OBITUARY : Kalim Siddiqui

The year 1989 has come to stand as something of a watershed in the history of Muslims in Britain. The Rushdie affair, with the burning of The Satanic Verses in Bradford in January and then Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa in February, also made it a watershed year for Kalim Siddiqui, who died on Thursday while attending a conference in South Africa.

Siddiqui's notoriety rests on his prompt support for the Iranian death sentence on Salman Rushdie. It was wise of the authorities at the time not to fall for the temptation of charging him with incitement to murder. Many other observers, especially in the media, have tended to be less wise. Many of the initiatives taken by Kalim Siddiqui in the last decade have been considered and purposeful.

Siddiqui was of a generation of Indian Muslims marked by the clashes in the run-up to Independence in 1947, when he was among the many thousands who moved to Pakistan. In the early 1950s he was in the first phase of significant immigration to Britain from the Indian subcontinent. He went into journalism and worked for the Guardian as a writer and sub-editor from 1964 until 1972. It was during this time that he gained his PhD from London University. He left to found the Muslim Institute, one of the earliest Muslim organisations in Britain.

It was at the institute that he increasingly vocally identified himself with the nascent "Islamic Movement". This was a loose network of Muslim activists drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and including both Sunnis and Shias from around the world. The movement saw the international scene as moving towards an open clash between a "crusading" West bent on continuing and consolidating its dominance over an Islamic world which was less and less prepared to accept such domination. It was the mirror image of the "clash of civilisations" scenario more than two decades before Professor Samuel Huntington named it.

The view may have been simplistic but it was one which received enormous encouragement in the following decade. As Kalim Siddiqui never failed to remind us, Islam was victorious in the revolution in Iran in 1979, it defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Israelis in Lebanon. At the same time, however, the coherence of the Islamic Movement, in so far as it ever was a movement, began to weaken under internal contraditions as the Islamic revolution turned out to be often more Iranian and Shia than inclusively Islamic. After 1979 Siddiqui made himself the spokesman in Britain of the revolutionary Islam of Iran - and it was widely assumed that during the 1980s his main source of funding was Tehran.

In the late 1980s he began to turn his attention more towards the Muslim situation in Britain. This was a time when the children of the immigrants were beginning to come out of school and enter higher education and professional training in large numbers. They did not agree with their parents' way of life and understandings of Islam which they considered did not work in their new environment. They were looking for leadership and inspiration at a time when they were also becoming conscious of the racism and discrimination with which wider society was responding to them. It was these young people who were mobilised against Salman Rushdie in 1989 in Britain and the first headscarves affair in France later the same year.

When Kalim Siddiqui issued his Muslim Manifesto in July 1990, these were the people he regarded as his audience. He had little regard for the traditional leaders: they were caught up in the petty agendas of clan, caste, sect and region, if they were not beholden to foreign powers. He was consistent in attacking the Saudis until the end, when he expressed his support for the Saudi dissident Mohamed al-Masari.

The Manifesto was his programme for the Muslim Parliament, which was set up in 1991. His public persona was now being established. In the press conference announcing the Manifesto, Siddiqui was at his most eloquent - and mani-pulative. He goaded the press with extreme statements about setting up a seperate government for Muslims in Britain. The reaction of the Daily Express was typical, with the headline "Inflaming the Passions for the Love of Allah". The Manifesto itself was much more circumspect. The word "parliament" was in quotation marks, and councils of churches or the Church of England Synod were cited as models. The reaction of many younger Muslims was on the lines of: here is someone who expresses our frustrations, and if the papers attack him he must have something going for him. Someone once suggested that Kalim Siddiqui saw the press as his main recruiting agent.

The Muslim Parliament drew attention way beyond its standing in the community. Its members were selected by Siddiqui and a small circle around him. It was dismissed by the large majority of Muslim groups, locally and nationally, as an annoying irrelevance. Some of his pronouncements to or on behalf of the parliament drew metaphorical groans of despair from his fellow believers, as when he called for a special Muslim "citizenship" or a structure of Muslim local and national government. He sailed close to the legal wind when he started collecting money for "arms for Bosnia".

But Siddiqui also drew attention to a number of areas of concern to the Muslim community, to which the traditional leadership had not given as much attention as they might have. Through the parliament he proposed Muslim "tutorial colleges" to counteract the generally poor educational performance of Muslim children in schools. He wanted youth advice groups and talked about the need for women's support groups. The parliament tried to set up a charity fund to collect the obligatory alms, zakah, which still today tend to contribute to other parts of the world rather than the community in Britain.

It was rumoured in the early 1990s that the Iranian support had fallen away, and Siddiqui's recently reiterated support for the fatwa on Salman Rushdie clearly irritated the Iranian government. Lack of funding was quickly seen as one of the main motivations behind the parliament's establishment of a Halal Food Authority. This was to certify the religious correctness of meat being sold by Muslim butchers, at a price per pound. Again, he had identified a sore point.

Kalim Siddiqui was not an organisation man. Having set up the parliament, he did not always get his way there. He made his mark through a masterly understanding of how to manipulate the media. His influence lay in forcing agendas on to others. The Muslim organisations did not like him, but they had to take notice of him.

Jorgen S. Nielsen

Kalim Siddiqui, religious activist: born Hyderabad 2 July 1933; founder, Muslim Institute 1972, Muslim Parliament of Great Britain 1992; married 1960 (three children); died Pretoria 18 April 1996.

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