“Literature always anticipates life,” Oscar Wilde opined in his essay “The Decay of Lying”; “It does not copy it but moulds it to its purpose.” Recent developments in British politics seem to confirm Oscar’s aphorism. In 2015, Michel Houellebecq published his political fiction Submission, anticipating the democratic rise to power in Europe of the Muslim Brotherhood. Widely dismissed as “Islamophobic”, his dystopian novel, set in France in 2022, identifies how Europe’s political elites abandoned the Enlightenment project, alienated the masses and created the conditions for the emergence of a new extremist politics on both the Left and the Right.
The novel’s protagonist, François, an alienated Sorbonne professor, observes that mainstream political parties had created “a chasm between the people and those who claimed to speak for them, the politicians and journalists”. The latter, “who had lived and prospered under a given social system”, could not “imagine the point of view of those who feel it offers them nothing, and who can contemplate its destruction without any particular dismay”. In this context, the political system “might suddenly explode”.
In France the explosion takes the form of a run-off in the second round of voting for the French Presidency, between Marine Le Pen of the right-wing National Front and the recently emerged Muslim Brotherhood Party’s representative, the charismatic, but fictional, Ben Abbes. To avoid a far-Right victory, both mainstream socialist and conservative parties, eliminated in the first round of the French election process, give their support to Ben Abbes, who becomes the first democratically elected Muslim President of the Republic.
From the outset, the new President distances himself from jihadi fanaticism. Instead, Abbes, a disciple of Machiavelli as well as Mohammed, sees Europe “ripe for absorption into the Dar al Islam”. Subsequently, the Republic runs along sharia-approved but moderate Islamic lines. The University of Paris becomes an Islamic university, polygamy is approved and generous family payments allow women to give up work. Unemployment falls, education is privatised and Islamised through charitable donations, and small business is encouraged. The old elites convert to the faith and France rediscovers the joys of patriarchy and a sense of political purpose.
Although France now has a small Democratic Muslim Party, the least convincing aspect of Houellebecq’s fiction concerns the Muslim Brotherhood Party’s rapid rise to power. It is here that political life, taking its cue from art, has intervened, and not in France, but in the UK, where the electoral system has proved far more accommodating to the rise of a non-violent form of political Islam. Transposing Houellebecq to London and fiction into political reality, recent local elections saw Labour Party candidate Sadiq Khan succeed Boris Johnson as the first elected Muslim Mayor of London. Predictably the British, American and Australian media applauded the result as a victory for tolerance and multiculturalism. Nikki Gemmell, writing in the Australian, positively contrasted London’s election, emblematic of the city’s dynamic “open, and embracing energy”, with Australia’s parochial and “paranoid defensiveness”. In the media’s enthusiastic embrace of Khan, no commentator paused to reflect whether the result in fact demonstrates a new and significant stage in the slow-motion Islamisation of the British political process.
“Life copies art,” Wilde argued, and Sadiq Khan, like Ben Abbes, is charismatic, opportunistic, politically astute and media-friendly. He easily saw off his Conservative opponent Zac Goldsmith’s attempt to brand him as an Islamist fellow traveller. The son of a Pakistani bus driver, Khan studied law at North London University, and joined a left-leaning legal practice. He rapidly rose through the Labour ranks from the London Assembly, to MP for Tooting in 2005, and a Minister of State for Transport in Gordon Brown’s government. From 2010, a close ally of former Labour leader Ed Miliband, he served as opposition Shadow Chancellor. Ostensibly a left-leaning democrat who formally dissociates himself from Islamist ideology, he has nevertheless been a close associate to the former left-wing Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, and retains links to the pro-Palestinian tendency on the Labour Left that, under Jeremy Corbyn, has captured the party leadership.
In the context of post-Blairite Labour’s embrace of anti-Zionism and its appeasement of jihadi-inspired violence in Europe and the Middle East, Khan’s political emergence is particularly noteworthy. In 2004, he chaired the Muslim Council of Britain’s legal affairs committee that defended the visit of Muslim Salafist scholar Dr Yusuf Al-Qaradawi to London. Al-Qaradawi wrote The Lawful and Prohibited in Islam, which justified wife-beating and condoned “martyrdom operations” against Israeli civilians. In Khan’s eyes, however, Al-Qaradawi was not an “extremist”. Two years later, Khan was one of the signatories of a letter to the Guardian that blamed terrorist incidents, such as the July 2005 attacks in London, on British foreign policy, particularly Britain’s support for Israel.
In his politically adroit campaign for the mayoralty, Khan distanced himself from Ken Livingstone and the Labour Left’s anti-Zionist and pro-Palestine tendency, emphasising in his manifesto his London roots and his commitment to “tackle the spread of extremism”. His apparent tolerance of Israel, however, is of recent vintage. Rather than question Khan’s political chameleonism, a compliant media instead dismissed any attempt to draw attention to his former Islamist associations as “Islamophobic”.
Sadiq Khan, in fact, represents the acceptable face of a wider and little-noticed Islamification of progressive politics in the UK. The number of Muslim MPs sitting in parliament almost doubled between 2012 and 2015 from eight to thirteen. Local council elections in May returned 277 Muslim councillors, 6.5 per cent of the total, overwhelmingly representing Labour wards. The rise of Muslim Labour coincides with a dramatic rise in the Muslim population, which doubled between 2001 and 2011. According to the Pew Center, the Muslim population of the UK was almost 3 million or 4.8 per cent of the overall population in 2015.
This increase also coincided with Tony Blair’s New Labour strategy to re-engineer and diversify the composition of the UK population after 1997. Andrew Neather, a former Blair adviser, proudly observed that Labour presided over a policy of mass migration to make the country “truly multicultural” and “rub the Right’s noses in diversity”. The policy succeeded perhaps too well and not in a way that New Labour foresaw.
The dramatic rise in the Muslim population between 2001 and 2009 overlapped with the emergence after 2003 of an anti-Zionist, anti-US and anti-capitalist tendency on the Left of the Labour Party. Correlation is not necessarily cause, yet while Sadiq Khan is notably emollient in his multicultural message, others in the post-Blairite Labour Party are not. They include Naz Shah, the Labour MP for Bradford West, who thinks Israel should “relocate” to the United States. Here again political reality imitates Houellebecq’s fiction. Under the influence of Respect Party Leader, and former Bradford West MP George Galloway, support for Palestine has become central to the politics of this northern mill town, home to 215,000 Muslims or 25 per cent of the town’s population. Naz Shah’s views on Israel are relatively moderate compared to those of her former mentor, Galloway, whom she fell out with and defeated in the 2015 general election, or Galloway’s ally on the militant Left, Ken Livingstone.
Ironically, the Blair government’s attempt to modernise and diversify British democracy by altering the Representation of the People Act (2000) and permitting postal ballots on demand, enabled Islamists and their fellow travellers on the Left to manipulate the Muslim vote. In 2014 the Electoral Commissioner, Richard Mawrey QC, found that the misuse of the postal ballot had facilitated electoral corruption in the UK’s second city, Birmingham, on a scale that would “disgrace a banana republic”. Mawrey subsequently found former Labour leader of the East London borough of Tower Hamlets, Luffur Rahman, guilty of electoral fraud on “an industrial scale”. Rahman had links to the fundamentalist Islamic Forum for Europe. Galloway and Livingstone, predictably, labelled Mawrey’s findings “racist”.
How, we might wonder, did this curious political amalgamation between political Islam and the multicultural anti-capitalist Left evolve, and why have the mainstream media, the political class and academe condoned or ignored the Islamic tendency in UK politics?
Three related factors account for this development and its deleterious implications for secular liberal democracy. First, the transnational Left, in the UK and elsewhere, experienced what Nick Cohen identified as a “dark liberation” after 2003. From this post-Iraq perspective, the United States and its allies function as the neo-liberal, imperial enemy, whilst Israel plays a special role as its demonic accomplice. Imbued with theories of Zionist world conspiracy, notes Cohen, “dark liberation” excuses even the most “brutal theocratic-fascist regime, as long as they oppose the United States and the capitalist status quo”. The post-Iraq utopian Left, comprising transnational networks of NGOs, sympathetic academics, radical pacifists, indigenous peoples and environmental activists, seeks to overthrow the neo-liberal empire. Those committed to this anti-capitalist worldview now lead hundreds of activist groups and NGOs, conduct seminars and receive support from Western governments and eleemosynary institutions, enjoy various despots as their cheerleaders, are woven into the workings of the UN and the EU, and subscribe to a coherent though by no means uniform ideology. Crucially, this ideology redescribes the recourse to jihad, not as a violent attempt to impose Islamist values, but as a form of emancipatory “resistance”, perpetrated by a small, alienated Muslim minority.
A further consequence of this world-purifying utopianism thus considers home-grown terrorists as the victims of an oppressive capitalist social order. Whether it’s Michael Adeybolajo and Michael Adobelawaye murdering Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013 or the Kouachi brothers and Ahmedy Coulibaly attacking the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, the transnational Left considers home-grown jihadis the inevitable product of a fractured society. Whether it’s the Parisian radical feminist and film-maker Rokhaya Diallo, or Jeremy Corbyn adviser and former Guardian columnist Seamus Milne, it’s liberal secular democracy and Western foreign policy, not the Koran, that creates Islamic State and jihadism in the West.
Advancing this zombie-Left worldview, therefore, requires the active compliance of the West’s progressive media to reinforce this perverse interpretation of secular free-market democracy. Its distinctive rhetoric favours speech acts that limit debate, conceal and prevent thought, and label pejoratively those who identify the totalitarianism implicit in Islamism’s political religion. “By naming things wrongly,” Albert Camus observed, “we add to the misfortunes of the world.” The BBC’s current editorial guidelines, which counsel journalists to describe terrorists as “militants” and always refer to the “so-called Islamic State”, are perhaps the most obvious examples of this developing political language.
More troubling still is the acceptance into common usage of the pejorative noun “Islamophobia”. Shiite propagandists first coined the term in the wake of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution in Iran. Later, in London, those campaigning against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses realised they had more to gain by transforming their status from assassins implementing the Ayatollah’s fatwa to victims of Islamophobia. In the 1990s, the Runnymede Trust and the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a London-based, UN-recognised NGO, promoted the term’s use. The IHRC’s founder, Massoud Shadjareh, hands out annual awards for Islamophobe of the year. (The 2015 ceremony, held less than two months after the Paris attack, awarded the international prize to Charlie Hebdo.) To those who cry “Islamophobia!” any criticism of Islamic fanaticism, or, as we have seen, the legitimate investigation of the former political associations of a figure like Sadiq Khan, is a form of racism against Muslims. It elides racist attacks on mosques or Muslims with liberal criticism of sharia law, the treatment of women or religious violence. “Islamophobia” operates as a semantic signifier deterring all criticism of Islam and foreclosing debate.
It also features as a key term in the double-think of prominent Muslim public intellectuals like Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and holder of the Saudi-endowed Sheikh Hanafi bin Khalifa al Khari chair in Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford. Ramadan and his fellow travellers, such as the Trotskyite owner of the French journal Mediapart, Edwy Plenel, present European Muslims as misunderstood and marginalised, and Islamism as a form of resistance to Islamophobic colonialism and racism. As the French feminist Caroline Fourest observes, “If words are weapons this is one designed to hurt secularists while feigning to target racists.”
In the evolving political accommodation of political Islam, the Anglosphere media’s Olympian pursuit of balance and cultural sensitivity has proved seminal. In the wake of the massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists, Sky News, the BBC, CNN, NBC and ABC refused to show the satirical journal’s cartoons, thus taking balance and “responsibility” to absurd lengths.
More worrying still, it is often only the apologists for fundamentalism that are permitted a voice in the “ethically responsible” UK press. Somewhat predictably, the Guardian refused to publish a piece it commissioned from Michael Goldfarb that exposed the equivocation and distortion in Islamist political rhetoric of the Ramadan variety.
New global media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter reinforce the anti-secular relativism of the Guardian model, blocking videos mocking terrorists, whilst messages calling for the murder of apostates or beating up Islamophobes on social networks are rarely withdrawn.
The liberal dread of being labelled Islamophobic, a penchant for tolerating the intolerant, combined with the fear of provoking violence, has effectively silenced intelligent debate about the rise of political Islam in Europe and its impact on secular democratic politics. Over the past decade, not only the media but also the art world has opted for collusion and self-censorship.
The combination of Islamophobia, balance and the omnipresent threat of violence means that it has become impossible to organise a conference or even a debate on political Islam and freedom of expression on a British or Australian campus. The preoccupation with “safe spaces” on Western campuses, along with the fact that the Gulf States endow chairs in Islamic Studies at Oxford, Princeton and Griffith University in Australia further inhibits discussion. Of 198 member states of the UN, ninety-four have blasphemy laws and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation regularly pushes for the UN Human Rights Council to recognise the defamation of religion.
The rising price of political freedom, it seems, is too high for many Western governments to pay. The long war for cultural freedom which began in 1989 is in serious danger of being lost. As Karl Popper observed of an earlier totalitarian threat to the open society, “If we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” We should therefore claim “in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant”. Unfortunately, this argument does not gets much air-time, let alone political support.
The UK media and the national student union now consider any mention of inconvenient facts about vote rigging in Asian, primarily Muslim communities, or the imposition of sharia law in some UK communities, as “Islamophobic”. Thus the Guardian, the BBC and academe ignore or condone the profound change in the character and conduct of UK politics that the resistible rise of Sadiq Khan and Naz Shah intimates.
“Life imitates art, far more than art imitates life,” Oscar concluded his essay on lying. Yet the slow-motion collision of mainstream Islam with the multicultural transnational Left has led to a Ben Abbes-style transformation of liberal democratic London into a progressively illiberal, Islamophile Londonistan that exceeds even Houellebecq’s fervid imagination.
Associate Professor David Martin Jones is Reader in Political Science at the University of Queensland. His latest books are Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age (2014, with M.L.R. Smith) and The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles, and Paradoxes (2015, also with M.L.R. Smith). He reviewed Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission in the March issue.