Tuesday 3 May 2016

Labour's Impoverished Expectations

Or, Why I Cannot Join the Centre-Left in Voting for Sadiq Khan

During the course of a bitter and often tawdry mayoral campaign in which neither side has particularly distinguished itself, the British Labour Party has once again had to explain and defend a candidate's past links to Islamic extremism. In his defence, Sadiq Khan and his supporters have tended to rely on one or more of the following claims:
  • That Khan’s progressive record on social issues, particularly gay rights, precludes him – as a matter of logical consistency – from having any sympathy with extremist views. 
  • That any connection Khan has ever had with extremists is a wilful misreading of his laudable concern for human rights. 
  • Ergo, any remotely progressively-minded opponent of Khan is motivated by bad faith and probably anti-Muslim prejudice.
Not one of these responses is convincing.


It is true that since his election as a Labour Member of Parliament for Tooting, Khan's voting record has reflected a consistent support for gay rights (Conservative Party candidate Zac Goldsmith’s record is identical). It is also true that Khan’s support for gay marriage earned him death threats and even a fatwa issued by a Bradford cleric declaring him to be an apostate. People have been assassinated for less, so this is no trivial matter.

Even so, before becoming an MP, Khan repeatedly shared political and campaigning platforms with religious fanatics whose murderous hatreds are by no means limited to gays. So whatever their differences on gay marriage, these self-evidently did not prevent collaboration in other shared areas of interest. A single example of this proclivity should be sufficient to illustrate the problem here.

In 2004, in his capacity as chair of respected human rights NGO Liberty, Khan appeared at a 'conference' organised by a Palestinian advocacy group called Friends of al-Aqsa (FOA). FOA’s founder Ismail Patel is an open and enthusiastic supporter of the Palestinian terrorist organisation Hamas, and a spokesman for the UK Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, the British Muslim Initiative. FOA, meanwhile, has close ties to Interpal, a Hamas front organisation proscribed by the US Treasury in 2003 as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” on the grounds that it had been “a principal charity utilised to hide the flow of money to Hamas.”

This is almost certainly why the Co-Operative Bank closed FOA’s account last year, stating that the bank is obliged to ensure that customers’ funds are not used for “illegal or other proscribed activities . . . Unfortunately, after quite extensive research, the charities involved did not meet our requirements or, in our view, allow us to fulfil our obligations.” Furthermore, the counter-extremist website Stand for Peace states that FOA…
…has published writers such as Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh, whose post claimed that Jews control America, and that the Iraq war “was conceived in and planned by Israel through the mostly Jewish neocons in Washington”; Paul Eisen, a notorious Holocaust denier; Gilad Atzmon, who claims “Hitler might have been right after all”; and Israel Shamir, who has said, “In the Middle East we have just one reason for wars, terror and trouble — and that is Jewish supremacy drive.”
The FOA event in Khan's future constituency was entitled ‘Palestine – The Suffering Still Goes On’. Billed as a conference, it was actually just a three-hour outpouring of hatred and self-pity from a panel of conspiracy theorists and religious fanatics. And as is routine at events organised by Islamic fundamentalists, the meeting was segregated by gender, with female attendees instructed to enter via a separate entrance "on Lessingham avenue, next to the snooker club". Advertised to appear alongside Khan were FOA chair Patel; conspiratorial antisemites Eisen and Reverend Stephen Sizer; Interpal chair and trustee Ibrahim Hewitt; radical Islamist Azzam Tamimi, an open supporter of suicide terror; Daud Abdullah, former deputy secretary general to the Muslim Council of Britain and a signatory to the jihadist 2009 Istanbul Declaration; and fanatical cleric Suliman Gani, who subsequently agitated for a boycott of Ahmadi businesses in Tooting, and with whom Khan has shared a platform with on at least eight other occasions.

Link-laden articles like this one itemising extremist connections and networks can be tiresome to read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the dramatis personae. It is tempting to surrender to the suggestion that this is all just so much defamatory smoke. As the Guardian's Mehdi Hasan protested in March, “This is not merely guilt by association; this is the rightwing media’s favourite game of ‘six degrees of Islamist separation’.”

So consider this analogy: a candidate for public office is revealed to have participated in a panel discussion about Palestine peopled by neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers and sponsored by a white supremacist charity strongly suspected of handling funds for internationally proscribed militias and their allies. I do not expect that anyone on the Left - least of all Hasan - would be answering objections by re-directing attention to the candidate’s voting record on gay rights, abortion, or the environment, still less returning accusations of bigotry.

Khan’s support for gay marriage elsewhere is simply irrelevant. In a 2012 article for the Independent that has dated particularly poorly, Owen Jones enthused that disgraced former mayor Ken Livingstone is “the British equivalent of Harvey Milk.” But as Jones was already aware, that had not prevented Livingstone from embracing the Muslim Brotherhood’s foremost cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi when the latter visited Britain in 2004. “I don't agree with the position of Dr Qaradawi on lesbian and gay rights,” Livingstone cheerfully explained. "We won't be seeing him on the next Pride march. But here is the force that we need to engage with if we are to actually get a dialogue between the West and the Muslim world."

Qaradawi’s condemnation of 9/11 was evidently a bar low enough to reassure Livingstone that the he was in fact some kind of progressive. Unsurprisingly, so was Qaradawi’s profound hatred of Israel and American foreign policy. Khan vehemently objects whenever his politics are described as 'radical' on the grounds that this is an attempt to taint him with a reputation for religious fanaticism. But Khan's own stated views on Islamist terrorism and the West have perfectly reflected those of Livingstone, who is an atheist. Here’s Livingstone on Question Time last year:
I remember when Tony Blair was told if you go into Iraq, we will be a target for terrorism. He ignored that advice, and it killed 52 Londoners.
And here’s part of an open letter to which Khan was a signatory, published in 2006, a little over a year after he was elected as an MP and a mere three days after British security services foiled a jihadist plot to bring down multiple passenger jets over the Atlantic:
The debacle of Iraq and now the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to extremists who threaten us all. 
Attacking civilians is never justified. This message is a global one. We urge the Prime Minister to redouble his efforts to tackle terror and extremism and change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion.
Livingstone’s language is a good deal more blunt, but the Corbynite message is the same in both cases: that Western democracies bear primary responsibility for Islamist violence and that elected governments must therefore hand terrorist cells a veto over foreign policy decisions. The letter’s demands for appeasement are not only morally craven but suicidal, so it should not come as a surprise to discover that Khan’s co-signatories were a gruesome salad of Islamist activists, affiliates, and supporters. On matters as consequential as these, the company one chooses to keep and the arguments one makes are at least as important as the side one chooses to take.


Given the above, it should hardly come as a shock to discover that, like Livingstone before him, Sadiq Khan has found himself called upon to explain his indulgent attitude towards Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Khan’s remarks about the Muslim Brotherhood cleric were made in November 2004 when Khan appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Home Affairs in his capacity as chair of the Muslim Council of Britain’s legal affairs committee. Also giving evidence were two representatives from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and Khan’s MCB vice-chair Khalid Sofi, previously a director of Muslim Aid, an Islamist charity established by activists from the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Under discussion was the impact of Islamist terrorism on community relations and Qaradawi’s controversial visit to the UK earlier that year cropped up. Given the MCB’s professed abhorrence of terrorism, select committee member and Labour MP David Winnick inquired, why does the organisation insist on defending such a man? Qaradawi – as Khan will have been fully aware – had previously declared the genital mutilation of young girls to be desirable (a fatwa he reversed in 2009); had sanctioned the physical chastisement of disobedient wives; had recommended that homosexuals should be lashed; had encouraged the use of suicide terror against Israeli civilians; and, with respect to Jews more generally, has since said this:
Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the Jews people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them – even though they exaggerated this issue – he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.
But in written evidence to the select committee, the MCB had reverentially described Qaradawi as “one of the world’s most influential Islamic scholars” and “the leading Muslim figure for peace”; a noble and wise man who was being defamed by the 'Islamophobic' media and an unspecified “pro-Israeli” source. Winnick was unimpressed. He pointed out that Qaradawi had beseeched Allah to “deal with the enemies of Islam…the tyrannical Jews…[and] the rancorous crusaders”. He then asked if Khan would support the invitation of an Israeli fanatic who spoke that way about Muslims. 

Khan might have offered a qualified defence of the need to protect even the most reprehensible opinions in a free society. Instead, he rambled vaguely about an ongoing “dialogue” in the Letters pages of the Guardian. He made a perfunctory reference to “rights and responsibilities”. He made a diversionary appeal to the moral authority of the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London, both of whom had approved the visit. He reminded the committee that Qaradawi had visited the UK on many previous occasions. But most of all, he was keen to stress that Qaradawi was misunderstood.

“What I do know,” Khan concluded, “is in a very long interview he gave to the BBC a few months ago a 15 second snippet was used to try and demonise him.” [As the investigative counter-extremism blogger habibi has noted, in the Newsnight clip in question Qaradawi proclaims: “Allah Almighty is just; through his infinite wisdom he has given the weak a weapon the strong do not have and that is their ability to turn their bodies into bombs as Palestinians do.”]

“My question,” Winnick persisted, “is if someone, an Israeli cleric, rabbi or whatever, a scholar as he may be, had made those remarks about the Islam religion and about Muslims, would we not be right in trying to prevent such a person from coming into our country, whatever the Home Secretary of the day may or may not wish to do?”

Khan replied that in this hypothetical example of course such a person ought to be banned. But on the occasion of this actual example, the Home Secretary had said it was okay. And in any case, “I think it is unfair,” he complained, “for the MCB to be held to account for actions taken by the Home Secretary and the mayor of London. There is a consensus amongst Islamic scholars that this man is not the extremist he is painted to be by certain quarters.”

Khan’s campaign spokesman now claims that Khan was “not speaking as Sadiq Khan, he was acting as a lawyer for MCB reflecting his clients’ views in a quasi-legal setting.” Which only leaves us to wonder why a solicitor with a professed commitment to human rights would want to work for an organisation that champions and sanitises Qaradawi’s Hitlerian views in the first place.

The words “human rights lawyer” have been asked to excuse a great deal during the course of Khan’s campaign. There exists a widespread perception that such work is synonymous with the disinterested pursuit of welfare and justice, and that to engage in it is to place oneself above reproach or scrutiny. But it ought to be acknowledged that the vast majority of human rights advocates come from the activist Left, and bring all sorts of axioms and baggage with them. Positions taken by NGOs and advocates – particularly those relating to bitterly contested matters such as the Palestinian conflict and the American-led war on terror – are therefore often heavily ideological. This is not to gainsay the value of human rights work, but to caution that the political biases of those involved sometimes disfigure judgement.

At a time when controversial Western anti-terror laws and security measures are disproportionately affecting Muslims, links between human rights activism and religious or political radicals are not particularly unusual. But nor are they necessarily a mark of ethical hygiene. It is one thing to defend a person’s narrow right to due process or free speech, but quite another to lend political cover to their politics. For instance, between 2001 and 2002, Khan was engaged by the radical American separatist organisation the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan to help overturn a Home Office ban preventing Farrakhan from setting foot in Britain.

Khan might defensibly have argued that the ban was a violation of Farrakhan’s right to free expression and movement. But, just as he would later argue in defence of Qaradawi’s reputation, Khan further claimed that his client was being traduced. “[Farrakhan] is preaching a message of self-discipline, self-reliance, atonement and responsibility,” Khan announced to bemused reporters. “He's trying to address the issues and problems we have in the UK, black on black crime and problems in the black community. It's outrageous and astonishing that the British Government is trying to exclude this man.” It’s not really that astonishing when one stops to consider that Farrakhan has been praising Hitler since at least 1984.

This kind of indignant spin belongs in the mouth of an unscrupulous consiglieri not a principled defender of universal human rights. In the wake of an initial ruling (later reversed) overturning the ban, Khan had explained that “a lot of quotations used to exclude Louis Farrakhan are misquotes, misrepresentations, or words not said by him.” Farrakhan, he added, “is not anti-Semitic and does not preach a message of racial hatred and antagonism.” This frankly contemptible assertion doesn’t even qualify as spin. It’s just a squalid and easily-disprovable lie.

It is important to bear in mind that, as a solicitor, Khan was free to represent whomever he chose. But when asked to defend those choices today, he prefers to give the impression of a surgeon asked to defend the politics of those he treats. “I have never hidden the fact that I was a human rights lawyer,” he has said, as if that were what he is being asked to do. “Unfortunately, that means that I had to speak on behalf of some unsavoury individuals. Some of their views made me feel deeply uncomfortable, but it was my job.”

So why on earth did he elect to represent extremists with such regularity if doing so caused him so much discomfort? This curious interest in people he now professes to find politically repellent continued after Khan became an MP and his job description required nothing of the kind. It is true that many people, including the Conservative mayoral candidate, campaigned to prevent the extradition of Babar Ahmad to the United States citing various objections to the terms of the extradition treaty Britain had signed.

However, it was Khan who distinguished himself in 2006 by advising the House of Commons that Ahmad’s case was being neglected because he was “not photogenic, middle class, or white” and who described him as “a caring and helpful member of our community [who] worked with people of all ages” and for whom he could personally vouch as a Tooting constituent whom he had known for “the past 12 or 13 years”. Ahmad, he went on, “should be presumed innocent until he is found guilty. Moreover, he is in fact innocent”. Inconveniently, however, Ahmad eventually pled guilty to “conspiracy and providing material support to terrorism” as part of a plea deal, in which he further admitted that "he [had] solicited and conspired to provide funds [and] personnel for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan" and "recruited men to travel to Afghanistan for mujahedeen training and sought out gas masks to send abroad."

In short, Sadiq Khan’s extravagant recent claim that “I have spent my whole life fighting extremism” is entirely false. On the contrary, he has supported extremists, he has aligned with extremists, he has shared their platforms, he has circulated petitions advancing their arguments and interests, he has euphemised their blood-curdling incitement as mere “flowery words”, and he has repeatedly used his position as a human rights advocate and an MP to lend extremists’ arguments a spurious legitimacy. And while he has energetically defended the rights of Al Qaeda sympathisers and operatives like Babar Ahmad and Shaker Aamer, Khan has had precious little to say about a campaign of incitement - exposed in the Wimbledon Guardian as far back as 2010 - by the sectarian organisation Khatme Nabuwwat to boycott and ostracise peaceful Ahmadi Muslims, conducted for years on his own south London doorstep, and supported by the imam of the mosque he attends.

It is astonishing that Khan’s chairmanship of Liberty and work as a solicitor is being offered in mitigation of his behaviour. In fact, it only brings discredit on Khan and on the organisations and causes he was ostensibly representing. If anyone who has been paying attention cannot see any of this, it is because they don’t want to.


But there are plenty of people who don’t want to see it. An entirely foreseeable consequence of the Corbyn leadership has been a dramatic collapse in expectations on the social democratic Left. Many writers, bloggers, activists, and MPs on the centre-Left who were among Jeremy Corbyn’s most strident critics a few months ago are now devoting considerable time and effort to making excuses on behalf of Sadiq Khan. And they are employing the same language of “dogwhistles” and “smears” to deflect the same concerns about the political Left’s tolerance and worse of radical Islam and the justifications it offers for political terror.

This might have been understandable were Khan’s principal opponent in the mayoral race a foaming Powellite demagogue. But, notwithstanding some cynical and reprehensible campaigning gambits, Goldsmith is a political centrist. The misuse of accusations of anti-Muslim bigotry and even racism to dismiss his perfectly legitimate questions about Sadiq Khan’s sketchy record on religious extremism have been both intellectually dishonest and wildly irresponsible.

In a rather histrionic article for the Times, Labour MP Yvette Cooper described Conservative attacks on Khan’s past associations as “disgraceful, divisive” and “shrill . . . a full-blown racist scream”, before blithely repeating the lie that Khan has spent a lifetime battling extremism. Her centrist colleague Chuka Umunna has likewise accused Khan’s critics of “Islamophobia” and of attacking Khan for “the crime of being a Muslim”. Both Umunna and Khan have compared Goldsmith to the American populist Donald Trump.

“If not Sadiq Khan, then tell me,” demanded civil liberties campaigner Mike Harris in Little Atoms, “when will you vote for a Muslim candidate?” This challenge says more about Harris’s own impoverished expectations than it says about Khan’s critics. After all, Harris is implying that it is unrealistic to hope for a Muslim candidate who is not burdened by the wretched record on extremism described above. It is also a straw man, since at issue is not Khan’s faith but his political judgement, the convictions – if, indeed, he has any – that have informed it, and the choices he has made, for which no remotely satisfactory explanation has yet been provided.

And it was Khan, not his opponents, who introduced religion as a matter of electoral concern to begin with, when he argued during an interview with the Guardian last July, that the very fact of his being Muslim would strike some kind of devastating public relations blow against Islamic State. (I find this prediction to be extremely dubious, but that has not prevented it being thoughtlessly repeated by his supporters.)

That interview, as it happens, also included a petty but nevertheless telling example of Khan’s capacity for casual cynicism and duplicity. Khan revealed that in a private meeting with the Prime Minister in the aftermath of 7/7, he had faced down an improbable attempt by Tony Blair to place collective blame for the atrocity on the Muslim community. Such was Khan’s furious indignation that he refused to participate in a subsequent press conference. Only it turned out that the three other Muslim MPs who attended the same meeting did not share what they described as “Khan’s self-serving revisionism”. In a letter to the Guardian, they wrote:
To misrepresent the words of a British prime minister and to mischaracterise a significant meeting in the wake of the tragic loss of 52 lives a week earlier is frankly beyond the pale, and we write today not to defend Blair but to defend the truth.

Khan’s depiction of his bravado is almost comical, and if the events of 7/7 were not so grave, it would be unworthy of response. But this was a profoundly grave episode in our history, which necessitates challenging those who would seek to exploit it for personal gain. 
While we agree with Khan that it would be great to see a Muslim mayor for London – as indeed it would to see a black mayor or woman mayor – above all it would be good to see a mayor who could truly command the trust of Londoners irrespective of their colour, creed, race, or gender.
Exactly so.

At the time of writing, opinion polling suggests that Khan’s election win is now a foregone conclusion, and that Labour will be able to take some short-term comfort in rescuing the mayoralty from what looks to be a day of otherwise dismal results on May 5.

But the centre-Left may yet repent the long-term costs at their leisure. A number of hostages to fortune have been carelessly surrendered during the course of this campaign, and both the Labour Party and British Muslims risk paying a price for the diminished expectations offered in defence of Khan's candidacy. His past associations and statements - not to mention his slippery idea of what constitutes personal integrity - have the capacity to bring further embarrassment upon Labour. And his billing as the most progressive politician the Muslim population of Britain are capable of producing will do Khan's co-religionists no favours in the long run, especially those Muslims who have never felt inclined to launder the reputations of dangerous fanatics or to endorse their ghastly politics.

These days, of course, Khan makes much of his determination to confront Islamic extremism. "On day one I am going to put us on a war footing with these terrorists,” he has vowed. But his failure to provide a transparent account of his former views and sympathies, or an intelligible explanation of their evolution from appeasement to bellicosity, make it impossible to know for sure whether this represents a sincere transformation of worldview, an unprincipled opportunism, or just a collection of empty words. We shall now have to wait and see. But so long as the Labour Party continues to field candidates - irrespective of faith or ethnicity - who share Khan's history of deplorable alliances and statements, it should get used to the entirely justifiable scrutiny and criticism that follows.

In the meantime, the Khan campaign has provided a painful reminder of two things. The first is the utterly dismal state of contemporary Labour Party politics. And the second is the Left’s refusal to be honest about its unfortunate recent history of fellow-travelling with radical Islam.


  1. A brief comment on the term 'human rights lawyer'.

    One of the characteristics of the breed appears to be a rather warped understanding of public perception. Whilst the traditional lawyer does his business at court, the human rights lawyers' leftist baggage (touched upon above) means taking his campaign to the jury of the streets.

    However, having done this (think of the demonstrations outside Belmarsh where Khan spoke with a series of Islamist fanatics) the human rights lawyer expects his arguments to be noticed, but never him.

    When the public, or hostile media, makes the not unreasonable assumption that the campaigning lawyer supports their client, and similar clients views, umbrage is taken. Mortal offence emerges even though the lawyer himself (or herself) has determinedly associated themselves with the alleged extremist at every opportunity, and indeed created specific public space to campaign for that individual.

    Khan has hoisted himself, from his own petard.

    1. A petard is a bomb. To be hoist by ones own petard was to be blown up by your own weapon.

  2. I'm not sure why you ignore Goldmith's own record in pandering to extremists, or perhaps pandering to other opportunistic politicians who are pandering to extremists: http://zelo-street.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/goldsmiths-real-extremism-problem.html

  3. You were quite right to say when I was tweeting about this article that I hadn't read it all, but now I have and it's worse than I thought. It's mainly guilt by association. We learn a lot about the odious opinions of Qaradawi. The H-man is brought into it, always a low point. Any voicing of radical Islamic opinions is regarded as ipso facto outrageous. And at the end, you still don't have the courage to step out of the smearage and state clearly what you think. Is Khan a terrorist supporter? Is it more that even listening to what the radicals have to say is unacceptable? Are you saying that he is outright unfit to be Mayor? Or just damaged by his associations? (As distinct from Goldsmith who is damaged by his lack of association with the world that most Londoners know.) As far as guilt by association is concerned,I would assume that a self-described Jacobin and associate of Robespierre would prefer a Mayor who will guillotine everybody they disagree with. Sorry to learn by the way that people persist in repeating the prediction that Khan might be rather well qualified to deal with Muslim radicalism, even though you find it extremely dubious.

  4. I've read this superb essay a couple of times now and I think that Tim Johnson's bewilderment is perfectly understandable. It skewers the mindset and mentality of people like him perfectly.

    News update: Video of Khan calling liberal Muslims 'Uncle Toms' just came to light.

    ""Sorry to learn by the way that people persist in repeating the prediction that Khan might be rather well qualified to deal with Muslim radicalism, even though you find it extremely dubious""

    -- Having spent part of his life (as Jacobin explicates) in ambiguous position to racists, anti-Semites, Jihadis and Islamists, Khan doesn't offer anything beyond glib soundbites about what to do about jihadi terrorists who wish to murder us. The desire for a saviour figure like Khan to arise and deal with it speaks of the moral cowardice of the regressive Left. Too afraid to actually deal with the issues, afraid of being considered racist and Islamophobic for doing so, they think only a Muslim like Khan can raise the issues, even if they are just reiterations of the 'we are to blame' ethical spiral of nullity. Even though Islamic extremism is all about killing our children, and us, on the streets, and hence everyone being fit to oppose it. Just another evasion, another safe space, another cowardly sulk and hissy fit by the pathetic, morally insipid regressive Left.

    ~ Bobby ~

  5. I don't see how his comment suggests western governments bear *primary* responsibility at all. conveyor belt


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