In the first of an occasional series from Spinwatch, Hilary Aked examines Sharia Watch and its founder Anne Marie Waters.
Spinwatch, which investigates and campaigns on PR, propaganda and lobbying in politics, is currently investigating the counterjihad movement. If we want to empower and inform the anti-racist movement to build a stronger counter-narrative challenging the increasingly mainstream nature of anti-Muslim bigotry, we need to know about the counterjihad ‘intellectuals’ spreading Islamophobic ideas. This article is part of that investigation.
Following the indefensible massacres in Paris there have been equally unjustifiable attacks on Muslim communities in France, including the murder of a Moroccan man near Avignon. Meanwhile Germany has been startled by the rapid rise of ‘PEGIDA’, a movement which claims to oppose ‘the Islamisation of the West’ and may be linked to the murder of an Eritrean man in Dresden, where the protests began. Islamophobic politics across Europe is marching into the mainstream. The UK is far from immune.
The far-right English Defence League (EDL) – which emerged in 2009 just as rapidly as PEGIDA did in late 2014 – did not disappear with the departure of former leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). It has, however, been complemented by emerging, ostensibly more respectable groups. One such group is Sharia Watch UK, led by a woman called Anne Marie Waters.
Anne Marie Waters joins UKIP
When prominent British Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan spoke for the motion ‘Islam is a peaceful religion’ in a February 2013 debate at the Oxford Union, he joked that one of the opponents of the motion, Anne Marie Waters (then working for an organisation called One Law For All, which has since condemned her), should join UKIP. Her anti-Islam views were virulent even then, but at that point she still claimed to be merely a ‘left wing critic’ of Islam. Indeed just eighteen months ago she was nearly selected as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party. However, in May 2014 Waters announced that she had in fact joined UKIP – and declared herself ‘proud’ to stand as that party’s candidate for Basildon and Billericay.
Since then she appears to have been de-selected as a UKIP candidate. This might be because her lurch to the right did not stop there. She founded the organisation Sharia Watch UK, and has begun to appear in public alongside prominent European figures involved in the ‘counterjihad’ movement, a network of groups and individuals specifically hostile to Muslims and Islam but also strongly anti-immigrant. Recently, she even appears to have attracted the admiration of the man who used to fund the EDL, suggesting that Sharia Watch – despite being deemed legitimate enough to be a source for stories in the Daily Mail and Sunday Telegraph – has similar politics to the EDL itself.
Counterjihad connections: Lars Hedegaard and Alan Ayling
In June 2014, Waters shared a platform in Copenhagen with Lars Hedegaard, the man behind the anti-Islam organisation the International Free Press Society. A video of the event– the launch of a Swedish edition of Hedegaard’s book Muhammad’s Girls: Violence, Murder and Rape in the House of Islam – shows her sitting next to the Dane, who was convicted of hate speech in 2011 after stating that ‘Muslims rape their children’, though he successfully appealed this conviction, on ‘free speech’ grounds, the following year. Chairing the event was Ingrid Carlqvist, a key member of the Swedish counterjihad network. Also on the panel was psychologist Nicolai Sennels of the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, a prolific purveyor of Islamophobia dressed up as science. The video was produced by Dispatch International (DI), a mouthpiece for the counterjihad movement – for which Waters has written extensively – founded by Hedegaard and Carlqvist.
In her speech, Waters linked Islam to child abuse, saying (16:08) ‘it’s all linked to Islam’, which she characterised as a dangerous ‘ideology’ being ‘appeased’, adding (17:45): ‘it is exactly the same appeasement that is allowing young girls to be raped in Britain, it’s got nothing to do with race, it’s got to do with the fact that we will not confront the misogyny at the very, very heart of this religion’.
Waters also seems to have another far-right admirer, of more significance in the UK context. Alan Ayling (aka Alan Lake) helped set up, fund and strategise for the EDL, as an investigation by The Sunday Times revealed. A millionaire evangelical Christian, Ayling’s links with the counterjihad movement led Scotland Yard to interview him after Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 massacre in Norway.
In a series of videos taken in October 2014 at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, which show Waters and others delivering diatribes against Islam, Ayling (wearing a black jacket and black t-shirt with yellow writing) can be seen in the group that appears to be supporting her between 1:08 and 1:19 in this video and from 4.40 in this clip.
Ayling may have showed up uninvited or coincidentally. Though Waters’ various online links to the EDL have been documented, there is no definitive evidence of any offline connection. Ayling, in fact, is believed to have parted ways with the EDL, though his views have not changed. He now runs the website ‘Four Freedoms’ and has links to the far-right Sweden Democrats party. Waters did not respond to repeated requests to clarify her relationship with Ayling or to comment on other matters raised in this article.
Sharia Watch UK and Baroness Caroline Cox
Waters also failed to respond to repeated questions about who funds the organisation Sharia Watch UK – and whether Hedegaard or Ayling were among its donors.
Sharia Watch states that it works ‘to document the advancement of sharia law in Britain’. But much of its output attacks Islam in its entirety. Its articles range from the absurd (a conspiracy theory suggesting that halal meat is funding terrorism) to the deeply offensive, such as a piece entitled ‘Shariah and child abuse – is there a connection?‘, claiming that sharia law ‘stems from the justification of acts of physical and sexual violence of one man some 1,400 years ago.’
Articles appearing on its site include one written by Sam Solomon, a key player in the UK’s anti-Muslim scene, and a guest post by Alan Craig of the right-wing Christian People’s Alliance, who campaigned against the building of a new mosque in East London. Despite these connections, and the fact that the activities of Sharia Watch UK have strong echoes of the English Defence League’s ‘creeping Sharia’ discourse and the hysteria in the US over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque‘ it has been granted a veneer of respectability by some.
Founded in April 2014, Sharia Watch UK was launched in the heart of the British establishment at the House of Lords. It was able to hold its launch in this prestigious venue thanks to having friends in high places, one powerful ally in particular: Baroness Caroline Cox. Cox is the peer who previously twice attempted (once successfully in 2010) to host the increasingly influential anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders in parliament. (There, he showed his incendiary film Fitna, which spliced images of violence together with passages from the Koran, implying an inextricable connection. Prosecutors in the Netherlands decided not to charge him with inciting racial hatred over the film, but recently announced they would do so over a public promise to followers that his Party for Freedom could arrange for there to be ‘fewer Moroccans’ in the country.)
Baroness Cox was a major figure of the New Right in the 1980s and has a long history at the forefront of Christian Zionism in the UK. Her championing of right-wing causes has included advocating a Cold War counter-subversion approach to the ‘war on terror’, and more recently she has appeared on a list of governors for the New York-based think tank the Gatestone Institute, which publishes work by Wilders and other anti-Islam ideologues. Cox did not respond to repeated requests for information about her relationship with Sharia Watch UK or for comments for this article. In a recent interview in the Telegraph about her efforts to stop the use of sharia law in divorce settlements, Cox denied that she was ‘Islamophobic’ and said she believed in ‘freedom of speech’.
Muslim ‘infiltration’ or creeping Islamophobia?
Though deselected, under unclear circumstances, as a parliamentary candidate, Waters is still a UKIP member. Her anti-Islam radicalisation provides supporting evidence for the claim that UKIP is ‘a party of Islamophobes’ (an allegation made by one Labour MP after former UKIP leader Lord Pearson, who co-hosted the screening of Fitna with Cox, said that Muslims needed to ‘address the violence in the Qur’an’). Other top party personnel including Gerard Batten and Magnus Nielsen have counterjihad links too, and in the days after the Paris attacks Nigel Farage himself used rhetoric reminiscent of the far-right movement, talking of ‘fifth columns’, ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ and Muslim ‘no go areas’. It is clear that UKIP, like PEGIDA, contains deep wellsprings of anti-Muslim, as well as anti-immigrant hostility.
One factor that helps to explain how these types of actors have nonetheless managed to attract thousands of citizens to their cause is the platform they are given in the media. According to the International Civil Liberties Alliance (ICLA), journalists from The Times and the Daily Telegraph were present at the launch event for Sharia Watch UK. Adopting the counterjihad movement’s favoured pose of being undemocratically ignored by an establishment cowed by ‘political correctness’, ICLA’s writer stated: ‘It will be interesting to see whether those news outlets actually report anything about the event or whether [it] will be conveniently ignored’.
Though these papers did not report on the launch, it appears, there are major media outlets which are all too happy to enable conspiratorial counterjihad discourses about Muslim ‘infiltration’ to enter the mainstream. The Daily Mail and Sunday Telegraph have both used Sharia Watch as a source for stories about ‘Islamic extremists’ allegedly ‘infiltrating’ schools, universities and ‘even Scout groups’. Sharia Watch’s only other attentive audience for these assertions were the likes of the EDL and Britain First.
After Spinwatch complained about a planned launch for Sharia Watch’s report, due to take place at a London university, which – along with students’ complaints – caused the event to be cancelled, the Daily Telegraph was outraged. But the real outrage is the platform given to a non-transparent hard-right group by supposedly respectable newspapers.
This is just one example of the alarming mainstreaming of Islamophobia which is helping the counterjihad movement’s influence to grow. It’s not ‘creeping Sharia’ but creeping Islamophobia that ought to worry us.