Brexit and the Muslim Community

The decision of the British public to leave the European Union has presented Muslims with a complicated situation. For most of us, the result was an unexpected setback which reinforced discriminatory fervour amongst a broad section of the population, and signalled the beginning of increased economic uncertainty. As we have now been made aware by data from Lord Ashcroft Polls, 70% of Muslim voters chose to remain, no doubt as a means of countering these issues.1 Yet despite the ostensibly beneficial nature of voting to remain, it may be that Brexit presents the community with some relief regarding their foreign policy concerns, as the UK, EU, and perhaps even NATO will need to reconsider the extent of their capacities to intervene in the Middle East. If anything is certain at this early stage, it can only be that time will uncover how Britain fares post-Brexit, and what the long term implications will be for the Muslim community.

Perhaps the strongest communal argument against Brexit would be its notable, albeit not absolute association, with Islamophobia and racism. Therefore, it was to be expected that the triumph of Brexit would be accompanied by a surge in anti-Muslim incidents, with a 57% increase in hate crimes against Muslims and others reported by the National Police Chiefs’ Council.2 Reports of specific attacks do not serve to ease concerns. A Halal butchers in Walsall was firebombed, yet despite a local council leader reporting a “notable increase in tension” in days prior, the detective inspector said he would be “keeping an open mind” regarding the motive behind the attacks.3 A Muslim woman, who wished to remain anonymous, was threatened and spat on whilst at McDonald’s with her children, an event that left her “feeling sad, confused and truly afraid for the safety of myself and what my children may witness.”4 Closer to home in Leyton, Adil Jamil was attacked with a crowbar as he drove his friend back from the local Masjid. The attacker smashed his windscreen before attacking a Somalian bystander and shouting verbal abuse about Muslims. When commenting on the general climate, Adil said: “There is always a chance incidents like this can rise after the Brexit vote because of the way the people tried to portray certain parts of the community. I think it’s always a risk but there’s a higher risk of attacks now because a lot of the people who hold racist views believe 52 per cent of the country is with them. Of course that’s wrong.”5 Along with these more physical attacks, came the accompanying barrages of online and verbal abuse, with recurring reports of Muslims, or seemingly anyone with Brown skin, being told “Get out, we voted leave”, chants of “bye bye you’re going home” and, of course, the inevitable use of the word “paki”, in addition to other remarks not befitting a Muslim newspaper.6 Sadly, all of the above can only be perceived as “business as usual”, following a 200% increase in anti-Muslim incidents offline during 2015 according to Tell MAMA.7

The economic prospects of the community, whilst not wholly bad, do not inspire much optimism given uncertainty. During the campaign, it appeared as though the remain side had dominated the argument in this respect, with various studies and reports, including analysis from the Bank of England, forecasting not only economic disadvantage, but a possible recession.8 Such an outcome would inevitably have meant a rise in unemployment, and therefore particularly disastrous consequences for the Muslim community, which has long been subject to job discrimination. Far from being assessed fairly on the basis of merit and personal circumstance, Muslims have been the most disadvantaged UK minority in the workplace, as academic research has shown.9 In light of this, it will be of interest that unemployment levels have remained at their lowest in a decade, with 31.7 million people in work from March-May, presenting us with a 176,000 increase from December-February. As bleak as employment prospects often look for Muslims, it can at least be said that the job market has not been made even more inaccessible. Even so, the post-Brexit economy appears to have shown some signs of decline, presenting us with what the Financial Times termed as a “mixed picture”. The Pound has dropped to 9%-12% against the Dollar, and 9% against the Euro, this is beneficial for exports, though imports are now more expensive. A consumer confidence survey from GfK found that most households reported expectations of lower salaries and reluctance to spend. Even so, it is too early to speak in wholly negative terms. Much still remains uncertain, and will only become clearer with the government Autumn Statement in November.10

Perhaps even more disturbing than the domestic situation, is the enduring plight of the refugees. The triumph of Brexit and the prevailing anti-immigration sentiment has highlighted the broader demonisation and neglect of refugees by politicians, not to mention their troubles as political capital. Among the various campaign spectacles, was the now infamous Ukip campaign poster depicting a crowd of Syrian refugees, and the words “Breaking Point” in red. The poster told us: “We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders.” As a comparison from the New Statesmen pointed out, the image appeared disturbingly similar to Nazi propaganda.11 That said, the remain side cannot claim a spotless record on this matter either. It is also difficult to forget David Cameron’s own scaremongering regarding the 2003 Le Touqet Treaty with France, which permits British border officers to operate in Calais and the French to operate in Dover. Despite the treaty not being subject to the European Union, Cameron stated: “should we leave the EU then some of these other arrangements that we may have with other countries, for example the juxtaposed controls we have with France, could be called into question.The point here is that if that’s called into question and those controls cease to exist, then you have potentially thousands of asylum seekers camped out in Northern France who could be here almost overnight.”12 Not long thereafter, Francois Hollande clarified that casting doubt on Le Touqet “doesn’t make sense,” and that, contrary to Cameron’s assertions, there would be no reconsideration of the treaty.13

Whilst the politicking surrounding immigration regresses, it is the refugees who continue to live in uncertainty. Al-Jazeera spoke with Alaa Ahmad, a Syrian refugee currently trapped in what has been termed the “Jungle” refugee camp near Calais, though he had hoped to be granted asylum in Britain. In commenting on the effects of Brexit, he related widespread fears that refugees could be rejected en masse: “After the result I’ve been worrying more about the future … a lot of people here are thinking about what their situation will be like if they reach Britain and there’s a lot of concern about whether asylum laws will change.”14 With the premiership of Theresa May, this would be a distinct possibility given her history of attempting to strictly limit entry into the UK. Her efforts include granting only a minimum stay of protection and the denial of automatic rights to settle for refugees who have travelled through a safe country to Britain, and also successful asylum seekers who have overstayed their British visa.15 It is also suspicious that May has decided to “absorb” the post of minister for refugees into the Home Office, a decision that some would point to as an outright abolition.16 Whatever the truth of this most recent maneuver, it cannot be denied that the British government has a poor history in meeting its targets regarding resettlement. According to a report released by Oxfam, the UK has only taken in 24% of its “fair share” of refugees.17 This ineptitude and neglect flirts dangerously with the worst of right-wing politics, including the far-right on the European continent, a fact which has not been lost on the refugees themselves. Al-Jazeera also spoke with Ammar, another Syrian man in the camp, who said: We don’t know what’s going to happen in one or two years, and now the extreme-right parties are growing and that’s worrying us.”18

Whilst the refugees are seen as a burden on Europe and the UK, they possess important insights as to why this crisis exists in the first place. In the words of Muhammad, another refugee near Calais, British intervention in Syria has been a contributory factor toward the destabilization which has prompted people to flee en masse: “The people who voted out and are against immigration should know a lot of their tax money is used for striking countries like Syria … a lot of the reasons people come to their country is [due to] its politics,”19 Interestingly enough, it is here that Brexit may yield the most interesting results. The new cabinet is not unlike its predecessor in terms of foreign policy objectives, but for the fact that its affirmation of global engagement is now somewhat more abstract as a result of the referendum. The basic post-Brexit objectives were set out by new secretary of state Boris Johnson who, in his speech to the United Nations, was quite plain in expressing that Britain would not recede from the world stage, stating: “Brexit means us being more outward looking, more engaged, more energetic, more enthusiastic on the world stage than ever before.”20

This notion was also affirmed by the leading conservative think-tank Policy Exchange, which recently issued a report entitled Making Sense of British Foreign Policy After Brexit: Some Early Thoughts, a part of the organisation’s “Britain in the World” project set up by none other than Michael Fallon, the secretary of defense. The report expresses a false reluctance regarding military interventions, as the concession is given that such policies are: “The last thing that the public or the political establishment want.”21 Even so, this concession is rendered meaningless by the priority of maintaining the traditional British alignment with America in order to expand the influence of NATO abroad for the advantage of its member states. This was also applicable to the EU until recently. As President Obama had said in his Telegraph op-ed during the campaign: A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership. The United States sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue – including within Europe.”22 The fact that a major American means of influence in Europe is now leaving casts doubt on American abilities to shape its policies in the future. NATO is still an American-led project, however, and here the “special relationship” continues. With regard to the Muslim world specifically, the report also mentions the increased need to co-operate militarily in the region under the pretext of bringing stability: “The Syrian civil war continues and the security situation is deteriorating in Iraq and Libya. There is also reason to believe that the next US administration might be more activist in this area, in a way that might place further demands on the UK (in the context of a reinvigorated security relationship).”23

Such statements will appear troubling for Muslims in Britain, the vast majority of whom abhore the previous debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Even so, the point remains that any future engagements in the Middle East, North Africa, or indeed anywhere else, will be limited by Britain’s reduced ability to commit to NATO “as an active and burden sharing partner”, something analysts have already recognised. The report cites an article Christopher S. Chivvis of the American government-financed RAND Corporation, who previously expressed skepticism that Brexit would strengthen the British military contribution to NATO. In response, the report attempts to allay such concerns by claiming that an increase in overall defense spending would be a gesture of commitment that would strengthen NATO: “The reality is that Brexit creates the conditions for strengthening not weakening NATO. Removing the layer of EU-related political interests and obligations from UK’s strategic calculus should make London a more responsive and efficient NATO partner. NATO is an even more important conduit of UK’s influence than it was before the EU referendum vote.”24 This policy this does not address the issue of enduring economic uncertainty with the UK, and how this is impacting the impressions of observers. This was noted by Chivvis himself in the referenced article. As he put it: “Most analysts are skeptical, however, that the overall economic effect will be positive for the U.K, and if the U.K. faces more economic hardship in the near term as a consequence of Brexit, its investment in defense capabilities is very likely to suffer. This would also be negative for NATO.”25 The defence capacities of the UK could also be subject to another concern given the likelihood of another referendum for Scottish independence. With 62% of Scottish voters having elected to remain, Nicola Sturgeon is well able to justify consideration of a second referendum by next year.26 As has been noted by Ian Bond of the Centre for European Reform, a victory for the SNP would mean a possible loss of the £3.3 billion contribution to the UK defence budget, in addition to “…a significant part of its defence infrastructure.”27 In summary, it is sufficient to cite Chris Doyle of the bipartisan Council for Arab-British Understanding: “…it is tough to imagine Britain will have time or resources for any new global initiatives at all. Only the most reckless of prime ministers would embark for example on a new war in the Middle East with this uncertainty enshrouding his country.”28

It should also be remembered that Brexit will impact the EU as much as it does the UK. Chivvis continues: “Without the U.K., the E.U.’s military and defense capabilities – including in key areas such as strategic lift, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, and special forces – are considerably reduced.”29 These assessments do not mean that intervention in the Middle East will cease tomorrow, or indeed any time soon. Even Doyle ends his analysis with the recognition that Brexit has proven that “British politics has become disturbingly unpredictable.”30 Despite its newfound limitations, the British government still covets its various interests in the Muslim world, whether it be natural resources, or the maintenance of regimes that repress unfriendly dissenters. Even so, if any form of political development were to prompt a British reconsideration of the its role abroad, it would be one of this scale at least.

The final issue then, is what Muslims in Britain could or should do in order to address the issues mentioned herein. It is apparent that, in aggregate, there are both clear negatives and positives regarding Brexit and that, whether one voted to leave, remain, or not vote like myself, making the most of this situation now falls to us. It is evident that hatred towards Muslims is only intensifying and, in the short term, da’wa is the only means by which negative attitudes towards Muslims can be countered in this country. It is a duty on us, and one which has lead to thousands of people in Britain to revert to Islam on yearly basis.31 If nothing else, it would ease community relations if non-Muslims in this country could at least better understand Islam by being presented with a more authentic version than what is shown in political propaganda. The refugee crisis and broader international situation will be solved primarily by those regional governments with the capacity to intervene, whether it be in Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere, in order to establish a political arrangement that the population can converge upon. It appears that intervention will become increasingly burdensome for the UK post-Brexit, therefore Muslims in Britain should make it clear that regional governments already possess more than adequate military forces with which to accomplish such a goal. Muslims should continue to stress that interference from western governments will only disrupt local efforts, and aid the growth of ISIS and takfiri jihadism as an ideology. It should also be stressed that if national security is truly a concern for the post-Brexit government, then acknowledgment of this fact is within British interests, as is the reduced threat to British soldiers. It is fitting to close with a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu ‘alayi wasllam). As it occurs in Sahih Muslim: “Amazing is the affair of the believer. Definitely, all of his life is good and this is not for anybody except the believer. If something of good happens to him, he is grateful and that is good for him. If something harmful befalls him, he is patient and that is good for him.” Whilst Brexit may bring its share of problems and uncertainties, it can only mean good provided we are thankful to Allah ta’ala and remain patient.

7 The Geography of Anti-Muslim Hatred: Tell MAMA Annual Report 2015 (London: Faith Matters, 2016), 10.

9 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/homenews/britishmuslimsfaceworstjobdiscriminationofanyminoritygroup-9893211.html; Sundas Ali et al., British Muslim in Numbers: A Demographic, Socio-Economic and Health Profile of Muslims in Britain Drawing on the 2011 Census (London: The Muslim Council of Britain, 2015), 58-60.

31 M. A Kevin Brice, A Minority Within a Minority: A Report on Converts to Islam in the United Kingdom (London: Faith Matters, 2011), http://faith-matters.org/images/stories/fm-reports/a-minority-within-a-minority-a-report-on-converts-to-islam-in-the-uk.pdf

The Panama Papers: Accounting the Sharif Family

This is the first in a series of articles on those subject to corruption and tax evasion charges in light of the Panama leaks. I hope to cover the diverse range of people subject to controversy in future articles, though I plan to focus mainly on the Muslim world. Those subject to any charges will be analysed in light of their record, and also the facts in relation to the current leaks.

The Charge

This scandal involves Nawaz Sharif and three of his children, Maryam, Hassan, and Hussein. According to the ICIJ:

Controversy has long engulfed Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family, including three of his four children – Mariam, Hasan and Hussain – over their riches from a network of businesses that include steel, sugar and paper mills and extensive international property holdings. At various times, depending on the political party in power, the Sharifs – one of Pakistan’s richest families – have been accused of corruption, ownership of illegal assets, tax avoidance and money laundering. Mariam, Hussain and their father have been detained on such charges, exiled to Saudi Arabia and also acquitted. When allegations first surfaced in 2000, a family member called them “completely wrong,” and declared: “This is a very religious family.” Hasan, who moved to London over 16 years ago, and Hussain have been running family businesses from abroad. Mariam reportedly is being groomed to take over leadership of her father’s political party.”1

Three children of former and current Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – Mariam, Hasan and Hussain– were owners or had the right to authorize transactions for several companies. Daughter Mariam Safdar was the owner of British Virgin Islands-based firms Nielsen Enterprises Limited and Nescoll Limited, incorporated in 1994 and 1993. Sharif’s first term as prime minister ended in 1993. The companies owned “a UK property each for use by the family” of the companies’ owners. Hussain and Mariam signed a document dated June 2007 that was part of a series of transactions in which Deutsche Bank Geneva lent up to $13.8 million to Nescoll, Nielsen and another company, with their London properties as collateral. In July 2014, the two companies were transferred to another agent. Mossack Fonseca knew that Mariam Safdar was Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, a “Politically Exposed Person,” and committed to checking her activities twice a year beginning in July 2012. Hasan Nawaz Sharif was the sole director of Hangon Property Holdings Limited incorporated in the British Virgin Islands in February 2007, which acquired Liberia-based firm Cascon Holdings Establishment Limited for about $11.2 million in August 2007. Mossack Fonseca resigned as agent for Hangon because Hasan Nawaz Sharif was a “Politically Exposed Person.”2

It should be mentioned that having an offshore account is not illegal in Pakistan, though the Sharif family has a long history of corruption scandals, which raises suspicion. Nawaz Sharif has denied any wrongdoing on the part of his family, and was bold enough to claim he has never betrayed the trust of the nation.”3 Likewise, Hussein Sharif claimed that his family have operated in accordance with Pakistani law, given that nationals living abroad are not required to file income tax papers if they live abroad for 180 days or more.4 He also reiterated that offshore companies are legal, and provide a means to avoid paying what he termed “unnecessary taxes.” Hussein has also claimed he sold a steel mill in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia during 2006 in order to secure funding for offshore investments.5 Maryam tweeted an official statement which claimed that Hussein and Hassan have lived in Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom for over two decades, and reiterated that “neither is a tax payer in Pakistan.” We are told they have been “diligently filling their company reports and tax returns in their legal and tax jurisdictions.” It is claimed that Maryam is not involved with the companies beyond her being a trustee, and “has not received any income or financial benefits from the corporations owned by her brothers that warrant any tax disclosures or implications.” It is also professed that Hussein has disclosed the funding for all corporations mentioned in the leaks, with the steel mill being mentioned in particular. The statement ends by reiterating that all corporations owned by the Sharif family, particularly by Hussein, and Hassan, are “financially sound.”6 Other family members have been more critical. Nawaz Sharif’s sister-in-law, Tehmina Durrani, stated that legal facilitation for vast offshore wealth is itself a major problem, tweeting: “Even if off shore companies, foreign properties, and accounts ’mite’ be legal, for ME they are unethical,”7

The Record

The value of the Sharif family overseas holdings remains a mystery, though the family itself has been mired in corruption charges in the past. Nawaz Sharif is a particularly dubious figure in this regard, and one cannot discount that his penchant for corruption may have come to influence his children, and that he has profited as a result.

Nawaz Sharif’s political career began at the behest of his father, Muhammad Sharif, who urged him to join the corrupt administration of Zia ul-Haq, and later, as reward for his son’s services, the previously nationalised family business was returned. Nawaz Sharif further enriched himself via hefty bank loans, which later caused much controversy. During Sharif’s first term, Pakistani media reports often covered stories about various politicians demanding loans worth millions and during his second term in 1998, Sharif himself admitted to various outstanding debts. He offered the assets of his Ittefaq Group in order to pay these back, but the remunerations were unsatisfactory. The Sharif family relinquished over 33 industrial units to the state, but investigations confirmed most were defunct., thus it came as no surprise that the value of these units did not cover the debts. Various estimates of Sharif’s liability have ranged from 211 billion rupees according to Musharraf’s military regime, to an amount 2-3 times more according to the Pakistani press. Sharif also has a history of both tax evasion, and also paying a negligible amount of taxes. From 1994-1996, he paid under $10 income tax, and whilst it was said this was legal, and that he paid an additional $60,000 wealth tax, the point still remains that his personal wealth would have permitted for much more generosity.8 Allegations of corruption also plagued successive Sharif governments more generally. Allegations emerged in 1991 regarding the embezzlement of public funds culminating in the collapse of Punjabi cooperatives, and a total loss of Rs. 20 billion for investors. Another notable incident came the following year, with the appearance of dubious Foreign Currency Bearer Certificate advertising in American, European, and Japanese newspapers, which offered both source and purchaser anonymity. This was taken as a subtle attempt to launder drug money and led to boycott threats by the American government, which were retracted only when the propositions were halted.9

During July 2000, Sharif was also found guilty under Musharraf for failing to declare ownership of a helicopter he owned during the 1990s, stated to have been worth $1 million. According to the BBC, this was only the first charge of corruption, with 18 separate allegations having been made against Sharif by this point.10 Some Sharif supporters argue that Musarraf’s NAB (National Accountability Bureau) was unable to bring any prosecutions against Sharif, yet this occurred only due to Musharraf’s own dubious morality. Despite his public opposition toward corruption, Musharraf essentially pardoned Sharif by exiling him to Saudi Arabia. Moreover, he granted amnesty to the entire Sharif family. In the end, the NAB was no more a deliverance from corruption than prior accountability bodies, leading to the expected conclusion that: “instead of impartially investigating cases of corruption in order to facilitate the return of social and psychological equilibrium to society, and allowing the country to leave behind the sour memoirs of a murky past and move ahead, NAB’s actions have often been accused of being against the business and investment interests of the country.”11 In its dealings with the Sharif family, this much becomes rather obvious.

During his second term, Sharif became the object of the scandal involving undeclared high-end flats in London’s notably affluent Park lane. Suspicion arose given the deeds of the properties, which were in the name of offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands. Moreover, it so happened that Hassan Sharif was living in one of the flats whilst studying at the London School of Economics. At the time, he freely admitted to not paying any rent.12 More recently, it was reported that he and Maryam raised a $7 million dollar loan from Deutsche Bank using these four flats, which have since been found on the books of Mossack Fonseca according to the recent leaks. According to former Interior minister Rehman Malik, these properties were acquired via ill-gotten wealth earned through corrupt practices”, further claiming that the properties were not declared.13 This is obviously another case of the corrupt accusing the corrupt, though it is doubtful that Malik is mistaken in this case. After all, Malik was suspiciously suspended from the Federal Investigation Bureau by Sharif due to his reporting on the family’s money laundering activities involving £5 million being transported offshore and invested in family businesses via “fictitious bank accounts” in the UK. In a scandalous display of double standards, Sharif charged Malik with corruption and imprisoned him without trial for a year. Malik then fled to London and went into hiding.14 It should also be mentioned that Hussein’s claim regarding the sale of a steel mill in Jeddah is contradicted not only by Malik, but by his earlier claim that he bought the flats in 2006 and took a loan on them in order to finance his business.15

Despite a deeply troubling history of corruption, it can at least be said that Nawaz Sharif appears to have enjoyed a greater degree of approval in his current term according to independent observers. According to a Pew Research Center report from 2014, 64% of Pakistanis reported a favourable view of Sharif, contrary to 32% who opposed him. Furthermore, the report found that concerns regarding corruption in particular had declined by 77%-59%. That said, it is clearly discernible that the country remains politically divided, with 53% having expressed support for Imran Khan and the PTI, and only 24% having disapproved.16 One might add that any increase in approval could only have resulted from the PML-N learning from various past mistakes, and even then, the possibilities of public coercion cannot be ruled out. At present, the calls for Sharif’s resignation can only mean that the Sharif family is under heightened pressure once again. 

The Verdict

The Sharif family has been guilty in the past, and is guilty now. Given his own history, it is rather obvious that Nawaz Sharif has lied in asserting he never betrayed the trust of the nation. He has done so repeatedly, along with his successive regimes. To make matters worse, his children have clearly shared in the family enterprise. Hussein and Hassan may not be obliged to pay tax in Pakistan under current laws, but even if this is true, we still have the matter of how the London properties were obtained in the first place. The Sharif apologetics contradict in this regard, and no adequate response has been given to the allegations of money laundering in the UK. The family must seriously be made to account for where the reported £5 million has disappeared to. It is possible that some of this money may have been transported to family accounts in the British Virgin Islands, and may therefore involve Mossack Fonseca. It is also necessary to discern which family businesses have received this money. All things considered,  it is doubtless the names of Nawaz and his children would emerge under the auspices of a just and independent inquiry. Furthermore, the money obtained from bank loans must also be held in suspicion, given that the properties were used as collateral. Hussein’s notion of “unnecessary taxes” should also be called into question, for even if we assume the legality of his actions, the point still remains that legal reform is necessary to ensure that the rich are obliged to pay their fair share, rather than hoard wealth.

The Sharifs are not the only ones to have essentially stolen from the people. The Panama Papers have shamed 200 amongst the country’s politicians, businessmen, and other influentials. The issue of corruption has plagued Pakistan for generations and has ensured the loss of tens of billions by this point. In the midst of such controversies, one cannot forget the infamous premiership of Yousaf Raza Gilani, who lost Pakistan $94 billion given rampant corruption and tax evasion. Controversies such as these point toward the need for a new political generation, one that can finally address this issue once and for all. Pakistan is subject to shari’a rulings on corruption which make it illegal, and further oblige that any wealth obtained by unlawful means be returned to those wronged. If this is not possible, then such wealth should be invested in public services. Imprisonment of those guilty goes without saying.

8 Owen Bennett-Jones, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 232-234.

9 Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History (London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers Ltd., 1998), 320.

11 Zulfikar Khalid Maluka, “Reconstructing the Constitution for a COAS President,” in Pakistan on the Brink: Politics, Economics and Society, ed. Craig Baxter (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), 63.

12 Bennett-Jones, Pakistan, 232-233.

Charlie Hebdo and the Problems with Laïcité

In its most recent editorial, Charlie Hebdo has demonstrated major flaws in the French doctrine of laïcité, or stringent secularism, by using hyperbolic language regarding secularism supposedly “being forced into retreat.” The signs of this regression are seen everywhere, with malevolent Muslim propagandists, niqab-clad Muslim women, and even halal bakers signifying a worrying trend. We are even told the Brussels Attacks occurred not because of foreign policy or social marginalization, even when conceded “experts” acknowledge such factors, but rather due to the inability to criticize religion, and that such attacks mark “the last phase of a process of cowing and silencing long in motion and on the widest possible scale.” Of course, to the extent that experts are contradicted and bakers are deemed blameworthy, we can confidently state Charlie Hebdo is mistaken.

Whilst the victims are mourned, we are warned about Tariq Ramadan, the noted Islamic studies professor, and believing Muslim, who recently spoke on Islam at Sciences-Po. For Hebdo, this is similar to  a “lecture by a Professor of Pies who is also a pie-maker”, as if the only people qualified to discuss Islam are non-Muslims. When a Muslim attempts to provide some clarity amidst confusion, it must be viewed with cynicism. Their criticisms of extremism appear to matter less. The Hebdo piece claims: “His task, under cover of debate, is to dissuade people from criticising his religion in any way.” Yet when Ramadan was asked about the insulting of Prophet Muhammad in an episode of South Park back in 2010, he did not call for censorship, and simply urged Muslims to “take a critical distance”. The day after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, he made it clear on Al Jazeera that the attacks were to be condemned, and expressed no support for censorship. Of course none of this applies, for Ramadan is taken to be duplicitous, and his success in sneakily undermining Europe is inevitable, for the: “political science students who listened to him last week will, once they have become journalists or local officials, not even dare to write nor say anything negative about Islam.” If that was the actual case, then one would need to explain why Marine Le Pen and the Front National enjoy a notable degree of support in France. If anything is made clear with the example of Ramadan, it is that attachment to strident secularity produces needless fears of a religious takeover, and religious communities by extension.

The editorial proceeds to highlight women who wear the niqab. It is suggested that these women are essentially oppressed in their separation from society, yet pointing this out remains prohibited. In reality, one might suggest that mention of the niqab is made far too often, and almost always in the context of being paradoxically banned in a supposedly liberal environment. Judgement is passed in a sarcastic tone: “So why go on whining about the wearing of the veil and pointing the finger of blame at these women? We should shut up, look elsewhere and move past all the street-insults and rumpus.” Hebdo appears to think that women who wear the niqab perform only one function apart from domesticity, which is to remind us of how religion must be unfairly protected from criticism. As we are told: “The role of these women, even if they are unaware of it, does not go beyond this.” Suffice it to say that Muslim women would give a different assessment of their situation. They would likely condemn a belligerent secularism which exhibits prejudice and excludes them. They would accept that engagement with French society is necessary, but that it must be willing to accept them also. If Muslim women are to be more visible in the workplace, for example, then the phenomenon of job discrimination toward Muslims would need to cease. Then comes the baker. He dares to pray and grow a beard as a Muslim rather than a hipster, which probably would have been fine. The fact that customers love his sandwiches is largely irrelevant on the basis that bacon and ham are off the menu. Hebdo cannot abide the prospect of Ramadan advising them to accept such a spectacle, though he probably would have emphasised the abundance of bacon/ham sandwich-selling bakeries instead. These continue to exist despite the presence of religious sentiments in France, and notions of declining secularity will appear exaggerated until reports emerge regarding the widespread Muslim takeovers of such establishments.

A flash of insight finally occurs when the editorial returns us to Brussels. Quite rightly, we are told about the typical terrorist aspirant who, for instance, has “never looked at the Qur’an in his life”, which is certainly a familiar tendency. Yet despite the ignorance of religion on the part of terrorists, Hebdo still holds that religion is a threat, and one that remains serious because of: “The fear of contradiction or objection. The aversion to causing controversy. The dread of being treated as an Islamophobe or being called racist.” At this point, the Hebdo piece becomes truly convoluted. If terrorists are not associated with religion, they why is it a threat? Because of women who wish to wear the niqab? Because of complimentary Muslim bakers? Is it Tariq Ramadan because of his opposing terrorist ideology whilst encouraging mutual understanding? One might add that in doing so, he routinely expresses the kind of criticism Hebdo claims is under threat. This also applies to Muslim scholars who condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the Paris Attacks, and the most recent atrocities in Brussels. One could go further. What of the French journalist Nicolas Henin? He continues to speak against ISIS after his captivity, whilst offering valued insights in doing so. Lastly, what of the barrages of anti-Muslim abuse one can find both online and, regrettably, within France itself? According to the French organisation CCIF (Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France) there was a 500% increase in physical abuse against Muslims in the months following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but also a 100% increase in verbal abuse. Clearly expression is alive and well  in greater and lesser forms, both socially acceptable and legally invalid.

The Hebdo editorial is truly representative of the problems with laïcité as a doctrine. It produces reactionary and hyper-sensitive attitudes towards religion in the public sphere, such that even harmless displays of religiosity become unacceptable. Under the auspices of this same type of thinking, we hear of rising anti-Muslim sentiments and aversion toward refugees not only in France, but also across Europe. Irrespective of such a passionate ideology, we must remember that Muslims are not asking for much. A harmless niqabi here, or an affable baker there, or even a peace advocate somewhere else, should not be a cause for annoyance.

We must draw the right conclusions following the Brussels Attacks.

The attacks in Belgium have been a cause of sadness and outrage for many, but this has not prevented obligatory politicking on the part of western politicians, and those like minded, in one way or another. The support for sustained military intervention in the Middle East remains a widespread nuisance, being almost universally agreed upon, despite ISIS making it very plain as to why they routinely resort to murder. Certain conservatives recognise the expediency in continued scaremongering over the influx of refugees, despite the threat this poses being relatively low. Beyond that, is the additional political capital to be gained in the business of Islamophobia, made possible by the lack of any real understanding of Islam and Muslims on the part of wider society. So long as these now expected political trends repeat themselves, we can only expect to intensify extremism at home and abroad, which will inevitably lead to more atrocities in the future.

Following the attacks, a series of political  statements subtly expressed the need for intervention, with the UN Security Council emphasising: “the need to intensify regional and international efforts to overcome terrorism,” which will invariably include the continued bombing campaigns of its members. Dmitry Medvedev expressed similar sentiments on his Facebook page, stressing “coordinated efforts by the international community”. Barrack Obama promised “to go after terrorists who threaten our people”. Manual Valls was more strident in his expressions, stating “We are at war. Over the past few months in Europe, we have endured several acts of war.” David Cameron oversimplified the problem by focusing solely on the hatred of European values amongst extremists, to the exclusion of anything else. As Cameron put it: “…although they attack our way of life and they attack us because of who we are, we will never let them win.” US presidential nominee Hilary Clinton followed suit, again focusing on how extremists: “seek to undermine the democratic values that are the foundation of our alliance and our way of life,”. Yet despite unwillingness on the part of some, it must be acknowledged that a correlation between intervention, civilian deaths, and the growth of terrorism does exist, and has been proven many a time over. In the most recent statement issued by ISIS, Belgium is cited as a nation “which has not ceased to wage war against Islam and its people.” The statement continues: “We promise black days for all crusader nations allied in their war against the Islamic state, in response to their aggressions against it, and what is to come will be more devastating and bitter by Allah’s permission.” One might doubt the legitimacy of such an expression given Belgium’s eventual cessation of its Operation Desert Falcon in Iraq last year, however it has been understood from local reports that the civilian death toll from Coalition bombings had ranged from 459-591 by the time of Belgian withdrawal on June 30th. As of last month, it has been reported that the death toll has risen to a range of 1010-1517 based on reliable accounts, which ought to have prompted a reassessment of political claims that intervention does not endanger civilians, and is somehow not a propaganda boon for ISIS recruiters. 

Whilst its aversion toward western liberalism is obvious, the point remains that ISIS will be well-manned in their belligerency until they are unable to recruit. According to Terrorism Studies scholar Arun Kundnani, the “official narrative” that terrorism is caused by the hatred of western values alone “does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny.” Offering a more nuanced perspective, Kundnani states: “The factors which lead someone to commit acts of terrorism are complex and cannot be reduced to holding a set of values deemed to be radical. There is little evidence to support the view that there is a single cause to terrorism. Accepting this analysis has significant implications for the development of policies to reduce the risk of terrorism.” However, whilst accepting the more complex and multifaceted nature of extremist motivations, even Kundnani makes the recommendation that western governments “Publicly acknowledge that foreign policy decisions are a significant factor in creating political contexts within which terrorism becomes more or less likely.” Lest we forget, when former CIA analyst Graham Fuller was asked about the origins of ISIS, he cited America’s interventions, including the Iraq War, as “the basic causes” for its emergence. 

Some have also pounced upon the refugee crisis to disastrous effect, erroneously linking the attacks, and terrorism in general, to the influx of refugees. On Fox News, Donald Trump reiterated his intentions to ban Syrians, and Muslims in general, from entry into the United States, stating: “I would close up our borders to people until we figure out what is going on.” Trump also restated the often made claim that terrorists may pose as migrants, saying “they could be ISIS, they could be ISIS related”, before predicting future attacks, boldly claiming: “I’m a pretty good prognosticator, just watch what happens.” Whilst such statements will inevitably boost his popularity amongst certain conservatives, the point remains that any future attacks in America are unlikely to come from this avenue. Estimates vary regarding the number of refugees who have posed a threat to date, with research from the Migration Policy Institute finding that 784,000 refugees have been resettled in the United States since 9/11, yet only three have been arrested on terrorism related charges. According  to data compiled by the New America think tank, only 10 refugees have been counted amongst those having engaged in violent activities over the same time period. The threat posed to Europe is no less minimal in this regard, though too many assume otherwise. For example, the UKIP defence spokesman Mike Hookem claimed the attack proved “…Schengen free movement and lax border controls are a threat to our security.” He also claimed that 5000 extremists were “at large in the EU having slipped in from Syria”, citing a recent statement from Europol head Rob Wainright to that effect, but without mentioning his further clarification: “There is no concrete evidence terrorists are systematically using the flow of refugees to infiltrate Europe,”. Lest we forget, all of the known Paris attackers were also EU citizens bar one who may have been a refugee, though even this is disputed. Likewise, both Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui were born in Belgium, and Laachraoui was born in Morocco, but raised in Brussels. It should be conceded that both Obama and Clinton have been more agreeable on this issue, which is to be expected given their need to consolidate appeal amongst American liberals. According to Gallup research from last November, 57% of democratic voters reasonably support accepting Syrian refugees, with a higher portion of 74% in December reported by Quinnipiac University. Even so, both essentially contribute to the refugee crisis when encouraging intervention in the Middle East, therefore increasing regional instability.

Muslim citizens across America and Europe are also made to feel less welcome, with the marked increase of enduring Islamophobic sentiments having very real consequences. In contending with Trump for the Republican vote, Ted Cruz called for increased surveillance of Muslim communities, stating: “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighbourhoods before they become radicalized.” When later pressed on the practicality of this policy, Cruz responded with the supposed success of surveillance programmes in New York, which has since been denied by the NYPD. With both Paris attacks last year, came an already tense climate for Muslims in Europe, as has been shown by the recently published European Islamophobia Report for 2015. The report poses a difficult but necessary read which surveys the European Union in its entirety, detailing a series of discriminatory political statements and measures, both official and unofficial, in addition to verbal abuse, death threats, violent attacks and, in certain cases, even murders. Even so, we presently face the rhetorical disregard of conservative writers such as Douglas Murray, who in recently describing the European “standard response” to terror attacks, trivialised European Islamophobia as “consisting mainly of stares and horrible things written on social media”. One might say the same of racism, which is generally observed around the dinner table or online rather than in the open, but that does not mean it should be regarded as trivial as opposed to a serious social problem. If that is not enough, then Murray should read about the alarming reports of violence and harassment of Muslims in Europe and North America  following the Paris Attacks, not mention the reports of a Muslim woman being run over in Brussels, chants of “death to Arabs” in Brussels, harassment of Muslim women in London, and “All Muslims are scum” graffiti in Dublin, all of which clearly herald the coming of a more hostile environment in the future. For this reason, it is important that moderate sentiments in European societies remain stronger, for that is what led an anonymous Dubliner to change the aforementioned graffiti into “All Muslims are sound”.

One might have hoped that preserving such sentiments would have been an easier task than it has been. After all, we have once again been confronted with supposed “Islamic” terrorism conducted by semi-religious lay people and irreligious miscreants, following the general trend previously conceded by MI5. In the words of journalist and former ISIS captive Nicolas Henin: “most of the jihadis I know, either that I met during my time in captivity or that I followed on the social media or exchanged with on the social media afterwards, are just “new” Muslims. I mean, they either converted, or they are kind of born-again Muslim.” Naajim Laachraoui was said by his brother to have been religious, but there was no mention not of his qualifications as an Islamic scholar. Instead, it was reported that Laachraoui  graduated in electromechanics. From what we know, both el-Bakraoui brothers have a confirmed criminal history, with Khalid having committed four carjackings and a bank robbery in Autumn 2009. In September 2011, he was convicted of criminal conspiracy, armed robbery, possession of stolen cars, possession of weapons, being imprisoned five years before parole. Ibrahim aided a robbery attempt in 2010 and fired on police in the process, being sentenced to 9 years for attempted murder, before also receiving parole. Interestingly enough, security officials have acknowledged “multiplying links between Islamic State militants and criminal gangs, ranging from Balkan mafias supplying guns to petty drug dealers.”

Such tendencies clearly stand in contrast with the religiously educated. As with all previous attacks, Muslim scholars have made their condemnations quite clear, having also articulated reliable arguments to refute ISIS with Islamic tradition in the past.  The value of such efforts cannot be overstated, as even the aforementioned MI5 analysis mentioned “…evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.” Regrettably, such efforts are rarely acknowledged by the mainstream media, leading to a heightening of general misunderstanding and prejudice. If the public is allowed to understand a more authentic expression of Islam as championed by Muslim scholars, it can then be hoped that ISIS propaganda regarding an inherent western enmity toward Muslims will be rendered illegitimate. Interestingly enough, when Henin contrasted ISIS tendencies with the broader practice of Muslims, he concluded that: “…religion seems to be always almost a vaccine against terrorism, because a good religious people will never become a terrorist.”

The attacks in Brussels have not been the first to highlight major problems in how western governments deal with terrorism, and how others suffer as a result. In all likelihood, it will not be the last given how entrenched the preferences for belligerent foreign policy and social discrimination have now become. If the state of western politics is to improve in its addressing this issue, there must be a radical paradigm shift in the matters discussed. Politicians such as Bernie Sanders represent a potential reprieve from the usual formula, but the lack of support for such figures continues to be discouraging. Perhaps in the end, the means of preventing attacks rest not only in what the west can do for the Middle East, but vice versa. If Muslim scholars are able to succeed in their fight against ISIS and help produce sound policies for good governance in the Middle East, then a meaningful counter-weight to extremism could finally emerge within the region, drawing away the appeal of extremist recruiters. Perhaps then, we might see the long-awaited death of excuses for intervention, not to mention the needless populism which exploits foreigners and local Muslim communities. Of course, this is a long-term solution, and one that needs to be detailed thoroughly as a topic in its own right. For now, it seems that necessary conclusions will remain elusive, and that bad policies will oblige us to suffer more of the same. Even so, if one cannot expect much from political leaders, one can still hope for better  attitudes in society.

Muslim scholars denounce the attacks in Turkey and Belgium. Will we listen this time?

More of the Same

In light of the most recent atrocities in Turkey and Belgium, it is important to note that Muslim scholars, being the most representative of Islamic voices, have again made their condemnations known unambiguously. Sadly, one cannot expect to find much acknowledgement from the mainstream media, leading some to question whether any such condemnations have been made. The lack of reporting in this regard is dangerous during a time in which many believe that Muslims act as enablers of terrorism. It was only yesterday that US presidential frontrunner Donald Trump stated that Muslims are “absolutely not reporting” suspected dangerous terrorists, as if they are somehow obliged to know some. Some may feel that attempting to preserve the image of Islam during a period of outrage and mourning indicates a lack of priorities, however the current climate of hate, and the likelihood of a violent backlash against Muslim communities across Europe, is a matter to be taken seriously.

This is not the first time that Muslim scholars have clarified the gulf between Islam and ISIS, even if those attempts have also gone unacknowledged. When ISIS first emerged in 2014, over 120 Muslim scholars issued an open letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi which denounced his organisation with specific references to Islamic tradition. Even so, when Bill Maher and Sam Harris proceeded to debate the ISIS issue with Ben Affleck and others a few weeks thereafter, the letter was mentioned by only one attentive panellist, and subsequently neglected by the pair for the rest of the exchange. Denunciations continued when the Charlie Hebdo Shootings occurred in January 2015, and again with the Paris Attacks in November. Additional refutations have continued to emerge and, for the sake of brevity, an authentic yet peaceful Islam has been articulated in publications, lectures, and conferences by many a voice, many a time over. Regrettably, none of these efforts have garnered much attention, despite the repeated attempts of Muslim scholars to convey their message to mainstream media. As Shaykh Hamza Yusuf had put it: “I’ve been to so many conferences condemning this stuff. The media ignores us. There are books written on this.” Sure enough, Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi had already authored Refuting ISIS: A Rebuttal of its Religious and Ideological Foundations by that point, yet despite his addressing the work to western journalists, it remains yet another neglected point of conversation. One might also have read the overlooked ISIS: State of Ignorance: A Reflection on Islam and Moderation, Extremism and Terrorism, and the Fitnah of ISIS (Daesh) by Shaykh Muhammad Imdad Hussain Pirzada. Had efforts such as these become more widely known, then perhaps the sentiments of Donald Trump would not be as consequential as they are.

What follows by way of condemnation is a sample of what Muslim scholars have said regarding the attacks in Turkey and Belgium. It is hoped that this will provide an insight into specifically Islamic objections to violent terrorism. It is also hoped that such sentiments are finally given the attention they deserve. The selection includes voices from across the spectrum of Muslim opinion, including socially conservative and also liberal voices. Despite the variety presented here, it is clear that a convergence exists on the point of condemnation. The attacks in Turkey are mentioned forthrightly by some, and quite rightly given the general double standards of the media on this point. It is important to remember that just as European deaths are worthy of our outrage, so too are the deaths of others who have not received the same degree of attention.

Written statements

Al-Azhar University: “Al-Azhar strongly condemns these terrorist attacks. These heinous crimes violate the tolerant teachings of Islam,”

Imams Online: “The atrocities committed in Belgium and Turkey showcase the continued need for communities to come together in the face of violence. It cannot be that we continue to live our lives in a state of fear that sees families and innocent people afraid to go about their daily lives because they may be attacked by gunmen or become a victim of a bombing.”

“As religious leaders and members of the community, it is important to continue praying for the safety and security of all people and work hand in hand to bring about a lasting change that sees the eradication of hate and violence in our world.”

“The likes of daesh that commit such atrocities do so with a false allegiance to Islam and its core tenets. It shouldn’t be that the actions of a misguided few tarnishes a whole community that continues to distance itself from such crime.”

Yasir Qadhi: “All humans are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

“Today, in a dastardly act of cowardice, militants set off explosives in crowded places in Belgium, killing and injuring dozens of people. The world reacts in rage. Global condemnation. Constant news coverage. World leaders hastening to see who can issue the harshest statements before the others. Hashtags like ‘‪#‎BelgiumUnderAttack‬‘ go viral. All of which is good, and completely and totally expected.”

“Barely a few days ago, in a dastardly act of cowardice, militants set off explosives in crowded places in Istanbul, killing and injuring dozens of people. The world reacted with silence. No condemnation. News coverage buried in the fine print on the back pages. No major leader said anything. Hashtags like ‘‪#‎IstanbulBombing‬‘ attempt to generate more interest but fail miserably. All of which is bad, and, in light of past experience, completely and totally expected.”

“All humans are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Omar Suleiman: “Within the last few weeks, Ankara and Istanbul saw disastrous terrorist attacks in city centers which garnered little media attention. Today we see the same carnage in Brussels. Once again, depraved human beings striking in populated places that should be safe for innocent families to live in peace. People should not have to worry about suicide bombers, gunmen, or drone strikes as they go about their daily lives in airports, marketplaces, banquet halls, etc. The madness must stop. Praying for the victims of todays attacks and the ones that are ignored on a daily basis.”

Suhaib Webb: “Prayers and concerns for the victims of today’s carnage in Belgium. ISIS and other criminal groups must be opposed at every level.

“Do not kill (or harm) the innocent.” Qur’ān

ISIS and its followers are not coming out of a vacuum. Those who sympathize with their ideology and back it financially must be opposed and held responsible.

Let’s us not forget the attacks that took place over the last few weeks in places like Turkey, Iraq, Libya, Mali and Syria. The horror today is a shared horror that has laid greater siege to the Levant than anywhere else. Selective anger is not acceptable in any situation.”

Tariq Ramadan: “The condemnation of these acts must be renewed and it is absolute. Still and always. We express our deep sympathy to the victims’ families.

Rather than responding with emotion, without moderation and in quite a dangerous way : “We are at war!” or with an empathetic impulse, understandable but ineffective: “I am Brussels”, it is time to work together against extremist violence. What kind of religious discourse must be held ? Who can and should hold it? Who are the partners in this fight against terrorism? What are the political reasons (international and national) that can help us understand (without any justification) the current drift? What are the priorities and concrete steps we should take? What are the respective responsibilities of both the states and the civil societies?

These issues are critical and require a commitment on several fronts as well as powerful alliances of diversified competences rather than angry or saddened reactions. We must dare, all of us, confront our respective contradictions, our cowardice sometimes, and, so often, our lack of courage.”

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