A Question of Tone

8th May 2019

Over a decade ago, I spent some time cataloguing the various hate preachers and dubious meetings taking place at the East London Mosque and the activities of the associated Jamaat-e-Islami aligned Islamic Forum Europe. A number of my pieces considered the conduct of a particular IFE activist, who was given to making especially inflammatory statements. When it came to describing the activities of those associated with that institution, I did not mince words. 

Around that time, I was invited to a book launch. At the reception afterwards, a pleasant chap sidled up to me. He introduced himself as a senior IFE activist. I knew him by name, but had not met him previously. We hit it off.

The event drew to a close and we decided to amble back to the station, together. On the way back, he said something to me which took me by surprise. I paraphrase, but it was along the following lines:

“All those pieces you’ve written about [Activist X]. Look, we know he’s a nut. But every time you lay into him, it builds his reputation up, and makes it more difficult to do anything about him.”

I think about that conversation quite often. Was he right? Should I have chosen calm and measured persuasion over urgency and alarm?

Certainly, back then, my style of argumentation was rather more combative than it is now. That was for good reason. Nobody appeared to be paying any attention to a desperate problem: an attempt to induct of a community into an ideology which advocated a caliphate as the solution to the ills of the world, the application of the huddud punishments, and a nasty sprinkling of racism and homophobia.

For every piece that focused on these concerns, I’d read another two or three which insisted that there was no cause for alarm. In particular, I’d seen some of the most problematic institutions welcomed into progressive politics, through alliances with Labour politicians, campaign groups and senior police officers. Shouting appeared necessary to me, if only to impress upon people how serious the situation was likely to become.

I don’t think I was wrong in my assessment of the dangerous nature of the situation. My specific point was that a milieu in which the creation of a caliphate was held up as the best form of government, and where respected leaders taught that it was a religious obligation to create and defend such a regime, would ultimately create cannon fodder for theocratic totalitarian terrorist movements. That is, indeed, what happened.

I wasn’t alone in expressing these worries. Through my writing, I became close friends with a number of people who had spent time in Islamist politics: who shared my sense that disaster was looming and that if the problem was not effectively addressed, the whole country would pay the price of inaction. My articles gave them hope, or at least a sense that they weren’t alone in their profound concern.

But I don’t shout quite so much, these days.

Calm persuasion is sometimes more effective than angry rhetoric. When an uninvolved listener hears two people screaming, they tend either to tune out or split the difference. Moreover, outrage works well when you are pressing a counter-argument. But I’m more interested, these days, in explaining what I’m for – democracy, equality between persons, respect for fundamental human rights – than what I’m against. Most people are now well aware of the problem that hate preachers and their hosting institutions pose. The task now is to build strong coalitions around the alternative.

This may appear simply to be a strategic decision, the success or failure of which can be determined by the eventual result. But there’s another aspect, too. We ought to prefer a world in which rationality triumphs over passion. It is difficult to achieve that outcome, if you’re always screaming at the top of your voice.

This doesn’t let those within an organisation with a serious problem, and who did nothing, off the hook. It may have been the case that my attack on the activist in question made it more difficult to reign him in. Possibly. But that really should be no excuse for inaction.

I’ve tried to live by that maxim, when I’ve seen people on ‘my side’ who have conducted themselves poorly, too. We all have an obligation to police our own boundaries.