A false prophet for British Muslims

Many will mourn Kalim Siddiqui but few will miss his extremism, says Paul Vallely
"There are some traditions that we Muslims maintain which have rather gone out of fashion in the secular Christian world. One of them is not speaking ill of the dead." The speaker was one of the leading Muslim figures in Birmingham. I shall omit his name, for reasons which will become clear.

He was responding to a request to comment on the death of Kalim Siddiqui, the leader of the Muslim Parliament. But in private his views were fierce in their condemnation of the man who claimed to speak for Britain's 1.5 million Muslims.

This private verdict was echoed by prominent Muslims in Leicester, Bradford, Manchester and London yesterday, caught on their way to or from the mosque for Friday prayers. At the heart of their disdain was the role the Muslim Parliament had come to occupy since it was founded by Mr Siddiqui in 1992.

"It was arrogant and mischievous to call it a parliament. It was born out of a wilful separatism to create the idea that Muslims want to exist as some kind of state within a state," said one senior Islamic academic. "It spoke for no one except its own members, and those were just appointed by committees which were chosen by Siddiqui. In effect the so-called parliament was hand-picked by him, and its only real purpose was to create a platform for him. It was an unrepresentative organisation in every sense. It is very important to challenge the myth that has grown up in the media that the Muslim Parliament spoke for Britain's Muslims. It did not."

What inspired such vehemence was the extremist fundamentalist oratory of Kalim Siddiqui and his great skill as a manipulator of the media. A former sub-editor at the Guardian, where he worked for eight years while completing a PhD in social studies, he wrote his thesis on Max Weber's theory that conflict has a positive role in society. It came to public notice that he intended to put Weber's ideas into action when, in 1989, he asked an audience of 300 Muslims in Manchester to raise their hands if they agreed with the fatwa that pronounced a death sentence on Salman Rushdie. Siddiqui narrowly escaped prosecution, but the British press seized upon him with horrified enthusiasm and he learnt how to manipulate its indignation into an effective recruiting sergeant for his tiny but fanatical following.

The rest of the Muslim community was angered. It was an anger which, in private, was undiminished yesterday. "It was all just clever media hype," said one Muslim leader. "He resurrected the issue of Rushdie at the last meeting of his so-called parliament because the previous three or four meetings had been ignored by the press."

"In the end everyone saw through him - even the Iranians," said another. "He backed Iran during the war with Iraq, partly as a way of getting at the Saudis whom he detested, but eventually even the Iranians found that he was an empty shell and they dropped him." Indeed, earlier this month a spokesman for the foreign ministry in Tehran, where President Rafsanjani's government is engaged in negotiations with the EU to bury the Satanic Verses dispute, pronounced: "Kalim Siddiqui does not speak for Iran. It is only the British who take him seriously."

Kalim Siddiqui was not without his good points. Even his opponents acknowledge the importance of his fund-raising for schools to ensure that Muslims succeeded within the British education system. And he was alert to the need to create a forum that included the youth and women (constituencies many Muslim leaders do not take seriously); but Siddiqui was proud of the fact that his soi-disant parliament contained 16 per cent women compared with only 7 per cent in the Commons.

But few of his colleagues feel that the good outweighed the ill. "At a time when relations between Muslims and the rest of the community are becoming more rather than less strained," said one, "it will take years to put right the damage he has done."

"The Muslim Parliament was a one-man show," concluded another. "It will die with him. Perhaps once it is cleared out of the way it will be possible for a body to emerge which genuinely reflects and represents the diversity of Muslim traditions in this country."