THE BLOG
23/12/2013 09:50 GMT | Updated 22/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Gender Segregation and Our Anti-Islamist Norm

Have we agreed to an anti-Islamist stance and pro-interventionism stance without realising, debating or considering the options?

A fortnight ago, blushing regulatory body Universities UK finally backed down on their controversial endorsements of radical preachers on campus. Their latest guidance, intended to square clumsy equality laws with freedom of speech, recommended that radical religious preachers could gender-segregate their audiences if they wished, and if attendees agreed.

The fuss had kicked off in March, when a London-based think-tank called Student Rights issued an alarming report. Headlines suggested that a quarter of student events featuring external speakers had been enforcing gender segregation during their campus lectures. Editors went to work - calling for an end to radical Islam on campus.

But the research had been biased, including only 180 events pre-screened for sexist preachers, and wasn't representative. Before corrections could be made and terror alarmists quietened, press coverage of their report exploded - simmering uncontrollably until Christmas.

Kassam insists reporters had been carefully briefed- and that he can't be held accountable for how his research was subsequently misreported. While that's certainly believable, his organisation is not without controversy.

A small group of academics at Bath University, as well as students at several universities, say Student Rights is Islamophobic, and The Henry Jackson Society - the think tank with which it shares an office and allegedly some funding, is a neo-con stronghold, perhaps even part of a covert pro-Israel lobby in the UK.

Kassam moonlights as the founder of TrendingCentral.com, which includes in its editorial policy a specific clause to be "pro-Israel," and was previously Head of Communications at The Henry Jackson Society - which tends towards support of Israel in its own briefings.

Top exec Alan Mendoza - is allegedly an unprofessional tyrant, professing strong anti-Islamic views. While Associate Director Douglas Murray wrote in March that  'London has become a foreign country' because 'in 23 of London's 33 boroughs "white Britons" are now in a minority', and that by remaining silent about mass immigration, 'white Britons' are 'abolishing themselves' and undergoing the 'loss of their country."  "'Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board," he said in a different piece. "Europe still has time to turn around the demographic time-bomb which will soon see a number of our largest cities fall to Muslim majorities."

Kassam is himself an Ismaili Muslim - and claims he founded Student Rights after he was bullied and intimidated at Westminster University, by haughty Sunni and Shia counterparts. His alma mater is now considered a "hotbed" of dangerous Islamic extremism, and you can see how Kassam, a passionate and intelligent young man, has a legitimate personal gripe against radical Islam, which he sees as seriously subverting his faith. After meeting Mendoza at a drinks party, and telling him about his own student experience, he was given desk space and at a later date some funding to run Student Rights with.

Although Student Rights does focus on Islam, it has also campaigned against Christian homophobes and far-rightists - despite expressing a clear bias towards Islamic preachers. "There are just more of them," defends Kassam.

Kassam's says he doesn't feel "spiritual" enough to follow his own religion closely. But he has a good knowledge of the Koran - enough even to debate its most dangerous interpreters face-to-face. As the devastating news about Lee Rigby hit the headlines, Kassam was sat in a Cafe Rouge in the West End of London - discussing Islam with a particularly scary radical preacher (who he'd rather wasn't named). They'd met as ideological foes, to try and better understand each other.

Aside from the academic criticism and the objectionable views of top execs at the Society, it's hard to deny the group isn't superbly professional. The principles of the organisation dictate a "robust" foreign policy, echoing post-9-11 recalibrations in Washington and London. Press releases are pumped out to hacks, backed up by policy briefs from expert analysts. It boasts ex-heads of state, CIA chiefs and counter-insurgency experts amongst its Fellows. When David Cameron's bid to intervene in Syria was defeated in the Commons, MPs had debated over an invasion blueprint drawn up by The Henry Jackson Society.

Alongside the think tanks impressive expertise, it professes a strong point of view. For Mendoza and Murray - liberal democracy and free-reign capitalism are sure-fire wins. Interventionism is always, always, the right thing to do - even if WMDs are subsequently found to have been lacking. And with Islamism cast as the single greatest threat to Western liberal democracy - you wonder whether Mendoza and Murray view Abu Qatada as the Gorbachev of their day.

Which makes it all the more curious how the traditional left - students, left-wing columnists, gay rights activists, and feminists, have collectively scrambled to create a petition off the back of their political foe's research.

Nick Cohen at The Observer, Polly Toynbee at The Guardian and James Bloodsworth - blogger at Left Foot Forward, principally represented Fleet Street, with James Delingpole and Melanie Phillips, suspected of sympathy towards Murray's world view  - joining them on the right.

Left-wing commentator Nick Cohen wrote a book in 2007, accusing the left-wing of ignoring the threat from radical Islam. But he had blogged just a month previously that Douglas Murray was "No.1 in my "How can you possibly talk to that man list," simultaneously arguing that "the rights attitude to radical Islam was as bad as the lefts."

Leftie blogger James Bloodsworth, also a columnist for The Independent, had written a Guardian piece in May, imploring Labour to cut ties with The Henry Jackson Society. "Behind the scenes at the HJS," he argued, "the organisation has degenerated into something that is anything but liberal." Ex-analysts confirmed his story.

But last Thursday, Ceasefire magazine published a blistering attack piece against Bloodsworth - accusing him of being an Islamophobic war-mongerer - after tweets in which he supported drone strikes and "militarily defeating" oppressive regimes. When asked by another journalist if he agreed with Malala's Yousafazai wish to make peace in the world, he replied "I'm not sure Churchill would agree."

Despite the hot language - Bloodsworth was against the war in Iraq, insists that his pro-interventionist stance on Syria was because "there's already a war anyway," and distances himself vigorously from the anti-immigration rhetoric of Douglas Murray and Alan Mendoza. He also cites the massacre at Srebrenica as a case in point for what happens when capable democracies don't intervene to help.

So, is gender equality an issue that can be assigned to the conventional notions of left and right? Undoubtedly, it stretches across the political pantheon. But more importantly - is anti-Islamism now a stance the left and right can unite over? This is a discussion that needs to take place outside Westminster.

Many in "the village" seem more war hungry than most, than the families whose sons have born the brunt of largely futile foreign invasion, than the taxpayers who have footed the bill and the partners who have endured sleepless nights as their hubby is away on another excursion into the Middle East.

Are there alternatives to polarising the West and Islam? Could we find common ground? And are security services, vigilante think tanks and street protests the best approach, or is there a softer, less risky and more sustainable alternative?