Martin Bright’s mythical dragons

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It was not long ago that Martin Bright could be regarded as a journalist with a heart – sympathetic to those in distress and facing hardship. In April 2001, while an Observer reporter, he tried to show the link between negative media coverage and assaults on refugees and asylum seekers. A year later another article argued that ‘refugees were not chasing money’ and he also high-lighted issues within the criminal justice system in an article ‘One in hundred black adults now in jail’. This was a commendable social conscience for someone emerging from a privileged background: private schooling in Bristol; Cambridge; first job at the BBC (also in Bristol).

However there was another facet to this personality – a judgmental, holier-than-thou attitude that has obscured the positive side.

It is apparent in the vilification of Ken Livingstone, even though he has made London the vibrant, cosmopolitan world centre that it is; of the majestic Qur’an –  reducing it to a ‘con trick’; of respected community bodies like the Muslim Council of Britain; and of scholars of international repute like Yusuf al-Qaradawi. His pro-Israeli sympathies were evident in the disapproval of the boycott proposed by the National Union of Journalists – ‘a massive own goal’ and ‘a pointless guesture’ for Martin Bright (Union man’s disappointment, 23 April 2007, New Statesman).

Elsewhere he has repeated the calumny that the venerable Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husayni was a Nazi collaborator (‘Right showing left the way on radical Islam‘, 30 July 2006, The Observer) –  a charge refuted by Philip Matar in ‘The Mufti of Jerusalem’, published by Columbia University Press in 1988.

In the New Statesman [17 January 2008] Martin Bright offers a picture of Ken Livingstone far removed from reality. Bright’s Mayor of London is a drunken, unfocused despot. This maligned vision is the subject of a TV documentary [Channel 4 Despatches, 21 January]. It is a gross injustice to someone with amazing mastery of the detail that makes London tick ñ from where the red bus lanes start and end to unemployment statistics within the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.

According to Martin Bright, ‘the Mayor of London has just won the support of several prominent Muslim organisations for the forthcoming mayoral election. The general view is that alcohol is haram (forbidden) in Islam, so I can only imagine they will take a dim view of whisky-drinking on the job…’

Martin Bright also raises objections to the Mayor hosting Yusuf Al-Qaradawi in 2004!

Martin Bright’s intervention ten weeks before polling day for the London elections (1 May) is a neo-Con attempt to punish Livingstone and boost the chances of the Tory candidate, the erratic Boris Johnson, author of the novel ‘Seventy Two virgins’ set around a terrorist plot in London.

London’s million Muslims have been helped in deciding which is to be the better choice.

Bright’s concern with the Mayor’s drink being halal or haram is odd considering the low regard he has for the faith. He authored the New Statesman’s lead story ‘The great Koran con trick‘, published two months after 9/11. Himself a postgraduate from the School of Oriental & African Studies, there were repeated references to its neo-orientalist faculty: ‘The work of John Wansbrough, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone, Andrew Rippin and Gerald Hawting, which emerged initially from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in the 1970s, questions not only Islam’s own version of its origins; this new history of Islam takes as its starting point a problem that has long troubled scholars – the almost total lack of contemporary Islamic sources…. Following Wansbrough’s lead, they decided to look at the Koran as a literary text, to compare it to other devotional writings of the period and to look at internal clues to its origin. They found that it owed much to Judaism, especially the Talmud, a collection of commentaries and interpretations of the Hebrew Bible… They found that Islam, as represented by admittedly biased sources, was in essence a tribal conspiracy against the Byzantine and Persian empires with deep roots in Judaism, and that Arabs and Jews were allies in these conquering communities’.

Clearly Islamic studies has not been one of Martin’s specialisations – but it is not the first time that he has rebranded himself as an expert in a new domain.

His ‘Observer’ period coincided with the David Shayler and Katherine Gunn episodes –  whistle-blowers who felt that the national interest was not being served in some of the actions of the intelligence services. A fellow journalist noted, ‘The Observer reporter [Martin Bright] had trodden the well-worn path to the door of David Shayler, who is in self-imposed exile in Paris. He had returned with a story saying Shayler had released the names of two MI6 officers whom Shayler has implicated in an attempt to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi. After publication, the Special Branch approached The Observer and demanded Bright’s notebooks, along with any documents and e-mails, stating they were investigating an offence under the Official Secrets Act. On the prospects of facing a judge at a hearing in July 2000, Bright was to declare, ‘the prospect of jail really is my worst nightmare. Let’s face it, I’m a middle-class journalist and have no idea what it is like to be in prison’.

With the Guardian/Observer stable possessing distinguished intelligence watchers such as Richard Norton-Taylor and Duncan Campbell, it is not clear why Martin Bright – with his earlier expertise on refugee and educational issues – should have deemed the Shayler case to be in his patch.

Next, Martin Bright was to demonstrate his grasp of the complexities of the Middle East and modern Islamic thought. In August 2005, Martin Bright was dismissive of those who complained that the BBC had a ‘pro-Israel agenda’ (Muslim leaders in feud with the BBC, The Observer, 14 August 2005). In a separate article Bright also revealed mastery on the nature of Muslim political movements in places like Pakistan: ‘Far from representing the more progressive or spiritual traditions within Islam, the leadership of the Muslim Council of Britain and some of its affiliates sympathise with and have links to conservative Islamist movements in the Muslim world and in particular Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, a radical party committed to the establishment of an Islamic state in Pakistan ruled by sharia law….’.

A curious side story in Bright’s piece in August 2005 was reference to a ‘Festival of Muslim Cultures’. This project first came to the notice of the Muslim community when its director, Isabel Carlisle, began to contact institutions for support in 2004. Carlisle had received a modest grant from the Millennium Commission, ‘to help her develop the idea of a Festival of the Muslim World which aims to enable widespread understanding of mainstream Muslim cultures. The festival, planned for 2006, will be the first of its kind in the UK for over 25 years. Firstly, she is creating a network of partnerships to develop the festival programme over the next two years’.

A charity of the same name was also registered, with South African born barrister/poet Raficq Abdulla as trustee. Other funders emerged, including the British Council and the FCO. Unclear about the type of programme proposed, Muslim institutions remained uncommitted, wary of the experiences of the early 1970s when Paul Keeler’s Festival of Islam had a tendency to veer off in the direction of presenting Islam as a cultural artefact shorn of its socio-political dimension.

Thus the MCB indicated that ‘the Festival will need to be broad-based, inclusive and mindful of the teachings of Islam if it is to have the support of British Muslims.This type of concern caused offence in some quarters: how dare some upstart immigrant community determine what was or was not part of their culture? Why can’t they behave themselves! This would never happened in the good old days.

Martin Bright wrote, ‘The Observer has learnt that the MCB used its influence in Whitehall to gain a place on the board of trustees of the Festival of Muslim Cultures, planned for next year. This extravaganza is designed to demonstrate the diversity and vibrancy of Muslim culture… but it has been told that it will need to be compliant with Islamic ‘sharia law’ in order to gain the MCB’s full support’ (Observer, 14th August 2005).

Much like Tebbit’s cricket test, Martin Bright held up a Festival test: ‘The biggest test for the MCB will be its reaction to the more challenging aspects of the Festival of Muslim cultures. On this [Iqbal] Sacranie [Secretary General of the MCB at the time] was clear: ëIf any activities are seen to contradict the teachings of Islam, then we will oppose them. If you organise a festival in the name of Islam then it must be Islamic. We will advise them accordingly.’ There are those in Britain struggling to transform the austere image Islam has in this country, including the organisers of the Festival of Muslim Cultures, who will not find his words reassuring’.

It clearly riled that the MCB was not ‘progressive’ enough to his tastes. The Festival is now done and dusted, with some of its proponents now lending weight to initiatives such as the British Muslims for Secular Democracy.

According to Derek Pasquill, it was Martin Bright’s articles on the Festival and the MCB that prompted him to establish contact: ‘Towards the end of August [2005] I read an article in the Observer outlining fears about the future of the Festival of Muslim Cultures and difficulties it had encountered with the MCB and its sympathisers in Whitehall. A week later, I watched John Ware’s Panorama documentary on the ideological origins of the MCB in south Asia, which further convinced me that Foreign Office policy was a dangerous aberration. I noted the lack of discussion within the FCO of the concerns raised by Ware. This had the unfortunate effect of strengthening the MCB’s attacks on the programme…..I called Martin Bright, author of the Observer article, and we met in the bar of a hotel next to the British Library, where I was continuing my research… We agreed to stay in touch. I went through documents that I had copied from [FCO official] Mockbul Ali’s desk drawers earlier in the summer (for my own personal use – the new unit did not have a proper filing system) and delivered them to the Observer in a brown envelope, the classic tool of the leaker’s art. An article in the London Review of Books by Neal Ascherson confirmed to me the crucial importance of leaks to the journalistic process’. (17 January, New Statesman).

The naive Pasquill not only fed Bright information on dealings with the MCB but also the US practice of extraordinary rendition and internal departmental concerns that the Iraq war was promoting alienation within the Muslim community – however Bright focused disproportionately on material that related to Muslims in Britain. This was an inexcusably myopic moral position – in which torture and the abuse of human rights could be deemed less news worthy.

Bright was to use Pasquill’s material on Muslims to the hilt in establishing a name for himself and his partisan worldview. There were further articles in the press, and the neo-Con think tank, Policy Exchange published his ‘When Progressives treat with Reactionaries‘. In a self-referential and self-reverential manner, Bright views this as a landmark that changed the course of British politics: ‘Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly is known to have been influenced by the disclosures in making her decision to seek new grassroots Muslim partners in the battle for hearts and minds. The Policy Exchange pamphlet has also helped inform the Conservative policy group on national and international security headed by Pauline Neville-Jones, a former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee who also served as political director in the Foreign Office’ (writing in

In the same self-congratulatory style, Bright observed, ‘Frank Johnson, Telegraph columnist and former Spectator editor, described the Policy Exchange document, rather generously, as ‘one of the most important pamphlets for decades’ and said that I had ‘presided over a fine… documentary’. Writing in the Spectator, former Telegraph editor Charles Moore said: ‘Sorry to praise the New Statesman in these pages, but its political editor, Martin Bright, has just produced an excellent pamphlet.’ (The Observer, 30th July 2006).

It was strange how a formerly left-leaning individual was to feel at home in a right wing milleau. In the same month Martin Bright also presented the Channel 4 documentary ‘Who Speaks For British Muslims’, demonising prominent main stream community leaders and thinkers. The message: ‘progressives on the left and right of British politics should view this with concern, especially in the domestic context, where mainstream voices were being kept from dialogue with government by groups ideologically linked to Islamists in the Middle East such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its south Asian equivalent, Jamaat-i-Islami. Chief among these is the Muslim Council of Britain, whose leadership has established sympathies for the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Both the Brotherhood and the Jamaat believe in the creation of an Islamic state and the establishment of Sharia law’..

Bright has donned the mantle of a St George fighting a mythical dragon. Thus he was to commend Ruth Kelly in October 2006 for making ‘a bold decision to take the ideological battle to radical Islam’. T

here is also the soi-disant self-congratulatory note combined with a flattering gesture to a Secretary of State, ‘One publication she [Kelly] has read is a short pamphlet I wrote for the think-tank Policy Exchange, When Progressives Treat With Reactionaries. I argued that the government has spent too long engaging with the representatives of an austere form of political Islam forged in the sectarian politics of Pakistan and Bangladesh. I suggested five measures, four of which I stand by: a full public inquiry into the events of 7 July 2005; a royal commission into British Muslim integration; the revival of the extremism task force set up after the London bombings; and an end to the government’s policy of “engagement for engagement’s sake” with the MCB. My fifth proposal was that the Home Office should take the lead on cohesion and integration because it was too important to be left in the hands of Ruth Kelly. On this, I was completely wrong’ (One minister who understands the problem, 23 October 2006, New Statesman).

Bright’s plaudits for Ruth Kelly were to continue –  a sure sign of his emergence as a trusted policy advisor. In April 2007 he noted in the New Statesman, ‘Attitudes about how to deal with radical Islam are now shifting so quickly within Whitehall that it is hard to keep up. The detailed announcement from Ruth Kelly, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, on how she will spend £5m on grass-roots hearts and minds projects is a genuine break with the recent past, when ministers preferred to fund self-appointed national representatives of Islam such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) rather than those working on the ground with young people… I was initially skeptical that her new department would have the clout to take over responsibility for community cohesion and integration or that she would have the political will to take on the established Muslim organisations. But, from the outset, she made it plain that it was important to frame a set of values before embarking on the process of engagement. She refused to engage with the Muslim Council of Britain, for example, while its leaders continued to boycott Holocaust Memorial Day. She has since said that no organisation will receive money from her department until they make explicit their opposition to extremism. Engagement is now contingent on signing up to a shared set of British values…. Only by robustly upholding the human rights of every individual will we be able credibly to oppose those who would present the seductive totalitarian alternative of a collective set of values based on a literalist interpretation of Islam’ (Radical Islam: ministers get the message, 9 April 2007) .

And again in June 2007:’Elsewhere in Whitehall, the mood is fast changing and the Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has been central to this process. She has driven fresh policy, consulting a plethora of individuals and grass-roots organisations rather than the usual suspects such as Lord Ahmed and the MCB, which is now thought to have failed to deliver…. Just as Blair’s Downing Street begins to devise a more pluralistic policy in its relations with Islam, it is imperative that Brown champion the approach being developed by those such as Ruth Kelly, and work to turn it into a sophisticated strategy that will help foster a progressive British Islam’ (Learning the Islam lessons, 7 June 2007, New Statesman).

However later in the month, Kelly had been transferred to Transport, and replaced by Hazel Blears. As far as one can discern, Martin Bright remains the Svengali at Eland House. A discerning public has now worked out his binary world-view: progressive, secular British Islam vs literalist, politically conscious Islam; democratic Israel vs fascist Palestinians; rendition is OK but Shariah law a no-go; acquiescent Sufi Muslim Council vs assertive Muslim Council of Britain. Bright is a neo-Con partisan who will continue to struggle with his self-created dragons, but the most appropriate way for shutting him up is by Muslims in Britain, through their London co-religionists, ensuring that enlightened and truly progressive political leaders like Ken Livingstone remain in office.