, condemning the new law (that many moderate Muslims welcomed) as “manufacturing a witch-hunt against Islam and Muslims”.  They then produced a piece on the Hizb ut-Tahrir website with the misleading headline, ‘Muslim Community Writes to the House of Lords over the new CTS Bill’.  A more accurate headline would have read: “Some Islamist Muslims Write to the House of Lords. . .”

Double Standards

In pushing the idea that their own politicised Salafi-Islamism is synonymous with Islam (the faith), the Islamist religious right also supply the nationalist far-right with their most basic premise: that their extremist, intolerant version of ‘Islam’ is definitive. The only difference is that Islamists are allowed to push that theory, while their non-Muslim detractors are not. Right-wing American ideologue Robert Spencer opined that there is no distinction between a true peaceful Islam and the hijacked Islam of terrorist groups. When Spencer or other right-wing non-Muslims erase the important distinctions within Islam, the left immediately perceive that such smears are not representative of “the vast majority of Muslims” and rush to the defense of Muslim moderates. Yet when an identical conflation of distinctions within ‘Islam’ issues from the lips of a politicised Islamist who describes integration, human rights and gender equality as hostile to normative Islam, suddenly the left rushes to his cause, treating Muslim moderates as negligible. The double standards are truly epic, and have a distinct whiff of reverse racism. Exemplary of this is how student groups have barred right-wing speakers from universities while welcoming “civil rights” groups like CAGE (an Islamist organisation whose leading members have legitimate grievances against the West but whose representatives have made comments that, according to Amnesty International, are “at odds with human rights principles”).
Key Myth: Islamism is Grievance-Based and Ideology-Free

Drawing on a plethora of case studies from her eight years on the front-lines fighting radicalisation and extremism, Khan quashes any remaining doubts about the extent to which Salafi-Islamists have shaped the defensive grievance narrative that has become the mainstream perspective on ‘British Muslims’. It is commonplace for aggressive Islamist ideologues and their left-wing apologists to claim provocation by Western foreign policy, or even by mild religious satire.  Every terrorist act is framed (even by Western journalists) as an inevitable by-product of US and UK intervention in Muslim countries, or of some deplorable form of speech ‘offense’ against the faithful. All ‘Muslims’ (not just Islamists) are depicted as uniformly opposed to religious satire, and ‘The West’ is caricatured as monolithic entity and a sworn enemy of ‘Islam’ per se.

Importantly, Khan argues that Islamist terror cannot be explained away as merely a response to grievance over foreign policy, but also requires positive buy-in to an ideology that legitimises and necessitates violence. Hamed Abdel-Samad has also written at length on the long history of the military theology of jihad within Islam and traces it back centuries, before the United States began its meddling in foreign affairs.

But the CAGE position, says Khan, is basically that grievance cancels out ideology. In a 2013 document, CAGE expounded the contradictory view that terrorists have an ideology but acts of terrorism are not caused by ideology. Instead terror acts are always a response by Muslims to ‘unrepresentative regimes, often aided by Western policy and occupations.’ Parroting this narrative, Guardian journalist Seamus Milne, now a Labour Party executive director of strategy, wrote that the Woolwich butchery of British Soldier Lee Rigby was a “backlash” for western wars fought in Arab and Muslim countries, the predictable consequences (“blowback”) of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the U.S., Britain and others.

The defensive narrative of victimhood trades on the truth that Western agencies have waged overt and covert wars on democratically elected governments for decades. However, Islamists have shrewdly taken a leaf out of the propagandist’s playbook in using parcels of truth to tell overarching lies, re-arranging true facts into a mosaic that will produce the overall impression they wish to convey. The mixing of falsehoods with truth or half-truths, and deploying them in the service of false conclusions and ideological ambitions, is textbook spin.

A False Dilemma:

Western apologists for the Islamist’s ‘victimhood’ narrative subscribe to the false belief that a vigorous critique of Western foreign policy must necessarily exclude castigation of its violently regressive Salafi-Islamist counterpart. This is a false dilemma. Those who oppose Islamism can, and often do, skewer Western hypocrisy and its bellicose interventionist activities in Muslim countries. The demand is not to choose sides, but to defend principles. Self-determination, equality and human rights – values that were formerly a litmus test against which Western hypocrisy could be measured – are now seen as hopelessly slanted. The left’s acolytes of Islamism have embraced such a thoroughgoing moral relativism that they have no firm grounds from which to launch any moral critique of human rights abuses, whether perpetrated by the West or anyone else. In their embrace of the Islamist version of anti-colonialism, they have jettisoned the values that gave the 1960’s revolutionary movements the moral high ground vis-à-vis imperialist rulers. Having thrown out the Enlightenment baby with the colonialist bathwater, their righteous criticism of ‘the West’ simpliciter has been hoisted on its own petard. Hypocritical and covertly criminal agencies of Western governments have held hands with the repressive Whabbist Saudi regime for decades, with both Western and Arab leaders demonstrating equal contempt for human rights and civil liberties. In the past left-wing liberals would have condemned both on the same broadly liberal grounds, and with reference to the same humanitarian principles. Islamism has caused such a deep crisis of liberal values and confidence that this is no longer possible.

Alignment with Leftist Movements:

Islamist strategists have also successfully exploited various European leftists’ existing grievances against the West or capitalism. Frustration at the lack of success in opposing Western military interventionism and hypocrisy has thrown both leftist anti-War activists and Marxists into sympathy with Islamists because of shared opposition to the West. Stop The War Coalition (STwC), whose officers span the Labour Party, Green Party, Respect, National Union of Students, trade unions and far-Left groups, have a cordial relationship with the Islamist group CAGE. STwC and CAGE share the view that there is a clear linkage between Wars in the Middle East, the rise of Islamophobia and the UK Government’s Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, says Khan. STwC’s affinity with Islamists is most alarming in light of the 2001 defection of two Left-wing Iraqi activists from STwC on the grounds that it refused to condemn Islamist-inspired terrorism. The two, both members of the worker-Communist Party of Iraq, resigned from the STwC steering committee claiming it had abandoned the “ongoing struggle for freedom, equality and well-being by the working-class, the communists, the women, the radical and secular people and freedom lovers in those countries” and had instead fallen into step with “the savage Talibans and the likes of Political Islam.” Other Marxists, such as Chris Harman, editor of Socialist Worker, urged a careful course through the contradictions of Islamism, deploring its clericalism and discrimination against women, while appreciating its powerful potential to destabilise capitalism’s hold over the Muslim world. In cooperating with Islamists, Marxists maintained an underlying assumption that they (Marxists) would ultimately be sufficiently intellectually and politically dominant to steer Muslims by degrees from Islamism to socialism. In fact, says Khan, it seems that the steering has gone the other way round.

The Assault on Prevent:

A large part of Khan’s book deals with Islamists’ coordinated attempts to derail and discredit the government’s Prevent strategy, for their own self-preservation. Islamists’ widely disseminated persecution discourse has made the government’s initiative a soft target for all kinds of unrelated issues and a dumping ground for Muslim grudges about ‘the media’ or other policies. This despite the fact that Islamist are this country’s media darlings and spokespeople on all things “Muslim”. While Khan does acknowledge Prevent’s imperfections, and admits several unfortunate referrals, her book details how these have been given an exaggerated high-profile in the press through misleading vividness. Lots of misinformation has been circulated about a very small number of misreferrals.  As an insider, Khan furnishes some perspective on the hysteria that Islamists have circulated and amplified in their attempts to hamstring the only mechanism in place to intervene between terrorist radicalisers and their vulnerable targets.  She points out that the freedom of religious expression and worship could not be compromised by Prevent even if that were its aim (which it is not). Both UK law and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights robustly protect Religious freedoms. In their attacks on Prevent, Salafi-Islamism’s apologists have stuck to the trope of treating Islamism as representative of “the Muslim population”, as did jurist Jahangir Mohammed when he claimed that the Government’s counter-terror Prevent strategy made Islamism into an Orwellian thought crime that aimed only at the Muslim population. This failed to account for the significant part of “the Muslim population” which has no affinity whatsoever with Salafi-Islamist ideology and its wish to dismantle Prevent, as well as other tenets of liberal democracy. Khan cites a recent Demos survey which revealed that British Muslims are generally more patriotic than the average British citizen, as well as a parallel trend over the past 25 years showing that British Muslims have grown more conservative on social and equality issues.

Sara Khan’s authoritative analysis of British Islam draws on many case studies and provides a roll-call of Salafi-Islamist bigwigs along with a detailed record of their networks, activities and claims. Her book is an invaluable resource for anyone trying to get to grips with the complex and shifting relationships shaping British Islam today. Khan concludes that diktats from Whitehall will not defeat extremism. Her book is a rallying call for a revitalised ground-level civil society movement stripped of bogus identity politics, persecution myths and double standards.

[1] The Federation of Student Islamic Societies.  Within the National Union of Students, FOSIS is now the biggest voting bloc by far, commanding more than a quarter of the conference floor. The President of the NUS, Malia Bouattia, is also its first Muslim.  She has called for dismantling of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent.

About Terri Murray 56 Articles
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years


  1. This article is perfectly fine, except that another question is left unasked: who decides what is ‘normative’ about a religion? Is there an unbiased, independent ombudsman to whom each side can appeal for a ruling? Or perhaps new evidence will emerge from scientific research.

    No. Unfortunately for Sara Khan, Terri Murray and the Prevent optimists, religions don’t work like that. Based on faith – that weasel word so often used to make religious ideologies less threatening than the reality – they are inherently immune to reason, evidence or appeals to common humanity. It’s just as valid to make what to an unbeliever might sound an extremist claim, such as that infidels should be killed, as it is to make a seemingly moderate claim, such as that Christians and Hindus should embrace one another.

    There’s no long-term solution in Khan’s rather desperate attempt to make a religion based on submission into a cuddly, peaceful and democratic movement. Ultimately, working for the end of religion’s hold on society is the only way forward. Anything else is doomed to failure, as we constantly see.

  2. “… religion and/or theocratic ideology whose final definition is yet to be determined.” and “…definitive [of Islam] …” (twice). Even entertaining such ideas is incredibly naïve. Who’s to say what’s definitive? Religions are sickeningly, endlessly factional, sectarian, and divisive. Even if you could agree, say, a particular version of a particular (ancient) text was definitive, the embarrassingly all too human and parochial (of time, mores, and morality) origin are antithetical to a much more enlightened age, meaning there’s an endless fight and divisiveness about interpretation. The sooner religion goes away, the better. If there’s anything to hope from a term such as British Islam, it’s the idea that Islam becomes like Anglicism – a relatively benign irrelevance; a slightly embarrassing hangover from our naïve national history (like an unevolved elderly relative stuck in the past, soon to die)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.