If he emerges, he will not be the man that liberal-minded commentators want him to be – that’s to say, a kind of male Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born into a political family, full of condemnation of Islam and praise for the Enlightenment, an intellectual and an author. He will be in his late twenties or early thirties. He will work as an accountant or a doctor or an engineer, professions popular in the Pakistani or Kashmiri-origin community from which he will probably come. He will not be an enthusiast for western foreign policy or for military intervention aboard. He will not be a supporter of same-sex marriage or an opponent of faith schools. He will not approve of cartoons of Mohammed. He may not be a particularly devout Muslim – and will certainly not be a scholar – but he will practice his religion, have a grasp of it, and will not have married “out”. He will be conservative without being Conservative. Indeed, he will have no previous engagement with politics, and will be driven to enter it by a single incident – not, God willing, a terror attack that inflicts mass casualties.
What will mark him out is his commitment to one belief, and his dedication in pursuing it, even at the cost of danger to himself and his family. He will be seized by the conviction set out with such clarity on this site yesterday by Mohammed Amin: namely, that British Muslims are not confronting the common enemy in their midst with the single-mindedness, commitment and lack of ambiguity that is urgently required – at least, not in sufficient number. And he will be scornful of the view, sometimes advanced for understandable reasons, that Islamist terror “has nothing to do with Islam”. He will agree with the case encapsulated by David Cameron yesterday evening –
“Of course, this extremist ideology is not true Islam. That cannot be said clearly enough. But it is not good enough to say simply that Islam is a religion of peace and then to deny any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists. Why? Because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims.”
He will pursue this view relentlessly on the airwaves and in the studios. He will assail not only violent extremist but the extremist ideology that drives it. He will have no time for Wahabiism and even less for CAGE. The core of his message will be that being Muslim and British is as natural as being Jewish and British (say), and that British Muslims should be fully committed to liberal democracy and not seek sharia enclaves. He will propound it energetically on Twitter at first, but will then be forced to find other people to help run his account. This is because, without wanting it – let alone asking for it – he will find himself at the head of a national protest movement of British Muslims, whose slogan will be summed up in three words: enough is enough.
There is no shortage of this sort of person at a local level already. There are a mass of Muslims in Britain who think like this and many who work to this end, in councils of Christians and Muslims, with local authorities, in community organisations, and so on. And in the wake of the Paris atrocities, there has been no lack of letters in the papers and statements from organisations and press releases being issued. But this work and these efforts have not achieved national projection. There is no mass campaigning organisation, for reasons bound up with the different national, linguistic and religious backgrounds of British Muslims, and the fact that Islam is a decentralised religion with no equivalent of episcopacy (although the scholars traditionally carried much of the same authority). None the less, there is no reason why Muslims in Britain should not take to the streets against ISIS in the same numbers and with the same fervour that they do against Israel, but have notably not done to date. There has been no mass outcry of “not in my name”.
I am perhaps making a mistake in looking for a leader – the man who I have tried to describe. Looking for leaders can be a dangerous thing. What may emerge instead is a kind of collective leadership: two or three people coming together, maybe, and suddenly finding that they are running a national movement. Quilliam may turn out to have been a kind of dry run for it, although the force I envisage will not be set up by former extremists and will not be a think-tank. If a single person does become a leader, there is a case for believing that it can only be a man, because Britain’s Muslim communities are male-dominated (a characteristic that is by no means peculiar to them but is particularly marked), both in the mosques and outside them.
None the less, the characteristics I describe – a focus on doing rather than thinking, a determination not to be cowed by those who usually have the upper hand, and a disposition to cut to the chase – are found at least as often in women as in men. Islamist violence and male aggression are all bound up together (the British Muslims sloping off to Syria are mostly young men), and it may be that only Muslim women can produce the worldwide cultural shift that can tame both. Indeed, the failure of Muslim-majority countries to compete with western ones, economically and politically, is all bound up with their failure to let women have their place in the sun. The slaughter by ISIS terrorists of older women who they don’t want to rape drives this cultural disposition to a nightmarish end.
The emergence of such a woman in Britain would be a sign of the times, an owl of Minerva. She would be a breath of fresh air. She would be the woman that Sayeeda Warsi originally looked like being, but didn’t become for one reason or another. Mention of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, though wide of the mark in almost every way, turns out to be to the point in one.