Ian Burrell: We should listen to moderate Muslims rather than ‘Mad Mullahs’

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The Independent Online

So-called Mad Mullahs are never short of coverage in the British media but when the head of the Londonbased Islamic Sharia Councilwas recently exposed for supporting the decriminalisation of rape within marriage it wasn’t Fleet Street which broke the story.

The Samosa, a brave website produced by British Pakistanis, had the scoop. Log on to The Samosa and you will find an interview with the former Pakistan and Sussex cricketer Mushtaq Ahmed, a devout Muslim, talking fondly about religious tolerance in Britain. “Nobody is disrespecting each other’s culture or religion here; the most important thing in Britain is people let you do what you want to do,” he said. The Samosa’s Secunder Kermani recently uncovered how British Somalis were making rap-based propaganda videos for al-Qa’ida affiliate Al- Shabaab. Elsewhere, the site carries poignant reportage on this month’s mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Karachi, for the Pakistan minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who was murdered by an extremist.

“Someone described us as the radical voice of moderation,” says Anwar Akhtar, director of The Samosa. In 21st century Pakistan, he says, advocacy of the middle ground amounts to radicalism. “The bravest people in Pakistan are working around human rights, welfare, cultural development and reconciliation between India and Pakistan. You’ve got to be a radical to work in that environment in Pakistan. The Samosa is a platform to get those people engaged with British Pakistanis and the Indian diaspora and get a debate going.”

British Pakistanis are seriously under-represented in British media. A handful of names such as The Guardian’s Sarfraz Manzoor, The Sun’s Anila Baig, The Independent’s Arifa Akbar and the Dragons’ Den presenter James Caan, amount to slow progress some 40 years after Tariq Ali emerged as a left-wing media firebrand. Sunny Hundal,who is of Indian descent, runs the Pickled Politics site, which embraces similar moderate values to The Samosa and fights against sectarianism. He says racist groups and religious fanatics are dual obstacles to progress. “We have a more difficult task than the older generation. They did not have the problem of extremism in their own communities in those days and we do.”

Akhtar wants The Samosa to emulate the combination of seriousness and irreverence found in websites such as The Huffington Post and The Onion. Like the latter its name comes from the kitchen. “The reason we chose the name The Samosa is that it’s something that is Muslim, it’s Sikh and it’s Hindu,” he says.

The website’s grasp of contemporary Pakistan is aided by a partnership with Dawn Media Group, the publishers of Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English language daily newspaper, founded in 1941 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan. The Samosa, which is funded by the British businessman and philanthropist Saeed Khalique, has a roster of Pakistan-based writers including Qalandar Memon, a Londoner now teaching in Lahore.

“People just don’t realise how much engagement there is between British Pakistanis and Pakistan,” says Akhtar, a Mancunian. “Up to 20,000 people fly from Manchester every week to visit Pakistan and many will be involved in orphanages, welfare, supporting relatives and development work.”

But for the mainstream British media that is not the story. Its focus is more often on al-Qa’ida’s presence in Pakistan or British-based Pakistani radical clerics and community leaders such as Abu Hamza and Anjem Choudary, people Akhtar describes as “a tiny handful of misguided lost fools”. He is reluctant to criticise Western media, recognising that “the news agenda is immediate” and acknowledging the expertise of reporters such as Declan Walsh, Jason Burke and Orla Guerin.

What’s missing, he says, is a deeper understanding of the culture and everyday life of a landwhich once made up “just under a third of ancient India” and contains holy sites for Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists, as well as Muslims. The news focus on extremism, combined with the real presence of religious zealots, is silencing the voice of moderation. “Pakistanis are not allowed to celebrate what they are in their plurality,” he complains. “We get two or three Dispatches programmes a year on extremism, a couple of Panoramas and a constant rolling news presence. But there’s nothing about the history or how the region has developed. Some people say that Pakistan desperately needs a Simon Schama.”

The Samosa, led by young editor Chaminda Jayanetti, is filling some of these gaps. When mainstream reports of Remembrance Day ignored the contribution that thousands of South Asian Muslim soldiers made to Britain in the world wars, the site ran a piece by Birmingham- based writer and historian Jahan Mahmood. The headline was: “From Allies to Terrorists