Muslim academics criticise Extremism Commission after their studies are “censored”

Sadeq Hamid (l) and Tahir Abbas (r)

A Muslim academic has accused the Commission for Countering Extremism of censorship after his academic paper wasn’t published as part of a high-profile extremism report released earlier this week.

Sadek Hamid told 5Pillars that he feels as though the Commission, headed by the controversial Sara Khan, has censored him and that his study’s omission is “convenient” because it challenged arguments made in other papers on “Islamism” in the UK.

Another academic whose paper was also not published, Tahir Abbas of Leiden University in Holland, told us that he and Hamid were “burned” after the journalist Andrew Gilligan wrote an article accusing them of antisemitism which the Commission agreed with.

The government body commissioned the pair to write the studies and paid them up to £10,000. However, it said that Hamid’s report was not published after he failed to engage with antisemitism training and Abbas’s report was ditched after his paper failed a peer review.

In May, The Sunday Times published an article saying the pair had retweeted articles that were antisemitic, accusations they vehemently deny.

The Commission for Countering Extremism released a report earlier this week urging the government to do more to tackle “hateful extremism.” The report criticised several so-called “Islamist” organisations including CAGE, 5Pillars, Hizb ut-Tahrir and MEND.

5Pillars editor Roshan Muhammed Salih had an e-mail exchange with both academics this morning:

SADEK HAMID

5PILLARS: What was in your paper?

SADEK HAMID: My paper offers an overview of how Islamist organisations in the UK were established and how they evolved over the last thirty years and contrasts that with contemporary Muslim civil society and human rights advocacy groups. It also questions the popular media and government uses of the term “Islamist” and how it is generally misused to label Muslim activists who are critical of state counter-terrorism policies.

5P: Do you feel you have been censored?

SH: In effect, yes. The real reason that my colleague Tahir Abbas and I have had our papers excluded by CCE  is as a result of The Sunday Times article co-authored by the controversial journalist Andrew Gilligan who attempted to smear us as anti-Semitic on the basis of our social media output. This of course is a ridiculous charge to anyone who knows our work and everyone knows that retweets don’t necessarily imply agreement.

Extremism commissioner Sara Khan

As to the official reason why my paper was not published – the CCE doesn’t disclose how it reneged on its agreement with me or how its Lead Commissioner attempted to coerce us into receiving anti-Semitism training or leave the process. The fact is that CCE succumbed to external pressure from and I was not compliant enough.

This is convenient as my study challenges some of the arguments made in some of the other papers on Islamism in the UK – which lack nuance and are reinforce government narratives around dissenting British Muslim political activism.

5P: Do you regret working with the Commission?

SH: I participated knowing full well the risks – however, my intent was to make a evidenced based intervention on the subject of religiously inspired public activism and counter simplistic narratives which allege that anyone critical of Prevent is an Islamist and argued for principled engagement and dialogue. The outcome, in one sense vindicates the reservations that some had about our involvement.

5P: What are your thoughts on the CCE’s report?

SH: Nothing much new that isn’t already out there in the public domain. There is a troubling lack of engagement with Muslims groups in the papers on Islamism, which only reinforce existing tropes about well known organisations penetrating public institutions and influencing government policies. Also, there is a curious shift in terminology to “hateful extremism” – which raises obvious questions about whether this will be applied to the speech of politicians and the government itself. Also, very little on tackling Islamophobia.

TAHIR ABBAS

5PILLARS: What was in your paper?

TAHIR ABBAS: I explored the reciprocal nature of radicalisation between far right and Islamist groups in the urban centres of Britain, exploring issues in relation to socioeconomic status, political identity, intergenerational change, masculinity and social conflict.

I carried out an extensive literature review, as well as providing an argument to sustain the view that there are these issues going on in local areas which feed off each other. Problems of downward social mobility, as well as wider issues of populism, authoritarianism and xenophobia that have engulfed Britain in recent years, create these problems. The paper essentially proposes an argument that I have communicated widely in my work in recent years, including in my new book, which was published last week.

5P: Do you feel you have been censored?

TA: The primary issue is that Sadek and I turned up to a book launch event organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London. We were promoting a new book, Political Muslims, which was published earlier this year. An edited collection that we spent approximately 5 years on, we were talking about the contributions that the book is hopefully making to ideas of progressive Islamic thinking and its implications for citizenship.

Less than a week later, The Sunday Times accused Sadek and me of anti-Semitism based on four tweets that were scraped out of 25,000 that we have both tweeted over the years. These tweets were all references to articles in the public domain and largely widely held public sentiments. The Sunday Times article was a deliberate attempt to defame us, but it also had the effect of drawing in the Commission for Countering Extremism. Rather than support us, it felt compelled to disassociate from us and to agree with the accusations of antisemitism. As a result of this article and the comments made by the Commission in it, we were effectively burned.

Andrew Gilligan

5P: Do you regret working with the Commission for Countering Extremism?

TA: In the Islamic Human Rights Commission video recording of our book launch event, which is in YouTube, we were asked the question of whether we felt it was appropriate to be working with the government and contributing to their extremism thinking.

We are both scholars, with no affiliations with any political parties, organisations, past or present, and our aim was simply to contribute to a meaningful debate, which we thought was open and fair. We went out of our way to express the fact that we think it is right to work closely with the government when invited to do so, but of course, it is up to them to choose to listen to us or not.

Ultimately, this issue is not about our research papers. Not to sound arrogant, but between us, we have published 25 books between us and we are experts in the field, having written about Islamism, Muslim youth, extremism and radicalisation for the best part of 30 years between us.

The question was never about our work or academic integrity. As I said, we were burned as soon as The Sunday Times article came out and the Commission had no choice but to add all the distance they could between us.

5P: Your thoughts on their report?

TA: I have not had a close look at the report. I have only briefly glanced at it and looked at general perspectives on it. I think the idea of hateful extremism is interesting because there is still a conflation between extremism and radicalisation that the Commission is wrestling with and unable to grasp.

The essential problem is that too much of government thinking is devoted to the idea that ideology is the problem and if ideology can be reverse-engineered, the problems go away altogether. But this is to be in denial of the wider social issues that underpin radicalisation processes, including what goes on in local urban area contexts, which, funnily enough, was the subject of my paper.

Hateful extremism does not have to lead to radicalisation or violence, but hateful extremism does not emerge in a vacuum. It is a social process. As I have been saying for the better part of the last two decades, the only way to truly deal with the root causes of extremism and radicalisation is to support and build communities, delivery policies of equality and fraternity, and a provide a sense of inclusivity and citizenship that has purchase and meaning for all in society.

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