Throwing mud at Muslims

* This article was first published in The Guardian, Monday August 22, 2005. Read all articles by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian.


A campaign is being orchestrated through the media to destroy the credibility of many of the most important Muslim institutions in Britain, including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). The impact of this campaign – in the Observer and particularly in John Ware’s Panorama documentary last night – will be a powerful boost for the increasingly widespread view that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim: underneath, “they” are all extremists who are racist, contemptuous of the west, and intent on a political agenda.

A legitimate and much-needed debate among British Muslims about a distinctive expression of Islam in a non-Muslim country has been hijacked and poisonously distorted. Journalists need to be very careful: we are entering a new era of McCarthyism and, if we are not to be complicit, we need to be scrupulously responsible and conscientious in unravelling the complexity of Islam in its many spiritual and political interpretations in recent decades.

The central charge of the campaign is that the MCB, its secretary general, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, and some of its most important affiliates – such as the Islamic Foundation in Leicester, the Muslim Association of Britain and the East London Mosque – condone or even actively promote ideas which, as Ware claimed in Panorama, “feed extremism”; such ideas are a “slippery slope”, which “people who become extremists start to go down”.

This reflects a growing paranoia evident on the pages of tabloids and in government about “preachers of hate” and “hate literature”. It’s a paranoia which chooses to ignore that the main inspiration for British Muslim extremists is not their local mosques but television footage of Palestine and Iraq.

So what are those ideas that feed extremism? Ware veered erratically from the McCarthyite absurd to some legitimate accusations. First on the charge sheet were examples of the former: the “conviction that Islam is a superior faith and culture which Christians and Jews in the west are conspiring to undermine”, and a “distaste for western secular culture”. This is ridiculous; I’ve yet to meet a member of any faith who doesn’t believe in the superiority of their beliefs, while fear of being undermined is similarly common. Since when has “distaste” become a cause for suspicion?

On the other hand, where the campaign makes a legitimate accusation is that there is a virulent strain of anti-semitism and anti-Christian sentiment that appears in some Saudi-influenced strands of Islam. Ware points out that a Saudi imam invited to the East London Mosque had preached in just such terms in Saudi Arabia in sermons subsequently published on the web.

But alongside such troubling points, Ware launched an attack on the influential Pakistani political philosopher Mawlana Mawdudi with some sly editing of quotes. A key figure in the 50s, Mawdudi advocated that Muslims look to Islam, not the west, to build their post-colonial nations. He used anti-western, revolutionary language (but never advocated violence) and was a quintessential product of his time. A younger generation of British-born Muslim thinkers find his ideas less relevant for a minority in the west.

But Ware is not interested in that kind of context or in the process by which a distinctively British Islam is evolving from this legacy. The Leicester-based thinktank Islamic Foundation, founded in the 70s by a close associate of Mawdudi, and Sacranie, who openly acknowledges his huge debt to Mawdudi, are smeared by association.

Ware is at his most McCarthyite when he challenges Sacranie to account for an imam in Leeds who is preaching that the war on terror is really a war on Islam. Ware insists that it is Sacranie’s job to “disabuse” British Muslims of this view and put this imam “right”. Ware laid down his own opinion and, with extraordinary presumption, demanded that Sacranie impose it on the Muslim community.

In that short exchange, Ware revealed his lack of comprehension of the Muslim community. Sacranie only has as much power as the MCB affiliate organisations allow him – the idea of him putting an imam right is ridiculous. The tiny, volunteer-run MCB doesn’t have the power to police the views of its disparate membership. Sacranie and the MCB have a tightrope to walk. On the one hand, the government and non-Muslim Britain are piling on the pressure that they deliver a law-abiding, loyal ethnic minority. On the other, an increasingly restless younger generation of Muslims criticise the MCB as far too moderate, a sell-out establishment stooge cosying up to Tony Blair.

There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to make of the MCB and Sacranie – and Ware details some of them – such as Sacranie’s reprehensible refusal to attend the Holocaust memorial service last January and his decision to attend a memorial service for the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin. The MCB bears all the characteristics of a diverse migrant community’s struggle to develop a common voice – and it makes plenty of mistakes. But Ware has thrown so much mud around in the course of his programme that much more of it will stick than is deserved.

What is deeply troubling is how exacting British society is becoming of its Muslims. A new set of “cricket tests” are being imposed on British Muslims – they are expected to sign up enthusiastically to every aspect of western secular society and to jettison any part of their intellectual heritage that is critical of the west. They are expected to keep their faith entirely out of politics (yet faith plays a crucial role in US politics). Set the bar high enough and all will fail – the consequences of that on the streets of Luton and Bradford will be disastrous, and not just for Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims.