The Daily Telegraph
'Most of us are sane and sensible'
Iqbal Sacranie tells Elizabeth Grice how the war against terror has dramatically transformed his role as a spokesman for Britain�s Muslim community
His appointment with his barber is two weeks overdue. His grey-sprinkled beard is untrimmed. His wife and children no longer believe him when he says he�s on his way home for supper. The other day, Iqbal Sacranie arrived home at midnight, but was on the phone for a further two hours. His next day began at 4.30am and, like most days, was punctuated by the inevitable catchphrase, "I may be running a little late".
While he talks � at twice the speed of normal speech � incoming emails are constantly pinging for his attention and he breaks off to finalise a press release announcing the result of his latest meeting with the home secretary, David Blunkett � agreement that government departments will drop inflammatory terms such as "Islamic terrorists".
Though he is sitting at his desk at the family accountancy firm in Surbiton, almost nothing is left of his normal number-crunching life. Sacranie is Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), a job that has assumed an importance undreamt of in its early days as an umbrella and representative body of 400 Muslim organisations in the UK.
Not a day goes by without some new crisis on which he is expected to pronounce, take action or pour oil. In his 30 years� community work since he came to Britain from Malawi, there has been nothing like the present ferment. "There was a time when I enjoyed it. I�m not sure I really enjoy it all that much now. But each of us has a responsibility."
Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, criticised Islam�s leaders for not speaking out strongly enough against terrorism. A record number of Muslims � 32,100 � are stopped and searched under the Terrorism Act. Eight young men are arrested in raids in and around London on suspicion of trying to acquire bomb-making material.
Jihadis are rumoured to be gaining ground in Britain. Muslims feel branded as potential terrorists in the wake of the Madrid train bombs. Mosques are said to be losing their influence. Alienated young Muslims are in danger of falling into the hands of extremists.
Sacranie, 52, is coming to the end of his turbulent second term in office. "None of us ever imagined it would be like this," he says. "It�s changing from day to day and it�s not getting any easier." Recently, he made headlines with a letter to Britain�s 800 mosques urging Muslims to co-operate with the police in dealing with terrorist crime and to "observe the utmost vigilance against any mischievous or criminal elements. Unexceptionable, you might think, but some hotheads accused him of encouraging Islamophobia.
"Utterly nonsensical," he says. He wasn�t inviting Muslims to "spy" on one another but to be good citizens in the face of any threat to peace. If he had not sent the letter, he argues, and "God forbid, some sort of tragedy struck at our country, our community would have been in a very difficult position. Hundreds of messages of support are coming in every day."
He says his letter to the imams was inspired by alarm at the way Islam, a peaceable religion, is being linked with atrocity in headlines that casually use terms such as "Islamic terrorist" � an association that is spreading mutual distrust in communities.
"The use of inflammatory language like this denigrates each one of us. The young, in particular, feel they are being tarnished as suspects because they belong to the Islamic faith and so by definition are linked with terrorism.
"If the war on terrorism is premised on the assumption that every Muslim is a born terrorist, then one can see little hope for anyone, terrorists or the warriors against terrorism. Everyone is doomed. "It has to be understood that the so-called terrorists, whoever they may be, hurt Islam and Muslims first before they hurt anyone else."
Sacranie believes a few extremists are making trouble for Britain�s two million law-abiding Muslims and are getting disproportionate attention.
"Every community has its criminal element. We are not free of it," he says. "The militant tendency and lunatic fringe are found everywhere, and so there is nothing unusual in having an extremist fringe in the Muslim community as well."
The problem is when the media tries to build them into something real. What could be more damaging than pictures of people waving their fists and shouting that they will bomb No 10?
"By themselves, they are nobody," he scoffs. "Yet the media allows them to reach out and possibly subvert the minds of the unknowing, aggrieved and impressionable youth."
"The good news is that, for all the antics of these tinpot radicals, their net influence in the community is next to nothing. The overwhelming majority are sane and sensible, and that is why nothing untoward has so far happened: they do heed the counsel of their leaders."
But for how long? Sacranie talks to young Muslims and knows they are troubled; not just because they are unfairly linked with the terrorist threat, but also because they are poor, unemployed, under-educated and feel they lack a voice.
In other words, they share the social malaise of many of their non-Muslim counterparts. "The possibility [that they will be driven towards extremism] is there," he agrees. "And some may fall into the wrong hands but I do not rate it very high."
Some commentators say young Muslims are losing touch with their Britishness, but Sacranie has no time for what one Muslim Daily Telegraph reader denounced last week as "some nebulous definition of Britishness".
His own interests � cricket, golf, gardening, reading, travelling � would rank among the classic pursuits of many a British businessman in Who�s Who. However, he distrusts John Majorish notions of being British. "I would say that going to the pub is not part of Britishness. It�s a tradition, and people are free to go if they want to, but, as I am one who does not drink, there�s no compulsion to go there." While doing his accountancy training, he would go to the pub on a Friday to be sociable, drinking lemonade and lime, and using the occasion to convince colleagues that there were healthier ways to relax.
Britishness, for Sacranie, is enshrined in the values of honesty, morality and justice that he imbibed as a boy in Africa and that are now, or should be, part of Britain�s multicultural society. "Islam gives the very same message," he says. "They are values we all share."
Despite his many awards and citations � an OBE for services to charity and community relations, a Muslim News award for Good Citizenship, named as most influential Muslim in the UK in 2002 � Sacranie is shy of personal publicity and deliberately stingy with biographical information.
"I am not a leader," he insists. "I am a worker. Thank God, Iqbal Sacranie is just one among many." One of four brothers, he was born in Malawi and came to London to complete his accountancy training in 1969. He lives in New Malden, Surrey, with his wife and five children � ranging from twins aged 12 to a married daughter. "Another meeting, Dad?" they chorus as he rolls in, late again.
He was the MCB�s first secretary general (1998-2000) and under pressure � not least, he says, from his 76-year-old mother � returned for a second term in 2002 to find the job even more frenetic than before. It was supposed to take 20 per cent of his time, he says; now it�s taking 120 per cent.
Sacranie is a tall, impressive man with a shock of wavy black hair and impeccable clothes. Rather nattily for an accountant, he is dressed in grey flannels, a blue striped shirt, red tie and navy sleeveless fine-wool pullover. Though he�s getting almost no sleep, he seems adrenalin-powered, hyper-motivated, super-alert.
Does he spend all his life in meetings? "That is what my family and my children think." Sacranie�s urbanity, common sense and personal probity make him a natural conciliator, but he has misgivings about how the war on terrorism is being waged and is scathing about the opacity of the "US-driven" strategy.
"There is so little information, so little transparency and such blanket determination that one is simply at a loss as to how best to help," he says.
"There is something seriously amiss somewhere. Political violence has suddenly come to take the place of fairness, justice and legality in international relations. The very strategy of fighting terrorism has to be corrected. It should be based on objective intelligence and not political expediency."
For Sacranie, Islam is the most important force in his life. "Your relationship with your creator comes first; then family and country fall in line. A good Muslim is a good citizen, in the same way as a good Christian is a good citizen. I have many faults, many of them, but none of them are to do with my being a Muslim."