Writing about British Muslims is like shoveling snow from one's doorstep in London while it is still snowing.
For over a month now, I have been collecting material and writing then re-writing to keep abreast of the latest developments.
Today's column may be read as an introduction to a short series starting tomorrow. The issue is wide ranging and complex so I have sought the help of my colleague and friend Susannah Tarbush who is an expert on the subject.
The British government record of cooperation with Muslims has been replaced since the summer recess by a markedly tougher policy towards the community. At the same time, the concept of "multiculturalism" that has previously guided Britain's race relations policy has been abandoned, and the new emphasis is on integration. The government has created a new position of Local Government, Housing and Communities Secretary and put in it a young Blair loyalist politician, Ruth Kelly. Kelly had been an undistinguished Education Secretary. A devout Catholic, she has always refused to confirm reports that she is a member of Opus Dei.
The switch in government policy from engagement with the Muslim community to a more confrontational approach is the culmination of a series of events in the past five years, since the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S. The war on terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been highly unpopular among much of the Muslim community as well as many non-Muslims. The close adherence of Tony Blair to U.S. policy, and his pro-Israeli tendencies, which were very clear in the recent war on Lebanon whatever lip service he may pay to the need for the creation of a Palestinian state, have increased Muslim anger.
The main British anti-war body, the Stop the War Coalition, is an alliance of certain Muslim groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain, and leftist groups, particularly the Socialist Workers Party. Some British commentators denounce this alliance between the far left and what they describe as representatives of "Islamo-fascism".
Early in the summer, relations with Muslims were still good enough for Dominic Lawson to write in the Independent under the headline "We should all adopt an Islamic life style" that he would be happy to see the entire male youth convert in masse to Islam, and wear their hair upside down.
He welcomed Dr. Muhammad Abdel Bari then the new leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, saying that he has the potential of becoming a "national treasure". And this despite the fact that Abdel Bari once sent The Sunday Telegraph a letter urging it to sack Lawson as editor, after he published articles by employees of the Muslim Council critical of Islam.
That was then. Recently the government seems to have been receptive to a specific campaign against the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the umbrella group of more than 400 mosques and Muslim organizations, mounted by BBC journalist John Ware in a Panorama programme on the MCB last year, and also by journalist Martin Bright when he was on the staff of the Sunday newspaper the Observer, and now in his role as political editor of the New Statesman.
Bright presented a Channel 4 TV programme in July on the alleged "love affair" between the British government and radical Islam, as expressed for example through its engagement with the MCB. In addition, Bright authored a report for the Policy Exchange think tank entitled "When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries: The British State's flirtation with radical Islamism".
The government appears to have been trying in recent months to reduce the power and influence of the MCB and to encourage alternative groups more amenable to the government's way of thinking. One such group is the British Muslim Forum, which represents some 300 mosques in central and northern England.
The government has also fostered the formation of the Sufi Muslim Council, whose founders' views were given some publicity in Martin Bright's Channel 4 film. The Sufi Muslim Council was launched in mid-July at a reception in the House of Commons, attended by Ruth Kelly and politicians from the main parties as well as by Jewish and Christian leaders. The leaders of the Sufi Muslim Council claim to represent a "silent majority" frustrated with slow progress since the 7/7 bombings.
Some Muslims are still trying to improve relations. Last year Dr. Khalid Hameed, the high sheriff of greater London, convened an inter-faith, chaired by Lord McColl. In September he organized in my area of London, Kensington and Chelsea, a meeting to discuss "Islam and Other Faiths: The Way Forward". There was a highly qualified panel of experts, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs.
But the government is no more receptive. It is almost as if the entire Muslim community is being collectively punished for the activities of a few fanatics. Previously, especially after 9/11, it used to be routinely stressed by government officials that Islam is a "peaceful religion" and that terrorists who kill in the name of Islam are "not proper Muslims". No longer. It is as if the government has swallowed the claim that Islam itself is a problem and that peaceful Islamism could be as dangerous as overt Islamic extremism.
This is very much line with the thinking of Daniel Pipes, the influential American pro-Israeli neoconservative activist who set up the neoconservative Middle East Forum, and Campus Watch in the US. His latest project is Islamist Watch which aims to "combat the ideas and institutions of non-violent, radical Islam in the United States and other Western countries. It exposes the far-reaching goals of Islamists, works to reduce their power, and seeks to strengthen moderate Muslims."
The Briton whose views most closely mirror those of Pipes is the journalist, broadcaster and author writer Melanie Phillip who like Pipes is Jewish with strongly pro-Israeli and anti-Islamist attitudes. She was the guest of Pipes' Middle East Forum when she travelled to the US to promote her latest book "Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terrorist State Within", published earlier this year.
In the concluding chapter of "Londonistan" Phillips makes certain recommendations that the government should follow if it is to combat Islamic extremists. They include banning extremist organisations, even those which do not advocate terrorism, as "their advocacy of Islamisation creates a breeding ground for violence."
Salman Rushdie of Satanic Verses fame did not miss the chance to say that the veil sucks. He also said that "We are all living under a fatwa now. You can see fatwa (against him by Khomeini in 1989) as the overture to 9/11…"
The novelist Martin Amis wrote a six page essay "The Age of Horrorism" in the Observer to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11, and I referred to it at the time. He later accused British Muslims of sheltering "miserable bastards."
- Tony Blair again criticized the veil on Oct. 17 as a sign of separation and said British Muslims should be encouraged to integrate with mainstream society. On the same day the Stop the War Coalition issued an open letter warning that "there is an attempt to plunge this country into a racial hysteria of a kind we have not seen in a generation or more directed against Muslims."
-Aishah Azmi was suspended as a teaching assistant for wearing a niqab. She won compensation from court but her suspension was upheld.
- Nadia Eweida, a Christian of Egyptian descent, was suspended by British Airways for wearing a small Christian, Cross necklace. She is contesting the decision.
- Celtic goalkeeper, the Polish Artur Boruc, was accused of inciting violence for making the Sign of the Cross in front of rival supporters from Glasgow Rangers.
- Students complained after a school ban on Christian rings while allowing the Sikh pupils to wear Kara, a religious bracelet.
The confrontation with British Muslim has spilled out to involve other faiths, albeit to a lesser extent. I hope the readers will find series starting tomorrow useful.