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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