Muslim leaders have accused Prime Minister David Cameron and his Cabinet colleague Eric Pickles of adopting the mindset of the far-right by suggesting followers of Islam must prove their “British identity”.
In an open letter to Downing Street provided to The Independent, one leading campaigner said Muslims had been left feeling their loyalty to Britain was permanently in question after Mr Pickles wrote to imams asking that they underline being a British Muslim involves being “proud of your faith and proud of your country”.
Mr Cameron was accused of pouring fuel on the fire when he defended his Communities Secretary by saying the letter sent to 1,000 clerics and other Muslim leaders had been “reasonable, sensible and moderate”. The Prime Minister suggested anyone who disagreed with it “really has a problem”.
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the inter-faith Ramadhan Foundation, told The Independent that it was wrong to appear to question the commitment of British Muslims when he and others combating extremism had been put on an Islamist death list precisely for speaking out against radicalisers.
In his letter, Mr Shafiq, who has been warned he appears on a target list drawn by Somali terror group Al Shabab, said: “[Mr Cameron] is straying dangerously into the territory of suggesting that, as a British Muslim, if you don’t agree with the Government then you have a problem.
“I am very tired of hearing that British Muslims are not doing enough to tackle extremism…The Muslim community reacted with one voice alongside all other Britons in condemning the attacks in Paris.
“And yet we hear from Mr Pickles the sort language that we have come to more commonly associate with the far right. We know precisely what being a British Muslim means because we are in the front line of the battle against extremists.”
The letter sent by Mr Pickles, co-signed by Conservative Muslim peer Lord Ahmad, said both men were “proud” of the way British Muslims had responded to the Paris attacks but added that there was “more work to do”.
It said: “You, as faith leaders, are in a unique position in our society. You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility, in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity.”
Mr Cameron yesterday defended the message, saying it had been “absolutely right” to write to leaders urging them to redouble their efforts to confront extremism.
The Prime Minister said: “Anyone who reads this letter - and I’ve read the letter - will see that what he is saying is that British Muslims make a great contribution to our country, that what is happening in terms of extremist terror has nothing to do with the true religion of Islam.
“It’s being perverted by a minority who have been radicalised. Anyone frankly reading this letter who has problem with it, I think really has a problem. It is the most reasonable, sensible, moderate letter that Eric could possibly have written.”
The Muslim Council of Britain, which expressed bemusement that it had not been sent Mr Pickles’ letter despite being the umbrella group for more than 500 UK Muslim organisations, said that the Government appeared to be aping the far-right by suggesting Islam and its followers were “inherently apart from British society”.
In its own letter to Mr Pickles, the MCB said it felt his message should have been “worded differently”. Dr Shuja Shafi, the organisation’s secretary general, said: “We do take issue with the implication that extremism takes place at mosques, and that Muslims have not done enough to challenge the terrorism that took place in our name… We also reject suggestions that Muslims must go out of their way to prove their loyalty to this country of ours.”
The Department for Communities and Local Government declined to comment on why it had not sent the MCB a copy of its letter, which was placed online as well as being sent directly to mosques.
The aftermath of the Paris attacks, which claimed 17 victims including four French Jews, has provoked a groundswell against religious hatred across the political spectrum and among Britain’s religious leaders.
Senior Muslim, Jewish and Christian figures met at an Islamic cultural centre in Regent’s Park Mosque, central London, last week in an “act of solidarity” against the killings. Mr Pickles this weekend joined Home Secretary Theresa May at a service to remember those killed. Ms May said Britain needed to redouble efforts to “wipe out anti-Semitism”.
Some commentators said the negative reaction to the letter from Mr Pickles was disappointing when they said radicalism remains an issue in some communities. Haris Rafiq, of the Quilliam Foundation think tank, said: “Whether we like it or not, there are some mosques, some imams who are preaching hate.”
But experts monitoring anti-Muslim hate crime said the response of Mr Cameron to criticism of the letter risked alienating Muslims.
Faith Matters, which runs the Tell MAMA hotline, said surveys had shown more British Muslims were more likely to identify with Britain than the general population and were more likely than Christians to say they felt they belonged to the UK.
Fiyaz Mughal, founder of the organisation, said: “I don’t think it is helpful to say no-one should have a problem with the opinions expressed in the letter. The risk is they will be read in the Muslim community as saying you are part of the problem and not the solution.”
The letter to David Cameron and Eric Pickles
Dear Prime Minister and Secretary of State,
I am writing to express my sadness and dismay at the letter sent to Muslim leaders and the subsequent response of the Prime Minister that anyone disagreeing with its contents “really has a problem”.
This is straying dangerously into the territory of suggesting that, as a British Muslim, if you don’t agree with the Government then you have a problem.
I have got a problem with the letter and here is why.
I am very tired of hearing that British Muslims are not doing enough to tackle extremism. It is the case that everything we hear from politicians about Muslims is expressed through the prism of security and terrorism.
And yet huge amounts of work have been done, and continue to be done, by Muslims to stand up against the threat of extremism.
Were you in any doubt about the sincerity with which this threat is pursued, you should know that I personally and other Muslim leaders have received death threats from terrorists because of the views we express condemning what they stand for.
As a result of the work against terrorism carried out by me and some other prominent Muslims 15 months ago we were targeted by Al Shabaab for our work against the killing of Lee Rigby; hardly a community not dealing with the threat of terrorism.
The ability to express extremist opinion in any British mosque has diminished dramatically. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks a number of mosques were identified as harbouring preachers expressing unacceptable views, such as convicted extremist Abu Hamza. Today no such opportunities exist and preachers from outside Britain who visit to express such opinions are rapidly identified and told they are not welcome.
The Muslim community reacted with one voice alongside all other Britons in condemning the attacks in Paris. We campaigned strenuously to help save Alan Henning from the murderers of Islamic State in Syria.
And yet we hear from Mr Pickles the sort of language that we have come to more commonly associate with the far right when he suggests that we have “an important responsibility in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity”. I would not have been surprised to hear such words come from the mouth of Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League.
We know precisely what being a British Muslim means because we are in the front line of the battle against extremists. It would be nice to hear from the Prime Minister that he and others in his Government recognise that Muslims are hurting in this struggle as well. We have to pick up the pieces when our faith is rubbished by the killers who pretend to act in its name.
I have reached the point where I don’t know how much more the Government expects us to do. Instead of a letter insinuating that being Muslim and British are somehow different things, I would welcome an expression of support and recognition of what is being done day in, day out by British Muslims to keep this country united and safe.
What Eric Pickles wrote and why Muslims object
:: “You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity” Objection: Critics complain that Islam is being presented as separate from Britishness and needs to constantly prove its compatibility – a demand not made of other faiths.
:: “There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country” Objection: Complainants feel their loyalty to the United Kingdom is being automatically questioned because of their adherence to Islam, again an aspersion that is not automatically cast on other religions.
:: ”The vitriol espoused by the thugs of the English Defence League and Britain First is just as much an affront to British values as the teachings of preachers of hate.” Objection: Muslims welcome the condemnation of the far right but are concerned at the perception that extremist preachers remain in mosques. They say radicalisation has moved onto the internet and takes place within peer groups rather than mosques.
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