Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Why should Muslims fear being disunited

The soft cops of the Taliban tendency wish to tie our tongues and control our thoughts
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The Independent Online

I have never warmed to Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, son of a Pakistani convert. He has about him a haze, nay a halo, of Christian sanctimony and superiority. This week he opined: "Characteristic British values have developed from the Christian faith and its vision of personal and common good. After they were clarified by the Enlightenment they became the bedrock of political life. These values need to be recovered to help us inculcate the virtues of generosity, loyalty, moderation and love."

See what I mean? The Enlightenment was never a period of Christian clarification, but of intensely intellectual contestation between old religious authority and humanism, science and superstition, despotism and incipient democratic idealism. It is only by ignoring the crimes committed in the name of past and current Christianity that Bishop Nazir-Ali can claim what he sincerely does about his faith. His proclamations are as spun and unreal as an enticing advert for a new car.

They were aired during a newspaper interview in which he also criticised those vocal Muslims who use victimhood to extend their domination over British public life. This is a criticism I would concur with, except I can't because the Bishop is enlisted into a new crusade.

We could have a terrific argument, the Bishop and I, or the Bishop and any number of Muslims who feel his anxieties but are repelled by his blind faith. We should be able to joust with these adversaries, only we can't. For as soon as any such possibility arises, the bearded and veiled troops of official British Islam hold the nation to ransom.

So it is again that Abdul Bari, general secretary of the most powerful garrison, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), warns with grim predictability that the Bishop should not have spoken as he has because it causes discord and damages "community relations". Under the delicately expressed words lie unspoken threats that even more militancy will be unleashed unless we all agree to a conspiracy of silence over anything Muslim.

These censors live in a developed democracy but want to disable its engine, which runs on verbal dissent and civilised deliberations.

I have just seen a joint statement issued on the MCB website, signed by a motley lot, all men (I think), all claiming to be the voice of true Islam. Sent to me by a Muslim doctor and several other worried, educated Muslims, it is one of the most disturbing documents I have ever come across. Go read it for yourself on www.mcb.org.uk and search for "veil".

The signatories command us Muslims to always be "united" whatever our differences and condemn those they believe "create disunity within the Muslim community". They kindly explain this condemnation, using the recent national argument over the niqab: "The veil, irrespective of its specific juristic rulings is an Islamic practice and not a cultural or customary one as is agreed by the consensus of Muslim scholars. It is not open to debate. [my emphasis] We advise all Muslims to exercise extreme caution in this issue since denying any part of Islam may lead to disbelief."

The statement quotes the Koran selectively and uses its holy words menacingly: "We recognise the fact that Muslims hold different views regarding the veil but we urge all members of the Muslim community to keep the debate within the realms of scholarship amongst people of knowledge and authority in the Muslim community ... In a Koranic verse we read the following "So ask those who know if you do not" ... Furthermore we warn Muslim individuals and organisations to avoid seeking to capitalise on this debate to further their political or personal interests. Such despicable tactics are judged by Islam as working against the interests of our faith and the Muslim community and are, accordingly, a matter condemned in the strongest possible terms."

These are the soft cops of the Taliban tendency and until very recently many of them were drinking tea with the PM and his ministers, getting huge sums of money from government and other respectable sources and winning friends in high places. They wish to tie our tongues and grab control over our thoughts, to frighten us Muslims into submitting to their power, to turn us into their sheepish herds. They must envy the real dictators in Muslim states where millions, generation after generation, have been "trained" to obey the master classes.

But these previously compliant subjects are finally learning to release themselves from the tyranny of control and self censorship. Democratic systems can only work when autonomous thought is cherished. Democratic values cannot be bombed into folk, but can be beamed at them, which is what Al- Jazeera started doing 10 years ago this week.

The station broke open the gates confining the aspirations and ideas of fearful Arabs, took on established media purveyors, cut through expected storylines and perhaps most controversial of all, broadcast the views and odious actions of Islamic militants without legitimacy or heart. Al-Jazeera has been vilified by Arab despots, Israel, and the allies occupying Iraq. One of its stations was bombed by the USA, and its crews face untold dangers. Today Time magazine, no less says: "It has its faults, but Al-Jazeera has served the truth far better than any of its detractors would acknowledge ... Indeed arguably, nothing has done more to open minds and challenge authority in the Middle East."

This month Al-Jazeera starts broadcasting in English across the globe. The Director General of the channel, Palestinian Wadah Khanfar, promises the new outlet will keep "the Al-Jazeera spirit - courage, rethinking authority, giving voice to the voiceless". Goodness do we need that to happen here in Britain where the voiceless are not the underprivileged but the most enlightened, reformist European Muslims who are evermore driven underground or silenced by obnoxious "community leaders", backward Imams and the faithful serfs who happily do as told and call it "choice".

I worry though that like the rest of our media Al-Jazeera will allow itself to be unduly dominated by these "true" Muslims, because their intolerant rants make a better spectacle than integrated British Muslims who don't have the "MCB Approved" stamp. To be an authentic Muslim these days, it is essential to be an angry outsider not an engaged insider. The audacity and ambition of the MCB and its imitators is awesome and a day may come when they take away our liberties just as liberty begins to awaken in oppressed Islamic states. What an irony that would be.