Notes From the Margins…

The Daily Mail, Cage, and the Enemy Within

  • January 09, 2016
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Terrorist emergencies have often acted as a catalyst for McCarthyite witchhunts, whether it was the ‘scoundrelly laws’ passed by the French governments of the 1890s in response to anarchist bombings and assassinations, or the emergency laws passed by the West German government in response to the Baader-Meinhof Gang  during the 1970s.

Over the last fifteen years we have seen the same authoritarian drift in many countries, including our own, and it has become increasingly clear in the last few months that the Conservative government and its supporters in the media are determined to shut down any criticism of government foreign policy and Britain’s conduct in the ‘war on terror’, and that anybody who engages in such activity will be labelled a ‘terrorist sympathizer’ or an apologist for Islamic State and other jihadist groups.

The intensification of these tendencies were already clear last year; in the proposals to ban local councils from supporting campaigns such as BDS or campaigns against the arms trade; in the vilification of the Stop the War campaign, and the new year appears to be continuing in the same vein with the renewed attacks on the advocacy group Cage last week.

First the Daily Telegraph accused the Muslim charity the Muath Trust of ‘boosting’ Cage, in an article insinuating that some of its members approved of the killing of Lee Rigby because Cage chairman chairman Raza Nadim declared jihad a ‘noble act.’

On Thursday the Daily Mail published a classic piece of yellow journalism with the banner headline:   ‘Fanatics’ campaign of hate on campus is revealed: Islamic zealots who backed Jihadi John are poisoning the minds of students’.

It would be polite to say this observation lacks balance and nuance.  The Mail’s story was the result of an ‘investigation’ into talks given by Cage outreach director Moazzam Begg and other critics of the government’s Prevent programme, as part of the NUS’s Students Not Suspects tour last year.

As was the case with the media campaign against Stop the War last year, the Mail’s investigation was not just aimed at Cage but at the ‘hard left’ – as represented by NUS vice-president Shelly Asquith and one of the organizers of the Students not Suspects campaign – also at Jeremy Corbyn.

Asquith is described as a ‘Corbyn girl’ alongside a  picture of her sharing a platform with Corbyn, but the Mail‘s exposé is mostly directed against Cage.

The main evidence for its indictment consists of  shock horror extracts of Begg and others speaking at various university campuses, recorded with a secret camera by the Mail‘s fearless undercover reporters.   On the basis of these clips it is very difficult to see what Begg and his fellow-speakers said that might have ‘warped’ the young minds of the students who listened to them.

There are certainly statements you can take issue with, such as  Begg’s observation that “We”re hypocrites. As terrible as Paris was and it was terrible there were no children reported killed. Why are Syrian children not even worth a mention? ”

Personally I don’t like these ‘hypocrite’ allegations which inevitably occur after atrocities like the Paris massacre.  They too easily become a kind of ‘our victims versus their victims’ belittling, regardless of whether or not that is their intention.   But that doesn’t make Begg’s point a “fanatic’s Paris insult”, as the Mail puts it.

The Mail also  quotes Begg telling students that “they are being treated in a similar way to Jews under the Nazis.”  Begg does make this comparison, but he immediately qualifies it, adding ” Now nobody’s saying at all, in any way, that Britain is as bad as that.  In fact, Britain is probably the best place to be a Muslim right now.”

It would be interesting to know why one of these “hate-filled extremists warping young minds” thinks that Britain is probably the best place to be a Muslim right now, yet still criticizes British government policy, but the Mail  is not interested in exploring these paradoxes.

Nor is Theresa May, who tells the Mail that universities should not be allowing such “damaging, extremist rhetoric” to go unchallenged, and that more work needs to be done to challenge those who spread “hatred and intolerance.”

It’s not at all clear how the clips compiled by the Mail are ‘damaging’.  Rather than spreading ‘hatred and intolerance.’  Begg and his colleagues are criticizing a counterterrorism strategy that has been criticized by many other people as divisive,  incoherent and counter-productive.

Last year, for example,  dozens of academics wrote an open letter criticizing the government’s proposals to extend Prevent to universities under its new counterterrorism bill.  No one accused them of spreading hatred and intolerance.    Even the Mail admits in a sidebox that ” it is still unclear whether the policy [Prevent] is working, and it remains deeply controversial in the Muslim community” and that ” questions are being asked about its effectiveness.”

If such questions are being asked, why can’t Cage ask them?   The Mail  accuses Cage of  “sabotaging efforts to fight campus extremism”.  But few, if any of the British politicians who use these terms so freely have ever tried to define what they actually mean without coming up with contorted and often meaningless tautologies.

Prevent constantly refers to ‘extremism’  and  ‘radicalization’ without saying what it actually understands by these terms, yet now the government is attempting to force teachers and universities to look out for indications of something that it can’t even define.

It’s difficult to see how this will work.   You may not agree with everything Cage says or does, but conflating critical Muslim voices with terrorism is likely to brand people as terrorists and terrorist sympathizers when they may have very different aims and motives.

By focusing entirely on the ‘conveyor belt’ theory of radicalisation, the government makes it difficult, if not impossible,   to forge alliances with Muslims who may be entirely opposed to the savagery of al-Qaeda and Islamic State, but who are nevertheless critical of the British state’s foreign policies and its prosecution of the war on terror.

Because really, if you regard Moazzam Begg as a fanatic then you don’t know what a fanatic is.   And even though it may be comforting to have discredited and over-funded stooges like the Quilliam foundation essentially play back to the government what it likes to tell itself, but organizations like this won’t help us get out of the mess we’re all in.

And  orchestrated ‘enemy within’ campaigns against organizations and individuals that our government doesn’t like will only make it harder to understand and combat the very real threats that we all – Muslims and non-Muslims – face.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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