Category Archives: UK Muslim Politics

Playing the sectarian card: Britain’s Ministry of Justice is unfairly targeting Muslim prison chaplains

Yesterday, news came of a soon-to-be-released Ministry of Justice (MOJ) report, which will argue that Muslim chaplains are part of the problem of radicalisation in UK prisons. Given that the government has trailed the report in the Sunday Times (“Most jail imams teach anti-western values”, 07/02/2016, p.7) and the Mail on Sunday (“Majority of prison imams are ‘teaching anti-western’ values that promote gender segregation, study claims”, 07/02/2016) and played the sectarian card, it is a highly premeditated political intervention. Pointing fingers at chaplains of the Deobandi Sunni persuasion, who are said to make up 140 of 200 Muslim prison chaplains, a senior Whitehall official is quoted as saying that, “It is of great concern that the majority of Muslim chaplains in prisons propagate a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic scripture which is contrary to British values and human rights. Such imams are unlikely to aid the deradicalisation of Islamists in prisons and could potentially even make them more firm in their beliefs.” And in his major speech on prison reform today, the Prime Minister promised that he was prepared to make major changes if necessary on the basis of the recommendations of the MOJ report. The appointment of Peter Clarke as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons this month, Scotland Yard’s former head of counter-terrorism whom the government has previously deployed as a counter-extremism troubleshooter in the education and the charity sectors, signals the MOJ’s intent to construe prisons in the same light: as a hotbed of “extremist entryism”, with the potential to look at Muslim inmates without terrorism offences and Muslim chaplains in the same light as convicted terrorist offenders.

The Quilliam Foundation has stepped in to support the MOJ in identifying Deobandi prison chaplains as a particular problem. Usama Hasan, a senior researcher there, is reported by the Sunday Times as saying that “[t]he Deobandi movement is generally anti-western and anti-integration in its spirit … Imams in the prison system have to be more progressive and open-minded in terms of being supportive of modern, multicultural and cosmopolitan Britain.” The Foundation has prior form in this regard: its 2009 report on prisons, Unlocking Al-Qaeda, made essentially the same claims about Deobandi prison chaplains (pp. 33, 42, 101) and recommended a reduction in their numbers (p.108).

Reading between the lines, it seems as if Ahtsham Ali, the current Muslim Advisor to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), is being set up as the fall guy for appointing many of these Deobandi chaplains. A damage limitation exercise on behalf of Ali is already under way to argue that he is neither an extremist nor of a particular sectarian persuasion by anonymous sources quoted in the Sunday Times. That is all very well, but what about some damage limitation on behalf of these Muslim chaplains who have rendered a great deal of public service in prisons for many years? Who is going to speak up for them?

It is naïve to expect fair play and even-handedness, or a reliance on evidence or the measured conclusions of academic research, especially where the incumbent minister, Michael Gove, is concerned. The news reporting and, one must surmise, the forthcoming MOJ report rely on the fallacious idea that the Deoband school is stuck in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in the context of its original anti-colonial foundations (ignoring massive transformations since, both in the Subcontinent and the diaspora). It also seems to have discounted the findings of the three-year AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ research study on Muslim chaplaincy in Britain (2008–2011) carried out by the University of Cardiff. That study acknowledged the conservative orientation of Deobandi chaplains but also found that pastoral practice in the challenging prison environment and working within a multi-faith chaplaincy team had a transformative effect:

Muslim chaplains working across most sectors learn new attitudes from their experiences. While they often tend to start with normative, didactic approaches that are directed towards their co-religionists, their experiences of working with all kinds of people in a multi-faith environment seem to inculcate within them attitudes of empathy, person-centredness, equality, broad-mindedness, openness, approachability, supportiveness, tolerance, non-judgementalism, non-directedness, compassion, patience and humility. (Gilliat-Ray, Ali and Pattison,Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy, p.175)

The Cardiff team also found that, when called to do so, Muslim chaplains provided genuine pastoral care for non-Muslim inmates. Furthermore, the study established that Muslim chaplains’ pastoral training and experience was having an impact on the mosque imamate in Britain, giving more profile and credence to the pastoral dimension in serving local communities. It also argued that the preponderance of Deobandi seminarians among Muslim prison chaplains was largely due to the huge investment in imam training that this denomination has made in Britain, more so than any other Sunni or Shia group.

Another factor that the Cardiff research team did not mention was that, after 7/7, the government wanted Muslim prison chaplains to have theological training as part of the professionalization of the sector and for them to possess the wherewithal to tackle the arguments of violent extremists. Again, this policy shift favoured Deobandi applicants who already had the necessary qualifications to hand. That said, the main formal role of Muslim chaplains remains pastoral and aimed at the spiritual welfare of the general Muslim prison population, yet they have made informal efforts to tackle extremist ideas within this primary remit, and have facilitated greater cultural awareness and understanding of prison staff about mainstream Muslim beliefs in the context of radicalisation (Gilliat-Ray et al, p.110). Overall, however, they have not been formally involved in theological deradicalisation efforts aimed at inmates with terrorist offences, for which outside specialists have been brought in with the collaboration of the authorities (HM Prison Service, Muslim Prisoners’ Experiences, 2010, p.35, Para 7.12).

For all those who agree that Muslim prison chaplaincy in Britain has been a growing and largely successful sector over the last two decades with a solid track record of public service and professional development, now is the time to make your voices heard. There is genuine fear that the government is now going to smear this sector as “extremist Muslim entryism”. Is the government going to brush aside all this dedicated public service and experience and start getting rid of people on the basis of lazy and pernicious sectarian labels? Where is the due process? Where is the expectation that professionals should be treated in a meritocratic way on the basis of their individual performances?

From my sources, I am hearing that many Muslim prison chaplains are feeling resigned to losing their jobs, and that, as public servants, they have no right to speak out if Mr Gove — who is ultimately their boss — is going to sack them. How terrible it is that even high-achieving Muslim professionals feel so isolated and demoralised that they cannot defend themselves against such baseless smears? And more importantly where will that leave the pastoral and spiritual care of Muslim inmates who sadly now make up 12% of the prison population? It is hard not to see this as anything other than institutional Islamophobia being sanctioned at the highest level, which could have really damaging and deleterious effects. Now is the time to speak up and set the record straight.

Update One: In mid-March, Middle Eastern Eye reported that Sir Michael Spurr, Head of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS)  wrote a letter to prison governors, responding to the newspaper stories, describing allegations of extremism as ‘disgraceful’. While he would await the recommendations of the MOJ report, he defended the existing vetting and recruitment process for Muslim chaplains and commended their service, and praised the ‘characteristic resilience and dignity’ of Ahtsham Ali in response to the pressure he had been put under.

A month later, some of the MOJ’s report’s findings were leaked in the Times (19 April 2016, pp.1, 6, 29 (£, paywall)), although it had not been cleared for release by Number 10. Apparently the report ‘pulled no punches’ and offers 69 recommendations, stating that NOMS suffered from managerial weaknesses when it comes to tackling extremism.  The headline conclusions leaked to the Times were:

(i) Extremist literature was found in more than ten prisons, and there was ‘little or no assessment of the suitability of Islamic literature before it was distributed to “impressionable minds”.’

(ii) Chaplains at several jails were found to have encouraged prisoners to raise monies for Islamic charities that had links to international terrorism.

(iii) Prison chaplains were judged to be under-prepared for counter-radicalisation responsibilities: ‘sometimes they lacked the capability, but often because they didn’t have the will.’

(iv) The report claims to have found evidence that chaplains from other persuasions felt ‘marginalised, bullied and intimidated’ by the dominant Deobandi viewpoint in prison chaplaincies.

Sir Michael Spurr and Ahtsham Ali as well as the Bury Dar al-Ulum came under renewed criticism in these Times articles.

Whatever the merit of these serious allegations, only minimal details have been leaked, so it is too soon to know how substantive they are. That said, it should be noted that the MOJ has again demonstrated its predilection for politically-motivated leaks, and that the political focus has intensified in the last month with the BBC’s two-part investigation ‘The Deobandis‘ on Radio 4.

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This Dance between “Extremists” and “Formers” is Past Its Sell-By Date: A Review of ITV’s “Jihad” Documentary

A lot of British Muslims who watched the Exposure documentary “Jihad: A British Story” on ITV last night probably did so with a powerful sense of déjà vu. But not for the emotional reasons one might think, not with feelings of collective guilt or shame. Rather I would hazard a guess that feelings of jadedness and ennui predominated instead. That sounds shockingly cynical, uncaring, even delusional, given that we have a very frightening and real problem of some British teens and even families going over the Turkish borders to join ISIS.

So why is there such a reaction? Well, we have been here before. Former extremists dramatize their personal stories to overshadow all of our community’s multifarious and untold human stories to feed a dominant meme of the post-9/11 world: namely, that this complex geopolitical crisis is really all about maladjusted Muslim men. The stories about the marginal Hizb ut-Tahrir and the minority Salafi movement have cast such a large shadow that almost nothing else about British Muslims in the eighties and nineties gets through into popular culture or the public debate nowadays, except perhaps the Satanic Verses Affair, which is problematic for different reasons.

Imagine for a moment that the retelling of Britain’s recent past is dominated by tales of splits on the hard left during the Cold War or the Militant Tendency and entryism, these being the only stories that get attention in popular culture and public life. Imagine even that parts of it were ghost-written by the Kremlin and sold as gospel truth to the British. It would be ridiculed and called out immediately. Let us at least pause therefore to consider why it is so much more difficult for a beleaguered minority community to call out a similar level of misrepresentation in any sort of impactful way. Its impotence at challenging this myth effectively explains why many British Muslims are jaded and bored by a documentary like this. Pretty much everyone I speak to in the community feels irritated and exasperated: these stories are not our stories and the resentment at being misrepresented by them is palpable.

The everyday Muslim is hidden in these narratives: she who never ran to answer the call for the caliphate or  jihad, or took up the condemnations of traditional Muslim piety as false innovation, polytheistic and the like, who never had to grow up and later regret a misspent youth. She is an invisible cipher, present yet absent, a cardboard cut-out, an intangible rhetorical device used to gloss over the serious ramifications of putting marginal stories on the centre stage rather than in their proper context. She who has to put up with endless reiterations of the stale dance between the “extremists” and the “formers”. No wonder she is less than impressed.

These stories get marketed heavily through the publishing giants or the media companies. Such high-level exposure of one’s personal story remarketed as everyone else’s story too is the golden ticket for a now well-trodden and lucrative path towards a future career as a wealthy and feted “former”. The pitch to government is the same: we have a unique psychological insight into extremism and we know best how to counteract it. That proposition might even be tolerable if such work were done quietly and sensibly, but these “formers” (with no scholarly credentials) often then take on the mantle of great “reformers”, tasked with dragging Islam kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. The message may have changed but the modus operandi often has not: it is often hectoring criticism from the margins of community, oddly distant from the very people it seeks to transform and save from their benighted condition. Such a transition from “extremist” to “former” does not appear to be informed by repentance. For the most part, the “formers” are still angry with themselves and contemptuous and detached from their community. They do not forgive their community its many failings and weaknesses or love it despite its human frailties: they want to break it and transform it in their image, an image that is itself prey to their own nomadic, confused and tortuous journeying in search of belonging and a home.

However, the striking thing about Abu Muntasir in the documentary was that he has not forgiven himself. I know that there will be cynics out there but for me his tears were unquestionably real, and not staged. His sorrow about his role in the jihad is not new: it has been well-known for the last ten years in the community and was reported in the national press. And, publicly at least, this is rare among “formers”. They are for the most part still self-righteous, vocal and angry, and not repentant, humbled and happy to work quietly to make a better world.

My biggest objection to the narrative of the programme is that it provided no context for Abu Muntasir and his erstwhile camp followers. In the story of the British jihad, it is true that he was a pioneering figure and that he was not a minor character. He did have influence but only precariously so in the setting of a complex and disaggregated scene of small jihadi peer groups and networks in ferocious competition with each other. But it is a gross exaggeration to describe him as the “godfather of the British jihad”, as the filmmaker Deeyah Khan did. The British jihad was never centralised. It did not have a pyramidal mafia-style power structure. Yet this is the moniker for Abu Muntasir that the British and the international press has now run with. The mobster overtones were reinforced by filming these middle-aged British Muslim men with lighting and backdrops strongly redolent of how former gangsters lamenting their misspent youth are shot on camera. The ex-criminal visual tropes were all there. One has to ask why Abu Muntasir should acquiesce to this rebranding. This is a critical point, just as it was when the ex-Hizb ut-Tahrir members who formed the Quilliam Foundation sold themselves as central to the story of radicalization when their group was in reality quite distant and distinct from the various strands of Salafi jihadism.

In the documentary, another student of Abu Muntasir’s Alyas Karmani (disclaimer: an old school-friend of mine) did a lot to frame these stories as ones primarily about psychological maladjustment, for instance, sexual frustration (again, a theme that has cropped up over many decades to belittle all kinds of Muslim political agency, violent or non-violent, and discounted by terrorism experts such as Marc Sageman). I would not want to deny there are psychological issues but that these should not be assessed in such a way as to preclude politics, whether that is micro-, organisational, community, national or global. And it seems to me that to preclude (or even disparage) a political sensibility is one of the tacit preconditions for becoming a “former”. Yet such an apolitical stance fails to recognise let alone negotiate a complex multipolar world of clashing interests and conflict, a world after American hegemony. It not only infantilises “extremists” and “formers” but is also a roundabout way of occluding Muslim political agency in general. It absolves “the West” by removing it from the story entirely. Indeed, the psychodrama played out in the documentary between “extremists” and “formers” perpetuates a fiction that this story is only about a clash within the House of Islam.

The documentary went one step further in decontextualizing and depoliticising the story of the British jihad. It used the eighties and the nineties, the years before the al-Qaeda network became politically significant, to talk to our contemporary situation where a younger generation of jihadi millennials is being drawn to ISIS, which itself is in deadly competition with an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. However, Da‘esh, unlike al-Qaeda, is a highly centralised organisation that runs a proto-state the size of Britain. ISIS is offering an alternate society not just endless armed struggle like al-Qaeda did. It is neither smart nor wise to preclude politics and historical context to such an extent that we miss what is new and important about this generation or the appeal of ISIS.

So if we Britons care about our shared future we cannot therefore allow the stale waltz between “formers” and “extremists” to predominate, especially if it precludes any sort of intelligible political analysis or historical context. We need to be less tribal about narrow causes and narrow solutions, but that is easier said than done when big forces have become entrenched and self-interested in perpetuating and propagandizing one narrow solution or another. We all really need to step back and have a more honest and searching debate if we are to have any chance of getting purchase on the perplexing and frightening problem of ISIS’s current success and appeal.

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Safeguarding Little Abdul: Prevent, Muslim Schoolchildren and the Lack of Parental Consent

There are a lot of things that could be said about the new statutory guidance on Channel under Prevent issued in April for local authorities, nurseries, schools, universities, social services, health care services, the criminal justice system and the police. There are many hot-button issues here, but I want to focus on the impact of all this on under-18s. Half of our community is under the age of 25 and, according to Census figures, something in the order of 800,000 Muslims under 18 potentially fall within the remit of these policies. From the official guidance (pp.16-17, Paras 77-79) it seems that informed parental consent for under-18s referred under a counter-radicalisation scheme called Channel comes very late in the process. The mainstay of Prevent after 2010, Channel is a multiagency approach to identify and then support individuals being drawn into terrorism, in which the police play a central role. And Channel is not a low impact policy. The trend line for referrals presently is upwards from seven in Channel’s pilot year (2006-7) to 748 in 2012-13. Under an FOI request to the Association of Chief Police Officers, there have been 2653 referrals under Prevent up to April 2013. For ages 13-16, there were 645 referrals, and for 12 and under there were 113. In one case, a child as young as three was referred as part of a whole family. Where religious affiliation data was collected, from 2007-10, 67% of those referred were Muslim and in 2012-13, 57% were Muslim (their percentage in the population being 5%).

In Britain today, all these things could happen to the child of Muslim parents without their consent. Let’s take a hypothetical situation, elements of which are based on the official Channel guidance and on incidents a lawyer told me about who deals with such cases. There is of course a particular focus on schools (which accounted for a fifth of referrals up to 2013). Since February, schools are obligated under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act to prevent pupils from becoming radicalised.

Imagine your child is named Abdul, aged 12. He is taken out of class and questioned as to his views and behaviour by a member of the school’s senior management team. He might be asked about his beliefs, his political views, his associations, and so on. His case could be referred to the multiagency Channel Panel run by the local authority for assessment on the basis of the school’s investigation, and it would initially be assessed for risk by a police representative, and accepted or rejected at that point. The Panel could assess Abdul’s case and agree a series of interventions under Channel for Abdul. Only after all this referral, assessment and decision-making is completed is the Panel obliged to contact you for your consent in two matters (and only if Abdul’s case is not deemed high risk): (1) that you agree to interventions for Abdul under Channel that the Panel recommends, and (2) that you agree that information about Abdul’s case can be divulged to relevant agencies. It should be noted that the Panel reserves the power not to seek your consent if it deems Abdul’s case serious enough. There is also a further option left to the Panel if you do not agree to Abdul being put into the Channel programme. It can refer Abdul if he is deemed as “high risk” and “in need” to various forms of intervention from social services from financial and pastoral support all the way up to an “emergency protection order” under sections 17 and 47 of the Children Act 1989. This option adds an element of coercion to the informed consent asked of parents very late in the process of referral and assessment under Channel.

There have been instances where parents first realise that their child has been referred under Prevent because the child tells them he or she has been pulled out of class and questioned about his or her views and behaviour. In such cases, it is clear that some schools are assuming an implied consent on the part of parents to have their children questioned and assessed in this way. They have not heard formally from the school or from the Prevent Panel. Cases like these have not yet come to light because these parents are frightened of speaking out. They are worried that they will be labelled as extremists. Of course we have heard of reported cases where parents were completely unaware of the fact that their children had been radicalized without their knowledge. However, notwithstanding this issue, there are many genuine reasons to worry about how fair or proportionate this policy of referral and assessment under Channel is or will be in future. Let me conclude by sketching out a few of them.

The main concern is that we are heading towards intensified policing of regular conservative Islamic religiosity and dissenting politics among Muslims. Recent comments by Mak Chishty, the Metropolitan Police’s Commander for Engagement, that identify Muslim children not celebrating Christmas or supporting the boycotts, sanctions and divestments movement by not shopping at Marks & Spencer as potential indicators of extremism are very alarming. At the time of writing, the Met has not responded to calls for proper clarification of these remarks. Last week, it was found that a pilot survey (later scrapped when it was exposed) in east London primary schools was asking intrusive questions about political and religious issues from children as young as nine, without anonymizing the data.

The new Extremism Bill (pp.62-63) goes further in the direction of policing non-violent “extremism”, which includes measures like banning groups, gagging individuals, closing premises, employment blacklists and censoring broadcasts. Our Home Secretary Theresa May could not define “extremism” when pressed to do so by John Humphreys on Radio 4’s Today programme. Her response hardly seemed a step above an arbitrary rule of thumb that one would know an extremist if one saw one. This loose notion of extremism is predicated on active opposition to a simple checklist of British values, namely as set out in the guidance: “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” While I don’t want to get into an extended discussion of this point here, these values are not parochially British nor are they unsubstantiated in the Islamic interpretive traditions or unpractised throughout the long and rich history of a world religion with 1.6 billion adherents. More importantly such values do not resolve conflicts in themselves. Rather, they define the very ground upon which we agree and disagree as to their meaning, application and commensurability.

To touch upon the point about commensurability further, David Cameron recently opined in promoting the new extremism bill that the British value of tolerance had been too “passive”. To quote him, the notion that “as long as you obey the law, we [the state] will leave you alone” was now to be abandoned. For many British people, including myself, this is in fact a cherished notion that needs to be protected at all costs rather than abandoned. So while tolerance is a value, what it really entails at any particular moment in the life of our nation will be up for debate. Values frame our national discussion but they do not define a monoculture. This contentious and unproductive debate about British values is going on against a background of anti-immigration politics, Tory triumph and UKIP gains in the election, the fragmentation of the left, and indeed the growing appeal of ISIS to some Muslim young people. Around 700 or so are believed to gone over to Syria and Iraq.

In this atmosphere of suspicion and fear, what are Muslim parents going to do to protect their children? They are after all the first “safeguards” of their own offspring, to use the current professional jargon. There are lively discussions on social media among Muslim parents about this. A widespread view seems to be striking a balance between bringing up your children with a positive view of themselves, their faith, their community, their society and country and the world at large while engaging them in an informed way about the very complex issues around terrorism, extremism, ISIS, the war on terror, racism, Islamophobia, grooming, sexism, etc. It is a daunting task. Hardly any Muslim parent I know thinks it is either easy or avoidable. Continually talking things through, listening, and offering support and guidance to our children is clearly essential. Dealing with teenage hormonal changes and challenges like depression and so on are more than enough for parents to deal with, without a kneejerk presumption that Muslim teens are converts on the jihadi “road to Damascus”.

Equally, a lot of Muslim parents I’ve talked to are concerned that the government is really overdoing things. The lack of parental consent is a massive issue. The government has set up an ill-advised process that implicitly excludes and alienates Muslim parents under an ethos of presumed mistrust. As I’ve outlined above, the school and the Prevent Panel can make major judgements and decisions about your child without even talking to you. We all have reasons to doubt how competently these Panels will make decisions about Muslim children. If they exhibit anything like the cultural ignorance of Commander Mak Chishty then we have every reason to fear that a lot of bad calls will be made.

Therefore, I would propose that it is in our collective interest to safeguard our children by pushing for consent and consultation to be at the heart of this policy. Those most affected by this policy – Muslim children and by extension their families – have been pushed to the margins. There is no requirement for Prevent panels to have any form of community representation and as a matter of course parents have no say in the referral or assessment process. I am aware of one case where a representative from a mosque council in a London borough has been offered a place on a separate advisory body, whose remit seems very limited and whose continuance is subject to the review of the Prevent Panel. This is obviously far from satisfactory: it seems tokenistic and is in danger of merely providing some kind of community rubber stamp for a referral and assessment process under Channel largely unaccountable to the community that it most affects. And then there is the fact that four-fifths of referrals are not taken further by Prevent Panels, according to ACPO’s own statistics. The negative conclusion from this low adoption rate is that children are being pushed towards Channel without sufficient cause. As parents we have to ask at what price? What impact will all this scrutiny at school have on Abdul’s sense of well-being and belonging, his confidence, his aspiration, or his happiness?

My personal judgement is that Prevent has gotten to a stage where it is institutionalising a “them and us” mentality that will reap a harvest of suspicion, distrust and doubt on all sides, and will drive the tiny pro-ISIS youth subculture further underground while conflating it with both conservative Islamic piety and Muslim radical politics. In my view it is better that we abandon Prevent in its new statutory guise and go back to the drawing board. In the interim, however, so long as Prevent is on the statute books, it may be wise to seek greater safeguards for our children against a system that has great potential to be stigmatising and discriminatory. There is obviously a lively debate to be had about which mix of tactics will work best to avoid innocent Muslim kids being mislabelled as extremists in schools.

Abdul deserves a better future. One in which he is treated a citizen rather than as a suspect. Where he can disagree, sometimes even be bold and radical in disagreeing if he chooses to do so, without being labelled an extremist. Where he can be proud rather than be ashamed of being a Muslim. He deserves to be inspired at school, opened up to new possibilities, for his autonomy to be nurtured and respected. This is the kind of schooling and the kind of country that we need to fight for.

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Islamophobia Studies and Policy Round-Up

Just another quick line about a new book, Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives, edited by S. Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil, which is now out, and which I’ve written about before. There have been a plethora of new titles recently too, and collectively they all should help to bring greater conceptual rigour to a ubiquitous but highly contested term, which should prove very useful for policy and legal casework in this area. In fact, the next item on the to-do list should be to draft a legally watertight definition of Islamophobia in line with varous important national, EU or international legal jurisdictions.

Some of the other new or forthcoming titles include:

C. Allen, Islamophobia (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010).

A. Shyrock (ed.) Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press).

M. Malik (ed.) Anti-Muslim Prejudice (London: Routledge, 2010).

J. Esposito and I. Kalin (eds.) Islamophobia: the challenge of pluralism in the twenty-first century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Some other news is that there is a new report out tomorrow on Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: UK Case Studies by J. Githins-Mazer and B. Lambert from the University of Exeter, which is to form part of a longer ten-year research programme.

Most importantly, the formation of an all-party parliamentary group on Islamophobia has been announced. The group is to be chaired by Kris Hopkins (Cons, Keighley and Ilkley) with vice-chairs Simon Hughes (Lib-Dem, Bermondsey, and Deputy Leader of his party) and Lord Janner of Braunstone QC (the Labour peer); some 20-odd members have signed up so far. This step could prove essential to mainstreaming Islamophobia as a serious policy and political issue.

Update: On 8th December 2010, Kris Hopkins and Lord Janner issued a press statement saying they have dropped Engage as their secretariat to the APPG on Islamophobia, although there is a dissenting view from Simon Hughes, the other Vice-Chair. It has been reported that Paul Goodman’s piece at Conservative Home has been influential in leading members of the APPGI to this decision; Engage has responded directly to Goodman’s article.

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New Book: British Secularism and Religion: Islam, Society and the State

It’s been a long time since I last posted anything here, and I aim to post more frequently. It’s not as if things of importance aren’t happening in the world.

For the time being, however, I wanted to flag up a new collection that I’ve co-edited with Dilwar Hussain and Ataullah Siddiqui. It’s the outcome of a seminar held in January 2009 on ‘British Muslims and the Secular State’, and is the first collection to my knowledge to focus on this issue. At its heart, it is an attempt to test the implications of two questions through a multi-party dialogue (or ‘multilogue’ for short), as we can see little practical utility in us British Muslims discussing this issue in splendid isolation.

The first question is to explore what religious grounds there are within Islam, and within Judaism and Christianity, to affirm secular liberal democracy.  The book as a whole concentrates upon political rather than philosophical secularism, which, in the twentieth century, many Muslim intellectuals directly equated with the promotion of atheism during the colonial and post-colonial periods. Today in twenty-first century Europe they equate it, and not without reason, with a political attack on Muslim communities and their institutions. Political secularism in a liberal democratic context, on the other hand, refers to (or, more realistically, ought to refer to) the relative separation between state and religion, to non-discrimination among religions and to the guarantees made with respect to the human rights of citizens, regardless of their creed, to which the philosopher Charles Taylor importantly adds the principles of political fraternity and the seeking of harmony.

Unsurprisingly all three discussants tackling this first issue — Abdullah Sahin, Nick Spencer and Norman Solomon — make a careful distinction between what they affirm and support as ‘secularity’, an accommodative arrangement that does not exclude religion from public life and that is committed to democratic inclusion, but are critical of a ‘secularism’ that systematically excludes religion from public life.

The second main proposition looks at the whole issue from another perspective: what reasons might the democratic secular state have to affirm a public role for religion in ways that are consonant with its underlying philosophy. Two respondents — Ted Cantle and Sunder Katwala — assess Tariq Modood’s proposition that the democratic secular state has five reasons to affirm a public role for religion: (i) the truth of religious claims made, subject to robust democratic processes, in policymaking, if not as a basis for a secular democratic state; (ii) the judicious control of violent religious fanaticism; (iii) the social and moral benefits of religious lifestyles upon society; (iv) the recognition of religious identity as a basis for participative citizenship at the levels of individual, minority group and national belonging; and (v) respect for religion as a cultural, historical or civilizational public good. Importantly Modood also points out that there is an important alternative to stricter forms of secularism, seen in France or the United States for instance, which is moderate or accommodative secularism, which is historically the hallmark of northwestern Europe, and particularly of Britain. There is an additional argument Modood makes which is that accommodative secularism better respects the mutual autonomy of politics and religion through ‘twin tolerations’, and so it should therefore be seen as central to liberal democracy. Maleiha Malik closes out the collection by looking at future prospects for the debate on secularism and religion in Britain.

Copies can be ordered from Amazon Marketplace or from Kube Publishing.

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Don't repeat this mistake

It may be tempting fate to say so, but the conviction of the ringleaders of the airliner plot last week represents the end of an era. MI5 believes that al-Qaida has no “semi-autonomous structured hierarchy” in the United Kingdom, and there have been fewer “late-stage attack plans over the last 18 months”.

Back in the 90s and even after the 9/11 attacks, Britain allowed radical preachers such as Omar Bakri Muhammad, Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada to promote global jihad. The warnings that community leaders gave at the time largely fell on deaf ears; and we British Muslims failed to stop the growth of this radical fringe, which was galvanised by the tragedy of Bosnia.

Around 2000, the alienation of one young muslim I knew was so powerful that he felt he could only opt for the cause of global jihad – a utopian struggle divorced from the urban realities he was failing to deal with.

Since the government crackdown on the original radical preachers, we have been dealing with their disciples, who don’t have a political ideology as such but a simple metaphysical struggle, of good verses evil. We have also come to understand that these plots were loosely linked in the UK, with three-quarters of them directed by al-Qaida and its affiliates in Pakistan.

The intelligence penetration of violent extremist networks and the clampdown on their propaganda are reducing effective recruitment into terrorism, in spite of the wave of major terrorist plots directed at Britain after the invasion of Iraq. Yet, despite our relative success, al-Qaida still intends to strike this country and we should be prepared for a change in tactics.

Social division over the Muslim question in Europe is becoming more important, and our approach to preventative policies needs rethinking. After the airliner plot was foiled in 2006, the government called for a change in direction, aiming to partner Muslims who actively confronted violent extremism. But this approach has proved too wide in focus, wasteful of resources and has damaged social solidarity.

Under the Home Office’s Prevent policy, aimed at countering violent extremism, local authorities have had to prioritise counter-terrorism. Youth services, community safety and neighbourhood teams, social inclusion and regeneration teams are all being inveigled into this cause. Community workers are concerned about how to preserve relationships of trust with those they are helping, particularly with Muslim young people. One youth worker I spoke to complained of police intrusion into his work, of being pressurised to reveal details about his clients and to breach his professional code of confidentiality. Youth services, he said, were being driven towards counter-terrorism and away from drugs and criminality.

In addition, the policy has treated Muslims as an “at risk” set of communities, rather than simply citizens. The polarising dynamic between the far right and groups such as al-Muhajiroun has led to a string of anti-Muslim demos and anti-fascist counter-demos with clashes in Luton, Birmingham and north-west London. The newly formed English Defence League is planning further demos next month in Manchester and Leeds. In July, a far-right terrorist plot with a huge cache of arms and a plan to bomb British mosques was uncovered.

This weekend John Denham compared today’s far right to Oswald Mosley’s 1930s fascists, and announced a drive to counter the extremists within white working-class communities. Yet it won’t do for the government to extend its current counter-terrorist policies to treat the white working classes as another “at risk” category. It should first reflect on just how effective the policy has been.

The vast majority of Muslim institutions that have signed up to Prevent are too distant from the violent fringe – their response has always been to kick the al-Muhajirouns of this world out of the mosques. They have felt more comfortable using Prevent funds for pet projects that have little direct impact: a government-commissioned audit found that only 3% of projects targeted those “glorifying or justifying violent extremism”. Why would this blanket approach work any better in preventing far-right terrorism? We need universal reasons – not counter-terrorist ones – to tackle inequality on a basis that all British citizens can accept as equitable and fair.

Prevent must be refocused, to employ only those with the know-how and credibility to persuade alienated Britons to turn away from violence and extremism. Last week, the imam giving the Friday address at the Harrow mosque invited those outside, who were calling for no more mosques in Europe, inside for talks. That would be a good start: polemics cannot be a substitute for understanding and reconciliation.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 14th September 2009.

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Filed under Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

How not to deal with al-Muhajiroun

Muslim communities around the country have shunned al-Muhajiroun and its various entities for years and refused to give them a platform. Instead, they have to work through front organisations, hire private halls, set up high-street stalls or leaflet people with their poisonous little tracts. They are utterly marginal but are still able to generate huge coverage through provocation. Their recent barracking of British troops returning from Iraq and a counter mini-riot in Luton has poisoned relations in the town. The Muslim community of Luton, which had already chased them out of the mosques, has taken to chasing them off the streets too in a desperate bid to signal their utter disgust and consternation.

Anjem Choudary’s latest wheeze to incite the ire of the national press and to irritate the hell out of Britain’s Muslims as well as everyone else is to use a legal loophole to relaunch al-Muhajiroun this week, which had been disbanded in 2004. Only its successor groups, al-Ghurabaa and the Saviour Sect, were banned in 2006 under terrorism legislation. It seems fairly clear that Choudary expects, and indeed makes the calculation, that the reformed al-Muhajiroun will be banned pretty quickly to generate the notoriety and street-cred that he wants to sustain. As they play a propagandistic role, they will continue to find ways to dodge past legal restrictions by using coded language or forming new entities. The law is obviously a blunt and ineffectual tool.

Well Choudary got his headlines yet again last night when a debate with Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) on sharia law verses UK law never got started, ending in acrimony and thuggish behaviour after about half-an-hour. Al-Muhajiroun used their own goons to enforce strict gender segregation at the event, and roughed up at least one person who objected, and so the event was abandoned and the police were called in.

I called the CSC earlier this week as I had concerns that they were just being used to promote Choudary’s latest wheeze and that I had my suspicions that the so-called neutral event organiser, the mysterious Global Issues Society (GIS), was just another al-Muhajiroun front organisation, a suspicion that was proved spectacularly correct last night. The Centre had its concerns too but wanted definitive proof that GIS was a front if it was to pull out at such a late stage.

Prior to last night’s debate it was clear that GIS had:

1. Booked Conway Hall as a student society at Queen Mary’s under false pretences. No-one from the local student Islamic society had heard of them and the college authorities had no record of any student group registered under that name.

2. Had only organised a handful of “debates”, all of them involving al-Muhajiroun representatives.

3. The event was heavily promoted by al-Muhajiroun itself through its own website, and they provided a lurid poster and their own contact number for the event.

4. No-one knowledgeable about the Muslim activist scene in London had heard of them.

At the event itself:

5. The security “hired” by GIS turned out to be just more associates of al-Muhajiroun who enforced their gender segregation code.

6. The so-called neutral chair appeared to be associated with al-Muhajiroun.

Now the CSC says it acted in “good faith” in accepting this invitation, an assertion that can’t be left unchallenged. At the very least, CSC showed questionable judgement in giving the GIS the benefit of the doubt when there were so many legitimate suspicions about them. It seems probable that the CSC was more focused on highlighting their own campaign for a quick ban and burnishing their reputation as a scourge of radical Islam by playing up to al-Muhajiroun’s all-too-familiar tactics.

If instead we want to use debate to expose and de-legitimize al-Muhajiroun further, the only way to do it would be to organise a neutral platform with a proper invite list. Most importantly, a debating opponent is needed who could take on Choudary and win among the disaffected and radicalised segment of young Muslims that al-Muhajiroun hopes to recruit from. Douglas Murray better fits the role of an anti-Islam bogeyman, who memorably described Islam as “an opportunistic infection” at a memorial conference for Pim Fortuyn in February 2006, a statement he is yet to resile from. Murray’s mere presence was no doubt designed by Choudary to buttress further the siege mentality of anti-West radicalism and self-righteous victimhood that al-Muhajiroun promotes.

The lesson of this little fiasco is that the stoking of an Islam-West controversy has become predictable, exploitable and even somewhat of an industry. The question is: how to break the cycle and construct better alternatives? Frustration, despair and even ennui at the current standoff is just a cop-out and we need to do better: so, over to you, any suggestions?

This has been cross-posted from City Circle Blogs.

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Filed under Blog, Civil liberties, Islamism, Media, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics