Saturday August 21, 2004
The road to hell, goes the saying, is paved with good intentions. Like the letter you sent out to mosques earlier this year. asking them to be vigilant in the phoney "war on terror", the Muslim Council of Britain's latest advice to British Muslims in its pamphlet, Know Your Rights and Responsibilities, may be sincere enough. But by appealing to Britain's Muslims to remember their duties vis a vis "terrorism", it is likely to fan the flames it seeks to extinguish.
Since well before the atrocities of 9/11, the trajectory of government legislation and policy has been to demonise and criminalise the Muslim community, a fact that the much-quoted discrepancy between arrest and conviction figures starkly illustrates. The focus of British Muslim organisations' work should be directed at undermining this cynical government agenda, not supporting it.
In a well-known hadith, the blessed Prophet Muhammad advised us that "actions are but by intention, and everyone shall be rewarded according to that which they intended". To be sure, intentions ought to be matched by practical actions if we are to build a cohesive society. So I am puzzled by your criticism of our letter to the mosques and now the guide to rights and responsibilities.
The guide points out that Muslims - especially children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent - are underachieving educationally, and urges greater parental interest and involvement. It notes the growing disaffection among Muslims and anger at their disenfranchisement over the Iraq war, and it calls for increased participation in the mainstream parties. Both the letter and the guide accept that, in the wake of the terrible Madrid train bombings last March, there is an increased terror threat to the UK. We reiterate that averting a terrorist attack in which innocents would be put in jeopardy is an Islamic imperative, and it is the duty of all - Muslims included - to help the authorities prevent such an atrocity.
The constant demonisation of British Muslims - often from pro-Israeli quarters - is wholly unacceptable, and I agree that the government's disastrous participation in Bush's wars have done our country - us included - immense harm. We have conveyed this forcefully to ministers on several occasions. I would welcome your thoughts on further measures we could take to halt the marginalisation of British Muslims.
You appear to have misread my very specific criticism of your advice on terrorism, which - worryingly - seems to be based entirely on the government's unproven claims of an increased threat to the mainland. The approach might curry favour in Whitehall but, with Muslim distrust of officials running at an all-time high, whatever initiatives they may craft to tackle the community's exclusion risk being stillborn.
Wielding a club in one hand and a carrot in the other is not the answer. Muslim alienation is increasingly rooted in Islamophobia. One practical step would be to stop resisting calls for legislation outlawing religious discrimination, a move that would undermine this pernicious Muslim-bashing.
This is not to play the victim. The community has many problems, many of them the legacy of immigration and internal mismanagement. The government can play a part in the process of reform, but it cannot run the show.
In fact, it was a key plank of the antiwar argument that - contrary to the government's assertions - our participation in an illegal, unjust war against Iraq would surely increase the threat of terrorism to our shores. A House of Commons select committee recently conceded that this was indeed now the case.
Anyway, I am heartened to see that the one practical measure you propose we take - to call on the government to enact legislation outlawing religious discrimination - is one the MCB has been vigorously pursuing since its inception in 1997! The Home Office-sponsored Derby Report (2000) also made the same call. Since December 2003, as the result of an EU directive, religious discrimination has been outlawed in employment and training. This should be welcomed, and acknowledged.
Still, as long as the government delays the comprehensive introduction of religious discrimination legislation - not only in relation to employment, but also in the provision of goods and services - there will remain a hierarchy of rights, with British Muslims, as a multi-ethnic minority, having less rights than racially distinct minoritiessuch as Jews and Sikhs, who are protected under existing racial discrimination laws.
While we can both agree that the war on Iraq has not endeared the government to Muslims, it does not follow that this has raised the risk of terrorism to the level claimed by the government, let alone turned sections of the community into a near and present danger.
In fact, such a conclusion requires a huge leap of faith, as was pointed out by the most recent parliamentary review of anti-terrorism legislation. The joint committee on human rights (July 2004) said its members had "never been presented with the evidence which would enable us to be satisfied of the existence of a public emergency threatening the life of the nation but have proceeded on the basis that there might be such evidence".
You make an important point about the EU Employment Framework Directive 2003 employment law, but seem to assign credit where it is not due. Rather than being an uncharacteristic act of governmental goodwill, the equality laws were forced on London from Brussels.
I have no doubt that more mainstream political involvement is key to escaping the current quagmire. My concern is that the agendas of those speaking for the community should be coming from the bottom up, rather than top down.
I had hoped that the words "EU directive" would have been a clear enough indication as to the origin of the legislation! Never mind.
Still, can we agree that it is possible for both of the following statements to be simultaneously true? a) In light of events since 9/11 (including Bali, Istanbul, Casablanca and Madrid) it is prudent to assume that there is an increased terror threat facing the UK, and b) numerous aspects of the government's response to this threat, including the detention without trial of foreign nationals, are unjust and unworthy of our democracy.
Certainly, the high-profile series of anti-terror raids (with many quietly released without charge), the large increase in the numbers of young Muslim men being stopped and searched, and the constant denigration of Islam and its followers in much of the UK media, has left many British Muslims unsettled and even fearful.
I am pleased you agree that mainstream political involvement is key to escaping this current quagmire. I did ask you what additional measures you think we should be taking, and you appeared somewhat flummoxed. It's still not too late ...
I really don't mind being the one proposing all the practical measures here, but I would have expected an organisation that bills itself as the most representative of Muslims in the UK to have put forward at least a few of its own.
If organisations such as the MCB are to earn legitimacy, they must learn to carry the community with them. That can only come from adopting a more inclusive approach - something that will also serve as a more effective check against the temptation to accept an imposed agenda.
The priorities facing the Muslim community are evident: government action to roll back unemployment, investment in inner cities, better education, fair treatment in the allocation of goods and services for our organisations, removal of the bars to public participation, and greater sensitivity to Muslim concerns with foreign policy issues such as Palestine and Iraq.
Since this is not the forum for detail, and I am not a politician, the details of their implementation can be left to our legislators, executives and their consultants, provided, of course, they can bear to banish the bogey of terrorism from their minds.
You appear to confuse listing a set of objectives - which is the easy bit - with providing practical suggestions on how to achieve those objectives. I would suggest that simply drawing up a list of demands on a piece of paper, and handing it to "legislators, executives and their consultants" may not be enough to deliver the results in the real world.
The pocket guide is a simple example of an attempt to help empower the grassroots of an ostracised community to exert greater efforts towards self-upliftment.
Still, I do hope you will try and develop your suggestions further. The MCB is always open to receiving advice. Advice given, we trust, with the best of intentions.
Faisal Bodi is a British journalist and a senior editor for aljazeera.net; Inayat Bunglawala is media secretary at the Muslim Council of Britain, and former editor of the Muslim youth magazine Trends