Policy Exchange on GP&U, and Nick Clegg: A Fisking

Lib Dem Voice has already noted Nick Clegg’s attack on Policy Exchange’s document (.doc) profiling certain speakers and exhibitors at this year’s Global Peace and Unity event. The discussion on LDV included several people suggesting that Policy Exchange might have a point, so I thought I’d have a look into this. To my mind there are several questions here that should not be confused, so I will deal with them separately.

1. Are Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes lending credibility to cranks by going to this event?

Well, only if they are equally endorsing the views of Tony Benn, Ian Blair, Dominic Grieve, Tony McNulty and a host of others by doing so.

Here’s a list of the attendees Policy Exchange have issues with:

Director:
Mohamed Ali Harrath

Speakers:
Sheikh Yusuf Estes
Sheikh Yasir Qadhi
Sheikh Muhammad Alshareef
Rt Rev Riah Abu El-Assal
Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss
Mohammad Ijaz ul Haq
Ebrahim Rasool
William Rodriguez

Here’s a list of the people they don’t mention who are also speaking:

Yusuf Islam
Abdul Wahid Pedersen
Sheikh Tawfique Chowdhury
Jermaine Jackson
Reverend Jesse Jackson
Tony McNulty MP
Jack Straw
Simon Hughes MP
Nick Clegg
Sir Ian Blair
William Ernest “Bill” Rammell
Moazzam Begg
Sir Iqbal Sacranie OBE
Lord Sheikh
Shahid Malik MP
Dominic Grieve MP
Ahmed Zakayev
Zareen Roohi Ahmed
Salma Yaqoob
Tony Benn
John Rees
Lord Nazir Ahmed
Sadiq Khan
Stephen Timms
Richard Barnes
Imran Khan
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari

Obviously, many on the latter list are also muslims, but Policy Exchange aren’t lauding the event for encouraging dialogue with moderate Islam, they are trying to pick out those people with allegedly reprehensible views. This is legitimate, certainly, but somewhat divisive and negative of them. More importantly, the presence of other politicians at the event, including from Labour, Conservative and Respect, serves usefully to underline the point that in no way do speakers at this event think they are endorsing the views of other speakers at the event, any more than MPs who speak in the House of Commons are endorsing the views of everyone else present in the chamber at the time.

2. If we believe in free speech, do we have a responsibility to challenge people saying bad things?

I mention this only because Geoffrey Payne seems to think we do:

Well I do not see the point in allowing free speech and then not taking the opportunity to challenge the opinions you disagree with. [ie. boycotting the event]
Free speech allows debate, but you do not want a debate, and so you will leave these opinions to go unchallenged. How is that useful to anyone?

I have to say, one reading of the above seems a bit odd. Surely we cannot, as liberals, be expected to be responsible for rebutting all things which we disagree with that are ever said, wherever they are said, just because we are in favour of people’s right to say them?

However, there is rather more of a case that since Nick (and Simon) are there, they do indeed have a responsibility to speak up against views they disagree with. There doesn’t seem to be much point in their being there if they don’t.

3. Is Nick right to criticise the dossier Policy Exchange have produced?

Well, the specific criticism he makes is that the dossier “seeks to raise alarm over a number of the speakers planning to attend the conference. The accuracy of the allegations is variable, with a notable lack of evidence to support many of the claims.”

Of those assertions for which sources are quoted in the footnotes, the sources are as follows:

Probably Reliable:

  • Companies House documents
  • Interpol
  • The Guardian
  • The BBC
  • South African Broadcasting Corporation News
  • Muslim Council of Britain
  • The Washington Post
  • A Youtube video of Sheikh Yasir Qadhi speaking for himself
  • The Houston Chronicle
  • The BBC
  • Court Documents from Pennsylvania

Not sufficiently well known to me that I’d consider them an authority, but nothing I can find wrong with them:

Dubious:

  • Insight Magazine (a controversy over the specific article cited is noted on Wikipedia; this is the citation of evidence from SANE to which Nick refers. Policy Exchange’s quote from David Gaubatz takes on a rather different sense when you bear in mind that SANE believe Sharia is treasonous)
  • The Investigative Project on Terrorism (whose founder showed some prescience of the threat from Osama bin Laden, but has not gone without criticism, and looks to be something of an alarmist)
  • Frontpage Magazine (edited by git-wizard David Horowitz)
  • Open letter printed on Al Manar TV‘s website (Al Manar being a Lebanese Hezbollah mouthpiece likely to present things in a way that reflects well on Hezbollah)

So Nick seems to be on reasonable ground to point out that some of the people cited are equally biased as the people they are quoted in criticism of, but that’s by no means true of all of them. Now, lets look properly at the claims themselves. All of Policy Exchange’s dossier is quoted below, in this colour. Anyone else’s material will not be coloured, to make it easier not to get confused.

Director

According to Companies House, the director of Global Peace and Unity PLC is Mohamed Ali Harrath. Mr. Harrath is also the CEO of Islam Channel. He is a Tunisian national for whom there is currently a red notice on the Interpol website. According to the notice, the Tunisian Government has issued an arrest warrant for offences including: counterfeiting, forgery, crimes involving the use of weapons and explosives and terrorism. His date of birth and nationality provided in the red notice match the details given by Companies House. It must be noted however that the Interpol red notice is not an arrest warrant, but indicates that the Tunisian Government has requested he return to the country to face charges.

Fair enough. Director of the company in charge seems to have a dodgy past, at least according to the Tunisian government.

Sheikh Muhammad Alshareef

Mr. Alshareef is the Canadian born founder of the Al Maghrib Institute and a graduate of the University of Medinah. He graduated in 1999 with a degree in Sharia.
He has written an article entitled Why the Jews Were Cursed, in which he explains that Allah has punished the Jews because of the way in which they responded to his blessings. He concludes by saying that Muslims “should not take them (the Jews) as our close allies…should not imitate them…(and) a Muslimah may never marry a Jewish or Christian man that remains in his beliefs.”

Well, yes, but the article in question appears to be more or less a survey of all mentions of Jews in the Quran, and interestingly, Policy Exchange don’t quote the following from straight after the bit that they do quote:

Is all this a death sentence on the Jews? Nay, Allâh’s infinite Mercy has left the gate open for ANYONE who wishes to come back to him.

[And if only the People of the Scripture had believed and feared Allâh, We would have removed from them their misdeeds and admitted them to joyful Gardens] – Ma’idah 5/65

So we are left with an impression of Muhammad Alshareef as maybe more bigoted than he is. Whilst the views they quote from him are unpleasant, that is in the nature of religion and in particular the notoriously cherry-pickable Quran. I don’t see a reason to single out Alshareef over this.

Mohammad Ijaz ul-Haq

Mr. ul-Haq is the son of former Pakistani president Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. He is a Pakistani MP and former Federal Minister for Religious Affairs.

As such one might argue that this alone qualifies him to be at the conference. No matter what awful views they might attribute to him, he is a valid choice to invite to an event aimed at promoting useful dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims from around the world, in the interests of peace.

In June 2007, after Salman Rushdie was awarded a Knighthood, Mr ul-Haq, who was at the time Religious Affairs Minister, suggested this was a justification for Muslims to carry out suicide bombings. He was reported by a number of UK newspapers to have said: “This is an occasion for the 1.5 billion Muslims to look at the seriousness of this decision…The west is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body he would be right to do so unless the British government apologises and withdraws the ‘sir’ title.”

One might almost suspect that this controversial pronouncement was one of the reasons he was considered an interesting choice to invite to the event. There is absolutely no point inviting people with views we can all agree with to an event to promote dialogue and understanding. By definition, there has to be something to understand and reach accomodations over. Bridging (somehow) the gap between the more fundamentalist demands of Islam and the tenets of liberal democracy (including freedom of speech) are central to promoting peace. No?

According to online Pakistani news portal, The Daily Times – translating an article in an Urdu newspaper called Daily Jang – during a controversy over the sexual abuse of children by ulema (Islamic scholars) at Islamic seminaries in Pakistan, Mr ul-Haq urged that the reporting of such incidents should be concealed so as not to blemish the reputation of the scholars.

Well, again, this just emphasizes that this is a man who is not from the liberal democratic tradition, and who sees his role as to some extent a religious one. The Catholic church has arguably spent years keeping similar issues quiet for the same reasons. That doesn’t make either right, but lets not get ahead of ourselves in our condemnation of other people’s extremists.

Rt Reverend Riah Abu El-Assal

Until 2007 Mr. El Assal was the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem.

Again, as much as we might disagree with his views, this somewhat justifies his invitation in and of itself.

According to a Christian website based in Nazareth called Come and See, Mr. El Assal gave a lecture in Ramallah in February 2003 where he said: “Greetings of appreciation to all martyrs that were killed on the Land of Palestine.” He also added that all martyrs receive eternal life and they “live in the Kingdom of Heaven”. In order to support his statement he quoted the following Koranic verse: “Do not consider those that were killed for the sake of God as dead, but alive with their Lord”. When he was questioned about these remarks during an August 2006 BBC Hardtalk interview, he did not deny the comments attributed to him by Come and See, though he did claim that he was referring to “worldwide martyrs” and not Palestinians.

As bizarre as the quoting of Koranic verse by an Anglican minister seems, none of this seems all that outlandish to me. We don’t know what he means by “martyrs” without more context – he may not mean suicide bombers, which is what we are supposed to assume. We oughtn’t to forget, of course, that Christianity has its own hall of fame of martyrs. I might be wrong, but I suspect in the eyes of Policy Exchange, Ijaz-ul-Haq’s real crime is failure to fall in line slavishly behind Israel.

Ebrahim Rasool

Mr. Rasool is a member of the South African ANC party and a former Premier of the Western Cape Province.

In May 2007, Mr. Rasool, in his capacity as Premier of the Western Cape Province, received a Hamas delegation to South Africa for discussions.

In June 2007 he addressed the MCB, and according to the MCB press release: “He commended the MCB for serving as a ‘point of coherence’, ‘a point of articulation’ and a ‘point of focus’ for British Muslims and their religious identity. He noted that Government cannot pick and choose with whom it seeks to speak to – the only credible dialogue will be with the institution that represents the community and has its trust.”

Errr… and? I don’t even see what it is this guy is supposed to have done wrong, other than talking to Hamas. If Policy Exchange want to take the McCain-Palin side of the “talking to people we don’t like” argument, fine, but I don’t agree with them on that, so to me this seems a rather pathetic attack.

Sheikh Yusuf Estes

Sheikh Estes is a convert to Islam and director of the Islamic Mission Foundation International in the United States.

In an October 2006 Washington Post article, the author Asra Q. Nomani reports that she heard an audio sermon by Estes where he advises men on how to deal with disobedient wives:

First, “tell them.” Second, “leave the bed.” Finally: “Roll up a newspaper and give her a crack. Or take a yardstick, something like this, and you can hit.”

Ms. Nomani then writes that she contacted Mr. Estes to ask him for a clarification of his position and he said he was attempting to limit how and when men hit their wives.

OK, I’ll give them this one, he doesn’t seem like a very nice person, and if he’s based in the US he doesn’t even have the cultural relativist defense, he has every opportunity to know better. I would just add, however, that the Quran is arguably on his side (ridiculously interpretable book that it is), and that by the sound of Nomani’s article, this view is pretty widespread in Islam, even in the US, so again, the central point that you have to talk to the people you disagree with if you aren’t wasting your time.

Sheikh Yasir Qadhi

Sheikh Qadhi is an instructor at the Al-Maghrib Institute and the Al Kauthar Institute.

In a March 2008 lecture on the Islam Channel he refers to the original Channel 4 Undercover Mosque Programme. In this talk he claims that the Wahhabi cult is a group invented by non Muslims in order to “divide and conquer” the Muslims. He also states that “we are loyal to our countries insofar as it does not conflict with our religion of Islam”, and that homosexuality is an “aberration against God.”

In the Houston Chronicle, Qadhi has mentioned that he is on the US Department of Homeland Security terrorist watch list.

Yes, he does. Specifically, he says:

“The main problem the Muslim community has … is the presumption of guilt,” said Yasir Qadhi, a Houston imam and a doctoral candidate at Yale University. “It is the singling out of people just because of their looks or their identity.”

Muslims are routinely detained and questioned at airports and other ports of entry, he said. Qadhi also protested the denial of visas to imams and other religious leaders who are invited to this country to speak.

Sutherland said his office was empowered to investigate any complaints over discrimination and urged Muslims to report any incidents and problems.

Qadhi said he was detained for five hours, along with his wife and three small children, about four months ago when he drove back from Canada through Niagara Falls. He said he is routinely detained whenever he enters the country.

Qadhi said his name is on a terrorist watch list. He said he has no idea how he got on the list.

Anyway, back to Policy Exchange:

According to David Horowitz’s Frontpage magazine, during a 2006 lecture on the Koran’s Surah Yusuf, Mr. Qadhi denies that Hitler’s aim was the genocide of the Jewish people:

“All of these Polish Jews which Hitler was supposedly trying to exterminate, that’s another point, by the way, Hitler never intended to mass-destroy the Jews.”

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m going to take Frontpage with a pinch of salt for now. I don’t have any reason to specifically disbelieve this, though, so I’ll give Policy Exchange that this guy probably isn’t very nice either.

Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss

Rabbi Weiss is an activist and spokesman for Neturei Karta International, an anti-Zionist group of orthodox Haredi Jews. This group is known to actively support both Hamas and Hezbollah.

Meaning what, exactly? No source quoted.

In March 2008 Rabbi Weiss was a co-signatory to a Neturei Karta open letter to Hezbollah leader, Hasan Nasrallah. Much of the letter praises Nasrallah and his work:

We now turn to Your Excellency, Sayyed Nasrallah ever so humbly, and ask you to accept our words and to convey these words with the following message to the citizens of Lebanon and to the Palestinian people in refugee camps in your country.
May we reiterate that we speak to you as the voice and messengers of true Jewry — the Jewish people, true to the Almighty’s Torah, from around the world.

Although we are limited in the means of expressing our deepest and true feelings, by the barriers of words, nevertheless, the Jewish people humbly offer to you and all of Lebanon, Gaza and the entire Palestine, a few words, to attempt to convey our support, deepest sorrow and heartfelt sympathy that we all feel for you, in this present tragic and traumatic time.

Once again may we state it would be only proper and fitting, that we personally write to and address each and everyone who has fallen victim of the Zionist state of “Israel”. Unfortunately and how tragic, the list of victims is daunting.
May our few and humble words be a message of consolation, friendship, loyalty and support to you, the people of Lebanon, and to the people of Gaza and the entire Palestine.

Doesn’t look all that supportive of Nasrallah to me. Yes, they express support for “the citizens of Lebanon and to the Palestinian people in refugee camps in your country”, and later, “you, the people of Lebanon, and to the people of Gaza and the entire Palestine”, but they say nothing in the quoted section of the letter in support of Hezbollah’s actions. It’s a pretty standard anti-zionist statement of regret about the grievances that people in Lebanon and the occupied territories have towards Israel, which they are understandably keen to separate from Judaism per se. Nothing especially reprehensible on display here, other than opposition to the state of Israel (NB. Not to the people who live there).

Naturei Karta also attended a December 2006 conference in Iran informally known as the ‘Holocaust denial’ conference, which questions the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Though they do not deny the Holocaust, the group believe that it was and still is being used by Jewish people as “tool of commercial, military and media power”.

As Jews, they have some right to say this, and they are free to go where they want and talk to who they want.

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik

Imam Johari Abdul Malik is the Director of Outreach at the Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Centre in Virginia, USA.

There is a recording of Imam Abdul-Malik giving a sermon at the Dar al Hijrah in 2004, in this lecture he spoke of how Islam shall become the primary religion in the United States:

“People even under the pressures that you and I know about, the deen of Islam is growing because people see even within all of this struggle it is better to be a Muslim under these conditions than to be a kaffir under any conditions… before Allah closes our eyes for the last time you will see Islam move from being the second largest religion in America-that’s where we are now – to being the first religion in America.

Um… this seems like a pretty standard aspiration from any evangelical religion. Why are we supposed to think this makes him an extremist?

William Rodriguez

Mr. Rodriguez was a janitor at the World Trade Centre and survived the 9/11 attack on the North Tower.

In October 2004 he filed charges against 156 parties including: The President of the United States, The Vice President, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), claiming their complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Among his allegations were that the Twin Towers were brought down through the use of controlled explosions, and the Pentagon was in fact struck by a missile and not by American Airlines flight 77.

Uh-huh. A 9/11 truther. Well, yes, it is disappointing that such a person is invited to this event, when there are all sorts of 9/11 survivors they could have invited if they wanted one. But I’m not convinced this is evidence that this man is a dangerous extremist. There are any number of slightly naive teenage rebels who are convinced of the same arguments, widely available from websites and films like Loose Change. People can think what they want. In this case, they’d be wrong. But it’s a good thing that Rodriguez tried to bring the issue to wider attention in a forum where evidence could be properly presented etc., and rather more laudable than just spreading silly rumours online, claiming anyone who argues with you is obviously drinking the Kool-Aid.

I can’t be arsed to look at stallholders, I’m sure that out of a whole bunch of stallholders, Policy Exchange will have managed to dig up two dodgy ones. Big whoop.

So, to sum up:

Director:
Mohamed Ali Harrath – criminal record in Tunisia, seems fair enough.

Speakers:

  • Sheikh Yusuf Estes – wife beater
  • Sheikh Yasir Qadhi – David Horowitz says he’s a holocaust denier, and he thinks Channel 4 are trying to “divide and conquer” Islam
  • Sheikh Muhammad Alshareef – provides a roundup of what the Quran says about Jews
  • Imam Johari Abdul-Malik – wants to convert people
  • Rt Rev Riah Abu El-Assal – quotes a Quran verse about “martyrs”, whatever he might have meant by that
  • Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss – anti-Zionist
  • Mohammad Ijaz ul Haq – supports bombers over Rushdie award and wanted to cover up child abuse
  • Ebrahim Rasool – spoke to Hamas
  • William Rodriguez – 9/11 truther

So, it’s fair to say that there is a mixture of some fairly unsavoury and some relatively innocent people in Policy Exchange’s list. They are right to say that some of them hold some pretty unpleasant views, but in other cases their dossier is rather slippery and unfounded.

Anyway, are Nick’s criticisms justified? Well, we’ve got this far, so let’s just go a bit further, and take his criticisms bit by bit:

I am writing to ask you to retract an offensive dossier that Policy Exchange has been privately circulating condemning the Global Peace & Unity Event scheduled for the coming weekend in London.

This is the fourth year of this conference. It will be attended by 30,000 people and is geared towards promoting harmony and dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Policy Exchange briefing I have seen seeks to raise alarm over a number of the speakers planning to attend the conference. The accuracy of the allegations is variable, with a notable lack of evidence to support many of the claims.

Maybe overstating his case a bit here, but some justification for this. What he also could have mentioned is that some of the “evidence” is quoted as if it amounts to rather more than it actually does, which is a subtler accusation, so maybe he was wise to steer clear of it.

In particular I was appalled to see ‘evidence’ quoted from the Society for American National Existence, an organisation which seeks to make the practice of Islam illegal, punishable by 20 years in prison. I need hardly point out how illogical it is to attempt to criticise one set of extreme views by citing another.

Fair enough, with the elaboration that by “the practice of Islam”, SANE mean signing up to Sharia law in its totality, a divisive but not unreasonable position.

My concern is not limited to the facts in the document, however. Your attempt to raise a boycott of this event by privately briefing against it is bizarre, and underhand behaviour for a think-tank supposedly interested in open public debate. The information you are disseminating is extremely narrow in focus and as a result tars with the brush of extremism the tens of thousands of Muslims who will be in attendance.

Yes, and not only this, but it also attempts to tar the majority of speakers at the event, whose existence Policy Exchange doesn’t even let on.

Of course, no-one should condone violence or bigotry. But neither must we allow the repugnant acts of a minority of dangerous individuals to be a reason to deny the one million British Muslims – and indeed all other members of British society – the right to meet together to celebrate faith and discuss the importance of peace. The sad truth is you play into the hands of the men you seek to discredit, driving further the alienation of the majority of Muslims who see themselves mischaracterised everywhere they turn as would-be terrorists.

That a think-tank professing to promote ‘a free society based on strong communities [and] personal freedom’ would act to undermine tolerance across our society worries me greatly.

The space for debate is currently filled with few voices, a fact that extremists capitalise on. If we are to truly achieve a society in which all peaceful members are free and equal, that space must be filled with reasoned and principled debate. That is why I shall be speaking at the conference, not hiding from open discussion. We must challenge publicly the ideas of those who propagate terrorism and instead promote the cause of peace and freedom in Britain for all citizens.

All very true, and I can only say that for Nick to follow through on this, he does indeed have to challenge the few genuinely objectionable views that Policy Exchange highlight.

I therefore urge you to withdraw this briefing and to call off any plans to circulate it further. I also suggest that if you want to make a positive contribution to this debate that you step out of the shadows and make yourself heard.

Eminently fair.

So, all in all, I’m not quite sure what the LDV commenters are up in arms about. Yes, if I was Nick I might have reworded this slightly, but in its general thrust, the letter is entirely correct.

I will finish, if I may, with a reiteration of this point: To urge a boycott of an event just because there are people with dodgy views at it is bonkers. What Policy Exchange are arguing here is that we shouldn’t talk to people with views we disagree with. They are just opposed to the whole idea of the event, but they choose to hide this in favour of attacking some of the specific people who happen to have been invited. This is a cowardly way to make an argument. They would have done much better to make a proper case for no-platforming (which is what they are arguing for, really), and to have made it publicly. That they didn’t is underhanded of them, and Clegg is quite right to have called them out on it. Meanwhile, by going to this event, Clegg and Hughes (and various other MPs) are making an explicit stand against no-platforming. Good for them.

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