Secretary General Calls for Fresh Thinking on Extremism at MCB AGM 2013

In his speech to the 16th Annual General Meeting of the Muslim Council of Britain, Farooq Murad, its Secretary General, outlined the community’s response to the Woolwich murder of May 22 and reflected community sentiment to the ongoing proposals to counter terrorism.

Here are the main excerpts from the speech, delivered on Saturday 29 June 2013 at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester.

“…. [Our founders’] vision for the Muslim Council of Britain, rearticulated a few years ago, was: “to empower the Muslim community to contribute towards achieving a cohesive, just and successful British society.”

Not to be an organisation that seeks special favours.

Nor one to ‘fight extremism’.

Instead it is an organisation to pursue consensus in our community and state loudly and clearly that our faith and our people have a great deal to offer society.

But, despite our determination, our work inevitably takes place against a background not of our choosing. A background that cannot be ignored. A background that was brought into sudden and sharp focus just a few weeks ago.

With the reprehensible murder of drummer Lee Rigby by two deluded young men who claimed, wrongly, to act in the name of Islam.

That Muslims did this in the name of our faith is a fact that cannot be ignored. That the conduct of our government’s foreign policy, which the attackers claimed as justification is also important to study.

Accepting that the conduct of war abroad can bring political violence home does not in any way justify that violence; but nor does their violence delegitimise raising questions about the political motivations behind it.

We must find a way to defuse political violence and we must open up spaces for robust and critical discussion of all aspects of what our government does in all our names at home and abroad so that all citizens, feel that they have a stake in this society and its policies and in challenging and rejecting all those who would undermine the legitimacy of political engagement, from wherever they hail, and whatever their ideology.

The murder of Lee Rigby and the Islamophobic backlash that has followed have given succour to those on the fringes, be that from the far right or those who claim to do so in the name of Islam. It has also strengthened the hand of some in policy circles and the commentariat, who believe that the only solution to the “Muslim problem” is greater intrusion, surveillance and greater outside intervention. Those who believe that all engagement with our community should be framed in terms of counter-terrorism. And who would have each of us condemn a thousand different acts for which we are not responsible as a precondition to be allowed to speak in the public domain.

The Muslim Council of Britain rejects this attempt to use the politics of fear and insinuation to curb the intellectual and spiritual life of our ummah.  And the MCB will not align itself with any programme that seeks to shape the future of our ummah on the basis of outside imperatives. Some look at Woolwich and can only see the horrible attack and the threat of its possible repetition, and focus their search for lessons in the questions about extremism and radicalisation. And they narrowly their focus and interventions to the Muslim community and their investment in security into counter terrorism.

We are against the singling out of particular Mosques, Imams, charities, or student societies.  Difficult and frank discussions need to take place and these cannot happen if certain opinions or actors are proscribed before we even start the debate. Anyone who eschews violence and wants to engage by democratic means should be encouraged to do so, no matter how difficult their opinions may be for some.

Does this mean we ignore the rejectionism of the Woolwich attackers and not join hands with others to ensure this does not happen again?

Absolutely not.

We are calling for real leadership, critical thinking and evidenced-based responses, not haphazard policy run at the whim of divisive pundits. Far too often politicians and their policies trail media framed moral panics to deliver headline catching rushed solutions.  In no area more so than in event driven Security policy and the prevention of violent extremism,  where much of the vocabulary – no less than the concepts and theories remain deeply muddled and misguided  – and will ultimately prove ineffective if not counter-productive.

These problems are ours to understand, face up to and overcome, together, in partnership with all. Woolwich throws up important questions that require serious soul searching on all sides.

In our view, extremism breeds not within communities, but in their gaps and margins. In places where the webs and safety nets of community that sustain dignity, self-worth, autonomy and solidarities fail.

One of the few silver linings to recent events has been the fact that it has driven home to all of us that occupy the middle ground – be we Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist; be we black or white, indigenous; First second or third generation.

It has driven home to us that we must fight for that ground. After Woolwich, despite the hate, the reprisals and the fear, we saw people up and down the country claiming that middle ground:

Whether it be the MCB affiliate York Mosque offering tea to EDL protestors, or local Jews and Christians rushing to the aid of the Somali Bravanese community after their Muswell Hill Islamic Centre was burnt down. We look at Woolwich and are struck by the ways that ordinary people responded to this shocking event in extraordinary ways. The lessons from Woolwich lie less in acknowledgement of impending existential threats to our way of life, than in the demonstration of the resilience of our society.

No amount of investment in counter-terrorism alone will prevent another attack. But investment in the strengthening of the resilience and capacity of our communities across the whole of our society – through the promotion of civic engagement, social cohesion, capacity building, voice, dignity and stake-holding; through the strengthening of our democracy and through democratic practice and social justice. investing in the resilience and capacity of our communities is the surest guarantee that we can stand up for who we are and what we believe in; that we can articulate our grievances without being accused of disloyalty and face up to those who seek to undermine our contribution to this society.

What is in the basic interest of Britain’s Muslim community is also the most basic interest of Britain as a whole. Peace, stability, prosperity and cohesion are what we all want. And all of us believe that in this time and this place that is best achieved by strong civil engagement in a society with robust institutions critical but respectful public debate, and a deep respect for the values of pluralism, tolerance and respect. For democracy and for that basic neighbourliness that goodaqhlaq which is so ingrained in us as Muslims and is also so very British.

So the MCB will not take money from the government, it will not subscribe to preconditions, it will engage as an equal partner with government (even if thus far has refused to engage), with other faiths and with civil society, on behalf of its 500 plus affiliates.

It will do so with a twin aim:

To challenge those who stir hatred and suspicion of Muslims, and to press home the point amongst our Muslim communities to take part fully in mainstream society and within the ummah as a whole, and challenge those who divide us. That means initiating a forum amongst our scholars and activists to ensure that the Islamic message of resilience and good neighbourliness is stronger to our young people than the divisive message of rejectionists.

And that is why one of the most important, if not the most important, items on today’s agenda is the signing of a document of intra-faith unity. A code of honour that is based on the idea that unless all of us first recognise ourselves as Muslims, as a single, diverse and vibrant community,  we have no hope of being recognised in our turn. If we are allowing intolerance to be preached by our brothers and sisters towards our brothers and sisters then it is hard to put the argument to wider society that we are fit to engage in modern, pluralistic Britain. And what we must challenge is not an ideology or a sect, it is a mentality it can be found in Sunni and Shia, among Salafis and reformists.

It is the mentality of Takfir – of excommunicating dissent and dehumanising those who disagree with you. So we must challenge those who preach excommunication, who have the arrogance to claim that they can pronounce on the relationship that any of the rest of us have with Allah. From that arrogance a great many sins can stem. And the overlap between those that present a security risk to the government and those who preach fitnah among the Muslims themselves, is too stark to be ignored.

If this process were to be dictated from outside, it could never become anything other than a witch hunt.  There are too many zealots who see us as a threat influencing the debate for it to be otherwise.

So it must come from within.

The document we are signing today is a first step.  This document is a signal to the British Muslim community and to the world that we will not allow hatred and division to be preached by our brothers and sisters in Islam towards our brothers and sisters in Islam.  Everything else we seek to achieve as a community must stem from this most basic respect for our fellow Muslims.  It is a step towards establishing consensus.

Sisters and Brothers, the MCB cannot represent anyone but its many affiliates. And as a democratically elected officer I can do nothing more than exercise my judgement in service of the trust you have placed in me.

We live in times of great global upheaval. Mass immigration,  globalisation, the global recession, the misguided and counterproductive War on Terror; the new communications revolution; the television screens and twitter feeds that bring home to us the reality of the billions who still live in poverty or under the heel of despotic regimes — such as the one we see in Syria. These are vast challenges for humankind as a whole.

As Muslim we are the inheritors of one of the richest traditions in human history. A powerful force for social justice and spiritual wellbeing. And there has never been a greater need for such a force.  One of the greatest achievements of Islam was to inspire people to look beyond the ties of clan and tribe. It united one of the most disparate and independent peoples of the world – the Arabs of the 7th Century- and allowed them to imagine a wider community: A community of all humanity under the love and justice of a single God. All of us here believe in that community. And we must show courage in standing up for it in all its diversity.”