The City Circle is an open circle for open minds

The long-awaited opening of Oxford's Islamic centre is still years away, with 25 million pounds needed to complete the scheme, it emerged last night.

The Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies was originally scheduled to open in 2004 on a 325-acre site off Marston Road.

More than 50 milion pounds has been spent on the building so far, with contributions coming from a wide range of Governments including Kuwait, Turkey, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

But although much of the exterior, with its 75ft dome and 108ft minaret, looks all but complete, there is a vast amount of expensive work still to be done.

The centre says it is hoping the UK, Spain and Russia can be persuaded to chip in.

Centre registrar David Browning said there would be no attempt to cut costs or scale down the scheme.

He said: "It still requires a lot of money and costs are going up all the time.

"But there will be no short cuts. This is something worth doing and worth doing properly.

"Our hope is that it may be ready in a couple of years. If you go for the best quality there are implications for costs."

Work on the building started in 2002.

The centre for Islamic Studies is an associated institution of Oxford University which aims to encourage study of Islam and the Islamic world.

This article first appeared in the Oxford Mail on 1st October 2009.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to harp on about the self-serving, right-wing "myth" of the BBC's supposed "liberal left bias".

For those who remain unconvinced, let me point you towards Radio 1 Newsbeat's "interview" with two "young BNP members", on the BBC website. It is so staggeringly soft, woefully weak and uncritically unchallenging that I feel sick to my stomach. Here, in full, is the absurd attempt at rigorous and impartial journalism on the BBC (I mean, Radio 1, what is the point of it?):

Newsbeat: Do you think it's OK for people who aren't white in this country to call themselves British?

Joey: Civic-ly British they are. You cannot say they are ethnically British. It's denying our heritage. It's taking that away from us.

Newsbeat: At what point do they become ethnically British? How long do they have to be here?

Joey: Well I think it would be an awfully long time before someone would become ethnically British.

Newsbeat: So when you see someone like Ashley Cole play for England, are you happy to watch him?

Joey: If he wants to come to this country and he wants to live by our laws, pay into society, that's fine.

Newsbeat: But if he wanted to call himself British that would be a problem?

Joey: He cannot say that he's ethnically British.

Newsbeat: Why is the idea of races mixing such a bad thing?

Joey: If everybody integrated it would take away everybody's identity.

Mark: I would be upset if there were no more giant pandas, I'd be upset if there were no more lions, if there were no more tigers, so equally I'd be upset if white people weren't here any more.

Newsbeat: But we're the same species which makes it a bit different, doesn't it?

Mark: You could say that but if all of a sudden there weren't any sparrows and there were only crows, I'd still be sad there weren't any sparrows.

Newsbeat: Can you understand that some people are happy to mix?

Mark: No, I think people have been brainwashed. I think the media, the government, have forced it down people's throats and they've indoctrinated people.

Newsbeat: You don't think people are bright enough to decide themselves?

Mark: I think when people are bombarded 24 hours a day to force multiculturalism upon them, people are going to succumb to that. We shouldn't have to bend our ways to people who've been here five minutes.

Newsbeat: You're talking like people here are on holiday. They've lived here, some of them, for a generation, some of them for longer. Doesn't that count?

Mark: Are you trying to compare somebody, or a group of people who've lived here for maybe 30 years, to people who've lived here for 40,000 years? There's a vast, vast difference in time scale there, my dear.

Newsbeat: My point isn't the difference in times between one group of people and another, it's saying they're not visitors, they are not holidaymakers, they are people living here.

Mark: If I went to live and work in another country, then I would still adhere by their culture and they should adhere by ours.

Is anyone else as shocked as I am by the soft, naive, piss-poor questioning? Why the pleading tone from reporter Debbie Randle? Where in the interview are these two BNP "kids" properly challenged - on the criminal convictions and dubious backgrounds of leading BNP figures; the party's nakedly racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic discourse; the BNP's policies on (voluntary) repatriation and mixed-marriage bans, etc? Why is the piece headline "Young BNP members explain their beliefs", as if they are innocent members of, say, Amnesty International or on an Alpha course, rather than of a party whose members are banned from becoming police officers or prison officers?

In May, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) published "race reporting guidelines" for the media, which included this particular point:

When interviewing representatives of racist organisations or reporting meetings or statements or claims, journalists should carefully check all reports for accuracy and seek rebutting or opposing comments. The antisocial nature of such views should be exposed.

Does anyone think reporter Debbie Randle stuck to those (voluntary) guidelines, or even to basic common sense (i.e. if you're interviewing young members of a racist party, those members' views should be challenged and their racism exposed)? According to her profile on the BBC website, she is a "Senior Broadcast Journalist" and someone desperate to interview Prince William, who once wanted to be a singer, cites Jon Snow as her favourite "reporter" because "he's so cool" and had a first job working in a bingo club. Judging by this abysmal interview, and the pass she gives the odious BNP and its "young" members, she should probably head back to that bingo club while her Radio 1 bosses hang their heads in shame for commissioning this awful feature.

The normalisation of the BNP in our political and media discourse continues apace - aided and abetted, as usual, by our public-service broadcaster. It's disgusting and depressing.

This blog first appeared on the New Statesman website on 30th September 2009.

Salaam Halal, the UK's only standalone Islamic insurer, will expand next year to offer takaful insurance to companies run by Muslim business owners. The insurer, which launched in 2008 providing car insurance and more recently home insurance, is targeting the two million Muslims living in the UK.

Chief executive Bradley Brandon-Cross says: "As the first independent Islamic insurance provider in the UK, understanding the needs of the Muslim community is key to our success. It was always our intention to look at the business market. We will be very much focusing on this project in 2010."

The plan is to offer the UK's first takaful product range for Muslim-owned small and medium-sized business. In Britain, there are some 140,000 of these, with concentrations in London, Leicester and Birmingham. Salaam Halal will particularly target businessmen with less than �1m annual turnover, typically lawyers, accountants, doctors and retailers.

Salaam Halal is considering offering life savings products in partnership with other insurers in the UK. The company also plans to move into European countries with large Muslim populations, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Despite the UK insurance market being flooded with more than a hundred insurance companies actively writing motor, home and business insurance, there has never been a real choice for Muslims who want the option of buying a product that is aligned with their faith. Historically, many Muslim businesses began in city centres, in older properties, and often open long hours. The locations and trades they operated in have been markets that most insurers have avoided.

Although Muslim business in general has moved on, insurers are still using historic data rather than predictive information, meaning there is little change to the way most insurers view the sector. However, it has to be stressed that this is in no way race-related.

On grounds of practicality and faith, offering takaful insurance that includes general liability, commercial motor, commercial property and pecuniary loss, has good potential. The packages on offer to this sector are looking tired as they are based on products developed 40 years ago, so a new approach could appeal to more than the Muslim sector.

This article first appeared on on 2nd October 2009.

Details have emerged of a private briefing between the government's most senior counter-terrorism official and MPs in which he warned of the dangers of radicalisation among Muslim prisoners and admitted that CIA agents were operating in the UK.

Charles Farr, the head of the Home Office's office of security and counter-terrorism, told MPs the 8,000 Muslim inmates in England and Wales represented "a very significant group".

"We know that once they get inside prison there is a danger that they will be radicalised ... there is an additional risk that, for entirely legitimate reasons, people can get converted in prison to Islam. We are very aware of the risks," he said.

On the issue of Islamist radicalisation in prison, he revealed his unit had to help a cash-strapped prison service find enough money to develop a counter-terrorist programme, including the creation of an intelligence infrastructure.

That unit, he said, had made some inroads in tackling extremism in prisons. "It is not yet a success story but it is a story of real progress," he said, and added: "When they get back into the community what are we going to do about that?"

During the in camera evidence session to a sub-committee of the Commons home affairs select committee, Farr also confirmed there were CIA agents operating in Britain and that Britain had a "very close" relationship with the US intelligence community.

Asked if CIA agents and other "outside organisations" were working in Britain, Farr replied: "Most certainly, yes. Are they declared? Yes. They are in regular dialogue with our agencies here. The cornerstone of this is the American relationship.

"Why? For two reasons, I think, above all: because of the huge American capability that can be brought to bear on counter-terrorism, and has been since 9/11.

"Secondly ... because people who pose a threat to this country are six hours away from the eastern seaboard, something which the Americans are acutely aware of, as are we, and therefore take a very close interest in."

Farr, who rarely appears publicly, also disclosed that last year's visa ban on the Islamist preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, was not straightforward. He described Qaradawi as "one of the most articulate critics of al-Qaida in the Islamic world" despite his antisemitic and homophobic views. He said the ban was still a current issue.

The redacted transcript of the unannounced evidence session, which took place in February, was vetted by Farr before it was published as an obscure annexe to a Commons home affairs select committee report on counter-terrorism published over the summer.

On prisons Farr said that there was a "very large, complicated counter-terrorist programme" run by the National Offender Management Service under a strategic framework provided by his office.

"We are funding it. They do not have enough money so we have transferred some of our programme budget, and it is a good thing that we are able to do that, into the Ministry of Justice to enable them to get it off the ground," he said.

Farr said Muslim prisoners constituted 12% to 13% of the total prison population. He said that there was a direct relationship between criminality and radicalisation that "greatly interests us", with those with non-terrorist criminal records finding terrorist networks a refuge from the isolation and alienation that they face in the community as a result of their criminal activities. For this reason the group of 8,000-plus Muslim prisoners were more vulnerable to radicalisation than many others.

Farr also said the Home Office's research, communications and information unit, which advises on the nature of the terror threat, only has a staff of 35 from across government to challenge the output of 4,500 "incessant" Islamist terrorist websites around the world.

Pressing issues

The head of the office of security and counterterrorism on:

Challenging extremists Farr emphasised that he was not interested in criminalising those with extremist views that fell short of violence.

Muslim attitudes The Home Office, said Farr, had been too reliant on commercial polling to gauge changing attitudes in the Muslim communities."

The Olympics Anti-globalisation protest movements could yet prove to be a very big challenge for the �600m Olympic games security operation.

Qaradawi "I think for any government, and I really passionately believe this, this is a real problem," said Farr. "If we refuse him a visa people will come back to us and say, 'Hang on a moment. This person is coming here to speak against the organisation which most threatens you. Surely you need to operate within a degree of latitude which allows that.' I am not saying that is a compelling argument."