UK debate over Islam and ‘Britishness’

A UK government letter to 1,000 imams urging them to promote ‘Muslim British identity’ draws criticism – and praise.

Children hold placards denouncing the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006 in London [EPA]

London, United Kingdom – A new row has erupted between the British government and Muslim organisations after the minister responsible for community cohesion wrote to hundreds of imams calling on them to do more to tackle violent extremism and demonstrate “how faith in Islam can be part of British identity”.

The letter, sent by Eric Pickles, the secretary of state for communities and local government, to every mosque in England, provoked an angry response from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which accused the government of peddling far-right arguments about integration.

“Is Mr Pickles seriously suggesting, as do members of the far right, that Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society?” said Harun Khan, the deputy secretary-general of the MCB.

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.

by - Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government

Others dismissed the tone of the letter as patronising and suggested the government appeared to be seeking to shift the blame for the failings of its counter-extremism policy and the security services onto Muslim communities.

But David Cameron, the British prime minister, rejected criticism, calling the tone and content of the letter “reasonable, sensible and moderate”.

“Anyone, frankly, reading this letter, who has a problem with it, I think really has a problem,” he said.

‘Lay out more clearly’

The argument comes just days after the MCB accused the government of undermining civil liberties with its new counterterrorism and security bill, which it says will foster a “climate of fear and victimisation” within the Muslim community.

Cameron has also faced criticism for using this month’s attacks in Paris to make the case for new surveillance powers

Writing to more than 1,000 imams, Pickles thanked them for their positive work and praised British Muslims for speaking out against the France attacks.

But he said: There is more work to do… 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

Iqbal Sacranie [EPA]

“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.”

Iqbal Sacranie, a former secretary-general of the MCB, told Al Jazeera the letter failed to recognise the efforts of mosques and Muslim communities over many years to confront violent extremism.

“There’s a very clear implication that the problem lies with the mosques, yet there is not an iota of evidence to prove that allegation,” he said.

“The mosques have been pivotal not only in condemning terrorism, but promoting the very positive messages that we believe the Muslim Council of Britain and others have been conveying to the community.”

Growing resentment

The row comes at a time of heightened security concern in the UK fuelled by the attacks in Paris and the possible threat posed by Britons currently fighting in Syria, and amid growing resentment in Muslim communities over the government’s controversial Prevent counter-extremism programme, which is due to be extended further through the counter-terrorism and security bill.

Speaking last week in a parliamentary debate about the bill, which is set to become law before elections in May, Eliza Manningham-Buller, former head of the MI5 security agency, said Prevent was “clearly not working”.

“We can’t just pass the failures of the security agencies and the government onto the community, and I think this letter is an indirect way of putting the blame on the entire community and the mosques,” said Sacranie.

All we get is the government and ministers seeing us through the prism of security and terrorism.

by - Mohammed Shafiq, Ramadhan Foundation

He also expressed frustration at the suggestion that Islamic values needed to be reconciled with British identity, and criticised the government for failing to work directly with the MCB.

“We do not see a conflict between the values that we uphold as Muslims and British values. If you are talking about democracy, respect for each other, tolerance, respect for the law, these are prime values that Islam promotes – so we are amazed to be lectured on these,” said Sacranie.

“In fact, it is the government that does not respect democratic values when it does not respect the existence of the Muslim Council of Britain, the largest umbrella body, democratically elected, yet they don’t want to engage with it directly.”

Proving ‘loyalty’

Writing in reply to Pickles on Monday, Shuja Shafi, the current secretary-general of the MCB, said the organisation rejected “suggestions that Muslims must go out of our way to prove our loyalty to this country of ours”, and “the implication that extremism takes place at mosques”. 

Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim youth organisation, said the letter was “extremely patronising and unhelpful” and called on the government to listen to young Muslims’ grievances.

“All we get is the government and ministers seeing us through the prism of security and terrorism. They’ve got to be prepared to look at some of the issues that young people are raising time and time again, and one of them is foreign policy. Every time we raise the issue of foreign policy we get accused of being apologists for terrorism,” Shafiq told Al Jazeera.

In 2013 Shafiq told Al Jazeera how he was more determined than ever to confront terrorism after being targeted along with other prominent British Muslims in a video released by al-Shabab, the Somalia-based al-Qaeda-affiliated group, calling for attacks on the UK. 

“We have been dealing with this threat of terrorism for a number of years and we get no recognition for the work that we have done as a community,” he said. “I’m on an al-Shabab hit list because of the work we do on terrorism. If we weren’t doing anything, why would we be on these death lists?”

The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) also condemned the letter.

“Before the government starts preaching to people to subscribe to slogans about British values, let us all sit down and decide what British values actually are. Without this, expecting the Muslim community to conform to an undefined notion of ‘Britishness’ is fanning an Islamophobic agenda,” said Massoud Shadjareh, IHRC’s chair.

‘Counter the pressures’

But representatives of other Muslim organisations had more sympathy for the government’s stance.

The UK government has asked police to support mosques [EPA]

Pickles also said he had met police chiefs to make sure they were giving mosques the support they needed amid fears about rising levels of anti-Muslim hate crime, and condemned far-right groups such as the English Defence League and Britain First as “just as much an affront to British values as the teachings of preachers of hate”.

Sughra Ahmed, the president of the Islamic Society of Britain, described the letter as “unusual” and called on the government to do more to understand the “hurt and disillusionment of ordinary Muslim households” who felt their faith was under scrutiny.

But she added: “We also hold that some mosques can and should do more to resist and counter the pressures put upon them by small and loud anti-democracy voices that push a ‘them and us’ portrayal of what is actually a plural, diverse and constantly changing social reality.”

Those views were echoed by Dilwar Hussain, chair of New Horizons in British Islam think-tank.

“I think research has shown that mosques are not the real location where terrorists or radicalised individuals aggregate. On the contrary, it’s often outside of established religious institutions that terrorists find a space,” Hussain told Al Jazeera.

“But I do acknowledge that communities need to do more to combat all forms of prejudice and extreme interpretations of religion. We need to not only address the hard end of counter-terrorism, but look to the type of Islam we are teaching – it should be one that is deeply rooted in the context of this country.”

Follow Simon Hooper on Twitter: @simonbhooper
Source: Al Jazeera