Monthly Archives: August 2006

Towards a working defintion of extremism

Abu Muhammad Ali ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali Zayn al-`Abidin, the great-grandson of the Prophet, was asked: ‘Is it fanaticism if a person loves his people?’ To which he responded: ‘It is not fanaticism if a person loves his people; fanaticism is when a person considers the vices of his people to be better than the virtues of others.’

This aphorism provides the means to overcome extremism of all stripes, whether chauvinistic nationalism, fanatical religiosity, the promulgation of universal Reason unfettered by moral conscience or the idea that market exchange is an ethic sufficient to regulate all human action. Implicit in this definition is the recognition that personal and collective moral blindness is projected outwards onto another group, whose virtues are converted into vices.

But the Imam moves beyond the recognition of malign projection on to one’s purported enemies to suggest a solution: the avoidance of introspection allows fanaticism to persist unchallenged. Loyalty to your tribe or group is fine — we all belong to tribes and groups of various stripes. The problem is when this loyalty remains unexamined and unquestioned. Without this introspection we will be doomed to blame others for our own failings.

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Beyond the language of guns, bombs and development


In a wonderful, lyrical work, In an Antique Land, the novelist-anthropologist Amitav Ghosh charts the story of his fieldwork in the Nile Delta. Calcutta-born and Oxford-educated, Ghosh embarks on two parallel journeys. One records his attempt to ‘understand’ contemporary Egyptian village culture, which he always sees as fumbling, somehow an ‘impossible’ stab at cross-cultural ‘translation’ (an endeavour partly defined by the Oxford school of British social anthropology in which Ghosh was trained, but, as this book indicates, never felt at home in). [1] His second journey goes back in time. Ghosh attempts to unearth the history of Bomma, an eleventh-century Hindu slave of an Egyptian Jewish merchant, Ben Yiju, recorded fragments of whose lives were discovered in the nineteenth century behind an ancient Cairene synagogue. (Synagogues traditionally housed a repository, or geniza, to store any Hebrew-language papers or books out of reverence for the name of God, as in Muslim tradition, before they could be properly disposed of. The Cairo Geniza constitutes one of the richest archives of ordinary medieval life to be found anywhere.) [2]

A confrontation with a local imam during his fieldwork causes Ghosh to reflect upon the changed nature of the relationship between non-Western peoples both before and after European colonialism. Towards the end of their argument, the Egyptian imam and the Indian writer-anthropologist begin to compete in terms of their respective nations’ material and military progress — ‘our bombs and guns are much better than theirs’ — which has become the only common benchmark of value, or shared language, by which they might measure each other. Modern Egyptians and Indians thus speak a truncated language to each other, far removed from the complex nuanced relations Ghosh uncovers between Bomma and his master Ben Yiju nine centuries earlier.

We would probably have stood there a good while longer, the Imam and I: delegates from two superseded civilizations, vying with each other to establish a prior claim to the technology of modern violence.

At that moment, despite the vast gap that lay between us, we understood each other perfectly. We were both travelling, he and I: we were travelling in the West. The only difference was that I had actually been there…but…that was mere fluff: in the end, for millions and millions of people on landmasses around us, the West meant only this — science and tanks and guns and bombs.

…it seemed to me that the Imam and I had participated in our own defeat, in the dissolution of the centuries of dialogue that had linked us: we had demonstrated the irreversible triumph of the language that has usurped all others in which people once discussed their differences. We had acknowledged that it was no longer possible to speak, as Ben Yiju or his Slave, or any one of the thousands of travellers who crossed the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages might have done: of things that were right, or good, or willed by God: it would have been merely absurd for either of us to use those words, for they belonged to a dismantled rung on the ascending ladder of Development. Instead, to make ourselves understood, we had both resorted…to the very terms that world leaders and statesmen use at great, global conferences, the universal irresistible metaphysic of modern meaning; he had said to me, in effect: ‘You ought not to do what you do, because otherwise you will not have guns and tanks and bombs.’ It was the only language we had been able to discover in common. [3]

If today we live in times where the language of tanks and guns and bombs predominates, of immense off-screen collateral damage and mega-death horror media events (as one sheikh has described them), we would do well to still resist the ‘irresistible’ language of Development to sing quieter songs of God, and of what is good and right.

[1] See the chapter ‘The Concept of Cultual Translation in British Social Anthropology’ in Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 171-199.
[2] S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, 6 vols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
[3] Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land (London: Granta, 1998 [1992]), 236-237.

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Even Empires Dream…

The New Middle East — at least as reimagined in a US military journal. French and British colonial wrongs are righted. Nations once denied in the old dispensation arise: Kurdistan, Baluchistan, the Shia Arab State (presumably a counterweight to the Shia Persian state, Iran, which gets reunited with Persian Afghanis). Saudi dominance of the Arabian Peninsula is ended as territory is ceded to the Yemen, Jordan and the ‘Islamic Sacred State’ (to be run by some Islamic version of the Vatican — the OIC perhaps!). The Saudis, presumably along with the Al Shaikh, get to retain their Najdi heartlands. Like the Saudis, other American allies are similarly rewarded with territorial losses: Turkey cedes its Kurds, Pakistan its Baluchis and Pashtuns (reduced thus to the Western Punjab and Sindh, a mere buffer state between India and Afghanistan), and Iraq is dismembered altogther into Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Such is the price of loyalty.

Even if Israel has to go back to its pre-1967 borders, at least one thing stays the same — Palestine’s status remains unsecured.

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What's the link between integration and extremism?

Today, Ruth Kelly, the Minister for Local Government and Communities, launched a new Commission on Integration and Social Cohesion. It is due to report in June 2007, with a remit that was described by Lord Parekh on the Today programme this morning as ‘vague’:

COMMISSION ON INTEGRATION AND COHESION — TERMS OF REFERENCE

Diversity brings key benefits to the UK — contributed to by existing second and third generation ethnic minority communities as well as recent increases in immigration. But it can also lead to tensions. As a nation we face questions about how different communities can live together, respecting differences, but also with a shared sense of belonging and purpose.

1. Within this context, the Commission on Integration and Cohesion will consider how local areas themselves can play a role in forging cohesive and resilient communities, by:

a) Examining the issues that raise tensions between different groups in different areas, and that lead to segregation and conflict

b) Suggesting how local community and political leadership can push further against perceived barriers to cohesion and integration

c) Looking at how local communities themselves can be empowered to tackle extremist ideologies

d) Developing approaches that build local areas’ own capacity to prevent problems, and ensure they have the structures in place to recover from periods of tension.

2. The Commission will undertake its work within the context of existing Government policy, for example on managed migration and preventing extremism. It will be grounded in an understanding of current and future patterns of diversity, but will focus on developing practical solutions for local communities based on the best existing practice.

3. It will also consider the needs of communities defined by a shared characteristic (such as race or faith), which may require regional or national solutions.

4. Recommendations for local areas will cover England only, but will consider issues which affect Scotland and Wales, and good practice from other countries.

5. The Commission will report directly to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and will be expected to deliver its findings in June 2007. [1]

The terms of Commission’s remit reflect the changed nature of the debate on multiculturalism after 9/11. The basic premise, reflected in this remit, is that an overemphasis on accommodating diversity has led to segregation between communities and to extremism, the policy codeword for Muslim radicalism and far-right activity (the police tend to include violent animal rights activists too in their definition). The Commission has also been tasked with working within existing policy on ‘managed migration and extremism’, which potentially prevents any radical rethinking. Additionally it is to find ways of applying local best practice nationally. This is standard practice for such commissions, but there is a danger that, given its remit, it may just end up rubber-stamping the ‘community cohesion’ policy initiatives of the last five years instead of scrutinizing and re-evaluating the whole approach to integration.

Britain is more diverse now than it was five years ago, the latest manifestation of which has been the inward migration of 427,000 Eastern Europeans who have come to work here in the last two years (to which a further 200,000 have to be added who do not have to register because they are self-employed, according the the current Immigration Minister, Tony McNulty). [2] In my part of Leicester, a new community of Poles settled in the last year: the local library now has two racks of Polish books, the local video store stocks Polish films, and Polish cafes and corner shops are springing up to add to the mix of mandirs, gudwaras, mosques, African churches and ethnic food retail outlets from Lithuanian to Gujarati that dot my local area. Modern urban Britain is more multicultural than ever.

This simple social fact means that politically multiculturalism is not dead, as Trevor Phillips, the head of the CRE argued back in 2004 — it can only be reinvented or reimagined. There has been a renewed emphasis on developing a common civic culture based on shared values, shared not just by individuals (as in the French model) but also as expressed through communities. Some would like to move closer to the French model, which does not recognise or accommodate the claims of groups. Munira Mirza of the Institue for Ideas argues that the very fact that government entertains group claims in the first place is divisive.

I think the government is aware that society is fragmenting into tribes…. But if they are talking about creating common values for different faith groups, what are they? The government’s approach is wholly preoccupied with Muslims and that in turn tells people that being a Muslim is the most important part of them. They should stop talking to people through the prism of religion and start talking to them as citizens.[3]

This argument comes close to the classic Rawlsian myth of the neutral citizen of the liberal state, who comes cultureless to public debate, which is guided solely by the dictates of reason. This is rather far removed from the mix of self-interest, principle, cultural baggage, reason and rhetoric that tends to prevail on all sides in public life as it really operates. Instead the government is trying here to strike a balance between diversity, or a recognition and accommodation of different groups, with the rights and duties of the individual citizen.

The language used by politicians of the liberal-left to describe these shared values is largely legal and civic in nature, rather than national and historical. It’s all about being hardworking, law-abiding and adhering to democratic values. This is rather uncontroversial in and of itself, but perhaps rather demeaning to those recent and not-so-recent migrant groups who tend to embody these values in a rather exemplary fashion for the most part. A more basic point, which has been reiterated recently by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, is that our values allow us to express our disagreements (i.e. we recognise our interlocutors as moral agents in our attempt to persuade them, seeing that they are amenable to moral arguments) rather than acting as mechanisms of flattening conformity. [4]

At the same time, this inclusive language is undercut by anxieties about the divisiveness of diversity. These tensions are characterised in communal rather than individual terms, and various initiatives have been undertaken since 2001 under the rubric of ‘community cohesion’ to get these communities together. The more facile or commodified aspects of multiculturalism were satirised back in the 80s as ‘samosas, saris and steel bands’: today’s ‘community cohesion’ might easily degenerate into ‘pancakes and popadoms’. More so than grand government initiatives, it is the art of conviviality, laced with large doses of pragmatism and laissez faire, that needs subtle encouragement.

It will be quite difficult to avoid the work of the Commission being overshadowed by the spectre of terrorism of the Muslim variety. British Muslims might fear that, indirectly, there is a discreet correlation being made between what is seen as their perceived lack of integration and the emergence of home-grown suicide bombers. The political mood this summer has hardened: there is more consensus, particularly in the press, that too many British Muslims have failed to integrate and are in denial about the challenge that extremism poses. But to posit this connection between a lack of integration and extremism, while not completely unfounded, is too simple. The profiles of some of the bombers indicate cultural and not just formal integration prior to their radicalisation. After all, Mohammed Siddique Khan was also known as ‘Sid’ to his English friends and was described by them as a ‘Beeston-lad born and bred’. [5] The more painful and subversive truth is that extremism may be as much an outcome of integration as the lack thereof. Perhaps the globalised nature of al-Qaeda-type terrorism has blinded us to the historical truth that terrorism has emerged from political conflicts within societies too. But one would hardly expect in our world of realpolitik that the Commission will undertake to pursue such a line of reasoning. Instead, the focus will most likely be on culture, not politics.

[1] http://www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1501522.
[2] Guardian, 22 August 2006; Times, 23 August 2006.
[3] Dominic Casciani, ‘The UK’s ties that bind’, BBC News Online, 24 August 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/5280244.stm.
[4] K. A. Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (New York: Norton & Co., 2006).
[5] Nasreen Suleaman, ‘The mystery of “Sid”’, BBC News Online, 19 October 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4354858.stm.

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Converts, Culture and Terrorism

When looking for explanations as to why a few British Muslims turn to terrorism, the media commentariat often look to cultural failings. This is particularly true of minority communities, who are then subjected to an extensive cultural test and are usually found wanting. These failings are then presented as drivers towards extremism. This sort of prejudicial explanation falls out of consideration, however, when white converts are discussed. (Although no charges have been made, at the time of writing, some white converts have been arrested in connection with the Transatlantic airplane plot, which has thankfully been foiled. Yet all those arrested are still innocent until proven guilty. Proper legal process will have to run its course before a fuller picture can emerge.)

White converts aren’t seen as culturally different, they are like us white British. How could they even contemplate, let alone do, such things? Whatever cultural issues may or may not be pertinent closer to home is obviously a matter of debate, although like the debate about the cultures of minority communities, I’m not sure how relevant it ultimately really is.

Disaffection and disadvantage are proffered too as causes of radicalisation, and they no doubt play a part. But recruits have a wide class background, and some are well-heeled and educated, and in these particular cases we may not be looking at personal disadvantage but idealistic solidarity with the less fortunate.

One can have no truck with terrorist methods in any circumstance. Islamic law is clear on this point: the lives of civilians, non-combatant and off-duty soldiers and reservists are held to be inviolable, as is reiterated in a detailed refutation of suicide bombing by Sheikh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti. Once the political rationale is made that this is permitted because an oppressed people are weak and have no military alternatives, then the tactic gets taken up elsewhere on the same rationale. Therefore, in accordance with a primary purpose of Islamic law, which is to protect human life, there are no exceptions anywhere.

However, it is clear that extremists attract recruits from a wide cross-ethnic, cross-sectarian base. So rather than focus on culturalist explanations about the ethnic or cultural groups recruited from, it makes more sense to look at the common denomenator in all this, the nature of the moral appeal that is the precusor to the further cajoling to take up inhumane violent means. It seems to me that the crux of the terrorist’s moral appeal is defending the weak, the disadvantaged and the oppressed on the basis that the viable political or military alternatives traditionally available to the sovereign state do not exist. Terrorists have believed from time immemorial that not only is their cause moral but that it is more moral than that of their opponents, and this is certainly how they present themselves. If we comprehend this, then we can understand why converts are potentially neither more immune nor more suseptible to the dangerous and perverted idealism of terrorists than is anyone else.

More reflections on converts and terrorism, in an article written for The Spectator, can be found here.

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An Unprecedented Letter

Most of Britain’s main Muslim leaders signed this open letter to the Prime Minister yesterday:

Protect Civilians wherever they are

Prime Minister,

As British Muslims we urge you to do more to fight against all those who target civilians with violence, whenever and wherever that happens.
It is our view that current British government policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad.
To combat terror the government has focused extensively on domestic legislation. While some of this will have an impact, the government must not ignore the role of its foreign policy.
The debacle of Iraq and now the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to extremists who threaten us all.
Attacking civilians is never justified. This message is a global one. We urge the Prime Minister to redouble his efforts to tackle terror and extremism and change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion.
Such a move would make us all safer.

Sadiq Khan MP, Shahid Malik MP, Mohammed Sarwar MP, Lord Patel of Blackburn, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, Baroness Uddin, Association of Muslim Schools, British Muslim Forum, Bolton Mosques Council for Community Care, Confederation of Sunni Mosques Midlands, Council of Nigerian Muslim Organisations, Council of Mosques, London & Southern Counties, Council of Mosques Tower Hamlets, Da’watul Islam UK & Eire, Federation of Muslim Organisations – Leicestershire, Federation of Students Islamic Societies (FOSIS), Indian Muslim Federation, Islamic Forum Europe, Islamic Society of Britain, Jama’at Ahle Sunnat UK, Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith UK, Jamiat-e-Ulema Britain, Lancashire Council of Mosques, Muslim Association of Britain, Muslim Council of Britain, Muslim Council of Wales, Muslim Doctors and Dentists Association, Muslim Parliament, Muslim Solidarity Committee, Muslim Students Society UK & Eire, Muslim Welfare House (London), Muslim Women Society (MWS), Muslim Women’s Association, Northern Ireland Muslim Family Association (NIMFA), Sussex Muslim Society, The Council of European Jamaats, UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, UK Islamic Mission, UK Turkish Islamic Association, World Federation of KSIMC, World Islamic Mission, Young Muslim Organisation UK, Young Muslim Sisters (UK), Young Muslims UK [1]

This letter is unprecedented in gathering together most of Britain’s Muslim parliamentarians and lobbying groups, something that has not really happened to this extent since 9/11. It features a junior cabinet member, Shahid Malik (a PPS at the Department for Education and Skills), as well as nearly all of the most prominent Labour Parliamentarians (but not, for instance, Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Perry Barr). It includes the most important regional and sectarian mosque networks and ethnic associations, and the two biggest umbrella bodies, the MCB and the BMF. Sufis and Islamists, despite attempts to separate them politically, religiously and morally in recent weeks, have come together in this letter.

The fact that the US and Britain knew in advance that Israel had planned to invade Southern Lebanon with the goal of destroying Hezbollah’s military capabilites lies at the heart of this unprecedented consensus among Britain’s Muslim leaders. Even with a ceasefire now purportedly in the pipeline, it is difficult to see how the clock can now be wound back: with the civilian casualties in Lebanon and Israel, the displacement of the civilian population of Southern Lebanon and the destruction of key infrastructure. Many British Muslims see Lebanon as the latest in a line of actual or threatened invasions or bombing campaigns in the Middle East. They worry that this will stoke up further resentment and anger at home.

The text of the letter was composed after the airliner plot and the arrest of two-dozen British Muslim citizens had come to public light. [2] The early indications are that this was an operation to rival 9/11 in terms of horror, scale and intensity. It is matter of great relief that it has been foiled; the alternative was unimaginable. The letter makes no explicit mention of this plot, but is it noticeable that it issues a global condemnation of all terrorism. This is couched in broad enough terms to mean different things to different people, as was no doubt a political necessity in getting such a large number of signatories together who hold distinctive views on how to define extremism, let alone tackle it. Differences among the signatories are already emerging publicly.

This context helps to explain why Shahid Malik attacked his co-signatories to the letter, the MCB, in the same Saturday edition of the Times:

Mr Malik, one of whose constituents was Mohammed Sidique Khan, the 7/7 ringleader, attacked the Muslim Council of Britain for failing to tackle extremism. He said that many figures within the council, the national body that purports to represent British Muslims and which is frequently consulted by Downing Street, were reluctant to tackle the threat posed to the community by extremist elements.

“The MCB has not challenged extremism in any regard since July 7,” he said. “It has been very good at an advocacy role on behalf of Muslims, usually blaming the Government, the police, the politicians. Sometimes that is justified. But it has been unable to look at the challenge of extremism, acknowledge it and deal with it. We really needed the MCB to take a lead after 7/7 and it was a great disappointment.”

Mr Malik said he believed that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the perceived inaction of the West could push young Muslims towards extremism.
He said, however, that community leaders had a duty to speak out and say that violence and terrorism were not the answer to Muslim concerns. “We have to work to create a zero-tolerance attitude to views that are unacceptable in a decent society, to say that the 7/7 bombers are not martyrs going to Heaven but sinners going to Hell.”

Muhammad Abdul Bari, the secretary-general of the MCB, rejected criticism that his organisation was denying the existence of extremism. He said that there was a problem of denial within a small part of the Muslim community but that it was not the biggest problem facing Muslims.

Dr Bari added: “I have spoken to many young people and scholars this week and they are 100 per cent supportive of the police if it is proven that everything the police are saying is correct. But many people have doubts after what happened in Forest Gate.”

He said that he and other MCB leaders were aware that elements of the community were at risk of being radicalised by fringe groups but believed that too much attention was paid to the subject. “The discourse in the media is about radicalism, extremism and alienation of the Muslim community, but this is not helping the Muslims or wider society because it creates an image of ‘us and them’.” [3]

The response of government ministers to the letter, which most likely got more attention because of the inclusion of Labour’s Muslim Parliamentarians, has been robust. The suggestion that British foreign policy in the Middle East has increased the threat of terrorism in Britain was dismissed by the Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, as ‘dangerous and foolish’. He also said that ‘no government worth its salt should allow its foreign policy to be dictated to under threat of terrorism.’ The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, described such a linkage as the ‘gravest possible error’. [4] Her deputy, Foreign Office minister Kim Howells, added,

I have no doubt that there are many issues which incite people to loath government policies but not to strap explosives to themselves and go out and murder innocent people. There is no way of rationalising that. I think it is very, very dangerous when people who call themselves community leaders make some assumption that somehow that there’s a rational connection between these two things. [5]

The Home Secretary John Reid described the letter as ‘a dreadful misjudgement’. It was misjudged as

No government worth its salt would stay in power in my view, and no government worth its salt would be supported by the British people if our foreign policy or any other aspect of policy was being dictated by terrorists. That is not the British way, it is antithetical to our very central values. We decide things in this country by democracy, not under the threat of terrorism. [6]

Unanimous and strong condemnation from right across the cabinet has been the order of the day.

This response, it seems to me, rather like after 7/7, makes no distinction between causal analysis and moral justification. All manner of experts in and out of government have already made the same causal argument as this letter has. Current foreign policy is not an originating causal factor: the roots for this stretch back to the Cold War at least. However, given the age of many of these Muslim recruits, some just teenagers, it is highly likely that their radicalization coincides with the travails of the post-9/11 world. It has to be admitted as an aggravating factor among other very pertinent causes, such as the spread of a violent theology, before a serious policy debate can actually start. One of the signatories, Sadiq Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, reiterates this point about the exploitation of discontent over foreign policy by radical recruiters:

We have not said that there is a link between foreign policy and acts of terrorism but rather that there is a link with the sort of materials that are used to radicalise young people. Many of us feel that we are trying to address these issues but it seems that we are in a boat trying to empty out water and that the vessel has a massive hole in it which is our foreign policy. [7]

This causal analysis is entirely separate from the argument about moral justification, which the government sees as the slippery slope to appeasement. In fact, Khalid Mahmood MP has described the letter in just such terms: ‘[i]t is just an attempt to raise their own individual profiles so they can … appease some of the more radical elements of Islam.’ [8] Yet, if neither the government nor Muslim community leaders are able to distinguish between the causal and moral dimensions of this crisis, then the prospect of feeling our way towards more effective strategies appears to be an increasingly remote one. In fact, if anything, the gap between Muslim leaders and government appears to be widening.

[1] Full-page advertisement, Times, 12 August 2006, 43.
[2] The idea of an open letter to the Prime Minister signed by Muslim leaders and organisations was seen by the MCB, according to a highly placed MCB source, as the continutation of the campaign to call for an immediate ceasefire. An earlier letter had been sent to the Prime Minister on 26 July 2006, prior to the first diplomatic crisis meeting in Rome, urging him to call for the prompt cessation of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel. It was a joint letter signed by major organisations like Islamic Relief, Oxfam, Cafod, Christian Aid, the MCB, War on Want, and the trade union, Unison. It can be accessed online here: http://www.crisisaction.org.uk/docs/Open%20Letter%20to%20the%20British%20
Prime%20Minister%20on%20the%20Middle%20East%20Crisis%20_26th%20July%20
2006_.pdf
[3] Sean O’Neill, ‘Anger over Forest Gate fuels culture of denial for Muslims’, Times, 12 August 2006, 8.
[4] Ned Temko, ‘Beckett in policy row with Muslim MPs’, Observer, 13 August 2006, 4.
[5] ‘Ministers condemn Muslim leaders’, ePolitix.com, 13 August 2006.
[6] Ibid.
[7] David Hencke and Hugh Muir, ‘Kelly: Imams failing to deter radicals’, Guardian, 14 August 2006.
[8] Ibid.

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