Gender segregation on campus – “taken over” by the far right?

Bob From Brockley has a recent piece on Mandela as a mirror. It’s about how disparate movements can opportunistically hitch up to a campaign, a cause, or sometimes a person. To add another example, we have Southall Black Sisters invoking Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle at an event protesting gender segregation, and then we get Spiked with a piece on the hyperbole of calling segregation ‘apartheid’ and the event explodes into a kaleidoscope of different angles on angles on angles. This here is mine, but on gender segregation, Sally Feldman and Laurie Penny.

Last week mainstream politicians finally found their voice and came out against religious gender segregation on campus. Predictably this functioned as a bright green go light to anti-establishment types. Here’s Times Higher columnist Sally Feldman’s weak satire on the opponents of gender segregation. I couldn’t have guessed the piece would end up defending the platforming hate preachers at the University of Westminster where she works – Haitham ‘apes and pigs’ al-Haddad and gender segregation in the same article – wow. She’s more worried about the calibre of the opponents of misogyny, antisemitism and homophobia than she’s worried about the views themselves. So, for the record, al-Haddad does preach hatred. And Sally Feldman should know that events that are carefully convened to ensure hateful views are likely be countered by other invited speakers tend to escape the kind of alarmed response she objects to – mainly because they are obviously ‘championing free speech’, rather than simply connecting haters with free premises and audiences and leaving it to the objects of their hatred to do the hard work of speaking against them.

How did we get here from gender segregation? Maybe the quality of the objections to gender segregation – the passion, the outrage, the hyperbolic exchanges – reminded Sally Feldman of the upset about al-Haddad and reminded her of her University of Westminster agenda. That’s my best guess. It’s also the most charitable account.

Which brings me to Laurie Penny’s recent Guardian piece, ‘This isn’t feminism. It’s Islamophobia‘. It’s about the pressure she has come under from ‘white men’ to condemn gender segregation. At its crux,

“…demanding that feminists of every race and faith drop all our campaigns and stand against “radical Islam” sounds more and more like white patriarchy trying to make excuses for itself: “If you think we’re bad, just look at these guys.””

But at the bottom you’ll find a note, ‘This article was amended to draw attention to the fact that many Muslim and Asian women were involved in the “gender segregation” protests.’ This amendment only came about because Twitter users like the Ex-Muslims Forum, Lejla Kuric, Alya, Ophelia Benson, One Law For All, Sarah Brown and others civilly alerted her to Asian and Muslim feminists defending secular space and pointed out the stark inaccuracy of claiming that the protest on December 10th was led by right wing men. By mid morning Laurie Penny had recognised the problem and was making efforts to correct it.

Which is typically big of her but I was interested in what had happened, which is this. A self-styled feminist found the ‘white patriarchy’ so much more interesting than all the feminists of Muslim or Asian background that she completely omitted them from consideration. In this she is no better than most of the other reporters party to the silencing of non-white voices, as This Is The End puts it. Or as Lejla puts it, “White western feminist ignore us and dismiss our struggle”. Or as Alya puts it, “The very idea that this debate has been “taken over” by the far right is both naive and insulting”. As such Laurie Penny gives us a classic example of reductio ad absurdum filtering an event through an existing agenda. It’s also a particularly self-absorbed piece; the poor feminist is not the woman affected by gender segregation – it’s Laurie Penny herself beset by ‘white men’ asking her to condemn something. This is a maddening change of subject.

A united front is needed to fight religious authoritarians on campus. They are not yet strong but they would like to be and they have a small foothold already. So congratulations any ‘white men’ of any political stripe who based your arguments against gender segregation on feminist principles and not culturally racist ones. Sadly for me I think it may be true that you are mostly to the political centre and right – but you got it right this time. Please carry on doing it, as often as possible, and don’t be put off by people telling you you’re the wrong sex or colour.

Finally, Laurie Penny is right that there is certainly anti-Muslim sentiment lurking within the debate about gender segregation, as Soupy explains – people with these views are also subtly changing the subject to further their own agenda.

The London Declaration for Global Peace & Resistance against Extremism 2011

Just found a link to this BBC report on the Casuals United blog (who are amusingly and incorrectly trying to take credit).

Back on September 25th “about 12,000 Muslims gathered at Wembley Arena for Islamic group Minhaj-ul-Quran’s Peace for Humanity Conference where a campaign launched to get one million signatories by 2012 for this online declaration of peace.

Apart from the entire absence of environmental concerns in the declaration, and the now standard over-emphasis on the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a cause of world unpeace, this is my kind of declaration. Even if you, like some of my readers to my political right and left, favour hitting things and people to get your stuff done and find his determinedly non-violent stance cramps your style, this declaration should be read (by susceptible non-Muslims, anyway) as an antidote to the anti-Muslim suspicion and consequent stereotyping which hounds these times, and as a light shining ahead to a more together global society. These were the parts I liked best:

7. We reject as mistaken and spurious any assertions made by both Muslims and non-Muslims that the world is currently locked in an inexorable struggle between Islam and the West and we commit ourselves, through positive and mutually respectful engagement and dialogue, to oppose any and all claims of clashes of civilisations or the incompatibility of the values in various regions, states and communities.

9. Whereas we do not overlook the real or perceived grievances that may serve as a causative fuel for terrorist violence, and we call upon all national and local governments to address those grievances with haste and resolve, we commit ourselves to the non-violent resolution of those issues as well as to the removal through education and dialogue of conspiracy theories that seem to blinker some peoples’ worldviews.

15. We declare that there is no difference between an Arab and a Jew, between a Muslim and a Christian, between a Hindu and a Sikh, between a black person and a white person, or between a man and a woman. All humans are equal and must be treated with equal respect, dignity, compassion, equality, solidarity and justice.

16. We unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism (including when sometimes it is disingenuously clothed as anti-Zionism), Islamophobia (including when it is sometimes disingenuously dressed up as patriotism) and all other forms of racism and xenophobia.

19. We call on all governments to protect minorities against all hatred, intimidation and violence, especially from ultra-nationalism or religious intolerance.

The conference’s keynote presentation was given by Minaj ul-Quran founder Dr Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri, a classically trained cleric – of Sufi persuasion – from Pakistan now based in Canada. One particular contribution of his was an enormous review of Islam’s pronouncements on terrorism, which led to his issuing a 512 page fatwa proscribing terror and detailing the principles and terms of engagement for just war. To return to where we began (the approving Casuals):

Amid all this fatwa flashing, many Muslims fear divide and rule – and suspect that someone, somewhere will use Dr Tahir ul-Qadri to further that agenda. The scholar sees this as the signs of paranoia brought on by a weakness – and his answer is to expand his organisation’s mission in the UK beyond its 10 mosques and 5,000 members. So will Dr Qadri’s fatwa do some good or end up on the great big pile of similar denouncements? An hour after he delivered his address, the former leader of al-Muhajiroun, a group recently banned for extremism, turned up at the doorstep of a news channel and asked to go on air to counter Dr Qadri. Would he have bothered if the scholar was such an irrelevance in the battle for hearts and minds?”

It sounds as if, if the Casuals and their ilk try to claim Qadri, he will know how to put them in their place.

New Statesman deluded about Islamism; secularism revisited

Like many people, I don’t read the New Statesman any more. Here’s something from Harry’s Place by Andy Lambert which confirms this decision and goes a tiny way to make amends for not posting nearly enough here on the problem of political Islam.

I know little about post-Islamism (according to Andy Lambert the AKP in Turkey, which has its origins in the same Muslim Brotherhood as Hamas, is an example) and having spent a bit time with a Malaysian colleague on Friday evening, I wondered what is happening there and whether their parallel sharia system is contained or not. A brief look suggests that the body of law referred to by its critics as Ketuanan Melayu (‘Malay hegemony’) embodies discrimination and is an obstacle to secularism, as Regina Lim writes (in a very informative paper of uncertain provenance but hosted at the Political Studies Association). In 2008, this Malay hegemony was implicated, along with the long shadow of colonial law, in the resignation of long-standing cabinet member, secularist and proper democrat Zaid Ibrahim. The influence of Islam in the legal system allowed for the conviction, also in 2008, of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for the charge of sodomy of which he was cleared after serving four years of his sentence. At the current time he is now on trial for new allegations of sodomy which he says are politically motivated. Clearly the law should literally butt out of sodomy between consenting people – and I’m thinking Oscar Wilde here too.

I am attempting to follow the work of the UCL political theorist and secularist Cecile Laborde.

A must-read, Cecile Laborde has an illuminating piece in this month’s RSA journal which sets out the differences between the Reformation and Enlightenment strands of secularism (the first emphasising conscience, the second, democracy) noting that they are not mutually exclusive, and neither is a fair way to conceptualise the proper relationship between state and religion in contemporary societies. (One of the things I love about the RSA is the willing welcome it gives critics of its own Enlightenment project.) She goes on to make the case for a secular state:

“In what sense is the secular state an important democratic ideal that we all have reason to endorse? It implies neither hostility to religion nor an intention to exclude it from public and social life. Freedom of conscience is one of the pillars of the secularist tradition (and is particularly central to Reformation secularism). Respect for freedom of conscience should not, however, be interpreted as a substantive claim according to which particular beliefs are true and should be politically entrenched as such. Rather, religious believers, when engaged in public debate about a particular controversy, can appeal to the importance of particular beliefs to them personally and can then explain to others how they relate to the issue at hand. What they cannot reasonably expect is that their views will prevail, or that religious rights will automatically trump other rights, in particular those associated with the tradition of Enlightenment secularism.”

Then she discusses the obligations of religious believers, namely their preparedness to offer political, secular reasons for beliefs they seek to make comprehensive under a justificatory structure which defines a secular state.

“Take the example of funding. Can a case be made, in a secular state, for the channelling of public funds towards religious organisations and activities? The answer depends on the context. What is not permissible is to subsidise religion on the grounds that it is intrinsically valuable, or that it promotes important truths, since this would violate the requirement of state neutrality.

By contrast, it might be permissible to argue for state support of religion by appeal to public, secular values. For example, one might claim that faith-based associations that provide a public service on the same terms as similarly situated secular organisations should not be discriminated against as recipients of public funds simply on the grounds that they are religious. So there might be good secular reasons for state support of religion, but only on the basis of (and conditional upon the respect of) democratic values. Likewise, if religious believers are to make a claim for exemption from the application of general laws, it will not be permissible for them simply to say that claims of conscience should trump other values. Rather, religious believers must explain to others the sense in which theirs is a rightful claim, one that respects and promotes the values of freedom, equality and reciprocity. Generally, while a secular state must make space for conscientious objection, this space will be narrowly constrained by, on the one hand, the demands of reciprocity and, on the other hand, those of equality.”

It needs saying in these times that the growth of Islam itself is nothing to fear – it does not make inevitable the triumph of Islamism, nor preclude the secularism we need to collectively defend as the only guarantee of equal religious rights and freedoms for all.

Relatedly, dump the New Statesman along with everybody else (circulation down to 22k these days according to Wikipedia), and instead see One Law for All, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, and this by Paul Kelly in the New Humanist.

My next post will be on the Con-Dem coalition Academies Bill, if it’s the last thing I do…

University leaders’ pusillanimity in the face of religious hatred on campus

I have been over-quiet on this blog about the steady, unwelcome encroachment of political Islam (and I do not mean Muslim values) into public life, and left it to others such as Shiraz Maher, Maryam Namazie, Nick Cohen and David T, whose wages are opprobrium and inadequate support. Nevertheless, they are solid, and gaining form.

Perhaps my acquiescence is down to being an alumna of City University, London, an institution where the Islamic Society invites homophobic hater Abu Usama to speak and Acting Vice Chancellor Julius Weinberg makes things cosy for them all.

As you can gather from this Independent piece, inviting Abu Usama is the equivalent of inviting white supremacist David Duke. Sad thing is, the ‘leader’ of the place where I currently work would probably have tried to say it was none of his business either, insisted on free expression, and left the apostates and rights activists to defend themselves. What is a university leader for, again?

Oh yeah, delivering New Labour policy to academics. Nick Cohen on New Labour policy.

And Julius Weinberg, in a position like his, he’s either with gay people and apostates or against them. And if he’s not willing to stand with them, he should resign. And while we’re about it, let’s revisit the University of East London which – mocking their Stonewall Diversity Champion accolade – hosted Usama last June.

Earlier this month a researcher interviewed me about what institutions should do about campus religious conflict. I basically said the following kind of thing. Institutions should reflect the wider context back to the groups at the centre of any contentious episode. If the institution is providing premises for an event, then the institution has ultimate responsibility for the rhetoric and values pushed at that event. If an institution insists on free expression even for ideologues who would kill gay people, then it must also insist on debate. It would run contra to academic values for ideologues, if they are to be hosted, to go unopposed and undebated in a university setting. Ideologues are essentially unacademic: they are neither disinterested nor attempting balance. As such they should not have a platform to themselves. And when students host political meetings they should be responded to as adult political agents. Institutions should restate their values, in opposition to preachers of hate. They often don’t.

I didn’t go to the One Law For All rally, because I was supposed to be doing some work, as I am now. But they are probably our best hope against these bloody clerics, the totalitarian values of the people who invite them, and our capitulating leadership. Without solid, human rights-based groups like those below we will certainly polarise between the fundamentalist or hateful Islamism of Al Qaradawi and Abu Usama, and the similarly intolerant Islamophobia of Geert Wilders and Stop the Islamisation of Europe.

First and foremost, hold the centre against the fundamentalists. Don’t let it happen that we only recognise what we have once we’ve lost it. And once we have marginalised the fundamentalists, we can go back to fighting among ourselves again, just like old times.

Bonus link: Gwen Griffith-Dickson speaking at Gresham (transcript available) on countering extremism and the politics of ‘engagement’.

Iran’s Green Movement

This is an anaemic post about a subject I think about a lot but don’t seem to be able to do justice to here.

Mehdi Khalaji, writing for the Washington Institute, points to splits between Ahmadinejad’s opponent Mousavi, himself deeply conservative, and the young third generation of Iranians who comprise the majority of Iran’s Green Movement.

Hamid Tehrani posts videos on Global Voices Online.

And a predecessor, Tahirih, Persian martyr, who unveiled at a conference in 1848 and was later executed.

On the dangers of an open comments policy

If you are standing up for something controversial, or standing up for something controversially, and if you are read enough, you will attract scummy, hateful comments.

Marko (cross-posted on Harry’s Place):

“I believe that, given the scale of Harry’s Place, its bloggers – who need to work and eat – can’t reasonably be expected to spend their lives fighting with the bigots, over and over again. But I believe that the need to prevent bigots and malicious individuals in general from hijacking a blog and using it to promote hatred against an ethnic or religious minority should outweigh any abstract belief in the principle of open comments.

The purpose of a discussion on a political blog such as Harry’s Place should be to enlighten and inform its participants and readers. There is nothing whatsoever to be gained from anti-fascists and bigots slugging it out, again and again, over the question of ‘are all Muslims evil ?’ A minimum of common values needs to be held by participants in a discussion for the discussion to be meaningful. I believe there is no point in talking to people who do not support rights for, or who are hostile to, entire categories of people – as defined by ethnicity, nationality, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I would favour excluding such people from discussions at Harry’s Place.

Harry’s Place has broken the left-liberal taboo about criticising Muslim fascism and bigotry. It is in this context of taboo-breaking that it has, in my opinion, opened the door too wide, and provided a forum in which not only can Muslim fascism and bigotry be scrutinised and condemned, but anti-Muslim bigots can turn up and spew hatred against Muslims in general.

There is no point in criticising Harry’s Place unless you recognise that this taboo needed to be broken. Unfortunately, Islamophobia Watch devotes a lot of effort to precisely the sort of moral-relativist exercises that Harry’s Place is legitimately reacting against: repeated, uncritical defences of the anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi combined with wholly hostile polemics against genuine progressives and human-rights activists from the Muslim world or Muslim backgrounds, such as Maryam Namazie, Irshad Manji, Ed Husain and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Al-Qaradawi’s and his supporters’ statements about Jews are broadly equivalent to the statements about Muslims made by the anti-Muslim commenters at Harry’s Place that are here under discussion (Some might say: ‘Oh, but we don’t really hate Jews/Muslims; we’re just criticising Zionism/Islam ! And that’s an ideology, isn’t it ?! So it’s ok to attack Zionism/Islam as viciously as possible…’ – yeah, right…). There is a big difference between merely allowing anonymous bigots to post comments on your blog without challenging them, and actually writing whole posts in uncritical defence of a prominent bigot.”

This is why I like Harry’s Place. It hosts its critics.

As somebody who would like to spend less of my life worrying about web-based racism and its role in street-based racism, I think this is eminently good counsel.

I raised the issue of, particularly, anti-Muslim comments a while back but at that time I think there was the hope that readers would weigh in and overwhelm the bigots with anti-racist arguments. This post was such a rallying cry:

“Don’t stand by and let hatemongering go by, unopposed. I do not moderate comments, because I trust our side to win all the arguments. But that will only happen if you challenge anti-Muslim bigotry, and do not let it slide by.”

But there was too much bigotry, and too specialised. Just as Comment Is Free revealed the depth and extent of anti-Jewish feeling, free comment on Harry’s Place revealed a highly worked-out Islamophobia which seeks to attach itself to fear of political Islam.

Probably a good component of a comments policy is “This blog will not host hatred unless we see a use for it as a foil for our own messages of coexistence”.

Like Marko, I would like to extend my ongoing encouragement and gratitude to Harry’s Place for the difficult and necessary arguments they have put up and defended.

There is no point in criticising Harry’s Place unless you recognise that this taboo needed to be broken. Unfortunately, Islamophobia Watch devotes a lot of effort to precisely the sort of moral-relativist exercises that Harry’s Place is legitimately reacting against: repeated, uncritical defences of the anti-Semitic, sexist and homophobic Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi combined with wholly hostile polemics against genuine progressives and human-rights activists from the Muslim world or Muslim backgrounds, such as Maryam Namazie, Irshad Manji, Ed Husain and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Al-Qaradawi’s and his supporters’ statements about Jews are broadly equivalent to the statements about Muslims made by the anti-Muslim commenters at Harry’s Place that are here under discussion (Some might say: ‘Oh, but we don’t really hate Jews/Muslims; we’re just criticising Zionism/Islam ! And that’s an ideology, isn’t it ?! So it’s ok to attack Zionism/Islam as viciously as possible…’ – yeah, right…). There is a big difference between merely allowing anonymous bigots to post comments on your blog without challenging them, and actually writing whole posts in uncritical defence of a prominent bigot.

One law for all

When I first heard that the Labour Government had quietly betrayed minorities – most seriously, Muslim women – by granting powers of enforcement to Sharia courts run by the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal in Nuneaton, London, Birmingham, Bradford and Manchester with more planned for Glasgow and Edinburgh, I was on the train and I couldn’t kick anything.

“There are concerns that women who agree to go to tribunal courts are getting worse deals because Islamic law favours men.

Siddiqi said that in a recent inheritance dispute handled by the court in Nuneaton, the estate of a Midlands man was divided between three daughters and two sons.

The judges on the panel gave the sons twice as much as the daughters, in accordance with sharia. Had the family gone to a normal British court, the daughters would have got equal amounts.

In the six cases of domestic violence, Siddiqi said the judges ordered the husbands to take anger management classes and mentoring from community elders. There was no further punishment.

In each case, the women subsequently withdrew the complaints they had lodged with the police and the police stopped their investigations.

Siddiqi said that in the domestic violence cases, the advantage was that marriages were saved and couples given a second chance.

Inayat Bunglawala, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “The MCB supports these tribunals. If the Jewish courts are allowed to flourish, so must the sharia ones.”

It’s rare but I’m with him on that. No way should Beth Din rulings have been permitted as enforceable. I think that the reason for the muted response to this development some years ago is that the orthodox Jewish community is small and introspective. But allowing it was an important act of sabotage which I hope to see repealed soon in the name of equality.

See Maryam Namazie (via Harry’s Place).

In a nutshell, my view on this is. Practising Muslims welcome in Britain. One secular law for all. Private courts? Well I can’t stop them but I resent them, they are used to affirm the subjugation of women, and they mustn’t under any circumstances be enforceable under British law. There’s a reason they are staffed by men and more men – the laws they inforce are inherently discriminatory.

I’m a piss-poor feminist and I do realise there’s no way I can win this argument. When women have told me that they want to cover their hair it’s been a battle I don’t want to pick. This is obviously different. I don’t want to undermine women in their wishes but I believe that the wish to acquiesce to a blatantly inferior and more dependent position in society is a symptom of subjugation. This is my backyard, I’m not going to sit quietly and let it go on with the explicit approval of the law.

I want to live alongside Muslims, Jews, Hindus as equals – in order for this to happen we need a single secular law for all.

Paul Kelly:

“Liberal secularism is not a religious belief and has no non-political value. It is a view that applies to politics which is fundamentally characterised by ineradicable disagreement. It is of course possible that some religions might accept Liberal values only until demographic change gives them the monopoly of power. This is one of the dangers inherent in the system. But if a religious or political view does persist in claiming that it alone is not bound by the long-term obligations of Liberal civility, then it can hardly complain if it is criticised or vilified as a dangerous and backward doctrine. Such was the position of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe for much of the last four centuries, and it is a perception that it has struggled hard to overcome in the last 50 years. Moderate Islam is engaged in a similar struggle today.”

I intend to support the moderates in this matter.

See also Women Living Under Muslim Law.

Point taken

Anyway, earlier in the week I was conveniently speculating about “most Muslims” and “ordinary Muslims” and how they don’t support terrorists. Then Seumas Milne said they did. The Quilliam Foundation says they might possibly.

Okay, okay – I don’t know. The latest CIF post from Musa Bora (formerly The Islamicist, these days Mr Moo) made me feel a bit satirised actually:

“One Muslim family were flitting between our field and another field next to it, where a small picnic was taking place. We were informed that these handful were the last remaining “ordinary, decent, hardworking” people left in the country…

An ordinary decent hardworking man told us of his plight: there used to be hundreds of thousands of people like him, and MPs based entire election manifestos around their group. But singletons, indecent, lazy and eccentric people had all influenced the group till there were only six families left. “Once the internet started, that was the end for us. They all started blogging, or commenting,” he said. I beat a hasty retreat.”

This is not a good feeling. Usually Musab Bora is making me laugh. Now I’m making him laugh (or would).

On the asymmetry of the Israel-Hamas war

Associate editor of The Guardian Seumas Milne talks about the “one-sided burden of casualties” on Gazans of Israel’s recent strikes on Gaza. Rory McCarthy also repeats The Guardian line:

But this remains an unequal conflict. There have been thousands of Palestinian rockets fired – 2,000 only last year – and they have killed 13 people in Israel in the past four years. But in the last five-day operation alone at least 106 Palestinians were killed.

This asymmetry is often brought up to bolster the argument that Israel is a regional tyrant. But this kind of underdoggism lumps ordinary Palestinians together with Hamas, in a way that Israelis and Gazans themselves wouldn’t, as the objects of Israel’s aggression – as if Israel were targetting all Gazans instead of carefully aiming at Hamas positions.

It unthinkingly demands an even playing field without any apparent attempt to evaluate the aims of the weaker side. Hamas as it stands is inimical to a healthy democracy – this is why it has been boycotted by the US and EU since it assumed power in last summer’s putsch. Hamas‘ stated aims are to wage war on Jews, cancel Israel, claim the land as Waqf, and Islamify everybody and every institution there. It squashes journalists, trade unions, women, LBGT people and dissenters, and allows or encourages the targetting of religious minorities.

On the other hand Israel has its own far right minority – which is not on the whole militant but which is pro-settlement and in favour of annexing Palestinian land. But the majority of Israeli citizens, like most Palestinians, want a two-state solution along the lines of the Taba negotiations. Israel, as well as being up to its eyeballs in a disastrous occupation, is within its borders a zone of tolerance and democracy.

So you wonder why, when Hamas is targetting civilians and mostly missing and Israel targetting Hamas and inadvertantly blowing up civilians in the process, commentators like those in The Guardian should imply that if these children preparing for missiles in Ashkelon:

Ashkelon children March 2008

looked more like these blasted-up Palestinian children:

dead or wounded palestinian children

then Israel would have a better moral case for defending itself.

1741 – hard Islam stirs

Islam and the West. A Dissonant Harmony of Civilisations by Christopher J. Walker, 2005, pp 210-211

There was a stir in the depths of the Arabian peninsula. The year 1741 had seen the first preaching of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab in Arabia. In 1804 his followers, the puritanical Wahhabis, had gained control of the Islamic holy places and outsted the easy-going Ottomans who had been guardians of the sacred areas hitherto. A lax regime of flexibility and non-fanaticism was expelled to make way for strict belief in the harsh Hanbalist version of Islam, which gave a central position to devout literalism and punishment. The new regime was also an act of rebellion against the Ott oman sultan, who requested Muhhammad Ali to end the revolt. In 1812, Ibrahim, the som ofMuhammad Ali, captured Medina and then Jeddah on behalf of the Ottomans. The Saudi state appeared destroyed by 1818. Briefly, Arabia returned to a less extreme version of the faith. But then Wahhabism regrouped in the interior, in Riyadh in 1846, under Faisal al-Saud. Gradually over the following decades the Wahhabis, in the form of the Saud family, extended their power. The favour shown to hard Islam by Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1876-1908, was a further help to them.

The attitude of Europeans to the Wahhabi takeover in Arabia has always been puzzling. Observers have described it in terms of the return of Islam to its authentic roots. Islam has been perceived and described as becming fully itself bybeing hard and unflinching and attuned to desert life. The desert has been seen as the cradle of uncompromising monotheism, a view which is at odds with the reality of the pleasure-loving polytheism of pre-Islamic Mecca. The edge of mercilessness and uncompromisingness was always attractive to a certain kind of westerner. Westerners thrilled at the sharpened blade of tempered steel and loved the idea of blood draining cleanly into the desert sand.

But was there anything in Islam itself that demanded that the faith become uncompromising and austere? Islam had been Islam when it was the scholarly Mutazilite faith of the Abbasid court of al-Mamum, which had translated Aristotle and enforced doubt and scepticism. Islam had been equally itself when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had discussed a disbelieving theology with her Turkish host in Belgrade. The faith had, and has, been equally authentic when it had been allied to art and mysticism in Persia. It was to a great extent a western male military fantasy that it was solely its authentic self when it was harsh, uncompromising, desert-driven, blood-edged, knowledge free and lacking in the fine arts. The fantasy was driven by ignoring the parts of the Koran that talk of compromise, tolerance and peace, giving focus instead only to warlike texts. It is as though Christianity were to be described as inauthentic except for its appearance as an austere mortificatory practice among solitary hermits in the Egyptian desert; or Judaism incomplete except among those entirely observant of the minutest details of the 613 precepts of the Torah. Lord Cromer’s dictum was that ‘Islam cannot be reformed, that is to say, reformed Islam is Islam no longer; it is something else; we cannot as yet tell what it will eventually be’. This is surely an unhistorical fantasy, ignoring both the Mutazilite Abbasids, who had sponsored the translation of Aristotle, and the Sufisticf brotherhoods of popular Islam practised in Anatolia, Iran and the Indian subcontinent.