Sunday, 17 January 2010

Friends Reunited

Last week it was reported that American intelligence believed London to be the centre of Al Qaeda influence in the Western world. The "growing strength" of support for radical Islamists was "a major concern" for US agencies, especially in the wake of the failed Detroit bomb attack. There was talk of "tensions" between American officials and their British equivalents.

None of this will come as much surprise to anyone. Those British Muslims believed to be actively plotting terrorism may be few in number - both absolutely and as a proportion of the total size of the community. About one in a thousand. But there are perhaps hundreds of thousands who share their ideology and many of their assumptions: a belief in Sharia law; the notion that the Ummah or global community of Muslims ought to be unified (whether or not under a revived Caliphate); a belief that Western foreign policy is deliberately anti-Muslim; an obsessive dislike of Israel; qualified support of or at least empathy with suicide bombings (at least where the targets are Israeli or Western interests in Muslim countries). Up to a third of British Muslims, in some polls, support a version of "Islamism" - politicised Islam.

It's not just that these disaffected British Muslims are the recruiting pool for Al Qaeda. As I often write here, the threat of actual terrorism is greatly exaggerated. The real problem is one of community relationships and civic harmony. Despite the efforts of progressive groups like British Muslims for Secular Democracy, there has been over the past twenty years a pronounced turning away from integration, with more Muslims seeking refuge in religious conservatism and a form of voluntary apartheid. The spread of the hijab - however sincerely its wearers believe it to be a religious requirement - is the visible sign of this widening social fracture.

Voices claiming to represent British Muslims - and I'm not talking about Anjem Choudary so much as the likes of Inayat Bunglawala or Sir Iqbal Sacranie - seem fixated by the same few issues - religious observance, foreign policy and events supposedly indicative of Islamophobia, like the Danish cartoons. The upshot is that everyone - Muslim and non-Muslim, government and the press, the religious and the secular - perceives Islam to be a "problem" in urgent need of resolution. In particular, it powers the government's belief that the people best place to tackle the problem are the very people who most embody it.

Last week, amid great publicity, the government banned Islam4UK, the latest vehicle for Anjem Choudary's hilariously extreme views. I say "hilariously" because, although he may in the past have had links with violent extremism, these days he and his tiny band of supporters exist largely to supply the media with a convenient bogeyman. He was simply too public to be a real threat. Hizb'ut Tahrir, a group with which he was once associated and which proclaims virtually identical views, is still entirely lawful - and, indeed, remains active on university campuses. One of its senior members has been found teaching at the LSE. Hizb'ut Tahrir, however, has a subtlety Choudary lacks. Its members do not take to the streets holding aloft placards proclaiming what they really think - except, perhaps, when they are demonstrating against Israel, when they can be take advantage of the protection afforded by respectable left-wingers.

Meanwhile, even as it banned Choudary, the government has quietly been mending fences with the Muslim Council of Britain, an organisation that claims to represent mainstream Muslim opinion in the UK but which has been dominated by Islamists ever since its foundation. It may even be that the banning of the largely irrelevant Islam4UK - apparently in reaction to its proposed Wootton Bassett march - was a smokescreen designed to distract attention from this striking reversal of policy.

After courting the MCB for many years, the government - and especially the former Communities secretaries Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears - seemed to have got wise to its close links with Islamists, and its failure to represent those millions of British Muslims who are not imams, self-styled "community leaders" or religious/political activists. Islamist influence at the organisation went right to the top. John Ware wrote in Prospect magazine in 2006 of its former general secretary:


Sacranie was knighted despite being listed as a trustee of a global alliance of Islamic charities called the Union of Good, chaired by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has said of the Israel-Palestine conflict: “We must plant the love of death in the Islamic nation.” Like al-Qaradawi, several of Sacranie’s fellow trustees are members or supporters of Hamas and have extolled the theological virtues of suicide bombing directed at civilians in the Israel-Palestine conflict. According to Muslim Weekly, the new deputy MCB secretary-general, Daud Abdullah, referred to Hamas as “we” at a recent Trafalgar Square rally. And Abdullah was behind the MCB’s boycott of Holocaust Memorial day, successfully resisting the efforts of a sizeable minority of MCB members who want it lifted to repair relations between British Muslims and Jews.


"While preaching moderation, the MCB is also good at keeping young Muslims angry" he noted.

Ware was writing in the wake of an important announcement by Ruth Kelly of a shift in government support towards less confrontational representatives. Kelly told "a stunned audience" that there would be "a fundamental rebalancing of our relationship with Muslim organisations from now on." The "special relationship" with the MCB was over, claimed Ware. What led to a complete breakdown of the relationship, however, was Abdullah's decision to sign the pro-Hamas Istanbul Declaration in 2009. That document, which was couched in blatantly anti-Semitic language, referred to "the religious obligation of Jihad" and contained veiled threats to Western (including British) forces, has never been repudiated either by Abdullah or by the MCB as a whole. Abdullah remains the MCB general secretary. As James Forsyth puts it, the government has "caved in".

It's worth remembering what Blears wrote at the time:

The government would be shirking its duty if it fails to investigate any potential threat to the security of our troops and communities. We must take this extremely seriously.

That is why we have been asking the MCB to find out whether their deputy secretary general, Dr Abdullah, attended the conference and signed the statement. The MCB has now confirmed he did attend and did sign the declaration. A declaration that supports violence against foreign forces – which could include British naval personnel – as the prime minister has offered British naval support to stop the smuggling of weapons to Gaza; and advocating attacks on Jewish communities all around the world.

...I would urge the MCB to accept the serious nature of this issue and work with us to resolve it so that we can continue in partnership to build the safe, strong, cohesive communities in which we all want to live.


They didn't.

Hazel Blears was an irritating politician in many ways - it's hard to forget the manner in which she tried to brazen out her expenses claim and, when finally forced to hand back the money, waved the cheque around. But her approach to the MCB was the right one. Since her departure, the DCLG under John Denham has reverted to the old policy of propping up non-violent Islamists as its preferred Muslim interlocutors.

Last November, Nick Cohen reported that "the fix is in and Islamists are all over Whitehall again." Denham, he wrote, "is forcing out of his department Azhar Ali" - an opponent of Islamism who had recommended freezing out the MCB - and was about to cut the funding of moderate groups like the Sufi Council. Instead, it was "entertaining" Inayat Bunglawala, sucking up to representatives of Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood, and even considering giving Sacranie a peerage. That hasn't happened yet, fortunately. But we learn today that with the full knowledge of Ed Balls' education department children attending Islamic madrassas are being subjected to corporal punishment. Despite the vociferous objections of progressive Muslims and a report last year which stated that children "had been slapped, punched and had their ears twisted" in such informal institutions, Balls' department claims that there is "no evidence the law is being abused."

Eyebrows were raised recently at the presence of Wakkas Khan, who as a student leader at the time of the 7/7 tube bombings viewed with equanimity the growth of Hizb'ut Tahrir at British universities, on Denham's list of "inter-faith advisers". Evidently, his appointment is part of a pattern. Now an unrepentant MCB leadership rejoins New Labour's charmed circle of Faith. Some people speculate these unwelcome developments have something to do with the presence of substantial numbers of Muslims in some marginal Labour seats. Perhaps so. There's also a long-standing belief in sections of the police and the security services that the best way to neutralise extremism is to give money and credibility to people who are only slightly less extreme. Either way, it's a dangerous road they're going down.