No one—and that's not necessarily a problemby Sameer Rahim / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Assistant Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, gives a press statement on Lee Rigby’s death from a mosque in Leicester. ©Rui Vieira/PA Wire Since the Paris attacks, British Muslims have felt under pressure. Should they denounce terrorism done in Islam’s name or does that admit complicity where none exists? A Survation poll published a week after the attacks found that 30 per cent of British Muslims thought their leaders had not done enough to condemn Islamic State, while 37 per cent said they were doing enough. But this raises the question: which leaders? Islam is a decentralised religion with no official structure of legitimate authority. There are assorted muftis, ayatollahs and imams but none commands anything like majority assent among Britain’s 2.8m Muslims. Most British mosques are based on ethnicity and are community centres as much as religious gatherings. Different sects barely speak to one another. Such a jumble makes it hard for British Muslims to speak with one voice. The organisation with the best claim to be representative is the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group with 500 affiliates. The day after Paris, it encouraged Muslims to attend a candlelit vigil in Trafalgar Square and later took out full-page newspaper adverts affirming solidarity with the victims. Harun Khan, the MCB’s deputy secretary general, told me that “we’re not apologising for anything,” but “what we’re saying is that this doesn’t represent our faith.” The advert reached a broad audience: it was commended by Ukip leader Nigel Farage, and on the ITV daytime talk show Loose Women. The MCB has not always been so sensitive to public opinion. Founded in 1997, initially it worked closely with New Labour on issues such as Muslim schools. But the MCB’s boycott of Holocaust Memoria l Day between 2001 and 2007 strained relations, and as radicalisation among British Muslims increased after the invasion of Iraq, it was challenged over its association with Islamist parties such as Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Tony Blair cut off contact in 2007, a policy continued by David Cameron. Cameron prefers to deal with explicitly counter-extremism groups. The most prominent of these is Quilliam, set up in 2007 by three ex-members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a hardline Islamist movement that wishes to set up a caliphate. The managing director Haras Rafiq told me that Quilliam focuses on all kinds of radicalism—including the far right—but the bulk of its work is on Islamist extremism. (Forty per cent of its staff is Muslim.) “We’ve living in a world of global jihadist insurgency,” said Rafiq. “No insurgency would be sustainable if it didn’t have some support within the community.” Recent Quilliam projects include a series of online videos entitled Not Another Brother, which dramatise the regrets of an IS recruit. Rafiq is sceptical of the MCB. “They’re using a colonial model—take us to your leader.” There is little love lost between the two organisations. Harun Khan stressed to me that the MCB had never received state funding and was thus “independent.” Quilliam received state money until 2011, but is now privately funded. Sara Khan, who set up the counter-extremism and gender inclusion group Inspire in 2009, is a keen advocate of the government’s Prevent programme, which sees non-violent extremism as a gateway to jihadism. She told me that Prevent “helped to dissuade and discourage people from the path of radicalisation. We don’t often hear about those cases.” She has faced abuse from some Muslims who see her a stooge or sellout. But her views are more nuanced: “There are obviously concerns we have about the delivery of Prevent. Are teachers equipped to understand what their role is? What is the difference between socially conservative practices of Islam, which are legitimate, and extreme interpretations?” Such is the lack of trust that even well-intentioned initiatives can take on sinister overtones. Partly this is a question of presentation. It has not gone unnoticed among Muslims that the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon visited a mosque two days after Paris, but Cameron made no such gesture. Fiyaz Mughal, who runs the interfaith charity Faith Matters, told me that “British values” lessons in schools would be more effective if they were renamed “shared values”—especially given those vulnerable to radicalisation have a troubled relationship with their Britishness. One of Mughal’s most successful projects has been Tell Mama, which monitors anti-Muslim attacks. He told me that since the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013 and the rise of IS, things “have got progressively worse.” In 2014, it dealt with 598 cases ranging from physical assaults to online abuse; in 2015 there were 2,000. Attacks such as that in Paris put Tell Mama in a difficult position. In the days after such an atrocity, Muslims are at a higher risk of being targeted by far-right groups. But trying to shift public attention to anti-Muslim bigotry risks appearing to ignore the terrorists’ victims. “We want to mourn as citizens of Europe,” said Mughal, “but also look at how it impacts on Mr and Mrs Khan going about their daily life.” Tell Mama also challenges bigotry within Islamic communities. It has teamed up with the Community Security Trust, which tackles anti-Semitism, and gay equality activist Peter Tatchell, alliances that have drawn criticism from conservative Muslims. These rival and often overlapping groups have forced the MCB to raise its game. (For one thing, it is noticeably less sectarian, with Shia and Sunni spokesmen.) But they also show that the idea of British Muslims speaking with one voice is outdated—especially in the social media age. Soon after The Sun ran a story claiming that one in five British Muslims support jihadis, the satirical hashtag #1in5Muslims began trending on Twitter. The comedian Imran Yusuf tweeted: “#1in5Muslims is named Mohammed. The other four spell it differently.” Maybe nothing’s better for community relations than a self-deprecating joke.