Within hours of the Twin Towers attack, Muslim organisations in Britain were receiving hate mail. British Muslims found themselves catapulted to a front line not of their making:
Are you happy now? Salman Rushdie was right your religion is a joke! Long live Israel! The US will soon kill many Muslim women and children! You are all subhuman freaks!
I am sorry but I don’t believe you at all. You will slaughter anyone and everyone to gain world domination. You can never be trusted ever again. I may now even begin to have sympathy with the National Front. F*** YOU and GO TO A MUSLIM HOME COUNTRY.
The rest of the world will now join to smash your filthy disease infested Islam. You must be removed from great [sic] Britain in body bags
These were not idle threats – Muslims were being abused and mosques desecrated as people responded in a knee-jerk manner. In Exeter, two days after the Sept 11 attacks, eight pig’s heads were thrown into the car park of the local mosque and a banner was erected saying “The blood of the American people is on the hands of every Muslim. Nuke ‘em, George.” In Swindon, a nineteen year-old Muslim woman wearing a headscarf was left hospitalised after being chased and hit hard on the head with a baseball bat.
This was to be the most delicate moment thus far in the history of the Muslim community – Britain could have easily slipped into a climate of intolerance towards Muslims, as was to happen in the US. However one factor proved tremendously important – Muslims in Britain possessed a national body linked to the grass-roots that could speak on their behalf and express the position of the majority clearly and effectively.
This body was the Muslim Council of Britain, formed in 1997. By 2001 the MCB had evolved procedures and an organisational infrastructure that could just about cope with a crisis of these proportions and this saved the community from fragmentation and a witch hunt. Benefiting from the consensus-seeking approach and PR flair of its first Secretary General Iqbal Sacranie (1998-2002) the organisation had processes in place for internal consultation, the preparation of press releases and communication with the media and government.
The MCB was thus able to issue a press statement within three hours of the atrocity stating unequivocally that ’whoever is responsible for these dreadful, wanton attacks, we condemn them utterly’, largely due to the rapid work of the chairman of its Public Relations committee, Mohibur Rahman and advice from the writer Merryl Wyn Davies . MCB spokespersons led by the Secretary General of the day, Yousuf Bhailok (2000-2002), and with support from many colleagues including Iqbal Sacranie, Mahmud Al-Rashid, Inayat Banglawala, Sarah Joseph and Khaled Anees worked round the clock to present the Muslim point of view and to urge everyone not to proceed down the path of revenge attacks. On Sept 12th the Prime Minister himself made reference to the MCB’s unequivocal position of outright condemnation in his press conference outside No 10 Downing Street. Within 48 hours the MCB had organised a well-attended press conference where all the main Muslim leaders from around the UK signed a statement stating that the attacks were morally indefensible and called on those who had planned the attacks to be brought to justice.
In an important issue of policy the MCB for the first time took a public stand to confront groups within the community that not only misrepresented the values of Islam but caused ill-will through statements and behaviour (the Hizb Tahrir and Al-Muhajiroon). The MCB urged TV producers and newspaper editors not to offer a high profile to such people, who not only did not represent how the mainstream community thought and felt, but who indirectly inflamed passions and spread hatred. This was another coming of age for the British Muslim community – when it confronted its own misguided sections.
The MCB’s Press Release – issued on 11th September 2001
MCB expresses total condemnation of terrorist attacks
British Muslims, along with everyone else, are watching events in America with shock and horror. Whoever is responsible for these dreadful, wanton attacks, we condemn them utterly. These are senseless and evil acts that appal all people of conscience. The MCB stands shoulder to shoulder with remarks made by our Prime Minister Tony Blair. Our thoughts and prayers are with all the innocent victims, their families and communities. We convey our deepest sympathies to President Bush and the people of America. No cause can justify this carnage. We hope those responsible will swiftly be brought to justice for their unconscionable deeds. As the British Muslims come to the full realisation of these most awful events, which they condemn wholeheartedly, they too are beginning to feel a huge sense of fear.
Terror makes victims of us all, it is beyond reason. Terror on this scale must not be compounded by knee-jerk reactions that would make victims of other innocent peoples of the world. This would only add to the devastation caused.