Sir Iqbal Sacranie: 'There can never be justification for killing civilians'

The Monday Interview: Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain
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"It is just a reminder that it is time for the prayer to take place. The watch is a present my son gave to me. It's wonderful. It even has a compass on it to indicate where Mecca is," he says.

Sir Iqbal's 12-year-old son, Abdul, has also reprogrammed the ring tone on his father's mobile phone, which now has a funky beat, as well as his pager. Both are ringing incessantly.

One minute Sir Iqbal is on the phone to an imam, the next to a community leader, the next to a television studio. His sons are also paging him from the next room, prompting him to finish the interview. "The children miss me a lot. They do not like their daddy to be elsewhere," he says.

Since the bombings of 7 July, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain has been the chief interlocutor between UK Muslims, the Government, police and media. He has been surviving on four hours sleep with scarcely a moment to spare.

Last week he was in Leeds, meeting families of the Muslim community, including in-laws of the bombers. Tomorrow he is meeting Tony Blair.

"We will be assessing what has emerged from my visit to Leeds, the information that has filtered through to us, the reaction of the community and the way the police have handled issues," he says.

One message to the Prime Minister is the need to foster better relations between the police and Muslim families, and that this will require greater sensitivity from some forces. While there are signs of good communication in London, Sir Iqbal is concerned that in the towns where the bombers came from some policing has been insensitive and heavy-handed.

"In certain areas of the country there is a difficulty of communication with the police. There is a perception that if the police are hostile, they are anti- Muslim," he says. "A young person told me in Leeds: 'If we go and talk to the police with an issue of concern immediately we are suspects.' That is very bad."

In Leeds, Sir Iqbal spoke to Farida Patel, mother-in-law of Mohammed Sidique Khan who was responsible for the Edgware Road blast. The last time they met they were both at Buckingham Palace taking tea with the Queen. He expresses concern that Mrs Patel, a "brilliant lady" and former secondary school teacher, is "now afraid to return to her own home for fear of attack". "Their houses are marked and targeted now. She is afraid to go back into the house," he says.

Mrs Khan was upset to find wedding videos taken by the police appearing on television. He says the police failed to "give a basic inventory of what items have been removed".

"The raids had to be carried out, but what is disturbing is some of the confidential information that were in the homes have been in the national media. That is a clear intrusion into the personal lives of individuals."

Sir Iqbal says among Muslims there is still a pervasive sense of "disbelief" the bombings could have taken place at all, including among community workers who knew the culprits. The attacks, he says, were "a major eye-opener" for the community.

"Until now we knew there was this rhetoric, we knew there were pretty high emotions, but we never ever felt that would be translated into such evil and criminal actions," he says. "Whether we were in the dark or a bit naïve, the reality is that it happened. We have to take this situation extremely seriously."

Sir Iqbal said many Muslims were still in denial that their neighbours had carried out the attacks - despite overwhelming evidence. "Nothing is clear about what motivated them," he says.

He said one theory circulating in the bombers' community is that they were doing a dummy-run through the Tube, and explosives were put in their back packs. From his talks in Leeds he had heard that "there is some sort of video at the moment being circulated on the internet. There were various mock trials taking place - a test, people saying 'we just want to try you out'. Then the very same people are brought in and somebody planted bombs in."

Sir Iqbal is adamant that it is incumbent on members of the Muslim community to help the police with their investigation - and report any suspicions about other "criminals" who may be considering violent acts. But he is worried that co-operation is being hampered because law-abiding Muslims are being treated as suspects - not only by the police but by the public.

"We are all being accused and sentenced as if we are criminals," he says. "There are innocent families who have got nothing to do with the act of criminality who have been treated as though there is some criminality in themselves."

Sir Iqbal believes Muslim leaders must now do more to foster good relations with the authorities, perhaps through a "third party" mechanism for reporting suspicions, which can then be passed on.

To help build trust, Sir Iqbal convened a caucus of 100 leading Islamic scholars and imams, from throughout the UK on Friday evening to issue a statement unequivocally condemning the attacks. The gathering, the first of its kind since the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie, issued a clear message that bombing attacks on civilians does not lead to martyrdom.

The message to the community was clear: "The pursuit of justice for the victims of last week's attacks is an obligation under the faith of Islam."

But there remained a niggling ambiguity, after the press conference, about whether the imams equally condemned British Muslims who mount suicide attacks in Israel or Iraq. After a number of questions, Sir Iqbal issues the clarification that seemed to have been missing before: "The position as far as the council is concerned in terms of any innocents wherever they are in any part of the world - there can never, ever be justification of killing civilians, full stop."

Some Muslims have suggested that Israeli adults can be considered combatants as they may be on a military reserve list. Is he prepared to distance himself from this view? "Israeli innocent civilians are in exactly the same category as innocent Palestinians, as innocent Britishers. They are innocent civilians," he says, without hesitation.

Sir Iqbal insists that British Muslim scholars have taken a lead in condemning suicide attacks. But he reveals that in the behind-the-scenes discussions before the statement was issued on Friday a distinction was drawn by some between military targets and civilian targets in the Middle East.

"I will tell you where the confusion gets into it. Where there is a war. Where there are soldiers, they try to kill the soldiers." Then he adds, with a hint of frustration: "These sorts of explanations will get us nowhere. What is needed is to bring an end to this crisis."

Sir Iqbal acknowledges that Britain's backing for President George Bush over the Iraq war and lack of action over the conflict in Palestine is fuelling frustration among young Muslim men. The task is to channel anger into legitimate forms of protest, including the ballot box. He wants mosques to inform people about the means of legitimate protest to steer them away from violence.

"There are people who are really opposing the Iraq war - more Britishers than anybody else," he says. "How do they go about it? They don't go about it with bombings. They went into the streets, they went into letter writing, this is what we have been trying to say."

There is no room for diplomacy on one issue, however. "If someone is inciting someone to commit acts of terror," he says, "it is a crime."

The CV

* Born: 1951, Zomba, Malawi

* Education: Zomba Catholic Secondary School, 1969; Kennington College, 1978; Walbrook College, Fellow of Instit- ute of Financial Accountants

* Career: 1978 - MD, Global Trader Ltd (family business);

1986 - chairman, board of trustees, Balham mosque;

1992-2001 - member of Inner Cities Religious Council;

1995 - trustee, Muslim Aid;

1997 - founding secretary

general of Muslim Council of Britain. Re-elected 2002;

1998- vice-president, Association of Family Welfare;

2002 - deputy president, World Memon Organisation.

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