Within days of the French terrorist attacks, BBC One’s Panorama aired a documentary appropriately titled After Paris: The Battle for British Islam. Thirty seconds in, the fear mongering starts, featuring a video of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, set to a tense Hollywood-style soundtrack.
The effect feels deliberate, as though we ought to conclude that the Paris attacks are sufficient cause for the Home Office to treat Muslims with even greater scrutiny, and that if we’re Muslims, we must ally with the likes of Theresa May to fight against terrorism. This is the argument that reporter John Ware builds for 29 minutes, which feature nonsensical attempts to link British “non-violent extremism,” and completely unrelated incidents like the murder of Lee Rigby, with the violence in Paris.
Ware is assisted by cosmopolitan Muslim commentators, such as The Deen Institute’s Adam Deen, and Inspire CEO Sara Khan, who come across as oblivious to the concerns of less enfranchised segments of their own minority community. Perhaps they were unaware of how the documentary would be edited. But if not, it is bizarre that they would fail to note that by starting with footage of a firefight in France, Ware is framing After Paris as blaming British Muslims for an attack that had nothing to do with them.
Indeed, it is fairly easy to criticise Ware’s report. The documentary relies on either poorly-formulated assertions that lack compelling evidence, or half-truths that are much less effective because of his insistence on using loaded terms like “non-violent extremism.”
For example, Ware states halfway through that “non-violent (Muslim) activists” in Britain are “disdainful of Western values,” which he gleans from a collection of event posters that include an Islamophobia Awareness Week. He also presents a speaker hosted by the SOAS Muslim Students Association, who is quoted out-of-context when discussing discrimination, fooling the uncritical audience into thinking that “Islamophobia” is a concept invented by radical Muslims to shield their behavior from public view.
Never mind the fact that Ware is clearly Islamophobic enough that he never even defines what “Western values” he is talking about. Instead, he bemoans the fact that British Muslims allegedly divide the world into “us and them,” failing to notice that he is the one who is asking them to take responsibility for a terrorist attack in a different country, and making a documentary with the tagline, “The Battle for British Islam.”
The rest barely deserves more than a cursory glance. Theresa May’s counter-terrorism efforts are blatantly glorified, and her opponents portrayed as weak-kneed, naïve, or supporting an ill-defined spectre of “non-violent extremism.” The latter is another term that Ware doesn’t bother to define, leaving the audience with some vague sense that he and his liberal Muslim interviewees are talking about Saudi-bankrolled Wahhabism, but only if individual viewers are personally knowledgeable of the subject. The overall effect is to make Islamic extremists appear more frightening than they actually are, without explaining why. Tory sociology, anyone?
Why else explicitly link highly-conservative ulema like Haitham al-Haddad to jihadist violence, with almost no discussion about their actual views on the topic? Instead, al-Haddad is quoted as saying that apostates are killed in an Islamic state. This is a reactionary view that deserves criticism, but it is also obviously a scholarly opinion about how Islamic law should theoretically govern an Islamic state. It is not, as Ware presents it, a reflection of al-Haddad’s Muslim extremist impulse to overthrow mild-mannered English liberalism. It’s a ridiculous suggestion, and it is telling that it somehow elicits empathy for a thinker as irritating as al-Haddad because of how unfairly he gets treated.
There is an especially awkward segment where Ware interviews Islam Channel CEO Mohamed Ali Harrath, about its slogan “voice of the voiceless.” Ware grills Harrath about whether or not British Muslims are oppressed. Harrath responds by pointing out that Islam Channel reaches a huge international audience. It has enough viewers that its slogan is obviously meant for everyone, not just British Muslims.
Ware ignores him, and awkwardly presses his argument that British Muslims aren’t oppressed, which means that the Islam Channel isn’t the “voice of the voiceless.” Harrath simply reiterates his explanation, clearly annoyed that his entirely reasonable answer is getting completely ignored. Clearly, when he agreed to the interview, he didn’t realize that Ware had already made up his mind about the network.
None of this is particularly new. Ware interrogates Islam as a monolithic entity in order to probe its compatibility with British values, without defining either category adequately. He discusses Muslim Westerners becoming jihadists without tackling the issues of racism, and inequality that provide the spiritual and material preconditions for radicalization in European society. It’s a typically unoriginal reproduction of Islamophobic tropes, coated in a thick layer of liberal cluelessness that’s maddening for sympathetic Muslims to watch.
This clearly isn’t hard-hitting journalism, and will likely be forgotten in relatively short order. The real danger is that upper-class British Muslims like Deen and Kahn are so willing to play into his obvious Islamophobia. Ware presents a collection of people who are intent on separating themselves from “non-violent extremists,” reassure the audience about their assimilation into British society, and discuss their faith, while seeming genuinely unaware of why certain British Muslims are orthopraxic at all.
Rather than issuing blanket condemnations of an entire religion, the documentary half-discusses “a divide between Islam itself” and uses British Muslims like Deen and Khan to build the argument. They are meant to add credence to what would otherwise be Ware’s parochialism about the complex injustices affecting Muslim communities in Europe. For example, Deen is the one who tells us that we need to “pinpoint the cancer” of extremism, and that we “can’t blame foreign policy” for radicalization, not Ware.
It is Khan, though who complains most polemically about the “grievance narrative” that she says is endemic to British “non-violent extremism.” It is also Khan who says that the Islam Channel’s slogan “voice of the voiceless” is a problem because it “promotes a victimhood mentality.” As a result, Ware was able to make a deeply problematic documentary by relying on oblivious Muslim elites who clearly don’t understand the breadth of issues that are affecting their religious community in countries like Britain.
Perhaps the most patronising moment in the documentary is when British Muslim TV‘s Aamer Naeem is shown displaying a drawer of Union Jack cricket caps to an impressed Ware, who holds him as an exemplary representative of a “new British version of Islam.” It seems that the only thing particularly British about it is that the Islam these Muslims practice is divorced from its literal and ethical content. They don’t seem to understand that British Sunni orthopraxy is most popular among the Muslims who feel otherwise under siege.
British Muslim TV may be more progressive and “upbeat” than Islam Channel, and may air higher-quality programing, but the latter is clearly not wrong to call the Muslim ummah “voiceless.” After Paris is right that Salafi orthodoxy is growing, but Muslims like Naeem were selected because they weren’t going to tell him that it’s a direct response to seething racism, economic stagnation, and aggressive campaigns of Sunni by Saudi Royalists who fear domestic instability.
There genuinely is a “battle within Islam,” and Ware deserves credit for recording ex-jihadist Muhammad Manwar Ali as saying that “the solution (to jihadist violence) lies with Muslims.” However, it is obvious that Muslims like Deen, Khan, and Naeem are hardly the vanguard against Islamic militarism. Rather than discussing the immensely complicated origins of extremism, and how to overcome them, they parade around their mawkish liberal Britishness to a man who is busy extolling the virtues of constant fear.
The battle within Islam is one that confronts how Muslims can best meet the various challenges of a globalized world, which have been given new urgency by the War on Terror. The ummah does need the “soul searching” that Ware says we all require, but it needs to focus on a substantive discussion of how Muslims can undo the edifice that produces fundamentalism in the first place. After Paris ignores that reality, and gives us a series of narcissistic interviews in which snobs ally with increasingly authoritarian white British liberals to lambast other Muslims for not responding to discrimination like they do.
Screenshots courtesy of the BBC. All rights reserved.