UPDATE: 7 November 2018: Janet Daby MP pulled out of the event
This is not an article about Imam Shakeel Begg. Everything that there is to know about Begg is now a matter of public record. Rather, its purpose is to discuss the process by which extremism enters the political mainstream, and the consequences of that process of legitimation.
Begg is speaking at an event, this evening. His co-speakers include two Lewisham MPs: [Janet Daby] and Vicky Foxcroft.
There can be few people active in Lewisham politics who are not fully aware of the nature of Begg’s views. He is an extremist. We know this to be the case because two years ago, he attempted to sue the BBC for reporting on his political views, and failed. In the judgement, Begg was described by the High Court as:
“an extremist Islamic speaker who espouses extremist Islamic positions”
The Hon Mr Justice Haddon-Cave went on to say the following about Begg’s conduct in cheerleading for those convicted of serious terrorist crimes:
In my view, the Claimant’s BELMARSH PRISON SPEECH (2012) was particularly sinister. What the Claimant was, in truth, seeking to do was to signal sub silentio, his unalloyed admiration and praise for the Belmarsh Muslim prisoners for what they had done, i.e. for being virtuous and brave enough to fight. The Claimant was not only expressing his sympathy and solidarity with the Belmarsh Muslim prisoners’ for their plight, but also approval of their crimes.
Begg makes it clear what he means by the term ‘jihad’:
We have lost our practicality of Islam. A person will scream about Jihad. A person will scream and shout yes we need to fight. But where is the practicality about doing something for islam? You want to make jihad? Very good. Don’t shout and scream and fight with your Muslim brother who is doing something else for the deen. Take some money and go to Palestine and fight, fight the terrorists, fight the Zionists in Palestine if you want to do this. But Muslims have the lost the practicalities of the deen of Islam.
Begg also believes that helping the families of convicted terrorists is a form of jihad:
Helping the families of brothers who are in prison, giving to those families, supporting those families, coming to their aid when they are in times of need and help, is like as if we are making jihad in the path of Allah. And we know jihad in the path of Allah is of the greatest of deeds that a Muslim can take part in.
Now, imagine that you are a Labour Member of Parliament for a Lewisham seat. Your own political party is organising a rally, entitled Lewisham Labour Against Racism. The title of the rally is: “Stop Tommy Robinson’s Far Right Allies And The Racist Democratic Football Lads Alliance Oppose Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism”. It seems like a good cause to support.
Perhaps you aren’t told, up front, that you will be speaking alongside Begg. But when you see his name on the advertisement for the event, you don’t withdraw.
Now, let’s look at this situation from the perspective of a young man, in a pub, after a football match. He is approached by a Democratic Football Lads Alliance organiser who invites him to a demonstration. He tells him that they are the only ones addressing extremism, that politicians are are crooks and frauds who are lining up alongside the extremists against the likes of him, that now is the time to make a stand. That is his first step into a dark world of conspiracism and hatred directed at Muslims.
The press picks up on the story of the MPs appearing alongside an extremist. The MPs might threaten to back out of the event unless Begg is disinvited. But the organisers of the rally know who Begg is and, frankly, aren’t likely to take him off the platform. What does the MP do?
To refuse to appear would mean accepting that they had made an error of judgement. Who wants to do that?
Begg is delighted. A court may have determined that he is an extremist, but he holds the two MPs as his trump cards against future criticism. Who are you going to trust, he might ask: some bewigged judge with a double-barrelled name with an antipathy to Muslims, or two hard working Labour MPs who spoke alongside him at an anti-Islamophobia rally?
There, in a nutshell, is the process of reciprocal radicalisation. Prejudices are confirmed, scepticism overridden. The warring tribes have formed battle lines, which show no sign of shifting.
At one time, in the not so distant past, a Member of Parliament could have been trusted to possess the judgement and the authority to break that circle of radicalisation. She would have known that it is just wrong to ally with extremists in order to fight extremism. No longer.
There is hunger in this country for a policy of anti-extremism in the round. Until it emerges, there is no prospect of an end to the corrosive polarisation that currently endangers our body politic.