Usama Hasan, an imam at the Tawhid mosque in Leyton, East London, has been hounded and threatened with death for stating that he believes in the theory of evolution, and that Muslim women are not obliged to wear the hijab.
In his 20s Hasan, who is now 39, was a radical Wahhabi (a follower of the branch of Islam which is the state religion of the Saudi autocracy), devoted to supporting various international jihadist causes. He later renounced these views and became an opponent of radical Islamism, making him a prominent Islamist target.
After Islamists disrupted his prayers and lectures and distributed a leaflet calling for his murder, right-wingers on the mosque’s trustee board attempted to suspend Hasan. A statement from the mosque’s secretary, Mohammad Sethi, claiming Hasan had been suspended was countered by an official statement from the imam’s father and mosque chairman Suhaib Hasan condemning this “faction of trustees” and those who had disrupted his son’s talks and threatened his life. The conflict in the mosque seems to have ended in a compromise on a “middle” position — and a worrying one.
On 4 March, Usama Hasan issued a “clarification and retraction” in which he stated:
“1. I regret and retract some of my statements in the past about the theory of evolution, especially the inflammatory ones.
“2. I do not believe that Adam, peace be upon him, had parents.
“3. I seek Allah’s forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise to others for any offence caused.”
The statement also attacked his attackers’ “cowardly and fraudulent campaign spreading lies and slander” and “mediaevalist, hair-splitting theological and jurisprudential discussions whilst remaining silent about... incitement to murder”. Nonetheless, it was clearly a retreat under huge pressure. Hasan was quoted in the Evening Standard saying that Islam is “not ready” for a debate about evolution. He has stopped leading prayers and acquired security for his family home, saying he is going to “have to live with extra cautions for the rest of [his] life”.
It is obvious why the left has remained silent about this outrage against free thought and free speech, with comment left to ‘liberal’ pro-establishment organisations and blogs like the Quilliam Foundation and Harry’s Place. Many socialists bizarrely see Islamism as progressive and criticism of it as Islamophobic.
The question of how we understand Islamism is a crucial one here.
Under New Labour, after 9/11 and 7/7, policy became oriented to driving a wedge between terrorists and “non-violent extremism”. The Preventing Violent Extremism (Prevent) initiative began to distribute large amounts of money through local authorities to mainly Muslim groups. This is part of a more general shift towards allowing and funding specifically ‘faith-based’ organisations to deliver services.
A variety of forces on the left have criticised Prevent for being designed to spy on Muslim communities: “a major part of the Prevent programme is the embedding of counter-terrorism police officers within the delivery of other local services. The primary motive for this is to facilitate the gathering of intelligence on Muslim communities” (Arun Kundnani, Institute of Race Relations). Organisations have been denied access to funds unless they sign up to the government’s ‘counter-terrorism policing agenda’. These criticisms are entirely correct, but in many cases they miss another equally important aspect of the problem.
Under Prevent, Government support and funding has gone to organisations which, though they may oppose extreme-Islamist violence, are close to radical Islamism in their reactionary politics. As Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters puts it: “So called moderate religious groups may be moderate when it comes to bombing the streets of Britain but they are certainly not moderate when it comes to [for instance] women”. Even in ‘moderate’ cases, moderate does not equal progressive.
The legitimisation of broadly Islamist views has created a climate radical variants (including violent ones) can flourish and gain ground, and reactionary forces can impose their views as hegemonic. Behind the local campaign against Usama Hasan was a well-organised international network of far-right Islamist clerics and organisations. With the help of Saleem Begg, a Wahhabi preacher partly based in Lewisham, Hasan’s enemies in Leyton elicited and used fatwas (religious rulings) against him from Islamist clerics in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. One of the Saudis, Salih al-Sadhlan, has been courted by the Home Office in the belief that he can aid the fight against terrorism.
We are now in a situation in which a relatively conservative religious figure like Usama Hasan can be forced into retractions and withdrawal from leading prayers for daring to contradict the Islamist ultras.
Secularists and socialists in mainly Muslim communities are, of course, in a far worse position.
• The religious lobby and women’s rights, by Rahila Gupta of Southall Black Sisters here.
• Quilliam Foundation briefing paper with useful background information here.