Public Voice of U.K. Muslims

Meet Mehdi Hasan, Britain's Go-to Guy for All Things Islam

One of only a tiny handful of visible Muslims in British national media, the political commentator juggles pragmatism and nuance with an obligation to articulate his community's concerns.

These are very busy days for Mehdi Hasan. Since May 22, the main story in the British media has been the barbaric killing of a soldier in south London. And since the two suspected murderers are Muslim converts and claimed to be acting in the name of Allah, it's hardly surprising that television producers and newspaper editors have Hasan's number on speed-dial.

In a relatively short amount time, Hasan, 33, has established himself as the most prominent public voice of Britain's Muslims. Currently the political director of the Huffington Post's U.K. operation, Hasan is one of a tiny handful of visible Muslims in Britain's national media, and he feels an obligation to articulate his community's concerns.

After a week of both participating in and gauging the media's response to the Woolwich killing, Hasan is carefully optimistic that a nasty backlash against Muslims has not materialized, so far.

"Compared to previous and similar incidents, such as the 2006 liquid bomb plot, the Danish cartoon affair and last year's prophet movie, what you see now is a much more cohesive response" he observes.

Hasan is pleased that British political leaders, across the spectrum, were swift in saying that the attack in no way represented Muslims or Islam as a whole and that the mainstream media by and large did not resort to hysteria.

"Political leaders, community leaders and journalists have all been relatively responsible compared to previous occasions" he says, though he acknowledges that the government-funded Tell MAMA hotline, which tracks anti-Muslim attacks, has recorded a sharp upsurge of incidents.

However, Hasan warns against making too much of these reports since "we didn't count Islamophobic attacks then as we do now. There have been attacks on mosques and women having their hijabs pulled off but Muslims must not fall into the same trap that non-Muslims fall into by stereotyping and extrapolating and exaggerating certain phenomena.

"In the same way the entire British public shouldn't extrapolate from the actions of two nutjobs and say there's a Muslim threat and we should fear all Muslims, similarly I don't think British Muslims should look at isolated attacks on mosques and of women on the streets and say that British society is against us, that's just not true."

Hasan's main disappointment with the British media has been with those who have interviewed leaders of Al Muhajiroun, the outlawed Islamist organization that has in the past supported terror attacks.

"I would refuse even to accept these people are a minority," says Hasan. "They're literally a handful of people out of two to three million Muslims living in this country. When you look at their marches and protests, I had more people at my wedding. Should the media be giving the oxygen of publicity to these people?

"That's why I have to appear so much in the media and my family barely sees me, because if I don't go and do the Sunday morning show, someone will do it who is not representative of Muslims in Britain."

Airing the anti-Semitic laundry

Not that all Hasan's recent comments in the media have made Britain's Muslims happy.

Two months ago, he caused a stir when he wrote a column in the left-leaning political weekly, New Statesman headlined "The sorry truth is that the virus of anti-Semitism has infected the British Muslim community."

Hasan's piece dealt with the case of Nazir Ahmed, a prominent member of the House of Lords who had been found guilty of sending text-messages while driving in a traffic incident where another driver was killed last year. Lord Ahmed had said in an interview that "my case became more critical because I went to Gaza to support Palestinians. My Jewish friends who own newspapers and TV channels opposed this.” When the interview was quoted in the British media, he was accused of anti-Semitism and forced to leave the Labor party.

In his column Hasan wrote, "there are thousands of Lord Ahmeds out there: mild-mannered and well-integrated British Muslims who nevertheless harbor deeply anti-Semitic views." He wrote that "weird and wacky anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are the default explanation for a range of national and international events" and that "anti-Semitism isn’t just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; it’s routine and commonplace."

Hasan's column about "our dirty little secret" was unsurprisingly not very popular among Muslims in Britain. "There were two reactions" he says. "Those who admitted it's true but you shouldn't say so in the New Statesman and air dirty laundry in public. At least they recognize it, though their position is totally immoral. But at least it makes sense. And then there were people who denied that there is a problem and I found that astonishing. Friends of mine who thought he [Ahmed] was an aberration. Of course there is a small hardcore who thought that what he said was fine but let's not even talk about them."

But despite admitting in the column that he had been reluctant to accuse his own community of anti-Semitism, the Lord Ahmed case was also personal. "I know him, he was someone I defended when I wrote in the past about Islamophobia against Muslims in public life. When it came out I was outraged and I felt annoyed that I had defended him and I felt that I wanted to disassociate myself from those remarks and from him.

"It was an opportunity to write about something that had been nagging at me for a long time, from before I became a journalist, from when I was a kid listening to conversations in private within the community. I will call out someone if he's Islamophobic and I will also call out anti-Semitism. It's immoral to call out one and not the other."

The column put Hasan in an awkward situation as someone who routinely defends Islam and Muslims in the British media.

"I think that the anti-Semitic problem in the British Muslim community is worse than among the community at large," he says. "Just as the problem of extremist violence is worse in some sections of the Muslim community. I'm the first person to say don't equate between terrorism and Islam. But at the same time I'm not going to pretend that there isn't a threat from some British Muslim homegrown extremists."

Not a kneejerk apologist

Not only Muslims were caught off guard by the column. Right-wing voices in the British media, the militant atheists and especially staunch Israel-supporters were also surprised. All have become used to seeing Hasan as a polemicist quick to defend Muslim causes, whether over domestic issues or questions of foreign policy. He acknowledges that he has become for many of these groups a red-rag.

"I'm very critical of Israel's policies," he says. "That is always going to be a problem in a society where the consensus is pro-Israel, as is the political sphere. The BBC and British media is pro-Israel, there's no doubt about it." He then reels off a list of senior figures in the BBC and other major British news organizations to prove his point. He also believes that "certain elements in British society are not happy with any Muslim in public life. They see any Muslim in public life as a secret Islamist, as a threat under the bed, a fraud, a fifth columnist."

But Hasan has been trying over the last few years in his various journalistic positions to engage with British Jews. "I'm probably in the camp that says there are a lot of foreign conflicts and we have got to care about them, but we can also sit together and have a chat about politics without me saying you’re a war criminal. If we talk about the [Israel Defense Foreces], then I will say that I think they are a bunch of human rights abusers. But my point is that I can have that conversation without only seeing you as someone who supports Israel because he's Jewish and that applies to Muslims as well."

Of course it's never that easy and the Israel-Palestine thing will always raise hackles. "I don't deny that people say things that are very hurtful to Jewish ears," Hasan admits but points out that "some members of the Jewish community claim anti-Semitism about things that are perfectly legitimate to [criticize].

"Muslims feel exactly the same way, not just sitting down with the Jewish community but with any figures of the establishment who say things that are hurtful. And if they complain, they're told 'you have a chip on your shoulder and you're using Islamophobia to get attention.' You have got to unpack what both sides find offensive and what is worth getting offended about."

Those who have read a few pieces by Hasan and pegged him as kneejerk apologist for Muslims and as rabid anti-Israeli have read him wrong though. He says that some Muslims are too quick to accuse others of Islamophobia, for example those who have maligned the Community Security Trust (CST), the Jewish organization which monitors and acts against anti-Semitism.

"I can't criticize a group that has done a lot to help Tell MAMA, who tell me that the CST have been a great help to them." He does not think, however, that the CST should get involved in foreign policy issues, such as when it supplied the British government with information that led to the arrest of Arab-Israeli Islamist leader Sheikh Raed Salakh. But that brings the debate back again to Israel and the difficulty of building a Muslim-Jewish dialogue in the UK when feelings run so high on both sides regarding the Middle East conflict.

Finding nuance on Israel

Also on this, Hasan is more nuanced than his image in some quarters.

"I come to the Israel debate from two angles – I'm critical of Israel as a progressive, a leftie supporting international law. And then I'm critical of Israel as a Muslim who says look what is happening in Jerusalem at the holy shrines and a Muslim community that is being oppressed. But with both hats on I have to say that there are people who use language too carelessly, too loosely and are not intellectually equipped for this debate. They say they are not anti-Semitic, they are anti-Zionists, but the way they argue makes it very easy for Israel supporters to say it's the same thing."

He acknowledges that there are many gray areas and it is hard to draw the line, though he thinks that all conspiracy theories should be left out of the debate.

But the yardstick that many supporters of Israel, particularly in the Jewish community, now use to differentiate legitimate criticism of Israel and veiled anti-Semitism – that of disproportionate criticism – is not so simple.

"That's a classic argument that is only made about Israel," says Hasan. "People on my side of the argument would say that it's exactly the opposite. That Israel gets special exemptions from international law that no other country gets. No other country is allowed to violate so many UN resolutions and still get American aid."

On the other hand, he does apply that yardstick when it comes to boycotting Israel or as British politician George Galloway did earlier this year when he refused to debate an Israeli.

"That's wrong because it is definitely holding a country to a standard that no-one else is held to," Hasan says of Galloway's refusal. Hasan produced a program in Tel Aviv for Al Jazeera last year in which he interviewed Israelis, including settlers. "A lot of Muslims said I should not have made that program because by being there I was legitimizing Israel. That's a childish argument – the reality is that Israel exists. Critics of Israel fall in to the trap set by its defenders when they talk about its right to exist. States don't have a right to exist, they just exist."

For this reason, Hasan finds it hard to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel.

"I'm on the fence with BDS," he says. "It's a non-violent movement which borrows the techniques used against South Africa and I believe that certainly in the West Bank there's no doubt there's apartheid and you therefore can borrow some of the techniques for use in the West Bank.

"And with a democracy there is a case that sanctions and isolation does work in stirring the morals of the citizenry and there is a big moral case there. My problem, and this is where my social democratic side trumps over my far left side, is that I'm a pragmatist and in the real world you simply cannot say why boycott Israel and not boycott the United States of America. Why boycott Israel and not boycott other countries that are doing nasty things such as the Indian government in Kashmir? We illegally invaded Iraq so why not boycott Britain? That is where you could draw an argument about disproportionality. And of course there is the pragmatic argument that Israel is a well-integrated part of the global community. Go and pull all your Intel chips out of your laptop or go and boycott America, good luck to you."

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