The City Circle is an open circle for open minds

The pilgrimage to Mecca has always involved hardship and sacrifice, whether months spent travelling on foot through barren valleys and sleeping in the open with no shelter from the elements or stripping oneself of earthly trappings. But help is at hand for the pilgrim who cannot bear to be without comfort while executing the fifth pillar of Islam.

Raffles, which gave thirsty wanderers the Singapore Sling, is opening a luxury hotel in Mecca offering pilgrims a coffee sommelier, a chocolate room where chefs will prepare bespoke pralines and truffles, and a 24-hour butler service.

Undeterred by restrictions on beautifying oneself during the Hajj, the hotel will also have segregated gyms, beauty parlours, grooming salons and a spa.

There are strict rules regarding personal hygiene and behaviour during the hajj, and forbidden activities include sex, the cutting of hair and nails and the trimming of beards. These bars are lifted once certain rituals are complete, but Muslims are generally expected to forget worldly thoughts and activities and focus on the divine.

Mohammed Arkobi, the general manager of the new hotel, did not explain how a chocolate room and spa would help pilgrims achieve spiritual fulfilment. Nor was he able to comment on how the amenities complied with the ethos of the hajj, which is about simplicity and humility.

But he did say that the "comprehensive range of services" were designed to meet the needs of the "discerning" travellers they were targeting.

"Ultimately, the hotel's sophisticated ambience, our range of features and highly personalised service delivery such as those offered through our 24-hour butler service will help to ensure that our residents' overall experience will be enriching."

Arkobi said the hotel was a three-minute walk away from the Grand Mosque, the Masjid al-Haram, and that a "spacious outdoor dining terrace" would provide direct views of it.

It is being developed by the Saudi Binladin Company, one of the largest construction firms in the Arab world, which has also been responsible for overseeing the expansion of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. The company was set up by Mohammed bin Laden, father of Osama, although the family is now estranged from its most infamous son.

Around 4 million people visit Mecca for hajj, with millions more passing through the rest of the year to perform the lesser pilgrimage. Estimates for future numbers vary wildly, from 10 million to 20 million, and the landscape of Mecca has undergone a dramatic transformation over the decades to cope with demand. Homes have been bulldozed, mountains flattened and historic sites razed to provide more hotel rooms and amenities.

One development that will dominate the skyline and the Grand Mosque is the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, operated by international hoteliers Fairmont, which is majority owned by a company chaired by HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, the Saudi king's nephew.

The tower will be among the tallest in the world, 577 metres (1,893ft) high on completion, and its dimensions, including a clockface measuring 40 metres across that will be visible 10 miles away, make it five times larger than Big Ben.

In addition to 1,005 guest rooms, the tower will also house a lunar observation centre and Islamic museum. It lies in the massive Abraj Al Bait complex, part of the King Abdul Aziz endowment project aimed at upgrading the precincts of Mecca and Medina.

Mecca's makeover is alarming international activists, such as Ali al-Ahmed, the director of the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs, a thinktank analysing events and issues in the region. Ahmed, an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime, said many factors were driving the changes.

"The al-Sauds want to make Mecca like Dubai, it is a money-making operation. They destroy ancient buildings because they do not want any history other than their own, they see it as competition. They destroy and dispose of artefacts."

He also expressed concern that the arrival of luxury brands would increase the price of a pilgrimage. A 2009 platinum Hajj package from a UK tour operator costs £6,400 for 16 nights full board, based on double occupancy.

"By developing Mecca in this way they are making it inaccessible and unaffordable for the majority of Muslims. It will only be for the elite," Ahmed said.

The city's increasing westernisation was a "perversion of the religion", encouraging activities that were at odds with the spirit of the hajj, he said.

"The Saudis may come across as austere but members of the ruling class have billions of dollars between them, even the muftis live in palaces with chandeliers."

Development of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina should not come at the expense of religious practice, he said, before turning his attention to the lack of protest from Muslims around the world.

"Let's take Jerusalem as an example. Muslims are outraged when Israelis do something in the Old City, but in Mecca things are being systematically destroyed and nobody is raising an eyebrow. It is a catastrophe."

Raffles Mecca is due to open in April 2010.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 16th October 2009.

The question: Can religion fill the gaps left by the state?The short answer has to be yes. Take the Middle East, where the state has been in retreat in recent decades, vacating ground that has then been occupied by Islamic charities, NGOs and political parties, quick to assume the state's responsibilities for social provision in the fields of health, education, employment and welfare. In a 2008 review of social policy in the region, Rana Jawad, of Warwick University, notes the "uneven or ineffective contribution-based social security" and "fragmented and discretionary social assistance schemes". Jawad points out the varying roles of so-called "Islamic (or religious) welfare organisations", and highlights the manner in which some Muslim states actually operate in partnership with Islamic welfare groups. For example, in Lebanon and in Iran, Islamic NGOs are sub-contracted by the state itself to offer basic social provision.

In Palestine, too, it is widely acknowledged that the success that Hamas has had in delivering social services to the poorest sections of a society under siege and under occupation, and ruled, incidentally, by a corrupt and enfeebled PLO administration, helped bolster the Islamist party's rise to power in 2006.

So whether or not religion, or more specifically, religious groups, can fill the gaps left by the state in the field of welfare and social security, is not in question. Those gaps have been filled, and continue to be filled, across the Muslim world.

But there is a separate issue at stake here: should religion fill the gaps left by the state? Is this the right and preferable course of action? On this, I'm not so sure.

The state exists to serve and protect every citizen, regardless of colour, creed, race or religion, and the welfare state should exist to and protect the populace in the same non-discriminatory and universal manner. It is, after all, a product of our collective and common endeavour as a nation or, in the words of Polly Toynbee, "those things we buy together through our taxes".

So it should work for all of us, and it should be accountable to all of us. My fundamental concern about the role of faith groups in providing social provision is democratic: how do we hold them to account? To whom are they responsible? How do we, the public, the recipients of welfare, punish them if they make mistakes or become corrupt?

In Iran, for example, social welfare is dominated by the "bonyads", or charity foundations, which number in the hundreds, and are said to control around a fifth of the economy while paying little or no taxes to the state. Mandated with providing social services to the poor and needy, the bonyads are far from transparent in the way they conduct their finances, accounts and activities. "Lack of proper oversight and control of these foundations has hampered the government's efforts in creating a comprehensive social security system in the country," says analyst Dr Abbas Bakhtiar.

I am a believing and practising Muslim, but I am also a social democrat. I do not instinctively recoil, as the National Secular Society's Terry Sanderson does, from faith groups and, let us not forget, the hard-working, decent, law-abiding religious citizens who constitute those groups, that want to help in ameliorating poverty or inequality at home and abroad. Islam, for example, like so many other faiths, stresses the importance of mutual solidarity with our fellow man. In one famous tradition, or hadith, Prophet Muhammad remarked: "No man is a true believer unless he desireth for his brother that which he desireth for himself." To this end, Islam has mandated a variety of religious taxes and charitable obligations, chief among them, the "zakat", or wealth tax, in order to fund society's safety net and protect those at the bottom of the pile. It is no surprise then, that you find Muslims working and volunteering in a variety of charities, NGOs and anti-poverty groups across this country.

But, the best course of action is for the government to work with these groups in combating poverty, providing welfare and building social stability, rather than outsourcing services to them. To go down the Middle East route, in which the state retreats and religious groups fill the gap, is a non-starter for a secular and social-democratic Britain, no matter how much an incoming Conservative government might want to use the third sector, and religious groups, as a Thatcherite mechanism for shrinking the state.

So I am with Julia Neuberger: religion can help, but not replace, the state. And in the midst of a recession, the best option might indeed be for a partnership between government and faith groups. Those of us from religious backgrounds see no contradiction, or inherent conflict, between the two.

But there are others who disagree. My father often jokes with me that Muslims living in Britain shouldn't have to pay the zakat, mandated by Islam since its inception in the Middle East 14 centuries ago. "Why should we?" he says. "We already pay it to the British government, it's just that the Inland Revenue here calls it National Insurance."

This article first appeared in the Guardian's Comment is Free on 16th October 2009.

The government programme aimed at preventing Muslims from being lured into violent extremism is being used to gather intelligence about innocent
people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism, the Guardian has learned.

The information the authorities are trying to find out includes political and religious views, information on mental health, sexual activity and associates,
and other sensitive information, according to documents seen by the Guardian. Other documents reveal that the intelligence and information can
be stored until the people concerned reach the age of 100.

Tonight Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, branded it the biggest spying programme in Britain in modern times and an affront to civil liberties.

The intelligence is being gathered as part of the strategy Preventing Violent Extremism, Prevent for short. It was launched three years ago to stop people
being lured to al-Qaida ideology and committing acts of terrorism.

The government and police have repeatedly denied that the £140m programme is a cover for spying on Muslims in Britain. But sources directly
involved in running Prevent schemes say it involves gathering intelligence about the thoughts and beliefs of Muslims who are not involved in criminal

Instances around the country include:

- In the Midlands, funding for a mental health project to help Muslims was linked to information about individuals being passed to the authorities.

- In a college in northern England, a student who attended a meeting about Gaza was reported by one lecturer as a potential extremist. He was found not to be.

- A nine-year-old schoolboy in east London, who was referred to the authorities after allegedly showing signs of extremism, the youngest case known in Britain. He was "deprogrammed" according to a source with knowledge of the case.

- Within the last month, one new youth project in London alleged it was being pressured by the Metropolitan police to provide names and details of
Muslim youngsters, as a condition of funding. None of the young Muslims have any known terrorist history.

- In one London borough, those working with youngsters were told to add information to databases they hold to highlight which youths were Muslim.
They were also asked to provide information, to be shared with the police, about which streets and areas Muslim youngsters could be found on.

- In Birmingham the programme manager for Prevent is in fact a senior counter- terrorism police officer. Paul Marriott has been seconded to work in the equalities division of Britain's biggest council.

- In Blackburn, at least 80 people were reported to the authorities for showing signs of extremism. They were referred to the Channel project, part of Prevent.

- A youth project manager alleges his refusal to provide intelligence led to the police spreading false rumours and trying to smear him and his organisation.

- One manager of a project in London said : "I think part of the point of the [Prevent] programme is to spy and intelligence gather. I won't do that." In another London borough wardens on council estates were told to inform on people not whom they suspected of crimes, but whom they suspected could
be susceptible to radicalisation. One source, who has been involved in Whitehall discussions on counter-terrorism, said: "There is no doubt Prevent is in part about gathering intelligence on people's thoughts and beliefs. No doubt." He added that the authorities feared "they'd be lynched" if they admitted Prevent included spying.

Ed Husain, of the Quilliam Foundation, who has advised both Labour and the Conservatives on extremism, said: "It is gathering intelligence on people not
committing terrorist offences." Husain, whose group receives £700,000 in Prevent funding, believes it is morally right to give law enforcement agencies the best chance of stopping terrorists before they strike.

Serious concerns that the Prevent programme is being used at least in part to "spy" on Muslims have been voiced not just by Islamic groups, but youth
workers, teachers and others. Some involved in the programme have told the Guardian of their fears that they are being co-opted into spying. They did not
want to be named, fearing they would lose their job.

Some groups have refused its funding. In several areas the provision of funding is explicitly linked to agreeing to sharing of information, or intelligence, with agencies including law enforcement.

Traditionally in Britain intelligence is gathered by the police and security services. Prevent is trying to turn community, religious and voluntary groups into information or intelligence providers.

Prevent is run by the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, part of the Home Office. It is widely regarded in Whitehall as being an intelligence agency.

The OSCT is headed up by Charles Farr, a former senior intelligence officer, with expertise in covert work. Also senior in the OSCT is another former
senior intelligence officer. The Guardian has been asked not to name him for security reasons.

Chakrabarti said she was horrified by the revelations. "It is the biggest domestic spying programme targeting the thoughts and beliefs of the
innocent in Britain in modern times," she said.

"It is information-gathering directed at the innocent and the spying is directed at people because of their religion, and not because of their

The Home Office said: "Any suggestion that Prevent is about spying is simply wrong. Prevent is about working with communities to protect vulnerable
individuals and address the root causes of radicalisation."

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 17th October 2009.

The public face of the Prevent programme has included a talking lion teaching schoolchildren how to spot a terrorist and even puppets taking to the streets
to push the message about countering extremism.

The official publicity talks of building community resilience against terrorist extremism, and other phrases few would disagree with.

But there has been a growing suspicion among British Muslim communities that Prevent was not all that it seemed.

The programme saw money going to councils with the largest Muslim populations, with the aim of defeating Islamist violent extremism. The government and police wanted information from teachers and lecturers and others including those in the voluntary sector about terrorist activity.

Few would argue with passing on suspicions about terrorist activity. As one imam who receives funding from Prevent for a project said: "It would be a
religious duty to inform."

Youth workers who are being asked to inform on youngsters they work with also said they were under an existing legal and ethical duty to report any
suspicions that their clients are involved in terrorism.

The issue with Prevent is the gathering of highly sensitive information about named individuals when they are not suspected of involvement in crime.

As part of Prevent, councils have drawn up information sharing agreements (ISA) which state what data about individuals the groups they fund will share
with police.

The Guardian has obtained the agreement drawn up by Islington council in north London and the Metropolitan police. The ISA from Waltham Forest in
east London was released under freedom of information legislation. Both reveal that the data or intelligence that can be shared is of the most sensitive
kind and about named individuals.

The ISA from Islington is the most explicit about the information to be shared: "Personal data; data which relates to a living individual who can be
identified from that data"

It goes on: "Sensitive personal data; personal data which consists of information concerning racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or
other similar beliefs, physical/mental health or conditions, sexual life, alleged or committed offences, proceedings"

The types of information to be gathered are repeated later, but this time it is spelt out that they include whether the youth suffered abuse, and "lifestyle,
family and associates". In case that is not enough, it says: "Any other information as required."

The document states this information will be shared "without the explicit consent" of the individual. It does state it must be secured and marked as
"restricted". It can also be shared across the European Union.

Those supposed to sign up are the police, youth services and community groups working with Arab and Muslim groups in the borough, as well as a
local mosque.

The ISA for Waltham Forest, again drawn up with the Met, states the information must be held until the person is aged 100. According to the
document: "If a community intervention is required to prevent a crime then personal information processed in this regard is done so as a matter of public
protection, information relating to public protection must be retained until such time as the subject is deemed to have reached 100 years of age ? the
minimum review period for this information is every 10 years."

Waltham Forest's Prevent action plan for 2009-10, prepared after government advice, states all young people should have their behaviour screened. They and those deemed to be vulnerable to radicalisation are deemed to be suitable for a "targeted approach" and "an assessment of behaviour changes".

One source with close knowledge of British counter-terrorism said the programme was mixed: "There is good Prevent and there is bad Prevent."

A government document prepared in the summer for an international conference in Finland about combating terrorism explicitly states that the
security services are involved in the programme. Listing those involved in Prevent, it lists the Department for Communities and Local Government, the
Home Office, the Foreign Office, and the intelligence agencies.

Those it wants involved in providing information include local crime reduction partnerships, councils, schools, further education, universities, the UK Border
Agency, youth offending teams, the probation service, the health sector, the third or voluntary sector, and the community sector. Prevent currently
operates in 82 local councils, rising to 94 by next year.

A report out this weekend from the Institute for Race Relations also alleges Prevent is being used in part to gather intelligence. In its research it held talks
in Bradford with managers of Muslim voluntary sector organisations and workers in local authorities. Arun Kundnani, from the IRR, said there was
widespread distrust of the Prevent programme, and said: "Many were concerned the programme provided an opportunity for the police to embed
intelligence gathering into the delivery of local services, such as youth work.

"Many spoke about the difficulties they had faced when they raised their concerns, some had found they became the target of smear campaigns. A
significant number of participants, who had previously worked on the Prevent programme, had decided that they no longer wanted anything to do with it,
even if it meant substantial loss of funding for their organisation."

The details about Prevent revealed today will stoke the worst fears in Britain's Muslim communities that they are suspects merely because of the God to
whom they pray. Sharhabeel Lone, a community worker in Camden, north London, and a member of the borough's community safety partnership, said:
"This is not based on suspicious criminal activity but on religious affiliation."

One source with knowledge of Prevent, who is broadly a supporter, told of how certain Muslim groups were informing on other groups they dislike. The
source told how one northern council was repeatedly told that one sect was extremist and eventually withdrew its funding.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "The worst aspect of this scandalous policy is the attempt to turn teacher against pupil, and neighbour
against neighbour.

"As other European countries learned in the last century, when the state destroys relationships of trust between ordinary people the result is the very
opposite of the democratic values that this agenda claims to promote. It's a recipe for denunciation by one group or neighbour against another and a
great deal of injustice."

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 17th October 2009.