John Ware: With imams in denial, we won't stop the bombers

The 'Panorama' presenter says Muslim leaders don't like hearing the truth about extremism
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The Independent Online

After the London suicide bombings, I reported for BBC Panorama on the battle for the soul of Islam in Britain between Muslims who follow orthodox, liberal Islam and those who pursue

Islam more as a political ideology fuelled by the rages of the Islamic world.

Extremism has grown out of the latter camp and four leading British Muslims spoke candidly about this. They also questioned whether Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the voice of mainstream Islam, could deliver his promise to deal with extremism "head on".

Our interviewees expressed their total abhorrence of suicide bombings as a weapon of resistance anywhere in the world. And although the MCB asserts that Islam "is famously colour-blind", our interviewees said intolerance within Islam of other faiths here is more widespread than the MCB has acknowledged. Much of its leadership was in denial about what is needed to root out extremism.

The four also said that links with Pakistani and Arab Islamist ideologies are too close, that resurgent "anti-Jewish feeling" is fuelling extremism and that the MCB is not doing enough to promote integration.

One, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, once supported the fatwa condemning to death Salman Rushdie, but has "completely changed" his mind. Political Islam has promoted the faith ideologically as a "tribal cult more interested in its own fraternity, abandoning shared values with the rest of mankind. When we solve that problem, our problems will be solved".

The other interviewees were: a former member of the MCB's policy-making group; an academic whose institute promotes "progressive Islam" and an inner-London imam who turns young Muslims away from extremism.

But, backed by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, the MCB reacted with rage and indignation to the programme even before transmission. We had an "Islamophobic" and a "pro-Israel" agenda. We had "deliberately garbled" the interviews of our four Muslims. The MCB's Inayat Bunglawala spoke of "the enemies of Islam".

But one of the four says the MCB has tried to "camouflage everything by saying, 'This is a Jewish and Zionist ploy.'" And one Muslim now advising the Home Office on extremism says: "The MCB knows that by painting themselves as a huge victim, Muslims will rally round this. But it's not responsible leadership. Talk of critics being the 'enemies of Islam' is dangerous because the Muslim population is young and febrile."

Now the ante has been upped considerably with an attempt to isolate our Muslim interviewees by mocking any suggestion they might speak for "a silent Muslim mainstream ..." or that they are "the true representative[s] of ... Islam". In an article for a London Arabic daily, Dr Azzam Tamimi, a senior member of a major MCB affiliate, describes them as "traitors ... they are the enemy". They have become "detached from their faith and from the Islamic nation".

Dr Tamimi is a spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), which he says is "the conscience of the MCB". He has glorified suicide bombers who target Israeli civilians as "the straight way to pleasing my God". The MCB often complains about media "demonisation" of Muslims. Yet Dr Tamimi represents an organisation that itself has urged Muslims to download from its website placards of the Star of David turned into a swastika.

We also quoted from the website of another major MCB affiliate, Ahle-e-Hadith, inspired by puritanical Saudi ideology, which referred to fellow British Christian and Jewish citizens as having "sick or deviant views concerning their societies, the universe, and their very existence".

Part of our evidence that Muslim leaders are in denial about sectarianism was provided by Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, the MCB deputy secretary-general. He had invited a senior Saudi imam, Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais, to an east London mosque as an honoured guest.

Previously, in Mecca, al-Sudais had described Christians as "cross worshippers" attacking the "rottenness of their ideas"; Hindus as "idol worshippers"; and Jews as "monkeys and pigs", "scum of the human race" and "rats of the world". When I asked Dr Bari why he had invited such a figure, he suggested I was "assassinating" the "character of Muslim scholars".

Dr Tamimi dismisses al-Sudais's sermons as containing "criticism of the Zionists occupying Palestine". British police have found Jihadi cassettes referring to "the sons of the monkeys and the pigs" and al-Qa'ida rhetoric is infused with claims of "Crusader and Zionist" plots against Islam.

The growth of extremism in Britain is alarming. A recent poll said that 6 per cent of Muslims think that "on balance the London bombings were justified". We hope our programme has stimulated debate within the Muslim community about the roots of extremism.

The Prime Minister is convinced these lie in "evil ideology". The MCB says this "lacks evidentiary foundation". It seems to blame British intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. But can the MCB really say that Islamic extremism is simply a product of foreign policy, and exculpate aspects of Islamic theology, practice and history? Another Muslim advising the Home Office told me: "Both the MCB and Mr Blair are in denial about the influence of their policies on extremism."

Few Muslims are yet ready to challenge the MCB by name in the way that our interviewees did, for fear of public excoriation. But as one young Muslim wrote to Panorama: "Don't be disheartened to hear all the conspiracy theories of the Muslims against you guys; this will always be the case and their reaction is based upon fear that they have to think now, rather than be 'blindly' led."

Dr Tamimi contrasts the "treachery" of our four Muslim interviewees, with "the giants of the British left", Ken Livingstone and George Galloway, who have supported "the Muslims". He says that in the "fight ... between the two camps" - what I and others call the battle for the soul of Islam here - non-Muslims such as Mr Livingstone and Mr Galloway "are today" his camp's "most precious assets".

Yet Mr Livingstone promotes to British Muslims a Middle East cleric who has sent out mixed signals on violence. True, Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi has encouraged dialogue between Muslims and the West and denounced al-Qa'ida. But a mayoral document making the case for his moderation is selective. It says Dr Qaradawi has "opposed all acts of terrorism by al-Qa'ida". Not quite all. Not only has he said "foreign fighters" have a duty to help the Iraqi "resistance", he has also said that civilian "lorry drivers carrying foodstuffs and equipment into Iraq" can be taken hostage for collaborating with "the enemy". Nor did the document challenge Dr al-Qaradawi's dissimulation over Palestinian suicide bombers. When in London he insisted they "do not intend to hit civilians; they target soldiers but sometimes civilians and children are hit although they are never their target ...".

But in interviews with the Arab press translated by BBC Monitoring, Dr al-Qaradawi clearly believes that Israeli civilians are legitimate targets: "...the entire Israeli society is one of combatants where all Israelis, both men and women, are trained to kill the Palestinians and therefore the rules on non combatant civilians in other countries do not apply to them".

Dr al-Qaradawi may exemplify the moderate end of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, but his pronouncements still come from a perspective which sees the West as being out to traduce Islam. The message young Muslims may pick up is that all conflicts involving Muslims are attacks on Islam and they must stick with the oppressed global Islamic nation, the Ummah. Dealing "head on" with extremism will be achieved by debate of such issues, not by attacks on the BBC. A lack of self-criticism has been the Achilles heel of the Muslim community and no purpose is served by non-Muslims, especially the Mayor of London, who think they help by pressing the mute button.