The October report, “The Hijacking of British Islam“, of Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank, alleged that a survey of one hundred mosques found that a quarter of them possessed or sold extremist literature on their premises. It was deftly timed to coincide with the state visit of King Abdullah to Britain so that David Cameron could ask some awkward questions about Salafi literature published from Saudi Arabia. On 12th December, Newsnight broadcast a revealing report about the research behind what was hailed at the time as a “landmark” publication. It found, with the help of a forensic examiner, Kate Barr, that a number of the receipts used to tie mosques together with certain books were forged by a Muslim research team employed by Policy Exchange during its year-long study. Some fake receipts had been printed out on ink-jet printers, the addresses or names of mosques were erroneous or signed by individuals unknown to the mosque management or dated on days when no bookstalls were allowed to put books up for sale on mosque premises. On top of that it was also found that in all likelihood one of the researchers had handwritten two of the receipts on top of each other — for two mosques, one in High Wycombe and the other in Parson’s Green, west London, forty miles apart from each other.
While a number of mosques look set to take Policy Exchange to court for defamation, Policy Exchange, at least initially, was considering legal action against Newsnight. Given that Dean Godson, the head of research at Policy Exchange, was prepared to back the findings of the report and the research team 100% on Newsnight, a hint of a climbdown is noticeable in the Chairman of Policy Exchange Charles Moore’s press statement on 15th December saying that:
Although Newsnight’s portentousness was unjustified, the allegations did look serious. It should be said at once that they need proper investigation.
It should also be borne in mind what was said by two prominent community members in the Newsnight report who both refute the charges made against their institutions:
[There is] [n]o problem with the thesis of the report that books promoting or undermining community cohesion should be abhorred, but to go from that to implicate community centres who are trying to promote community cohesion…is very demoralising. Dr Abdulkarim Khalil, Director, Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre
We have never promoted these books at all. If you come to our circles or hear our sermons we are very much involved in precisely interpreting the Quran and understanding it in a modern British context. Dr Usama Hasan of Masjid al-Tawhid in Leytonstone
There is no doubt some obnoxious material in some of the books that were mentioned, and hardly the sort of thing one is going to recommend to one’s child. As Soumaya Gannouchi notes:
Some of the books on sale on djinns, angels, dreams, signs of the day of judgement, and hellfire often make me laugh/ cringe/ both. […] Just like other religions, Islam boasts a vastly diverse library, covering myriad tendencies, areas, and subjects at all levels of culture high and low. Each has its audience. I may be repelled by some of the volumes on the shelves…
So we can hear prominent Muslim figures saying that there is a problem with some of this literature, but none of them is going to support the creation a new “dodgy dossier” to besmirch community centres and mosques, least of all recommend some kind of draconian policy response or Muslim community witch-hunting. A larger point is the fallacy the report operates under, namely that Muslims are robots: once you find the instruction manual, you can figure out how they think, how they will behave and how they will react. This fallacy of textual determinism is hardly confined to Muslims, but at the same time would such sloppy thinking be so liberally applied to anyone else?
The focus now falls on the Muslim researchers whose identities Policy Exchange say they must protect for fear of reprisal. Of course no one should take the law into their own hands, but there is a very serious question of public accountability here. In an interview with Riz Khan of al-Jazeera English, Dean Godson said (at 12.30) that “”we were approached by several groups of Muslims who expressed concern about what was appearing….”. So firstly, some Muslim groups selected the think-tank, and so did these “groups” play a role in selecting the members of the research team, rather than the “think-tank”select some neutral, professional and objective researchers? Was this approach a first contact or did it come within the context of a pre-existing relationship? Secondly how are we supposed to trust the rest of the report? One must now assume that the “researchers”, eight in total in two-person teams, had a preconceived bias that they set out to confirm and were prepared, in some cases, to forge documentary evidence for. So how was the report framed and constructed, and what definitions applied? How were the mosques and the books selected? Thirdly, the biggest fear is that this bias is sectarian in nature. All the theological tendencies named as “extremist” in the report have a history of anti-Sufi polemic to varying degrees (or of certain forms of Sufism), and, in a strange but revealing aside, Dean Godson said, under cross-examination from Jeremy Paxman, that the eight researchers were unavailable as they were currently “on a spiritual retreat in Mauritania”. The most fearful outcome is that the Muslim research team with be found to have a clear sectarian bias, if not institutional affiliation, that, once uncovered, will do much to harden the fallout from the recent political manipulation of Muslim sectarianism in Britain. If this turns out to be the case, no true Sufi worth the honour of that name would have anything to do with forgery, falsification or the vilification of Muslim institutions, no matter what sectarian disagreements there have been in the past.
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