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'take me to your leader'

(extract from From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy)

harry's place, 23 april 2009

In the run-up to the first anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, in July 2006, a row broke out between the prime minister Tony Blair and Muslim leaders. Sadiq Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, was one of a number of prominent Muslims who lambasted the government for ignoring their advice on how to deal with extremists. Few of the proposals put forward by an Extremism Task Force set up after the bombings had been acted upon, Khan complained. ‘What has happened to all the good ideas?’ he asked. ‘Why hasn’t an action plan been drawn up with timelines? There has been limited progress but there is an air of despondency. Only three recommendations have been implemented, and group members feel let down.’

The prime minister responded to the criticisms by insisting that the real problem lay with Muslims themselves. Moderate Muslims had taken insufficient responsibility for unmasking extremists. ‘Government itself cannot go and root out the extremism in these communities,’ Blair told a parliamentary liaison committee of senior MPs. ‘I am not the person to go into the Muslim community and explain to them that this extreme view is not the true face of Islam.’

The debate carried on for a week or two before petering out. But while much of what Blair suggested was challenged by his Muslim critics, no one dissented from his central point that he was not the person to venture into the Muslim community to challenge extremism. The starting point for both sides – as it seems to be in any discussion today about extremism – was the belief that Muslims constitute a distinct community with its own views and beliefs, and that real political authority for British Muslims must come from within the Muslim community. Mainstream politicians, so the argument goes, are incapable of reaching out to Muslims. Only authentic Muslim leaders can engage with them. So there has to be a bargain between the government and the Muslim community. The government acknowledges Muslim leaders as crucial partners in the task of confronting extremism and building a fairer society. In return Muslim leaders agree to keep their own house in order. The argument between Tony Blair and his critics was really about who was, or was not, keeping their side of the bargain.

In the same week as the row, two polls on Muslim attitudes were published, one for The Times, the other for Channel 4’s Dispatches programme. The polls showed why such multicultural bargains are a bad idea. There is no such thing as a Muslim community to be bargained over, no token of which all Muslims would say, ‘That’s mine.’ Should Muslim women wear the hijab? Is it better to live under sharia law or British law? Should people be free to say what they want, even if it offends religious groups? Is polygamy acceptable? Must wives always obey their husbands? Should Muslim children go to state schools or faith schools? Are public displays of affection offensive? Do the police disproportionately stop and search Muslims? Should police be allowed to monitor mosques? On all these and many other questions Muslims are deeply divided.

The only issue on which virtually all Muslims seemed to agree was the importance of Islam. Yet even here, the response was not as straightforward as it may seem. Nine out of ten respondents in the
Channel 4 poll felt strongly attached to Islam. Yet half never attended mosque; fewer than one in ten attended every day. More than 50 per cent did not want Britain to be an Islamic state; around 17 per cent were ‘strongly’ attracted to the idea. Thirty per cent wanted the introduction of sharia law; 54 per cent did not. One in five would move to a country governed by sharia; 70 per cent preferred to stay in Britain. Whatever their attachment to Islam, it was not for straightforwardly religious reasons.

Tony Blair seemed to be suggesting that the aims and aspirations of Muslims were so different from those of non-Muslims that he could not connect with them. The polls painted a different picture. Three quarters of non-Muslims thought Muslims should do more to integrate. So did two thirds of Muslims. One in four Muslims thought that hostility towards them had increased since 7/7; more than 60 per cent of non-Muslims agreed. Just over half of both Muslims and non-Muslims were offended by public drunkenness; the proportion of Muslims offended by same-sex couples kissing in public was not much greater than for non-Muslims (36 per cent as against 27 per cent). A third of the general population had close friends who were Muslims – a high figure given that Muslims make up less than 4 per cent of the population. Nearly nine out of ten Muslims had close non-Muslim personal friends.

Tony Blair’s insistence that he was ‘not the person to go into the
Muslim community’ was based less on the reality of Muslim attitudes than on a political reality. It was an acknowledgement that the government had abandoned its responsibility for engaging directly with Muslim communities and instead had subcontracted those responsibilities to so-called community leaders. The organization that for more than a decade has ‘represented’ the Muslim community is the Muslim Council of Britain. It was founded in 1997, with considerable support from the newly elected Labour government of Tony Blair. Its roots, however, go back to the Rushdie affair.

Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain suggests that the campaign against The Satanic Verses was ‘the catalyst for the forging of a more confident Islamic identity among many British Muslims’. What it really catalysed was a transformation of Islamism in Britain. The Rushdie affair provided an opportunity to bring order to the chaos of the fissiparous Islamist landscape – and for Islamists to stake a claim for the leadership of British Muslims and to present themselves as their true representatives.

In October 1988 the Saudi government helped set up the United Kingdom Action Committee on Islamic Affairs to promote its campaign against The Satanic Verses. Based at the Saudi-run Islamic Cultural Centre in London, it brought together many Islamist groups, such as the UK Islamic Mission, founded in 1962 as the British arm of Jamaat-e-Islami, the Maududist Islamic Foundation, and the Union of Muslim Organizations, which was funded by the World Muslim League, a body set up by Saudi Arabia in 1962 to promote Wahhabism and often seen as a wing of the Saudi foreign ministry. The UKACIA’s two convenors were the Saudi diplomat Mughram al-Ghamdi, director general of the Islamic Cultural Centre, and Iqbal Sacranie from the Balham mosque in London, the man who said of Rushdie, a few days after the fatwa, that ‘death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him’. Sacranie would later become the first secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain and eventually Sir Iqbal, in 2005.

No sooner had the Saudis constructed their Islamist edifice than the Iranians rolled a grenade under the door. The fatwa undid the Saudis’ carefully mapped-out strategy, not only transforming at a stroke the whole debate about Rushdie, but giving voice to a more assertive, more radical form of Islamism. ‘I was truly elated,’ Bunglawala recalls about the day that Khomeini delivered his death edict. ‘It was a very welcome reminder that British Muslims did not have to regard themselves just as a small, vulnerable minority; they were part of a truly global and powerful movement. If we were not treated with respect then we were capable of forcing others to respect us.’

Pro-Iranian Islamists now set up the Muslim Parliament to challenge what they saw as the caution of the UKACIA. The Parliament was the brainchild of one man – Marxist-turned-Muslim, and one-time Guardian journalist, Kalim Siddiqui. Like many British Muslims, Siddiqui had been enraptured by the Iranian revolution. In 1973 he had set up the Muslim Institute, a foundation for research into Islamic affairs. Originally funded by the Saudis, it became after 1979 a mouthpiece for Tehran.

Until the fatwa, the Muslim Institute, like many Muslims even in Britain, had paid little attention to the furore over Rushdie, dismissing it as a ‘non-event’. According to the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought’s hagiography of Siddiqui, ‘Dr Kalim took the view that campaigning for a ban on The Satanic Verses would be a major and pointless distraction from the main work of the Muslim Institute, and would serve only to give the book more status and publicity than it deserved.’

Once the ayatollah had delivered his death sentence, however, the
Institute discovered the Rushdie affair to be the most important issue facing Muslims. ‘The imam’s intervention on February 14’, Siddiqui wrote in Crescent International, the magazine of the Muslim Institute, ‘will go down in history as one of the greatest acts of leadership of the umma by any political or religious leader in the history of Islam. The imam spoke on behalf of the one thousand million Muslims of the world, and the world’s Muslim community did not disappoint him. Virtually every Muslim man, woman and child agreed Rushdie should die.’

‘The conflict over Rushdie was never about religion,’ says Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, one of the Institute’s founders. ‘It was about politics. It was not a battle about blasphemy but a battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran about winning the hearts and minds of Muslims.’ The aim of the Muslim Institute ‘was to stop the Action Committee’. As a student in Pakistan, Siddiqui had been a member of the youth wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, an organization deeply embedded within the UKACIA. ‘I knew how they thought and how to stop them. We let them organize demonstrations, so we didn’t have the burden of doing so, and then we took it over and made it into our protest.’ Kalim Siddiqui, wrote another of the Institute’s founders, Ziauddin Sardar, who by now was a bitter opponent, ‘could not believe his luck: he was handed a conflict on a platter… He took over the Muslim leadership – not a difficult task since most Muslims are inarticulate and terrified of the media – and projected himself as the Muslim leader (“I have been advising the Muslim
community . . .” is his favourite opening line).’

In 1990 the Institute issued the Muslim Manifesto, which ‘laid out
both the problems facing Muslims here and the duties and responsibilities the Muslim community had living in a non-Muslim country’. And in 1992 it set up the Council for British Muslims, an organization that would ‘act as a “Muslim parliament” in Britain’. That phrase captured the media’s imagination and the organization came to be known simply as the Muslim Parliament. ‘It was an unfortunate name because it frightened people,’ said Ghayasuddin Siddiqui. ‘It was not meant to be a democratically elected parliament, just a council of appointed members to help work out Muslim demands and put pressure on the government.’ It nevertheless had grandiose aims. The Parliament set out ‘to empower Muslims with their separate and distinctly Islamic
institutions to meet their needs independently of the British government and local authorities’. It ‘sought to discourage Muslims from entering mainstream politics or even from voting in elections’. Instead, it wanted ‘to create a “non-territorial Islamic state” in Britain’.

The fatwa fired the imagination of British Muslims, especially those who had been born and brought up here; but despite this, few were drawn towards the Muslim Parliament. This has been a recurring theme of the past twenty years. Disaffection among large swathes of the Muslim population has often led them to applaud big, anti-Western gestures, such as the fatwa, that have made Muslims appear capable of giving their opponents a bloody nose. But political organizations that have sought to exploit such disaffection have rarely succeeded in winning a mass base.

In one sense it mattered little that neither the UKACIA nor the Muslim Parliament had popular support. The desire of both groups was not to act as democratic representatives of Britain’s Muslims, but to influence government policy. Their model was the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella organization that seeks ‘to protect, to promote and to represent UK Jewry’ through a close relationship with the government, including ‘the privilege of personal approach to the Sovereign on state occasions’. The Muslim community, the Islamic scholar Mohammad Raza wrote in 1991, ‘has not yet learnt how to approach the British political system. It lacks the political experience which is practised by other communities like the Jews.’ Or, as the British Muslim philosopher
Shabbir Akhtar put it, had Muslims ‘been a powerful, well-organized lobby like the Jews, Rushdie’s outrages would never have got into print’.

Mainstream politicians were, in turn, keen to find credible Muslim
leaders to whom they could talk. They wanted to replicate at national level the success of a local organization such as the Bradford Council of Mosques. In March 1994 the Conservative home secretary Michael Howard appealed to Muslims to form a ‘representative body’ that he could ‘support and recognize’. The UKACIA was too closely associated with the Rushdie affair and with the Saudi government. No one took the Muslim Parliament seriously; it was, in any case, seen as too confrontational, and as Tehran’s creature. In 1994 a conference of Muslim organizations at the Golden Hillock mosque and community centre in Birmingham set up a National Interim Committee on Muslim Affairs to sketch a blueprint for an organization that Whitehall might find appealing. In November 1997 the Muslim Council of Britain was born. Iqbal Sacranie, one of the joint convenors of the UKACIA, became its first general secretary.

The MCB was soon accepted by both central government and the national media as the authentic voice of the Muslim community. It
would become particularly useful to the New Labour government which had swept to power in May 1997, just a few months before the founding of the MCB. Martin Bright, former political editor of the New Statesman, describes the Labour government and the MCB as ‘joined at the hip’. According to Bright, when foreign secretary Jack Straw and MCB leader Iqbal Sacranie shared an international platform shortly after the 7/7 bombings, ‘both men’s speeches were written by the same man: Mockbul Ali’.

Ali is the government’s senior Islamic advisor. A former student at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and one-time political editor of the Muslim magazine Student Re-Present, he is now a civil servant who runs the Engaging with the Islamic World Group (EIWG) within the Foreign Office and is largely responsible for shaping government attitudes to Muslim organizations and communities. Student Re-Present was seen as a hard-line magazine, once praising a Palestinian suicide bomber as ‘a bride in the dress of martyrdom’ and promoting the work of clerics such as the Egyptian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. A contemporary at SOAS is reported as saying that ‘Mockbul was a straightforward Islamist, loyal to something like the [Muslim] Brotherhood tradition’.

Much of Bright’s information came from documents sent anonymously in brown envelopes by Derek Pasquill, a Foreign Office civil servant, who had become ‘increasingly unhappy about the activities of Mockbul Ali’ and his insistence ‘that Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its south Asian offshoot Jamaat-e-Islami [were] mainstream’. Pasquill was arrested in January 2006 and eventually charged under the Official Secrets Act for leaking the documents. Two years later, in January 2008, the prosecution dropped the case after it was revealed that the Foreign Office had failed to disclose emails that showed that many of its civil servants sympathized with Pasquill and opposed his prosecution.

One of Pasquill’s jobs within the EIWG was to help organize the Festival of Muslim Cultures, a celebration in Britain of Muslim arts from around the world, which ran from January 2006 to the summer of 2007. Its trustees included a number of prominent Muslims, such as the lawyer, writer and broadcaster Raficq Abdulla, Mahmood Ahmed of the Ismaili Council of the UK, and the BBC governor and former commissioner of the Commission for Racial Equality, Shahwar Sadeque.

The organizing committee applied for government funding. Money would only be available, they were told by Mockbul Ali, if they did business with Whitehall-approved organizations. ‘Within the FCO’, Pasquill remembers, ‘certain individuals were skeptical about the festival’s value and worried that it was not “Islamic” enough. It was felt that certain key organizations, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, would have to be squared off before we gave the go-ahead.’

Not only did the festival have to accept an MCB representative on its board of trustees, it also had to forge links with many Jamaat-influenced MCB affiliates such as Young Muslims UK, the Islamic Society of Britain, the Islamic Foundation and the Muslim Welfare House. ‘If any activities are seen to contradict the teachings of Islam then we will oppose them,’ insisted MCB general secretary Iqbal Sacranie. Hardliners objected to the festival inviting Sevara Nezarkhan, an Uzbek singer who does not wear a headscarf and has worked with Jewish klezmer musicians. Gay Muslims were refused permission to stage an event after Sacranie described homosexuality as ‘harmful’ and ‘not acceptable’.

There is nothing wrong, or unusual, in government ministers talking
to Islamist, or even jihadist, groups. But the British government went further: it presented such organizations as authentic representatives of British Muslims and used its financial muscle to force independent Muslim bodies to deal with its pet projects. The MCB is no more representative of British Muslims than the UKACIA or the Muslim Parliament were. It boasted, at its founding, 250 affiliated organizations (today there are 350). But, as with the UKACIA, the core of the MCB remains Islamist. The independent Muslim magazine Q-News, the first Muslim publication in Britain not linked to any denomination or funded by any state, observed in 1998 that the majority of the MCB’s central working committee ‘belong to or have sympathies with a UK organization which is a sidekick of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan’. The sociologist Chetan Bhatt of Goldsmiths College, University of London, an expert on religious extremism, points out that ‘the overwhelming number of organizations that the government talks to are influenced by, dominated by or front organizations of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Muslim Brotherhood. Their agenda is strictly based on the politics of the Islamic radical right, it doesn’t represent the politics or aspirations of the majority of Muslims in this country.’

Indeed it doesn’t. An NOP/Channel 4 poll of Muslims in 2006 found
that less than 4 per cent thought that the MCB represented British
Muslims, and just 12 per cent felt it represented their political views. This is in line with many other surveys. An NOP poll for the conservative think tank Policy Exchange found only 6 per cent of Muslims thought the MCB represented their views. ‘Who elected them?’ asked one respondent. ‘Who put them there? I don’t know. I don’t even know who they are.’ Less than half the sample in the Channel 4 survey ‘respected’ Iqbal Sacranie – barely more than the number who respected Tony Blair and considerably less than the 69 per cent who respected the Queen. Astonishingly, a quarter of Muslims had never heard of the recently knighted Sacranie, probably the most prominent mainstream Muslim leader in the country. Little wonder that Q-News acidly described the MCB as ‘Dad’s Muslim Army’.

The ‘joined at the hip’ relationship between the MCB and the government helped reproduce at national level all the problems already seen through the implementation of multicultural policies at local level. ‘Why should a British citizen who happens to be Muslim have to rely on clerics and other leaders of the religious community to communicate with the prime minister of the country?’ asks the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, whose 2006 book Identity and Violence provided a penetrating critique of multiculturalism and the politics of identity. It is a policy that encourages Muslims to see themselves as semi detached Britons. After all, if the prime minister believes that he can only engage with them by appealing to their faith, rather than through their wider political or national affiliations, who are Muslims to disagree? Is it surprising that, if mainstream politicians abdicate their responsibility for engaging with ordinary Muslims, those Muslims should feel disenchanted with the mainstream political process? Or that such disenchantment should take a radical religious form?

The multicultural bargain designed to keep the Muslim house in order helped open the door to a new generation of Islamic radicals. Worse, the so-called community leaders were as clueless as national politicians about how to deal with such radicalism. Tony Blair believed that he was not equipped to talk to Muslims about extremism. Unfortunately, neither was Iqbal Sacranie. The MCB may be deeply influenced by the Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist groups. But ‘Dad’s Muslim Army’ is as oblivious to the rumblings on Radical Street as are the politicians in Westminster or the policy-makers at the Home Office. Britain’s multicultural bargain helped create a space for radical Islamism, but not the means to reach it.