In a recent column for The Times on anti-vaxxers wearing yellow stars to claim they suffer like Jews under the Nazis, Hugo Rifkind took an entirely logical “meh” approach to the entirely illogical world of conspiracy theories, wearily conceding: “Nutters gonna nut.” Fair enough. Let tin foil hatters say fish ride bikes and Neil Armstrong took one giant leap in the Nevada desert. It’s all good fun and prime time fodder for Channel 5.
But how on God’s flat earth are we meant to react when non-nutters suddenly nut? How to respond when hitherto sensible folk, who know only too well that trout don’t wear yellow jerseys, decide to excuse or even support views that have all the clarity of a fairground mirror?
If certain conditions are met, some people seem only too willing to jump ship and set sail to the edge of the world aboard HMS Nutilus, with a zeal that might inspire me to one day head to Loch Ness with a pair of military-grade binoculars.
Such conditions were met for too many British Muslims on 15 January when a Muslim man from Blackburn walked into a Texas synagogue and held the rabbi and three congregants hostage at gunpoint. In a phone call with his brother mid-siege, 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram warned: “I’m opening the doors for every youngster in England to enter America and f*** with them… We’ll give them a f***ing war.” The hostages escaped unharmed after an 11-hour ordeal and Akram was shot dead by the FBI.
Cue the 2,000-strong ‘Blackburn Muslim Community’ Facebook page. In the wake of the siege it expressed sincere hope that Akram would be blessed “with the highest ranks of paradise”. (What, you wonder, might he have been blessed with if he’d actually killed Jews?) The post was later removed.
Akram’s brother accused “religious nuts” – aka those who think his sibling deserves paradise – of radicalising him and called on Muslim leaders to tackle indoctrination. “The mosques, Imams, police and the authorities need to do more to prevent this happening,” he urged.
Let’s be clear. The problem is not, generally, among British Muslim leaders. Those who know their onions prioritise good relations with other faiths. Role models like Julie Siddiqi, former head of the Islamic Society of Britain, Imam Qari Asim, chair of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (who wrote movingly this week about Holocaust Memorial Day) and Akeela Ahmed, chair of the government’s working group on anti-Muslim hatred. These leaders and many others call antisemitism out the second they sense it. As Akeela wrote this week: “When one minority is victimised, all minorities are at risk.”
The late Sheikh Zaki Badawi, former principal of the Muslim College in London, spent his life trying to create an Islamic identity rooted in British values and despaired at British Muslim leaders arriving from Saudi Arabia, saying: “I want the government to help me train better imams. It’s cheaper than combatting the effect of bad imams.”
So why does this positive example from the top struggle to trickle down into the schools, mosques and community centres of Muslim Britain? Why, when a progressive Imam like Abdullah Antepli writes on Twitter after the siege, “We need to discuss the antisemitism within Muslim communities”, is the common response “Jewish suck up”, “sell out” and “traitor”?
I asked Fiyaz Mughal, director of Faith Matters, an organisation fostering friendships between faiths,why many Muslims are unwilling to express moral outrage when Jews are attacked. He said: “They are capable and should be outraged. How can Muslims speak about the need to tackle anti-Muslim prejudice, then say these terrible things when Muslims attack Jews? It’s a lack of human empathy.”
In this context, Akram can be seen as perpetrator and victim, his views smelted in the toxic furnace that motivated a gang of Muslim men to drive around north London last May shouting “F*** the Jews, rape their daughters.”; that made a group of Middle Eastern men spit and swear at a busload of Jewish children in Oxford Street last November; that made a Muslim man punch five Jewish-looking people in Stamford Hill last August and made former Yorkshire cricketer Azeem Rafiq call his mate a “Jew” when he was reluctant to spend money.
All are products of an environment in which lies and paranoia about Jews and their history is peddled as fact and the Holocaust glorified or denied.
A library of insightful books has been written about how Nazi anti-Jewish ideology infected the Muslim mainstream after the war; how genuine concern for Palestinians bleeds into filthy anti-Jewish racism and why that original fake news story, The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, is a Middle East bestseller. As one Jewish community security expert told me this week: “The level of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories across the Muslim world is preposterous.”
It will take a radical shift – quite literally – for moderate voices to cut through in communities where conspiracies take hold and make those who believe them to defend the faith rather than condemn the offence in the wake of atrocities like Texas siege. The longer these damned lies hold sway, the likelier it is that the next Malik Faisal Akram will feel the need to hold Jews at gunpoint.
First published by The Times