UK Politics

Change Your Heart, Look Around You

On Saturday, the Muslim Council of Britain held a meeting in London on “combatting extremism”. What was said at that meeting, we don’t really know: journalists were excluded from the event, so we only have the word of Inayat Bunglawala to go by.

Madeleine Bunting doesn’t really know what happened in that conference either, but that didn’t stop her from enthusing about it in her column in the Guardian today.

Have a read of her article.

In summary, what she argues is this. “Muslim community activists” have entered into a new era of “striking” “honesty and self-criticism“. What these leaders have decided is that the problem is that:

certain theological issues have not been properly clarified, and can be used to justify extremism. The most important is the age-old distinction between dar al-Islam (the land of Islam) and dar al-harb (the land of the other, of unbelief – or of war, according to the literal translation from the Arabic). This demonisation of all that is not Muslim is the “paradigmatic, instinctive response that people fall back on in a moment of crisis”, I was told. Extremists such as Hizb ut-Tahrir use this dualism, as do jihadis, to justify their contempt for the rights – and lives – of the kufr, the unbeliever.

Instead of designating the United Kingdom as the “land of war”, says Maddie, a third category is required: that muslims in this country live in “the land of contract – dar al-sulh – where Muslims have entered a contract to obey the law in exchange for protection and freedom”

The promoter of this idea, says Maddy, is her friend Yusuf Al-Qaradawi.

The whole issue is confused by the popularity of the works of anti-colonial thinkers like Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Mawdudi, whose inflammatory, anti-western rhetoric, taken out of context, can sound much like a charter for jihad.

The solution, she thinks, is to engage with non jihadist Islamist groups – despite their fondnesss for the apparently jihadists Qutb and Mawdudi – and engage them in the task of “winning hearts and minds”, because they represent:

the best chance of drawing extremists away from violence is through those who know how to argue the case on Islamic grounds and redirect the religious fervour of hot-headed young men.

This is rubbish.

It is precisely the rubbish that Islamist political groupings such as the Mawdudist Muslim Council of Britain and their allies, the Qutbist Muslim Brotherhood/Muslim Association of Britain have been peddling for some time in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe.

And Maddy either knows that this, and is being deliberately perverse: or she is very very stupid.

Here is what is actually going on.

It is no secret, now, that those individuals who came together to form the MCB were activists who were inspired by Mawdudi’s dream of a perfect state, governed according to what he took to be Islamic principles. Mawdudi’s religion and politics were largely self taught. He was far from a religious purist. Instead, he melded together a series of Islamic concepts with what he took to be the best features of fascism and Stalinism, and formed a political party in Pakistan: Jamaat-e-Islami. The history of Jamaat is not a proud one. Mawdudi campaigned in the 1950s against the liberal reinterpreters of Islam, the Ahmadiyya sect, and incited the massacre of 2,000 of them. Jamaat is also not at all popular in Bangladesh, as it took Pakistan’s side during the independence struggle of that state.

It is pernicious nonsense for Madeleine Bunting to seek to “mbunderstand” clerical fascists like Qutb and Mawdudi as “anti-colonialists”, whose rhetoric was sometimes a bit fruity. Mawdudi, as we’ve seen, was an advocate of murderous sectarianism, within Pakistan, whose philosophy had more to do with persecuting religious minorities and rival nationalists, than with “anti-colonialism”.

Jamaat supporters in the United Kingdom began to have some political success during the 1990s, and became prime movers within the embryonic Muslim Council of Britain: a grouping which was energised by the campaign against Salman Rushdie, and by the Iranian Revolution which showed that an Islamic State could be more than a dream.

These activists included Inayat Bunglawala, who cut his political teeth in the Young Muslims, and was an editor of the magazine, “Trends”, which contained a heady mix of idealistic rambling about the Islamic State, support for armed Islamist groups such as Hamas, obsessing about the State of Israel, and racism directed at jews.

The Muslim Council of Britain was established in 1997, and was embraced by the then Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard, who rather liked the idea of a representative communalist body with whom he could deal. During the next nine years, it was in receipt of public funding: which rather assisted it in the process of empire-building. Indeed, immediately before 7/7, Iqbal Sacranie was given a knighthood.

All this came to an end in 2006, in the wake of 7/7, when the Government began to look rather more closely at the ideology which underpinned various Islamist organisations. They did not like what they found.

The process by which the Government came to realise that the Muslim Council of Britain was not part of the solution but part of the problem is well documented. Initially, the MCB had been involved in the process of finding a solution to the radicalisation of a generation of young British muslims. It was a natural choice of partner, because it was already on friendly terms with the Home Office, with a handful of sympathetic civil servants who actively sought to encourage the Government to build a relationship with Qaradawi and with various European Muslim Brotherhood organisations in which he is involved. The Foreign Office also had a decent understanding of Islamist politics and took the view that cuddling up to United Kingdom organisations with which they had links would be a good way to relationship-build in South Asia and the Middle East, in preparation for the day when they come to power as governments in that region. That was not such a bad idea: although read Oliver Kamm on the views of the former spook, Alistair Crooke, who seems to be pursuing the idea of engagement with Islamists abroad, deploying the false argument that by doing so, we combat jihadism, without the degree of cynicism in pursuit of this country’s national interests that is warranted.

What was a bad idea, however, was giving ideologues based in Britain its backing when it came to making appointments to Islamic cultural festivals and the like, who promptly used their power to veto the presentation of activities which they regarded as “un-Islamic”.

A series of leaks from the various Government ministries, and a handful of articles and television programmes – by the likes of veteran Panorama journalist John Ware and the New Statesman’s Political Editor, Martin Bright – forced a reappraisal. The Muslim Council of Britain reacted with fury, and sought, unsuccessfully, to rubbish the claims which were being made by these commentators. Suddenly, the Government started to wonder why it had forged such a close relationship with an organisation which seemed to be supportive – albeit in more hushed terms than Abu Hamza – a deeply ideologically driven conflict between muslims and Western liberal pluralist ideals.

Why, the Government began to ask itself, had it been so ignorant of the worldview being dissemenated by groups like the Muslim Council of Britain? And what could be done to prevent them from poisoning the minds of another generation?

The immediate answer, as Madeleine Bunting records, was to break up the relationship with the Muslim Council of Britain. This has been a disaster for the MCB. An end to cosy fireside chats with Ministers. An end to consultation on policy making in relation to “muslim affairs”. And, most importantly, no more Government grants.

So should the Government change tack, and embrace the Muslim Council of Britain again?

To put it bluntly, I do not believe that there has been a change of heart within the Muslim Council of Britain. Rather, in conditions of desperation, there has been a change of strategy.

You will have noticed, since the axe fell, that the MCB has been in public relations overdrive. Inayat Bungalawa has been “reaching out” to jews, apologising for having praised Bin Laden and distributing his political writings, ‘fessing up to the error of the MCB boycotting Holocaust Memorial Day on the basis that it commemorated the “so-called Holocaust” of gays and the massacre of Armenians, and so on. We have had a series of heart searching articles in CiF by the fellow and by his chums: one suggesting that homosexuals shouldn’t be persecuted, and another nicking Sunny’s Pickled Politics line, that the liberty which protects Salman Rushdie’s life is the same that allows muslims freedom of worship, and so on.

Except it won’t work. It will fail for two reasons.

First, it is not plausible. The British National Party will tell you that. Nick Griffin tried to convince the country that the BNP was no longer “a racist party”. He failed, because nobody believes him.
There have been a series of former Islamists over the last few years who have come to the realisation that Islamism is a dangerous, divisive political dead end. They have been very clear in their analysis.
By contrast, we have had a few months within which the MCB has, apparently, turned on a sixpence on some, but not all, headline issues: be nice to gays, don’t call for the murder of writers, try not to slag off jews so much. There hasn’t been a word, however, about Mawdudi or Qutb, and the philosophical underpinning of the Islamist movement. There has been no suggestion that what went wrong was that Islamist groups had spent decades preaching a clash of civilisations doctrine: a millenialist struggle between belief and unbelief. Instead, we get the suggestion that there might be room for some form of contractually-based co-existence.

Secondly, a political rebranding has to take the core constituency off in a new direction, without complaint. That isn’t an easy task. Nick Griffin found that, when he decided to stop pretending to be a racist, his rank and file congregated on Stormfront and slagged him off for selling out the Movement.
Read the report of this weekend’s MCB meeting again. Does it surprise you that the press was kept out?
What will happen, of course, is that over the next few months, MCB figures will “mis-speak”: that is, they will forget that they’re supposed to be warm and fluffy, and poor Inayat will have to apologise for them or “contextualise” their words.

So, let’s return to Maddy’s latest piece in the Guardian.

I’m surprised that she risks the argument that “moderates” like Qaradawi are the good guys because they propose to treat the United Kingdom as the “land of contract”. That is certainly a doctrine favoured by the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, largely because it is premised upon the commonsensical realisation that, if you are engaged in confrontation with fellow citizens in a modern, pluralist democracy, you’re unlikely to be left alone to proslytise unchallenged, let alone be considered as a partner in the policy making process. It is also a doctrine popularised by Al Muhajaroun/Hizb ut Tahrir’s Omar Bakri Mohammed, who repeatedly declared that the “covenant of security” was the reason that they did not encourage jihad in the United Kingdom. You will remember that, after his organisation was banned, he declared the covenant null and void.

The covenant of security is not a recipe for good community relations. It is a tool of blackmail, backed by the threat of armed conflict.

So, all in all, I am delighted that Madeleine Bunting is upset that the Government has rejected the policy of buttering up Mawdudists and Muslim Brotherhood ideologues, and has scoffed at the false argument that these groups have a role to play in diverting British muslims from jihad. The Government has made the right choice.

These groups favour rhetoric which “can sound much like a charter for jihad” for a very simple reason. That is precisely what they are teaching.

But there is a more fundamental reason that there will be no return to the old days. It is this.

The Muslim Council of Britain is a pressure group: nothing more and nothing less. Governments can, if they wish, talk to pressure groups. They should listen to their arguments out of common courtesy. And then, the Government should make policy on the basis of what it thinks is a wise course of action.

Communalist politics is a dead end, particularly if it involves “paying off” self appointed community leaders, in return for votes, or support for one policy or other. To subcontract policymaking in relation to cultural minorities to groups such as the MCB, or indeed any other outfit – Jewish, Hindu, Muslim,, Sikh, gay, motorcyclists, or whatever – is an error. It bolsters the influence of the monomanaical at the expense of the moderate. This is so, particularly when groups defined in religious terms are concerned. Religious political leaders are typically the most socially reactionary members within any cultural group: particularly so if they represent the political wing of a hidebound theological tradition. The organisations which they head are typically run by a small clique of people, who may well have risen to the top of the pile they have created themselves, because they are atypical radicals who have, over time, squeezed out the moderates who have other valuable claims on their time: families, leisure interests, friends, work, and so on. Over time, engagement with Government gives these so-called “community leaders” an exposure, status and importance which the do not deserve. They become, as a result of engagement, the first point of call by politicians and journalists alike. That is a profoundly unhealthy state of affairs.

The Muslim Council of Britain is a case in point.

The alternative is for Government to reject a policy of “plural monoculturalism”: the term which the Nobel Prize winner, Amartya Sen uses to describe the process by which well-meaning by lazy liberals outsource the difficult process of supporting genuine multiculturalism, to bigots and maniacs. Instead, the government should seek to govern in the favour of all our fellow citizens, in all our diversity.

What I believe the Government has finally grasped is this. We do not live in a country divided into “the land of Islam”, “the land of War” and “the land of Contract”, and we should not be governed as if we do. Rather, we live in a country made up of cultural muslims who are the immigrants and the children of immigrants from many different South Asian, African, and Arab countries: some of whom are keen on the religious, political and cultural traditions passed down through the generations, some of whom are enthused by other ideas that they have picked up along the way, and some of whom mix and match and make it work for them. These people do not want to have their aspirations intermediated by the Muslim Council of Britain.

Indeed, as a recent Populus poll found, only 7% of British muslims felt that the Muslim Council of Britain represented their views. That was the third highest choice, incidentally. The second with 25% was “Don’t know” and the first – with a whopping 52% – was “None”. Given that British muslims reject the Muslim Council of Britain, why on earth should the Government listen to what they – still less, Madeleine Bunting – have to say on any subject?

That is why a “pillarised” (i.e. Dutch) solution – particularly one which hands community leadership to a small but well organised clique in the Muslim Council of Britain – betrays all the citizens of this country.

I’m sure that a sop will be thrown to the Muslim Council of Britain one day: perhaps only because governments like consultations, and therefore need to find people to toddle along to presentations, munch on the canapées, and applaud politely at the end of the Minister’s speech. But when the speeches are over, the attendees should be sent home, and that should be the end of the matter.

For all these reasons, the Muslim Council of Britain’s new approach is, and should be, doomed to failure. You’ll notice that there was no Government minister present at this weekend’s bunfight. That was not for want of trying by the Muslim Council of Britain, or by the one supporter that the MCB has left in the Government. I have heard that ministers were encouraged to attend: but strangely enough, none was prepared to extend the hand of friendship to these clerical fascists.



Martin Bright has some comments on on Maddie’s piece at the New Statesman blog.

They are worth reading.

My view, in a nutshell, is this:

I have a problem with a single outfit – Islamist or not – being regarded as the first, or the only, point of call for the Government, when it considers “muslim affairs”.

I do not think it is reasonable to expect the MCB to jetison its principles in the expectation that it will become the Government’s favoured son again.