Monthly Archives: October 2006

Is Britain now post-multicultural?

Is Britain becoming a post-multicultural nation? It’s the right time to ask the question. The government wants to rebalance its relationship with British Muslims — to insist that they do more to tackle extremism. It has announced that single faith schools should become more multi-faith. And the debate on the niqab (face-veil) has moved to the question of restricting it in schools, universities and hospitals.

Can Principle Prevail?
It’s been a tumultuous few weeks. The imbroglio over the niqab seems to have overshadowed everything else, including the sobering claim in a peer-reviewed journal that over half-a-million Iraqis may have died since 2003. One contributory element to the persistence of the issue is that cabinet discipline has broken down in the fin de siècle atmosphere of the end of the Blair era, with ministers commenting on it outside their departmental briefs.

While Ruth Kelly, John Prescott, Peter Hain and Patricia Hewitt stuck to the principle of personal choice, they were outgunned by the support Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Tessa Jowell, Harriet Harman and Phil Whoolas gave to Jack Straw. The antis made two main arguments: that the niqab is a bar to integration, and that it denies the equal participation of Muslim women in society. While no-one has called for an outright ban, it is clear that this heavyweight group would prefer to see the niqab disappear altogether rather than tolerate its continued presence. The veil should go, as Harriet Harman argues, ‘because I want women to be fully included. If you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it.’ [1]

The reductive element here is not only to cast the veil as a symbol of defiant cultural differentiation, or of subjugation to men (i.e. simultaneously denoting radical agency and passive victimhood), but to see veiling merely as an individual act. Dr Bano Murtuja from Blackburn made the point, in a recent radio documentary, that women of her generation maintained the modest dress code of their aunts and mothers, but, unlike them, went to work, with some going into the professions. Thus this ultra-modest dress code constitutes a form of negotiated access to the world of work in continuity with the mores of the more conservative Muslim communities. (There is also the separate phenomenon of the spread of veiling amongst the small Salafi segment of younger British Muslim women in the last ten years or so, which, in principle, still centres – like the aforementioned trend – on the issue of personal choice.)

The tragedy here is that the current phase of policy on the hoof is therefore in danger of placing legal restrictions (and not just the hurdle of cultural censure) on the active participation of this particular group of Muslim women in the professional environments of schools, hospitals and universities. Neither the Prime Minister nor Phil Whoolas should have publicly supported Kirklees Education Authority in its employment tribunal case with Ms Aisha Azmi, a teaching assistant suspended for refusing to remove her veil in the presence of male colleagues, prior to its conclusion. Similarly, Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, has said that he would endorse the decision of other universities to follow the lead of Imperial College, University of London, in banning the face-veil, for both teaching staff and students. [2] Subsequently, (although the decision may not be organically connected,) the University Hospital of Birmingham NHS Trust banned niqabs from clinical environments including hospital buildings and GP surgeries. [3] It is noticeable, too, how the encouragement of a niqab ban on campuses coincides with the strategy of promoting the surveillance and policing of Muslim student activities in fear of actual or presumed radicalisation by the universities themselves. [4]

While there may very well be extenuating arguments to be made in any particular work-related context, overall the cumulative effect of the legal debarring of the niqab in certain professions and in higher education may well be to achieve the opposite of what ministers intend, by hindering rather than speeding up the integration of Muslim women who choose to dress this way.

Another corollary of these interventions is that ministers and the press have together managed to create an atmosphere in which verbal and physical attacks on Muslim women have increased, alongside attacks on mosques. When will they take responsibility for this? It matters very much that politicians now act to becalm this situation rather than inflame it further.

Interfaith Interface
Alongside the veil and its discontents, two other important policy initiatives have come to light, which are possibly of even greater significance.

The most important is the move away from interfaith, as a paradigm for engaging certain minority communities as ‘faith communities’, to prioritising counter-terrorism imperatives, focusing on the Muslim communities. Following this, the government has also shifted from looking to promote a single representational body (a policy pursued, approximately, between 1994-2005), to one of multi-track engagement, which, it is now apparent, is guided by the principle of ‘combating extremism’.

The Conservatives under John Major and then New Labour, prior to 9/11, certainly looked to promote and endorse the idea of a single interlocutor with government – and, at the time, the preferred candidates were the Muslim Council of Britain and its precursor, the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs. However, on balance, the government has seen the Council as too oppositional to the ‘war on terror’ in a period when Britain has stayed close to Washington’s lead. A decisive shift came about after 7/7, with the government putting more energy into local and national consultations, and widening the scope of Muslim actors with whom it was willing to engage. The days of the MCB as primus inter pares moved to a period of ‘MCB plus’, or including a wider range of other community groups.

The shift from singular to multiple interfacing between Muslims and government, and the move from interfaith to counter-terrorism, has been opposed by senior figures in the Church of England, according to a leaked internal memorandum of advice to the House of Bishops. [5] The memo advises that political attention given to Muslims, and the extra monies being sent their way, is causing inter-community tension particularly from other minority faith groups. The government, the memo argues, thus risks unbalancing interfaith relations as envisaged by the Church of England and, crucially in its view, allowing the faith agenda to be set by the imperatives of counter-terrorism, by focusing on the Muslim community. The urge to regain the agenda, which is perfectly understandable in its own way, is marked by the memo’s reassertion of Christianity as Britain’s core heritage, in contradistinction to a focus on minority faiths that constitute less than 5% of the general population. The Christian-Muslim Forum, established just this year, has been excluded from these considerations. There is, moreover, an element of mythologizing in the memo’s assessment (at least as can be gleaned from this particular newspaper report) because:

(i) The evidence, such as it is, points to under-funding across all Muslim community organisations, in view of the historic exclusion of Muslims from the race relations settlement and funding regimes, and from lottery monies for reasons of religious conscience, a point borne out by several social indicators of systemic Muslim disadvantage.
(ii) The current focus on British Muslims as a problem community, by the government and the press, does not amount to either social prestige or political clout.
(iii) The Church appears to report misperceptions that other faith communities have about British Muslims and their relationship with government, but one might ask: how much is it challenging them?
(iv) The most authoritative research shows that Muslim leaders are generally highly enthusiastic supporters of the Anglican establishment, and have not wished to undermine Britain’s Christian heritage. Indeed, they see its preservation as beneficial to the interests of all other faith communities. [6]
(v) While there is merit in the view that counter-terrorist imperatives are unbalancing interfaith relations, it is clear, at the same time, that these counter-terrorist imperatives cannot be formulated or conducted within the framework of interfaith either. The challenge, rather, is to manage the interrelationship between the two carefully.

In the shift from singular to multiple engagement, the Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly has gone a step further than any other government minister in the past by moving on from ‘engagement for engagement’s sake’.

It is not good enough to merely sit on the sidelines or pay lip service to fighting extremism. That is why I want a fundamental rebalancing of our relationship with Muslim organisations from now on. […] In future, I am clear that our strategy of funding and engagement must shift significantly towards those organisations that are taking a proactive leadership role in tackling extremism and defending our shared values. It is only by defending our values that we will prevent extremists radicalising future generations of terrorists. [7]

It is unclear presently as to which funding stream this ‘rebalancing’ refers to, although one report mentions a fund of some £11m established in 2005 to tackle extremism. [8] Obviously Muslim organisations seek public funding for all kinds of projects, including on the basis of interfaith, as might be obtained from the Faith Communities Capacity Building Fund. Is the additional criterion of combating extremism to be added to funds like this too? And might this not potentially clash with discrimination legislation, passed by this government, on the grounds of religion in the delivery of goods and services?

The second issue here is that no serious counter-terrorism policy names groups and highlights their government connections, since this immediately robs them of the credibility to deal with radicals in the first place. Serious de-radicalisation measures are never launched by high profile speeches like this one: they are quiet, low-key efforts led by credible individuals, like ex-radicals, who work independently at the grassroots.

Organising the New Jihad
So if Ruth Kelly is not talking about combating extremism directly, what, then, is she referring to? It seems to me that she is looking to the longer term to invest in the younger generation. This is all really more about mainstreaming and integration, which has been backed by Ruth Kelly also meeting 17 key local councils and other agencies serving large Muslim populations, and urging them to be similarly mindful of the need to ‘tackle extremism’ too. [9] If this is so, then the allegation against those who have not provided effective leadership within the Muslim community is more damning than it appears to be at first glance. The criticism is not just about a failure to take on the radicals, but also to provide the vision and leadership to make British Muslims part of the mainstream of society. And it is specifically a criticism laid at the door of Islamism [10], and of the organisation now thought by Britain’s elites to embody it most effectively – the MCB.

How is it then that the MCB has gone from a favoured to a pariah status since 9/11? Four issues have undermined the MCB within government circles. The first is its boycott of the Holocaust Memorial Day since 2001, which Ruth Kelly referred to in her speech. The second is the judgement formed by government that the MCB has not been able to provide decisive leadership in tackling extremism (and the MCB leadership has taken a divergent view, namely that extremism, in terms of scale, has been a problem blown out of proportion, even though Muslims should still take measures against it). The third issue has been the political effect of investigative journalism that has examined, one has to say in a mostly simplistic way, the MCB’s historic links with Islamist groups like the Jama`at-i Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. [11] The fourth and probably the most important reason has been the opposition of the MCB to the government’s foreign policies since 2001.

Over the last twelve months, this has led to an emerging consensus among government and the press that ‘Islamists’ will have to say and do more to disassociate themselves from this heritage, and to be less quick to play the identity politics card by pinning all, and not just some, radicalising discontent on the conduct of foreign policy. The question at present is how the MCB, still the largest Muslim umbrella group with around 400 affiliates, will respond to this rebuff? [12]

In the short term, it has responded strongly in an open letter rebutting the substance of Kelly’s argument, but – in her reply – the Minister has responded coolly by outlining how the MCB ought to comply with the new set of requirements that are now expected. [13] One example of how things might develop is the United States, where, for the last five years, Islamists have been politically marginalised and sent away from the corridors of power. This has resulted in these groups moving back into grassroots community work centred around advocacy on civil rights issues. It is not unlikely that if this ‘rebalancing’ persists, matters might take a similar course in the United Kingdom.

Scholastic Strife
The second major policy initiative is a push forward on faith schools to curtail their alleged social divisiveness by requiring that 25% of their pupils come from outside its faith community, thereby revisiting a chief proposal of the Cantle Report of 2001 in the wake of the Northern riots that was thought too impractical to pursue at the time. In the current set of proposals, local councils are to be given powers to require faith schools to meet the quota where they deem it to be reasonable or achievable. If there is strong local opposition to the proposals, the decision will need the consent of the Education Secretary. [14] This is more of a symbolic issue because only 0.5% of Muslim kids go to such schools, and there is no compelling evidence that they are driving separatism or indeed extremism; this has been more asserted than proven. The focus should rather be on underperforming state schools in poor inner city areas that attempt to educate much larger numbers of Muslim pupils than the faith school sector, whether publicly funded or not. Furthermore this policy change is symbolic of a new post-multiculturalist politics.

In sum, it appears that Britain’s post-multicultural moment may have arrived, as it did for the Netherlands back in 2004 after the murder of Theo van Gogh. [15] At present no-one can say for sure how far this will all go or which direction the public mood, the political climate and new assimilative policies will take. It may be observed that British Muslims have become used to the discourse of difference and cultural authenticity, of a language of rights that was suited to multiculturalism. The struggle may now be to find a new language during this transition to post-multiculturalism, which, in the words of Raymond Plant, is:

concerned with the links between citizenship, value pluralism, the role of community and the possibility of achieving what might be called neutral justification: that is to say, an argumentative strategy which could be endorsed by quite diverse religious and cultural communities as a way of securing a common constitutional framework within which to live. [16]

Update
Only a week after the government announced an intention to legislate to require publicly funded faith schools to accept 25% of pupils from other faiths, it has managed to broker a voluntary consensus in this sector (as of 2006 the numbers of publicly-funded faith schools in the UK are as follows: Church of England, 4,646; Roman Catholic, 2,041; Jewish, 37; Muslim, 8; Sikh, 2). Prior to the suggestion of the quota, the CoE had already announced its intention to get its new schools to take in a quarter from other faiths or of none. The sticking point had been the Roman Catholic Church, which has now agreed to take non-Catholics into its schools, and which has allowed the government to pursue its agenda on a non-legislative basis. As for Islamic faith schools, it was revealed that they already had an inclusive policy to accept non-Muslims but it was recognised that they could not attract sufficient numbers because of their poor public image. It has been agreed to proceed on the basis of promoting ‘inclusion and social cohesion’. [17]

Notes

[1] Mary Riddell, ‘Why I want to see the veil gone from Britain’ [interview with Harriet Harman], New Statesman, 16 October 2006, 12.
[2] ‘Rammell backs university’s Muslim veil ban’, Education Guardian, 11 October 2006.
[3] ‘Hospitals in a UK city ban wearing of veils by medicos’, Zee News, 16 October 2006.
[4] Vikram Dodd, ‘Universities urged to spy on Muslims’, Education Guardian, 16 October 2006.
[5] Jonathan Wynne-Jones, ‘Drive for multi-faith Britain deepens rifts, says Church’, Daily Telegraph, 16 October 2006.
[6] Jytte Klausen, The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 66, notes from her sample database of Muslim leaders that the lowest number (13%) supported church-state reform in the UK compared with their counterparts in five other European countries.
[7] Ruth Kelly, ‘Britain: our values, our responsibilities’ [speech], 11 October 20o6, http://www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1503690.
[8] Sean O’Neill and Philip Webster, ‘Kelly penalises mosques’ failure to tackle terror’, Times, 16 October 2006.
[9] DCLG News Release, ‘Kelly: local authorities crucial in tackling extremism’, 16 October 2006, http://www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1002882&PressNoticeID=2266. The seventeen councils included three from Yorkshire (Calderdale, Kirklees and Bradford), four from London (Newham, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich and Waltham Forest), two from the South East (Wycombe and Slough), three from the North West (Manchester, Oldham and Preston), Dudley in the West Midlands, two from the East (Luton and Peterborough), and two from the East Midlands (Derby and Leicester).
[10] I use the term ‘Islamism’ advisedly here to mean simply the application of Islam to modern political contexts. It doesn’t necessarily imply a fixation with forms of modern totalitarian political philosophies and their vision of the state. Most British Islamists are today engaged in nothing more formidable than a bit of faith-based activism, interfaith and lobbying on Muslim issues, even if they read Qutb and Mawdudi as teenagers. There is such a thing in the world as Islamic social democracy with conservative nationalist and progressive leftist wings.
[11] Martin Bright, ‘Politics: One minister who understands the problem’, New Statesman, 23 October 2006.
[12] In comparison, the British Muslim Forum had 253 affiliates at the last count, the Union of Muslim Organisations, 114, and the Sufi Muslim Council, a partner organisation with the BMF, 102.
[13] An insider MCB view of this shift in the modalities of engagement, written anonymously and entitled ‘Sidelining genuine leadership’ is available here: http://www.salaam.co.uk/themeofthemonth/september03_index.php?l=64.
[14] ‘Non-believers for faith schools’, Observer, 15 October 2006.
[15] Jane Kramer, ‘The Dutch Model: Multiculturalism and Muslim immigrants’, New Yorker, 3 April 2006, 60-67.
[16] Raymond Plant, ‘Afterword: Liberalism and Toleration’ in Siân Jones, Tony Kushner and Sarah Pearce (eds.) Cultures and Ambivalence and Contempt: Studies in Jewish-Non-Jewish Relations (London: Valentine Mitchell, 1998), 307-311 (310).
[17] BBC News Online, ‘Faith schools quota plan scrapped’, 26th October 2006, availalbe at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/6089440.stm.

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Filed under Education, Interfaith, Multiculturalism, Racism and Islamophobia, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

Blogging the Islamic Anglosphere

Several bloggers have come together to produce a monthly edition of blogs on politics, culture, religion and life by Muslims living in the ‘West’, with contributions coming from North America, the UK and Australia. The second edition has just come out in time for the last ten days of Ramadan. Entitled the Carnival of Islam in the West, all those who sign up come to create a continuous meta-blog, which placed on an RSS feed — say onto a personalised Google homepage — provides a subaltern complement, sometimes an antidote, to the daily deluge of ‘bad news’ about Muslim folk. The range of views is broad — from traditionalist to reformist — but the quality of the writing is generally excellent, often being on a par with or even better than anything which can be found in the Muslim print media.

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The Veil and the Limits of English Tolerance

Unveiling the Democratic ProcessThe Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, has kick-started a national debate about the veil (more precisely the face-veil or niqab in Arabic) by suggesting that it has held back the integration of some British Muslims. As the MP for Blackburn, a constituency with a large Muslim population (having a significant Gujarati Deobandi component which is more likely to promote the niqab), Mr Straw does not deny the right to wear it but sees it as ‘bound to make better relations between the two communities [Muslim and non-Muslim] more difficult’ because it is ‘such a visible statement of separation and difference’. Having felt uncomfortable about dealing with veiled Muslim constituents in his Blackburn office, Mr Straw decided a year ago that he would request these women to remove their niqabs, in the presence of an additional female member of staff, so that face-to-face interviews had more value, and so that he could ‘see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say’. [1]

The lesser point at issue here is one of propriety. For a citizen to access the services of the state and to engage in the democratic process should not entail additional cultural barriers if they are not breaking any law. This is implied in any professional relationship based on need and equal access, and would be similarly pertinent if one were dealing with a solicitor or a policeman. Other experienced constituency MPs with large Muslim populations have opined that the veil presented no problem to them at all, such as Mike Gapes, Roger Godsiff, Patricia Hewitt and Sir Peter Soulsby. It is entirely the wrong context in which to raise such an issue because there is an implicit pressure to comply with Mr Straw’s request if it is thought a refusal might entail a less sympathetic hearing of the personal or political issue the niqabi constituent is bringing to his attention. It is simply unprofessional to add extra conditions to ensure conservative Muslims get fair and equal access to their elected representatives, and in a broader sense, to the institutions of the state. (This consideration would not apply however, even in the minds of the most conservative Muslim jurists, to mandatory documentation requiring a portrait photograph, or in the overriding interests of security and policing where necessary, or in the necessities of medical examination.)

The larger point at issue here is that the dress preferences of some Muslim women are seen as a bar to integration. If the majority find the dress code of a minority discomfiting, where does the onus for understanding lie? I would suggest that it lies with the majority, who ought to accept that society may contain within it widely differing views of what modesty entails, and who need not assume that the veil implies an unacceptable judgement about wider society’s codes of modesty. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with the veil or the rationales for wearing it, but that the reaction to the veil must not impose additional penalties to integration.

An entirely separate issue is the diversity of views about modesty among Muslims and the wisdom or otherwise of wearing the veil in Britain, because the state through its officials and elected politicians ought to manifest a sense of secular impartiality rather than attempt to intervene in this debate. The centre ground does not lie with the presumption that veiled women are necessarily accomplices in their own patriarchal oppression, suffering in the process from a form of false self-consciousness. Rather, any workable consensus lies upon the principle of informed consent, or upon ‘a woman’s right to choose’. This implies a significant concession — one that is not often noted — in shifting the rationale of Muslim piety from a language of legal obligation to one of rights and individual choice. Whether this personalisation of religion is rhetorical or substantive is normally gauged by whether deciding not to wear the headscarf (or hijab in Arabic) or the veil is also seen as part of a woman’s right to choose.

In general, this episode reveals how tolerance may slip quite quickly into intolerance. Mr Straw’s rather careful, lawyerly prose gets instantly translated into screaming headlines like ‘Take off your veils, says Straw’, which ups the ante, the stakes and the atmosphere immediately. [2] Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has gone even further than the French did with their banning of the headscarf in public schools in calling for ‘state institutions as well as private companies … [to] have the right to stipulate that a person whose face cannot be seen should not be served’. [3] Thus carefully-phrased ‘requests’ from powerful politicians quickly degenerate into calls for the application of discriminatory measures in the name of liberal ‘tolerance’ itself.

Bernard Williams once described tolerance as a necessary but impossible liberal virtue. Often invoked too as a classic English virtue, tolerance’s chief merit is immediately obvious: it is better than intolerance. Yet this ‘impossibility’ arises because tolerance is closer to polite, veiled intolerance than it is to the active promotion of mutual understanding and recognition across divides of various sorts.

To tolerate something is to have the power to exercise tolerance or to withhold it. Tolerance is paraded as a personal virtue, but it veils asymmetries of power and status, and, as history suggests, it is a febrile, fragile value, a mask that falls away quite easily in times of social tension and change to reveal the face of intolerance underneath. While the veil of tolerance is still in place, the population that is to be tolerated is not kept safe from public scrutiny. Rather tolerance characterises that population as a problem to be solved, rather than a fact on the ground, or, dare one say it, as fellow human beings to be recognised and respected.

Those who are tolerated have to show that they are deserving of the honour. Those who have the power to tolerate – e.g. the English middle classes – look for enough signs of similarity to themselves, in those who show enough potential and ambition to be saved from their ethno-religious background to display proper English comportment and temperament. Tolerance thus appears to be closer to prejudice than one might think, e.g. I am able and willing to tolerate someone who I morally do not like. Conversely those who are to be tolerated have no equivalent power.

Tolerance, it is suggested, has a threshold, a limit. That limit is anything that appears to threaten or contravene the straightforward maintenance of national tradition, and so intolerant measures are required to protect that tradition without disturbing the self-image of virtuous tolerance. Mere tolerance is better than intolerance, but it is much less desirable than creating a society based on ‘solidarity, respect, mutually engaging comprehension and sensitivity’. [4] This latter approach suggests a proactive, progressive tolerance that is morally committed to fostering a society based on mutual respect, which Muslims, as much as anyone else, have a duty to promote.

As Mr Straw’s intervention shows, the veil has not just fallen from the faces of Muslim women, but from the cultural disdain and intolerance that toleration itself politely masks.

Update

The Independent has reported that attacks on Muslims have increased since this debate was started over the veil. Muslim women have been particularly targetted with incidents of headscarves and veils being pulled off or receiving verbal abuse in London, Blackburn, Canterbury, Gloucestershire and Liverpool. In one incident, ‘a young Muslim girl wearing a veil in Mr Straw’s Blackburn constituency was confronted by three youths last Friday night. One allegedly threw a newspaper at her and shouted: “Jack has told you to take off your veil.”‘ [5]

Notes

[1] Jack Straw, ‘I want to unveil my views on an important issue’, Daily Telegraph, 6th October 2006, 4.
[2] Daily Telegraph, 6th October 2006, 1.
[3] Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, ‘Nothing to Hide’, Time, 16th October 2006, 64.
[4] David Theo Goldberg, ‘The Power of Tolerance’ in Tony Kushner and Nadia Valman (eds.) Philosemitism, Antisemitism and ‘the Jews’: Perspectives from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 31-48 (40). Much of the foregoing discussion on tolerance was inspired by this same brilliant and insightful paper.
[5] Jason Bennetto, Ian Herbert and Jeremy Clarke, ‘Attacks on Muslims rise after veils row’, Independent, 14 October 2006, accessible at http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/crime/article1870842.ece.

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Terrorism, Politics and Media Controversy

Today’s global media is the most effective weapon around for both governments and terrorists — despite the presence of WMDs. Even after 9/11, the maxim still holds that ‘war is ultimately coercive [while] terrorism is impressive’; in other words, terrorism compensates for its relative lack of coercive force by relying on ‘collective alarmism’ to create the forceful reaction of the state it needs to rally people to its cause. [1] Similarly governments seek to reassure publics by talking and being tough — which is more often than not the initial response before any attempt to win hearts and minds becomes more serious. Even five years on after the World Trade Center attacks, we seem caught in a media battle through which the apparently wavering hearts of British Muslms are to be won over. The intensity of this media battle is in and of itself highly divisive and counter-productive.

Recently there was an interview with a prominent radical on British radio’s most prestigious interview slot, 8.10am on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. On the eve of Ramadan, Today’s chief interviewer, the normally insistent John Humphreys, found himself fazed when facing the aggressive scattergun approach favoured by Abu Izzadeen and other protégés of the exiled founder and leader of al-Muhajiroun, Omar Bakri Mohammed (b. 1958). The interview itself, the full transcript of which is available here, was a classic instance of a liberal and a jihadi talking past each other, speaking two entirely different languages.

But first some background. Al-Muhajiroun is a splinter group that broke away from Hizb ut-Tahrir, a transnational organisation that works to re-establish the caliphate in the Muslim world. Its splinter is a small, high profile group that courts controversy with the media in order to use notoriety as a recruitment tactic. A reliable estimate from academic research done in 2002, put its numbers back then at 160 members, 700 attendees of weekly study circles and 7,000 contacts or potential participants. [2] It was founded in Saudi Arabia in 1983 but after a crackdown Bakri left for London in 1986, and rejoined HT where he succeeded through his high profile, controversial style in attracting a considerable membership for the movement as well as international notoriety. Bakri’s outlandish positions were too extreme even for HT’s leadership (e.g. wishing to establish the caliphate in Britain), and he was stripped of his leadership of the UK section in November 1995 by the worldwide leader, Abdul Qadeem Zalloum. He later resigned from HT and relaunched al-Muhajiroun in January 1996.

Omar Bakri endorsed al-Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on the American embassies in a samizdat legal verdict. But after 9/11, he was more equivocal, condemning attacks on civilian targets but claiming still that this was an act of mistaken but still rewardable ijtihad on al-Qaeda’s part. Only in July 2003 did the Metropolitan police really crack down on the group after the bombing of Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv by two British Muslims who were some way linked, at least indirectly, to the movement. In 2004, al-Muhajiroun was disbanded and in August 2005, Bakri left for the Lebanon and was subsequently banned from returning to Britain. Al-Muhajiroun’s successor groups al-Gurabaa and the Saved Sect were banned by the British government in July 2006, after some internal disagreement and equivocation from the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke and from the intelligence services. [3] These groups could only be legally banned after extending the grounds for proscription of terrorist groups in the Terrorism Act 2000 by passing an additional clause banning the glorification of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2006.

Section 21 of the Terrorism Act 2006 proscribes groups that promote or encourage ‘the unlawful glorification of the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future, or generally) of acts of terrorism’. Glorification is understood as encouraging the ‘emulation of terrorism’.

On splitting from HT in 1996, al-Muhajiroun defined itself on three points of difference:

(i) While they both believe in the reestablishment of worldwide caliphate, HT believes such work is confined to the Muslim world, whereas al-Muhajiroun considers it an obligation to establish God’s command in Britain.
(ii) Al-Muhajiroun adopts a more public style of moral correction, of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, in contrast to HT’s more private method of training and inculcation.
(iii) Finally, unlike HT, al-Muhajiroun openly supports the cause of jihad by hand, heart or tongue in the British context. Their spokesmen have in the past refused to condemn the bombers of 9/11 or 7/7, but have argued that foreign Muslims ought to make a strike on British soil for this country’s military support for the American-led ‘war on terror’.

The full transcript of the interview, available here, reiterates all these three distinctive features – and leads to the conclusion that Abu Izzadeen succeeded in using this influential slot to get across his core message. With Humphreys’s assertion that those who support the Sharia ought to leave the UK to live in somewhere like Saudi Arabia, Abu Izzadeen recognises the worldwide applicability of the Sharia, the duty to establish it here, and the non-validity of the concept of national sovereignty:

I believe Allah is al-Khaliq, He’s the One who created the whole universe, He created the UK. It doesn’t belong to you, it doesn’t belong to the Queen, it doesn’t belong to the Anglo-Saxons. … It belongs to Allah the Creator, and He has put us on the planet Earth, to live wherever we want and implement the Sharia rules. If I live in the UK I will call for Islam.

Secondly he adopts the hallmark style of public moral correction both in the interview and in the headline-grapping heckling of John Reid, the current Home Secretary, in an East London mosque. He partly quotes the famous hadith on the levels of iman and necessity of correction in the interview. He also reiterates his core message to millions of listeners, which centres around the condemnation of temporal political authority:

If you’re going to talk about terrorism, I think you can look to Tony Blair, coz at the moment the biggest terrorist on the planet is George Bush and his sidekick. … How many people died in 9/11? 3000? Let’s give a nice round figure of 5000 people. Since 9/11, the British Crusader forces and the American Crusader forces, George Bush has it’s a crusade, so I’m not going to argue with the President of the United States, he said it’s a crusade, Tony Blair sided with him as a crusader. They have killed…the bombing campaign alone, some say 70,000 inside Iraq, some said 100,000.

He is quick to tap into the main contention in the Muslim world, that Muslim deaths are more numerous and are accounted to matter less in the Western world. He also connects his message with a feeling of discontent not only with military intervention abroad, but with policing at home:

We’ve had enough of the police raids, we’ve had enough of the shootings in Forest Gate, we’ve had enough of the arrests inside Walthamstow, inside restaurants, under the guise of your “war against terror”, which everybody knows – Muslims and non-Muslims – is a war against Islam. And I’m telling you something, if they don’t stop this, then there’s going to be a very strong reaction from the community, maybe not from me on an individual level, but people have had enough. … Well I think that the British government should really open their eyes and smell the coffee. You can only push people to a certain level before they explode, I’m not talking about a self-suicide operation, but there’s a tension within the community because they are being targeted.

Finally, Abu Izzadeen is able to continue to provide tacit support for suicide terrorism in the UK despite the strictures of the new legislation against the glorification of terrorism by recounting the opinions of others rather than his own view. He achieves this despite an attempt by Humphreys to get him to make an open statement of support:

JH: I tell you what you do about Tony Blair, you vote against him. It’s your right as a British citizen, vote him out of office if you disapprove of what he’s doing, but are you telling me that 9/11 and the subsequent attacks, including the attack on this country were justified because of the things you’re talking about?

AI: Who’s talking about justification?

JH: I’m asking you whether you whether, you know perfectly well what…

AI: …I haven’t mentioned anything about justification. I’m talking about the reality of Muslims being attacked after 9/11… the numbers of casualties are much greater on the Muslim side. So no-one’s taking about justification apart from yourself.

JH: I’m asking you whether they were justified?

AI: Well why don’t you go and ask the terrorists?

JH: No, no, I’m asking you.

AI: No you ask the terrorists. Those who took out the operations, we should go to them and ask them why did you do so? And I believe that there was a video release by Mohammed Siddique Khan, after the operation he did on 7/7, he explained clearly why he did those, it’s not for me to justify or for me to condemn because it doesn’t make any difference. People are dead. Rather you should go to those who did the operation and ask them why they did it, and they said clearly ‘if you bomb us, we’ll bomb you back.’ That’s not about justification, it’s about what they said.

JH: Let me tell you…what the Channel 4 poll on British Muslims said that one in four British Muslims believe that the attacks on London last July were justified, and that’s the word, because of British support for the American-led war on Iraq.

AI: So what are you asking me for? You’ve got a clear poll, and you’re asking me about my opinion?

This particular exchange demonstrates that while legislation is passed outlawing ideas as well as criminal acts, it is at the same time quite easily circumvented and is therefore ineffective as well as sapping the state of moral legitimacy.

The great lesson was that this interview, a golden opportunity for Abu Izzadeen to spread his message, was effectively granted by the Home Secretary himself, who seems anxious to appear tough on the ‘war on terror’ (in the run up to the election of a new Labour Party leader and thus PM) at the expense of ratcheting up inter-community tensions, which can then be exploited by the likes of Mr Izzadeen through a mass media ever hungry to report controversy.

Previously in an article for the Sun, Mr Reid has made this appeal:

I appeal to you (the Muslim community) to look for changes in your teenage sons — odd hours, dropping out of school or college, strange new friends. … And if you are worried, talk to them before their hatred grows.

No doubt this might seem at first sight to be the right thing to do on the part of any parent faced with such an agonising eventuality, and yet this suggestion was met with some consternation by community leaders. Why should a generalised request be made to an entire community to police itself? It is stigmatizing to generalise, as this problem affects very few families. A contact within the police service told me that radicalisation takes place in a context where communication has already broken down, and parents genuinely do not know much about the details of their sons’ lives in these cases. The surprise of parents upon the arrest of sons on terrorist charges has been genuine. In the one case where family members were suspected of prior knowledge of an attack, that of Omar Sherif who carried out a failed suicide bombing mission in 2003, they were acquitted of all charges in 2005. In another case, a teenage boy was reported to the police by his parents and was subsequently given a two year jail sentence without any recourse to deradicalising interventions that did not require recourse to a prison sentence. This would hardly encourage parents to come forward if matters are not going to be dealt with sensibly. It is better to leave such matters to the professionals and allow serious cases to be dealt with quietly and effectively without creating a cause celebre for short term political gain.

A heavy handed approach from government allows the likes of Mr Izzadeen to press his case further.

Notes

[1] Charles Townshend, Terrorism (Oxford: University Press, 2002), 15.
[2] Quintan Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 10.
[3] New Statesman, 30 January 2005, based on information from a confidential memo leaked to the journalist Martin Bright.

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