Gulam Noon: Do you pass the radical imam test?

Naive politicians believe if you treat an extremist like a good liberal they will eventually become one
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the 30 years or so since moving to Britain, it has often struck me how tolerant a country this is. Of course Britain isn't perfect - nowhere is. But my travels throughout the world have served to confirm that this country remains the best at providing opportunities for advancement irrespective of class, creed or colour.

In the 30 years or so since moving to Britain, it has often struck me how tolerant a country this is. Of course Britain isn't perfect - nowhere is. But my travels throughout the world have served to confirm that this country remains the best at providing opportunities for advancement irrespective of class, creed or colour.

The question is, can British tolerance be taken for granted? As a Muslim, I cringe when I read about those who claim to be religious leaders urging their followers to acts of violence against Britain. And whatever the result of the charges facing Abu Hamza, the popular image of clerical Muslim extremism associated with him has caused significant embarrassment throughout the UK's Muslim community. Our unease has even been exacerbated, from time to time, by the naivety of some well-meaning British politicians who apparently believe that if you treat an extremist like a good liberal they will eventually become one.

The peaceful majority of British Muslims would be ill-advised simply to sit back and rely on the continuing forbearance of non-Muslims, especially if (God forbid) terrorists attack the UK. That said, there are things that can and should be done now to promote deeper integration among British Muslims, and help create a climate of greater understanding, and indeed goodwill, should the worst happen.

First, we should encourage a stronger role for imams in lowering barriers between Muslim and non-Muslim. Imams should be regarded as part of the solution to extremism, not part of the problem. Many British imams do an excellent job so it is unfortunate that, through the powerful visual medium of television, the image of the British imam is that of a ranting demagogue.

That is one reason why I was delighted with the Home Secretary's recent announcement that imams will in future be required to show a basic command of spoken English. But the Home Office needs to go the whole way and require imams to have a work permit based on their wider suitability for the role.

The imam is responsible for both spiritual guidance and social leadership. This gives him huge influence on the minds of congregations, especially the young. In these dangerous times, it is imperative that we employ imams who serve as responsible preachers of the peaceful religion that I know Islam to be.

This should not be controversial. If I wish to bring a chef from India to the UK he would have to justify his entry in terms of appropriate qualifications, experience and suitability for the role. If that is true for those who prepare food, how much more important is it to ensure quality control among those speaking to the minds and souls of our children?

We also need more and better training for imams already in Britain, with proper overseeing of training establishments which would limit suspicion about Islamic theological training colleges.

Third, we need to encourage a greater sense of urgency about education among those for whom this has not always been a priority. Promoting education is a fundamentally Muslim thing to do. As the prophet Mohamed said, "the ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr". Education not only improves the scholar, but also brings a greater understanding between communities as students mix and become friends.

Muslims also need to help themselves by speaking out far more loudly against the extremists - from whom we need protection just as much as our non-Muslim neighbours do.

My vision is that instead of seeing imams on our televisions denouncing the West, which is after all our adopted home, we shall see them praying that God will frustrate the terrorists' plans and protect both non-Muslim and Muslim alike. Perhaps then we can replace the extremists as the popular perception of the British imam with those who are more benign, more conducive to constructive relations, and indeed a more accurate representation of true Islam.

Sir Gulam Noon MBE is chairman and founder of Noon Products Ltd, the UK's largest supplier of Indian ready meals to supermarkets

Comments