The other day Tell MAMA, which monitors hate crimes against Muslims, published an anonymous article claiming that certain unnamed “moral guardians of the Internet”, mainly aged between 20 and 35 “who spend their time on Twitter railing against prejudice and Islamophobia” and “shout Islamophobia at the slightest drop of a hat”, are in the habit of calling Muslims they disagree with on matters like extremism or Prevent “house Muslims”, “equivalent to the House Slaves who kept the machinery of oppression through slavery going” and “who ensured that the South’s policy of slavery continued on longer since they had sold their labour just to receive some basic privileges”. They continue:
Why are these statements problematic? They are problematic since those making them leave themselves open to the charge that they have no moral mandate in countering intolerance and prejudice, when they themselves are promoting a form of bigotry. They have no mandate since tackling racism and prejudice, speaks to power. These individuals do not speak to power, they simply re-enforce a mob-like mentality that bays, taunts and attempts to humiliate the individual, thereby re-enforcing power structures. This statement is also problematic, since it shows the hypocrisy in some who claim to be part of the anti-racist movement and who are nothing but charlatans and snake-skin salespeople playing to a mob mentality. Underneath the facade, they have slightly more in common with the plantation owner who sought to keep his slaves subjugated and controlled; boxed off and easy to understand. Well, we will have no part of it.
Anyone who uses the term ‘House Muslim’ should be regarded as being akin in his/her views to those who promote the false narrative that Muslims cannot be trusted and that they are secret Sharia or taqiyya peddlers. Both narratives are toxic and we simply should reject both with all of our energies.
My experience of monitoring the coverage of Muslims in the British media for over ten years is that whatever we want to call them, “house Muslims” are a reality, they are popular with the media and appear frequently, and they fall into a number of categories. Among them are members of sects that look a bit like Islam but are not (e.g. Ismailism, Qadianism, Quran-aloneism), telling the media that they are the true Muslims and that everyone else is doing Islam wrong. Others include sectarians who accuse their rivals of being extremists or terrorists in interviews with the mainstream media (Brelvis and some so-called Sufis being the most common offenders of this type). There are also some individuals who want to build a name or career for themselves, either within the community or in the media.
Someone does not become a “house Muslim” by dissenting from popular Muslim opinion. They do so by speaking to the media about Muslims or Islam in a way which is treacherous, which confirms others’ prejudices, which undermines campaigns for Muslims’ civil or religious rights (for example, by claiming that Muslim civil rights organisations are fronts for Hamas), which makes broad and unsubstantiated claims about terrorism or support for terrorism, support for specific groups, extremism or extremist attitudes, attitudes to women, attitudes to non-Muslims, FGM or forced marriages, and a variety of other issues. Any time there is a public controversy about Muslim practice or behaviour, or a scandal involving people of Muslim background, the media seeks the views of these people despite them often having no standing in the community whatsoever. For example, after the convictions of various groups of men of Muslim heritage for grooming and raping young girls, the BBC mid-day presenter Jeremy Vine hosted a debate between a man from the NSPCC and Taj Hargey, who was presented as offering an insider’s perspective (which he is not), told Vine what he wanted to hear, i.e. that Muslim attitudes were to blame and it was all the imams’ fault. (A week later, Hargey also claimed on the same show that the murderers of Lee Rigby got their ideas from “the mullahs”, an entirely false and baseless claim.) One also recalls Yasmin Alibhai-Brown screeching over Omar Ali of FOSIS during a Newsnight feature on the separation of men and women at Islamic events two years ago, telling Muslims to start their own universities rather than imposing their “Saudi Arabian practices” on anyone else.
Those are two of the more extreme examples — some actual Muslims have been known to make damaging statements to the media whenever extremism is under discussion, blaming “Wahhabis”, Saudi influence, “radical ideology”, a “them and us attitude”, anything but racism, Islamophobia, official harassment, media demonisation, and a host of other real challenges that Muslims and particularly young Muslims face in western societies. This is what the media, of left and right, want to hear because they are part of the establishment and run by a class of journalists who are mostly white, mostly middle-class, often products of private schools (when challenged on Twitter about this in the case of the Observer, Nick Cohen responded that it was in fact a “grammar school paper”!), and their main target audience is much the same, only with a wider class selection. The only Muslims they really want to hear from are the most westernised.
To call someone a “house nigger”, particularly if you are not Black and the person you are referring to is, is unacceptable because it contains a racial slur, but the phenomenon of a member of a minority speaking or acting treacherously about their own people in order to gain fame or leadership for themselves, or for other reasons, is well-known through the ages and not just among Muslims. Tell MAMA argue that the unnamed individuals they criticise “have no mandate since tackling racism and prejudice, speaks to power”, but when these people “speak to power”, they do so in a way that reinforces prejudice and suspicion about ordinary Muslims. It is they who “reinforce power structures” because they do not challenge dominant narratives; they enforce white power and keep Muslims powerless. In most ways, they are worse than the “house slaves” of the 19th century and before, since they were only trying to better their lives at a time when freedom was not on offer to them. They did not do it to make money or become famous on the backs of poorer or less powerful people of their own kind.
The situation we live in today is not slavery, and neither is it Apartheid or racial segregation. But we live in a continent which has perpetrated two genocides against religious minorities within living memory, a continent which in places is turning in on itself, reasserting itself as a white secular or Christian society and telling others that they have to get like the white majority or get out, banning religious dress, religious slaughter and circumcision, interfering in marriages, denying citizenship on the grounds of religious views, prosecuting people for offending popular sensibilities. One only has to look at the debate over allowing Syrian refugees to enter Europe to see that hatred of Islam and Muslims is never far from the surface. In this context, Muslim public speakers have a duty not to expose their communities to hostility or hatred by making rash claims or exposing more of their community’s problems than is necessary; if they do, then they can expect to be condemned for it, all the more so when they are doing it for personal gain. Call them what you will, but untrustworthy and disloyal, or just self-seeking, Muslim public figures running their mouths off to the media with half-true or irrelevant tittle-tattle about Muslims are a fact, and they feed public hostility, including the hate crimes Tell MAMA monitor. We’ll stop talking about them when they stop talking about us.
Image source: Tell MAMA.
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