Monthly Archives: January 2007

Uncovering 'Undercover Mosque'

There’s been a lot of debate in the Muslim blogosphere this week about the Channel 4 Dispatches programme broadcast last Monday (MPAC has produced a transcript, and an online video is available here). Of course many Muslim viewers were up in arms about the usual sinister music, the grainy footage, quotes out of context, undercover spying on Muslims, the non-differentiation of source-texts (nusus) from commentary and the labeling of both as ‘extremist’, the calculated fomenting of sectarianism and so on. Yet despite the normal complaints, it remains entirely legitimate to ask some questions of those in our community who are unafraid to champion such a hate and venom-filled approach to their non-Muslim neighbours. The basic gist of the programme was hardly news to anyone within the Muslim community. Whatever the closeness of their geopolitical alliance with America, the Saudis have for decades used petrodollars to spread around the world their preferred version of Islam, seen by very many Muslims as hardline and intolerant. Anyone can see that this has stored up trouble in the past and will no doubt do so in future.

Those featured in the programme were not the jihadi takfiri Salafis, but those who are — to varying degrees — attached to Saudi Arabia, as was evidenced by the close association of a senior figure like the current Mufti of Saudi Arabia and the Green Lane Road Mosque, the Ahl-i Hadith national centre). The Salafis are decidedly a minority trend within British Islam — the largest of which is the historically distinct but theologically-allied Ahl-i Hadith, with around 40-odd mosques or so. These religious figures seem to have little compunction in issuing global fatwas unrelated to local context, which is always a dangerous enterprise. No doubt Saudi-friendly Salafis opposed the jihadi takfiris in the UK early on (since the beginning of the 1990s), the counter-terrorist value of which has been belatedly recognised by the police after 9/11. But one can also see how close they can get at times to their opponents in projecting the same hate-filled Manichaean, black-and-white universe. Their only fig-leaf may be that they oppose al-Qaida type ideology, yet we are still entitled to ask that they revisit their basic orientation to living in:

(a) a diverse Muslim community of which they are but a small part and
(b) a wider society that is culturally and confessionally pluralistic.

In fact it does them no good to persist with a safe public language for non-Muslims and a private hate-filled language for Muslims. One can’t thunder on about hating the unbeliever (kafir) one moment, and then talk the language of interfaith and multiculturalism the next. If the programme was a set up, it nonetheless revealed a none-too-subtle double-talk at play. All the institutions named in the programme made the classic mistake of commenting on a programme that they hadn’t seen in advance, and, by pre-empting its transmission, they fell into the trap of providing the ostensibly two-faced ameliorative quotes that were read out by actors. Unfiltered al-wala’ wa’l-bara’ (loosely glossed by Salafi preachers as ‘loving and hating for the sake of God’) does little to engender a spirit of integration in 21st century multicultural Britain.

We do need to think about the importance of what our imams and visiting preachers/lecturers say in our mosques, or indeed what sort of literature or DVDs are sold on mosque premises, even by separate businesses paying rent, as was the case with the Islamic Cultural Centre at Regent’s Park in London. Not because of outward respectability or out of fear of monitoring but because of what is right and proper. How can we expect a balanced form of Islam to emerge from such a hate-filled discourse? That’s the main question.

Why should we put up with the peddling of false dreams of future domination and merely waiting to fight some grand global jihad later on (when the reality is that Muslim countries cannot even secure their own basic sovereignty), of the insecure proclamation of our inherent superiority (surely conditional on our actual conduct), the need to continually demean the ‘kuffar’ (as if to bolster one’s own precarious faith, for as the saying goes: ‘hate’ is the opposite not of ‘love’ but of ‘indifference’; in other words, obsessive hatred reveals something of a fixation akin to attraction), the nasty denigration of women and speaking as if they were in a position to enforce, with relish, the fixed penalties (hudud) of Islamic sacred law (rather than as being, as in fact their congregation is, subject to English common law).

It should be added that many Salafis, not featured in this programme, have taken a radically different approach since 9/11 and they deserve to be recognised and appreciated. In the current climate of suspicion ‘Salafi’ (or more commonly ‘Wahhabi’) should not be used to refer to a whole group of people pejoratively, or to assert that having a particular creedal position by necessity implies political radicalism. What the programme did not do was showcase the range of variation and debate within the Salafi strand of Islam, which has no doubt become more contested since 9/11.

But the programme did, however, to its credit, show up some ugly narrow-minded intolerance that we British Muslims should be more intolerant of allowing to influence, in any shape or form, either the ethos or content of the Islam taught in our British mosques. By this I don’t mean banning or censoring anyone. There is enough of that going on at the moment. However we should censure it, and not defend it out of some misguided notion of protecting ‘the umma, right or wrong’.

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Filed under Ghuluw, Media

The Next Sunni-Shia War

Back in the 1980s, the USA, Saudi Arabia and Saddam’s Iraq worked together to pin back Khomeini’s Iran. Besides the bloody Iran-Iraq war, there was war of the theological kind too: a rather familiar one of Sunni-Shia mutual anathematization. Now there are similar portents of a sanguinary reprise in which the priority will once again be the containment of Iran through a vicious proxy war in Iraq (and the fear is, further afield), with what might be the tacit blessing of the US and the UK. Think of Afghanistan in the 1990s with all her internecine intra-Muslim sectarian and ethnic conflict, goaded along by her more powerful neighbours, and then multiply the gruesome consequences many times.

The key to this switch is that neither of America’s closest allies in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia and Israel — want to see Iran become a nuclear power, nor do they want her influence to spread further across the Shia core population (120m out of 130m worldwide) that extends from Lebanon to Pakistan. Neither want to see Iranian influence left uncontested in Iraq. Saudi Arabia has its own Shia population to contend with, and Israel still seeks, despite last summer’s unsuccessful military venture, to disable Hezbollah militarily. Israel’s position on Iran has been clearly stated (as indeed has been Ahmedinejad’s on Israel), but the signs of a hardening in the Saudi position have become clearer recently. (As recently as 2003, the then Crown Prince Abdullah called for a reconciliation between the Kingdom’s Shiite and Salafi scholars.)

Doves like Faisal al-Turki, who backed the Baker Plan’s main recommendation — i.e. to talk to Iran on the endgame for Iraq — have been sidelined in favour of a more hardline approach. This political shift in the Saudi establishment has been signalled, in the normal manner, by unleashing the Kingdom’s clerics. Abdul Rahman al-Burak, one of the Kingdom’s senior religious scholars, issued a fatwa at the end of December in which he said that “The general ruling is that they [Shiites] are infidels, apostates and hypocrites. … They are more dangerous than Jews or Christians.” [1] This month 30 Saudi scholars called on Sunnis in the Middle East to support the Sunni militias against the Shia of Iraq. [2] Similarly, intellegence sources are reporting that the Saudis, the Israelis and the CIA are working together to do what they can to prop up the weakened government in Lebanon against Hezbollah. [3] We haven’t heard much condemnation from either the US or the UK of Saudi financing of Sunni militias in Iraq. In fact, if anything, the political kid gloves have been put on: Tony Blair recently called off an investigation into substantial kickbacks from the British defence industry to some Saudi princes. [4]

With the execution of Saddam Hussain at the hands of Moqtada al-Sadr’s partisans on the day of Eid al-Adha, he has unimaginably been reinvented as a Sunni martyr, despite his track record of non-discriminatory brutality. His trial only featured 148 of his multitudinous victims — all Shiite — with no justice and potential reconciliation for his Kurdish, Iraqi Sunni, Kuwaiti and indeed many Iranian victims. This grisly execution demonstrates that the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is too closely involved with the Shia militias to rein them in. Generally speaking, Sunni-Shia bloodletting has escalated further since the attack on the al-Askari mosque of Samarra in February 2006.

And the indications are that George W. Bush’s current “axis of evil” centres on Iran and its associates — Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran’s allies in Iraq — against which might be pitted Tony Blair’s “arc of moderation” (a euphemism unveiled at Doha in December) at the centre of which is Saudi Arabia, but includes all those other states that want to rein in Iran, including Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Israel. There has also been talk among US administration officials of promoting a “Sunni crescent”. [5] But despite all this political spin, anyone with a basic knowledge of Middle Eastern politics would immediately realise that this division cannot be easily repackaged as the next round of Sunni-Shia conflict — but atavistic sectarian currents will be provoked in any case.

In his speech yesterday, Bush announced an increase in troop numbers, with most of the new troops being committed to take on the Shia militias, although some attention has been given to Sunni militias in Anbar Province. There is no political strategy here, let alone counter-insurgency tactics. Just the use of more and more brute force. And no talking to Iran and Syria. No proactive attempt to find a solution in Iraq that will bring all its neighbours to the table to sort out their various concerns. It is not as though such things are not being mooted: the basis of a workable regional peace plan was laid out recently by the former Iraqi defence minister, Ali Allawi. [6]

Instead the US, with support from the British, looks to be planning to take out the Shia militias in Iraq while turning a blind eye to Saudi support for Sunni partisans. Two further military offensives that could rip the Middle East apart now look possible: a renewed Israeli strike against Hezbollah and the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities, either directly by the US or more likely by using Israel as a proxy.

It is vital that Sunnis and Shiites come together in Europe and North America to stand up against the immorality of this neo-colonial “divide and rule” and the sheer insanity of risking the export of the sectarian Sunni-Shia bloodbath in Iraq to the wider Middle East. Muslims of the West of all stripes must work together to push for a political settlement that recognises the security needs and concerns of all the region’s countries and persecuted minorities, and to do so in the spirit of intra-Muslim amity and solidarity. It would be criminal to sit back in silent grief or angry despondency and say and do nothing.


[1] ‘Top Saudi cleric issues religious religious edict declaring Shiites to be infidels’, International Herald Tribune, 29 December 2006.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Tony Harden, ‘CIA gets the go-ahead to take on Hizbollah’, Daily Telegraph, 10 January 2007.
[4] David Leigh and Rob Evans, ‘”National interest” halts arms corruption inquiry’, Guardian, 15 December 2006.
[5] Tony Harden, ibid.
[6] Ali Allawi, ‘For the first time, a real blueprint for peace in Iraq’, Independent, 5 January 2007.

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Filed under war-on-terror

Manufacturing Muslim Desire

There’s a classic snippet in the papers today. Muslims in the US and the UK apparently represent a recalcitrant aporia in the advertising and marketing world:

Salzman reveals that JWT is also about to embark upon the first ever study of the Muslim market in the US and the UK, under her supervision. “This is the biggest single issue we face as marketers,” she says. “3.5% of Americans are Muslims. They are young and we don’t understand them at all. Part of the American Dream was becoming like your neighbour, but Muslims have a code of law which they respect which impacts every dimension of their world including consumerism and media consumption. ”

But doesn’t that make them an unlikely market? Tellingly she replies: “They are not anti-consumerist. There are things they want. We know they value home and family. But we have not figured out yet how to invent desire [among the Muslim community].” She leans forward. “This is the first thing I’ve been really excited about since the day I installed an AOL disk back in 1992. [1] [my italics]

Allegedly British and American Muslims haven’t yet been assigned a place within niche-marketing. They’re characterised here as a frontier in the marketization of global cultures, which extends choice but only within the confined horizon of economic consumption. In other words, more is less: cultures become products and our relationship to culture becomes marketised. British and American Muslim viewing and shopping habits will be ascertained so that their inmost desires can “invented” to quote Salzman, i.e. to be sold back to them as “needs” — no doubt at a competitive price.

Anyone up for a bit of zuhd?


[1] Interview with Marian Salzman, Executive Vice President of the American advertising giant, J. Walter Thompson, ‘I don’t think newspapers are about to go away’, The Guardian, Media Supplement, 8 January 2007. Thanks to the BBRC for pointing out the story to me.

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Filed under Culture and the Arts, Humour