Blog

The City Circle is an open circle for open minds

Back in March 2009 a small group of fewer than 20 thugs from al-Muhajiroun staged a deliberately provocative publicity stunt in Luton by demonstrating and holding up some offensive placards at a parade for soldiers returning from their tour of duty in Iraq. The event predictably resulted in outrage, made national headlines, caused massive embarrassment to UK Muslims, and as it was clearly designed to do so worsened community relations in the UK.

Well, the bad news is that al-Muhajiroun is back. In its latest guise of Islam for the UK/Islam4UK it has announced that it is to hold a procession called "March for Sharia" on Saturday 31 October, starting at 1pm outside the Houses of Parliament, where it tells us its members will demand the abolishment of the House of Commons, then march past Downing Street, and end up at 4pm in Trafalgar Square.

Its flyers tell us that it expects thousands of British Muslims to participate in the demonstration. Past experience tells us that it will in fact struggle to get more than 100 people, if that's out of a total UK Muslim population of about 2 million to attend.

Normally, I would simply say let them make as much noise as they want and if any individuals happen to cross the limits of the law and actually incite violence or hatred then the police deal with them. That is how free speech in a democracy works, after all it is for the benefit of everyone, including al-Muhajiroun.

However, over the last few months matters have been getting a little bit more disturbing, with the emergence of the English Defence League (EDL), now organising its own demonstrations, this time with an overtly anti-Muslim tone. Both al-Muhajiroun and the EDL are clearly feeding off one another and appear intent on polarising relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in this country and provoking trouble.

In recent months we have seen arson attacks on mosques in Luton, Bishops Stortford and Woolwich. Now news has emerged of yet another arson attack on a mosque, this time in Sunderland.

Making matters worse is the role played by the Daily Express and Daily Star. Both rightwing papers have happily given huge publicity to the antics of al-Muhajiroun, and just last week the Express ran a cover story with the headline "Now Muslims Demand Full Sharia Law", thereby very mischievously attributing the demands of a minuscule outfit to an entire faith group. The story improbably claimed that "up to 5000 extremists" would march in support of al-Muhajiroun's demands. Unsurprisingly, a Daily Express editorial denouncing Muslims because if you "give them an inch they will take a mile" was reproduced word for word by National Front News.

So what should be done? In recent days I have seen some emails from anxious Muslims saying that they have got to publicly put clear distance between themselves and al-Muhajiroun. Others have wondered whether they should organise a counter-demonstration on the same day at the same venue. I happen to think that is an excellent idea and have contacted the Metropolitan police to obtain permission for a counter-demo. I have no idea how many people will turn up if it goes ahead but I would hope that it won't be too difficult to surpass the numbers mustered by al-Muhajiroun.

I have also just registered the domain name for Muslims4UK.org.uk and hope to have a bare-bones website up and running by the weekend.

In the meantime, do spread the word. If you are proud of living in a multi-faith, multicultural democracy where people are free to practise their faith or not to if they so choose, and if you have been appalled at the irresponsible antics of al-Muhajiroun and the Daily Express over the years and the harm they have caused to social cohesion in the UK then please do come along.

I will be writing another article on Cif early next week to provide an update on progress.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 21st October 2009.

Arun Kundnani's Guardian commentary on his published report misunderstands the role of intelligence in Prevent, the government's community-based approach to preventing violent extremism. Whilst it highlights real problems in the implementation of the current strategy, the article fails to recognise the positive work being done and the need for safety in countering violent extremism.

The idea of a community-based approach to counter-terrorism had its main public airing in a Demos report in 2006. In principle, the concept is both positive and progressive. At the time it was regarded by the public and government as a way of promoting engagement and providing a defence against the propaganda of violent extremists. Officials and politicians saw it as a quick way of devolving responsibility and promoting engagement. However, realising the idea has proven far more controversial than they could have imagined. For those community members involved, many have not been given the autonomy and resources they had hoped for. Dissatisfaction arising from this doesn't mean current practice is entirely wrong but that such views on both sides, in retrospect, were naive.

Government funding has to come with strings attached. These strings ensure safety, accountability and value for money. Further, Prevent is a new programme of work, related to other areas of social policy but with an array of unique risks that dictate precautions. For instance, the idea that the government could provide funding to an organisation dealing with potential violent extremists without performing any security checks is simply unrealistic. There must be mechanisms to ensure the safety of those in that organisation and the wider public and this means that information has to be shared between the community and police. What if an individual was already involved in a terrorist plot. Or if their departure for international training or violent action against UK forces abroad was imminent. A terrorist attack by an individual who had been involved in a government-funded Prevent project would be a major scandal. Similarly, the death abroad of an individual, potentially at the hands of UK forces, would have serious consequences and government is obliged to mitigate such risks.

This is the sphere within which Prevent operates. In some cases, Prevent should engage community partners to provide viable alternatives to criminal justice approaches, for example, as an alternative to prosecution under legislation governing the 'glorification of' or 'acts preparatory to' terrorism. This involves risks that have to be managed. Information passed to the police is by its nature intelligence but fundamentally, 'intelligence' is not a pejorative term and in such situations, the process of passing information is vital for all involved.

Much of the relationship building between police, local authorities and community members has been productive and is about developing trust to a point where risks can be avoided. The accusation that Prevent is a systematic intelligence gathering programme is simply untrue. There are, however, problems and the government must take action to bolster the credibility of Prevent engagement.

The price of community engagement

There are difficult issues around the holding of information relating to those who pass through Prevent projects. This is a genuine dilemma for police. Even where there is no evidence of wrongdoing, should information relating to an individual brought to their attention, be retained? It is easy to see how this could be regarded as valuable. If, for example, the individual relocated within the country or repeatedly came to the attention of the police due to their violent views, then a more accurate pattern of behaviour could be established and the risks better assessed. However, this is where the line needs to be drawn. The police and other agencies cannot have their cake and eat it.

The price of community engagement is strict limits and controls over the use of personal information. In my own research experience, this is the only way to build trust and most community members and many police officers and officials involved in Prevent understand this well. Clearly, however, some do not, and they need to have their information handling processes dictated to them unequivocally. This may have to mean fighting off those agencies keen to exploit this information. Intelligence requirements in the use of personal information obtained through Prevent must be about safety; wherever they are not, this use should cease.

Excessive secrecy and a substantial failure to communicate the programme effectively are major failings on the part of ministers and officials. This has persisted for so long that negativity has become the common thread in highly charged public commentary on Prevent. Ingrained scepticism and vested interests in the press and public who react against counter-terrorism policy in general have unduly intimidated paranoid minsters. Quite what the Government's Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) has been doing to help coherent communication of the government's policy in this area is unknown, but it has been ineffective.

A call for action

There is an urgent need for ministers and officials to take decisions and provide clarity in defence of Prevent. Only this will avoid a terminal decline in activity that is building unprecedented positive contacts between local government, police and community members. Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones' suggestion that Prevent become a wider social cohesion programme risks confusing further rather than simplifying the agenda and whilst every effort needs to be made to avoid stigmatising any particular community, Prevent must necessarily be focused on where problems exist.

In doing this, the government will need to insist on separating Prevent and intelligence gathering functions and overcome the secrecy and caution that determines its inability to communicate effectively on this issue. It must guarantee that information is only collected in the course of Prevent activity to protect the safety of those involved. To do otherwise risks destroying not just Prevent but all of the productive relationships and good work underway in its name.

Garry Hindle is the head of Security and Counter-terrorism at the Royal United Services Institute.

This article first appeared on the blog of Royal United Service's Institute this week.

LONDON: This month saw the launch of a report authored by a theologically diverse group of leading British Muslims entitled "Contextualising Islam in Britain". The scholars and practitioners who contributed to the report, published by Cambridge University, sought to answer a deceptively simple question: What does it mean to live faithfully as a Muslim in Britain today?

One problem Muslim groups face when articulating their concerns to a mainly secular audience is that what one side says is not necessarily what the other side hears. Islamic terms such as shariah, jihad, and khilafa often mean very different things to secular Western ears than they may mean to Muslims. So the report argues that, rather than insisting on using Qur'anic terms, English should be used when engaging in public conversations about Islam. Using a "shared moral language", the report states, will avoid giving the "false impression" that secular and Islamic ethical values are at odds with each other.

While an important point, this should not mean that mainstream Muslims give up on Islamic terminologies and effectively surrender them to extremists on both sides who will continue to (mis)use the terms. The report tackles now-contentious terms such as khilafa, which is understood by many as an "Islamic system of government". The report says the word never meant the establishment of an Islamic state and that the original meaning from classical Islamic theology needs to be reasserted: an ethics based on individual moral responsibility.

But how one is to proactively reclaim the use of Qur'anic terms in the public imagination while only using English is unclear.

The authors of the report also try to explain how Islam can be faithfully understood as compatible with a secular state. It explores the "problematic understanding of divine sovereignty" and suggests that the separation of temporal and spiritual authority may be closer to the Islamic ideal. A number of 20th century proponents of political Islam have argued that God's sovereignty is manifested through the incorporation of a political framework where a single individual or group claims divine authority to act on God's behalf, a notion completely incompatible with secular democracy.

The report, however, refers to prominent figures in Islamic history, such as the 8th century Imam Malik ibn Anas and Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal, both founders of influential schools of thought in Islamic jurisprudence, who believed that the state should not claim divine authority but should be held accountable to universal standards.

In addition to arguing that British Muslims support multicultural secular pluralism because it provides them the freedom to practice their religion, the report tackles hot potato issues such as apostasy and homosexuality in a broad-minded manner. The authors state that while they believe Islam frowns upon such acts, they insist those involved must be respected as equal citizens and treated with dignity.

The report also briefly claims that Muslim radicalisation needs to be better understood. It argues that at its roots violent extremism is a social and political phenomenon, rather than an intrinsically religious one.

The report will be seen as an important step towards a tolerant expression of Islam that has always historically emerged when there has been strong positive engagement between Muslims and non-Muslims, such as in Abbasid Baghdad and Moorish Spain.

With this report, it seems that religious scholars are playing theological catch-up as new and changing contexts emerge, rather than pre-empting change. But, that said, if the panel reflects where mainstream British Muslim thinking is today, then it is more progressive than many Muslims and non-Muslims would have thought. The views reflected in the report are also those that wider non-Muslim civil society and media should note and welcome.

Hardened religious conservatives may cry capitulation and cite as evidence the fact that the government funded the research. However, the authors come from theologically diverse and respected backgrounds. The success of this report will be measured in the longer term in its trickle down effect in influencing the ideas of younger Muslim activists and narrowing the gaps in misunderstanding with wider society.

Asim Siddiqui is a founding trustee of the City Circle, a network of young British Muslim professionals, and a founding board member of Cedar, a pan-European Muslim professional network.

This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) on appeared on 20th October 2009.

President Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, may be shuttling back and forth, but right now there is no Middle East peace process. The blame for its demise can, if you like, be spread around, but arguing over who is principally responsible is irrelevant. What matters is that the stalemate benefits the Israeli government, which believes that stasis serves its interests and is a form of victory. And in what appears to be an unwanted holy alliance, the impasse also suits Hamas, which has been strengthening its hold on power and has no wish to be drawn in to "peace" discussions.

In this situation, the last thing Israel is ready to accept is a "friendly" invitation to its ambassador in Washington to attend the annual meeting of J Street, the liberal lobby group, which was set up in 2008 to seek change in the direction of American Middle East policy. While stressing its commitment to Israel's security and welfare, and describing itself as "pro-Israel, pro-peace", J Street aims to challenge the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), which wholeheartedly supports Israeli government policy. J Street by contrast welcomed Obama's call for a complete freeze on settlement building and gave qualified approval to the Goldstone report on war crimes committed during Operation Cast Lead.

Although J Street is, as yet, no match for Aipac in terms of its influence on Capitol Hill, it has many thousands of supporters, is very close to the Obama administration and by working in the mainstream of US politics has certainly shaken up the image of the American Jewish community as universally at one with Israel's policies. Jews voted for Obama 4-1, despite attempts to paint him as an Islamist terrorist, and 70% of American Jews support exerting pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians. Nevertheless, given the personnel running the organisation and the makeup of its 120-member advisory board, any neutral observer would be hard-pressed to see J Street as anything other than a collection of people who fundamentally love Israel.

But this seems inconsequential to Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador, who has turned down the invitation to attend the annual meeting. Never mind that Obama's national security adviser James Jones will be there, together with the Senate foreign relations committee chairman John Kerry and up to 150 other US senators and members of Congress. The Israeli embassy issued a statement saying it has "been privately communicating its concerns over certain policies of the organisation that may impair the interests of Israel" and will therefore only send an observer.

This may sound polite, but it's a mask trying, unsuccessfully, to disguise an ugly campaign of vilification and demonisation of J Street and anyone perceived as critical of Israel and supportive of Obama's approach, which is being waged by rightwing bloggers and columnists. Eric Alterman in the New York Times quotes some of them as calling J Street "contemptible, dishonest and anti-Israel", "the Surrender Lobby" and "obsequious to terrorists and hostile to Israel".

This matches extreme attacks emanating from Israel and epitomised in Isi Leibler's article Marginalise the renegades, in which he writes of "the enemy within", "odious Jews" who should be excommunicated like "Jewish apostates in the Middle Ages" who "fabricated blood libels". J Street, in urging Israel to make "further unilateral concessions to neighbours pledged to its annihilation", is just like these self-hating Jews as they "stand at the vanguard of global efforts to demonise and delegitimise the Jewish state". Support comes too from Melanie Phillips who back in April wrote, falsely, of "J Street's appalling core premise: that Israel is to blame for Arab terror, the age-old calumny of blaming the Jews for their own destruction" and recently referred to Judge Richard Goldstone's report as "the Goldstone blood libel" which is "part of the UNHRC's strategy of delegitimising Israel to soften up the world for its eventual destruction".

We can dismiss this ranting, but it brings only momentary relief and misses the political dot-to-dot that is being joined up here. Obama appears to be a much weakened figure. Even if he wanted to take a tougher line on settlements, domestic difficulties, declining popularity and congressional elections restrict his freedom of manoeuvre on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Sympathetic Israelis such as Yossi Alpher, joint editor of bitterlemons.org, plausibly argue that Obama has made fundamental mistakes. These circumstances paved the way for the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to seemingly emerge the victor in his encounter with Obama and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in September: it was Obama who needed the Israeli-Palestinian handshake; Netanyahu sounded like a peacemaker but gave no quarter. His UN speech in which he dwelt on the Holocaust was regarded back home as a triumph. This gave Oren licence not only to argue publicly against restrictions on settlement building but unashamedly to endorse a maximalist, rightwing Zionist agenda by saying that for Jews not to live in the land of their forefathers was problematic. This kind of language gave carte blanche to the detractors of J Street, not just to question its fundamental legitimacy but also to pressure the political celebrities to back out of attending the annual meeting. And it appears that, with the help of Aipac, in some cases they have succeeded.

J Street's director, Jeremy Ben Ami, draws comfort from these attacks. "We are at the centre of debate and controversy after only 18 months, and this is a real impact and a success," he said. "We are winning." Such optimism is admirable and J Street's recent polling that shows US Jews support a two-state solution by 76% to 24% suggest that there is a constituency that can be mobilised to secure J Street's aim to rival Aipac. But right now no one has discovered the formula for turning dissent and deepening disquiet among many Jews, not just in America but worldwide, into an effective political force. This, at least for the moment, is what the hardline Zionist right has become, proving that the toxic mix of ideological intransigence, unrestrained offensive rhetoric and the politics of fear is hard to beat.

Antony Lerman is the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

This article first appeared in the Guardain on 22nd October 2009.