We made a time machine out of British Muslim election activism

Arzu Merali from the Islamic Human Rights Commission looks back on a piece she wrote in 2001 – “My Lobby Ran Off With Kilroy, or Why Muslims Shouldn’t Emulate Zionist Politics.” She argues that Muslims are repeating the mistakes of the past when it comes to democratic engagement and especially by trying to ape the Zionist lobby’s so-called successful model.

Printed below, a piece I wrote at the end of 2001.

I don’t know whether I was naive or somehow deeply prescient (maybe both). Nearly 14 years later and you can swap the words “Robert Kilroy-Silk” for “Nicky Campbell,” you can swap the word “lobby” for “king making” or keep it still.

Above all you can see the same faces banging on about the same things, in particular our obsession with the idea of the “successful British Jewish” political experience. Video and comment pieces abound, lectures and workshops given on how backwards Muslims are, and how they should aspire to participate in or use the political system as British Jews apparently have.


There has been some discussion recently of the surge in philosemitism (an appreciation of the Jewish people, their historical significance, and the positive impacts of Judaism on the world)  and how, according to many (including many Jews) this is also a form of anti-Semitism.

Despite claiming to be (and maybe also genuinely being) enamoured of “Jews,” their perceived abilities and successes and culture, this attitude in fact just essentialises Jews as a group all over again. It’s just the flip side of the demonised stereotype, and worse still it then legitimises all the stereotypes.

The Israeli lobby holds a powerful sway over British public life
The Israeli lobby holds a powerful sway over British public life

Jews in the UK and elsewhere, like Muslims, are not a homogeneous group, and many would rightly object to the idea being projected, that somehow they are uniquely integrated as a whole into British politics – particularly a British politics of varying degrees of cruelty at both home and abroad.

Muslims could and should learn from this (a) to stop themselves from reproducing philosemitic anti-Semitism as a moral issue (b) to understand how racialisation works, including but not solely in the case of Islamophobia and (c) to really identify what it is they seek to emulate.

Start scratching at the surface and what you find many Muslim activists talking about is the reason why so many MPs support or fail to challenge Israeli authorities and their atrocities.

This is seen as the result of the political participation – through lobbying and also supporting certain MPs – of key Zionist organisations. These organisations have key ideological objectives, and can hardly be seen to be representative of Jews in the UK. Yet certain Muslim activists see this type of work as the “success” of a minority participating in British politics.

Am I the only one who thinks this is very wrong?

Elite power

For sure, I am not the only one who sees the multitude of corrupt policies and practices emanating from the UK’s political practices not as exceptions to the rule but the product of the parliamentary process. Read Peter Oborne on the rise of the political class or Jeremy Paxman on the more “undemocratic” facets of British democracy, if you don’t want to be too radical.

Both will tell you that power rests in many elite places, and your MP (whether you helped select his candidacy or bloc Muslim voted for him) has little power of his own and little if any ability to set agendas. S/he may be at best an ill fitting cog in a relentless machine.

This doesn’t mean we as Muslims or we was anyone, do nothing. It does mean we need imagination, vision and the ability to understand the need for real change. In that sense, my time travelling adventure finds me in agreement with my younger self. Read on, read back…

My Lobby Ran Off With Kilroy, or Why Muslims Shouldn’t Emulate Zionist Politics (Arzu Merali, originally published in December 2001 in Q-News)

If someone had the inclination to inscribe the events of the last few weeks it would make good theatre.

The burning Muslim desire to appear on Kilroy, the BBC’s flagship morning chat show, provides enough material for any aspiring comedy playwright. Only it wouldn’t be fiction – just another sad indictment of the British Muslim mentality, exceptional only in its failure not to fail.

An American student I met earlier this year who was explaining some of the ways he was paying his way through college, alleged as many have done that he was paid to appear on Kilroy. Of course, I can’t prove this. This American could just be a dastardly liar, but he seemed pretty convincing. All he allegedly had to do was go to a debate on single mothers and wax lyrical about how he could never date one (and then maybe change his mind). As he put it, “It beats filling shelves at Sainsbury’s.”

This isn’t new. The BBC’s Vanessa show was scrapped a few years back over a similar scandal. This type of TV is superficial and insincere. Throw in the fact that Robert Kilroy-Silk is an established Islamophobe and you could ask quite rightly, why Muslims of any shape, size, political or spiritual hue should want to appear on it?

Nicky Campbell's shows often demonise Muslims
Nicky Campbell’s shows often demonise Muslims

Kilroy-Silk’s well publicised views on Islam and Muslims can be described as misleading. I would just call him a bigot. In the Daily Express in the mid-90s he proudly declared that Muslims, “are backward and evil, and if it is being racist to say so then I must be and happy and proud to be so.” Just to clarify matters: Kilroy hates us.

Unfortunately, the debacle surrounding Omar Bakri Mohammed’s almost appearance on the show illustrates the all too familiar pattern of British Muslim activism self-destructing and not realising it’s blown its head off.

At the end of October, organisations began receiving calls from Kilroy researchers asking for names of victims who have suffered from the anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of September 11. Those of us who have been boycotting Kilroy told them politely where to go.

Unfortunately not all organisations did. Soon emails appeared from new brothers on the bloc, set to challenge Islamophobia by…asking for people to help Kilroy with information? Sending people to attend his show? Then Kilroy decided to throw Omar Bakri Mohammed a line and do a show on British Muslims willing to fight for the Taliban. Hereon ensued the farce.

More emails went around in their thousands, now urging Muslims to lobby the Kilroy team to drop Omar Bakri. Hundreds of protests flooded the production team, stating that Omar Bakri is unrepresentative and that “moderates” should be allowed to speak instead. The Kilory team refused to budge. A demonstration was even organised outside the BBC protesting the choice of guest.

In the hysteria the organisations involved seemed to forget that Kilroy and his team didn’t care if “moderate” Muslims attended their show or stood outside and protested. The programme is Kilroy produced. It is not an objective space within which debate can be heard, it is all about Kilroy making his point.

If he thinks Muslims are evil, that’s the point he will make whether his guest is Omar Bakri or Mary Poppins. As regards the protests, Kilroy published an article days later decrying the campaign as evidence that wider society needs to “defend our freedom of speech from those calling themselves moderates demanding tolerance – but only for themselves.”

As it happened more sensible voices prevailed. A brother persuaded Omar Bakri to boycott the show. The stories regarding his no-show are many, but he himself states that he received death threats from other Muslims should he appear on the show. However marginal Omar Bakri Mohammed’s views are (and I for one don’t endorse them) , this whole debacle shows that we have a long and sorry journey to make.

Robert Kilroy used to be the BBC's Islamophobe-in-chief
Robert Kilroy used to be the BBC’s Islamophobe-in-chief

Just as ten years ago the Muslim mantra was unity (between Shias and Sunnis against non-Muslims, between Sunnis and Sunnis against Shias and / or Wahabis, and vice versa, Urdu speakers against non-Urdu speakers and so on…), this time round we’re all singing “lobby.” The recent media monitoring exercises are a case in point.

The recent efforts have been phenomenal- a fantastic achievement for the community, and those responsible for it should be proud. When Julie Birchill decided to vent her anti-Muslim vitriol in the Guardian in August, neither she nor her editors expected the complaints that jammed the lines for the next few days. Possibly for the first time ever it was Muslims one, Birchill nil.

So what is wrong? My concern – and this is a personal concern – is that we are rushing headlong into an enterprise without any thought regarding the problems of the methodologies we use. Whilst we clearly hate the racism and injustice that is Zionism, we seem to admire the achievements of the Zionist lobby.

We are creating an inverse set of aims i.e. to create pressure on governments, the media etc. to promote Muslim “issues” regardless. As appealing as this sounds, this is not necessarily a good thing. Should we, for example, defend Muslims when they are persecuting others be they Muslim or non-Muslim?

It’s one thing to lobby for support of the Palestinians in the intifada, but how about a so-called Muslim government like Indonesia? Campaigning to support Muslims murdered by Christian militias in the Spice Islands makes ethical sense, but campaigning to support the Indonesian government is not the same. These are issues which Muslims have to address now. Principle or pragmatism?

As seductive as the pragmatic approach may be, we need to re-evaluate what our activism is for. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kilroy-Silk was one of many who stated that Islam was the new enemy to Western hegemony. As recently as September this year Kilroy was on his anti-Muslim bandwagon condemning Palestinians as terrorists and describing Israeli atrocities as the odd “silly thing.”

Is the sole purpose of our campaigning really to change his mind? Even if this was realistic, are we just to accept the status quo and lobby for a change in its balance towards Muslims?

Creating strategic alliances with players in the race industry is another road we seem to be following. Coalitions based on principles can be excellent. Working with known Zionists can only be disastrous. Campaigning against Islamophobia when your advisor, or patron or even the chairman believes anti-Zionist campaigning needs to be outlawed can only be successful at the price of the oppressed elsewhere.

If we follow blindly the experiences of the Zionist lobby by writing thank you letters to inimical journalists for writing less offensive articles (as recently happened with Polly Toynbee), or ask production teams to only listen to certain Muslims, we may have a media and government in 50 years time ready to promote the views of the most persistent Muslim activists as policy. We may too also have a self-interested community that perpetuates the most grotesque injustices against its own people: excluding those who disagree with its aims to fend for themselves as unrecognised and unrepresented voices. This is where the Zionist lobby is at today. Is this where we want to be tomorrow?

Omar Bakri Muhammad used to be the British media's pantomime villain
Omar Bakri Muhammad used to be the British media’s pantomime villain

There are principles at stake here. This is where it gets theological. The Qur’an clearly enjoins Muslims to stand up for justice even if it means bearing witness against oneself . Further it demands that we stand up and fight for those who are oppressed regardless of whether they are Muslim or not, or who it is that oppresses them.

Some Muslim organisations seem to think the quest for justice is secondary to the quest for influence and political power. There may seem to be no tested British alternatives to the Zionist example. However, why should there have to be? Why can’t Muslims make a path for themselves – changing the rules instead of just playing by them?

Steve Biko – who gave his life in the struggle to end apartheid – famously said, “The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” We have to stop thinking and acting in ways that have been determined by those who oppress others. If we don’t the “best” we can achieve is to become oppressors in their mould.

Next time any Muslim is invited onto an Islamophobic platform, we should protest against the platform not their choice of guest. Argue with the guest not to attend. Don’t give in to the “extremist – moderate” pigeon holing. Making death threats and denying multiple voices is not moderation. Realpolitik shows that today’s moderates are tomorrow’s extremists. Next time lets show that Muslim diversity is a strength, and that we can debate and allow people to air views that we disagree with even if the likes of Kilroy can’t.

The South African example is one that we could aspire to. The role of Muslim activism was integral to the fall of apartheid. Muslims gave their lives in the struggle. Many fought the battle on the basis of Quranic injunction, not ANC instructions. These men and women like Imam Haroon, were willing to die for justice for peoples who at the end of the day were mainly non-Muslim. This clearly didn’t and hasn’t until today served any political interests of the Muslim community. These people gave their lives because it was an Islamic cause, and it was a religious duty on them.

There are other reasons for not following the Zionist example. Ask a rabbi like Yisroel Weiss who attended the World Conference Against Racism as part of the Islamic Human Rights Commission team. When he described why his group, Neturei Karta, were so vehemently opposed to Zionism and the state of Israel, he responded thus, “Zionism not only kills people, it kills the soul.” Spiritual values are ethical values. Having those ethics and values means that you can’t employ any and all tactics in the pursuit of the truth. To do so negates the truth you aspire to.

Standing for principle sometimes merits no immediate results. What then, you may ask, is the point? Again this is where faith comes in to it. Allah swt promises victory and success for those who strive in His way. The only criteria is that we do whatever little we can, in pursuit of truth and justice. It could be writing a letter, monitoring the media, organising a protest. These are all things British Muslims are at last catching on to.

Whatever we do it has to be done with the right intention. Our aim is to try and change society to be more just, not change ourselves purely to suit it. Either we change the world for the better or we die trying.

This article originally appeared on the IHRC website.

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