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Fri 31 October 2014
7 Muharram 1436 AH  

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  • Sidelining genuine leadership
On 11th October 2006, the Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government delivered a speech 'Britain: our values, our responsibilities' that marked a new phase in the relationship between the New Labour government and the country's Muslim community. At stake was a question of community representation and leadership. Who was it to be: authentic community bodies, the proteges or even the Government itself! Following Ruth Kelly's blatant attempt to link public funding with support for Goverment policy, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has provided a robust riposte.

  • The honeymoon period
  • The search for a pliable leadership
  • October 2006 speech by Secretary of State Ruth Kelly MP & the MCB riposte of 14th October
  • No.10's role (updated 24th October)
  • Secretary of State's response on 17th October to the MCB letter

    The honeymoon period

    When Prime Minister Blair was elected in 1998, his government's actions suggested a flexibility and inclusiveness of approach that was welcomed by the Muslims of Britain.

    In May 1999, the PM was rightly shocked after a racist bomb blast near the Brick Lane mosque in East London. Speaking at a reception organised by the Muslim Council of Britain - the first time a Prime Minister had attended a Muslim community event - he observed:

    "the country is united in revulsion against these acts...when one section of the community is under attack, we defend them in the name of the whole community...through these tragic bombings our society has come together - sharing the values of tolerance, decency and justice. Those values of racial tolerance are very much part of the Muslim teaching. The Prophet Muhammad's last sermon included these words:"All mankind is form Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab,nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor black has any superiority over the white except by peity and good action". And who would not be impressed by a religion whose people fast for 30 days every year at Ramadan as a reminder of the less fortunate. A belief in helping others where it is obligatory to donate a proportion of your savings each year to charity through zakat. These are values of a community that believes we achieve more together than we can alone. They are values you will find echoed by this government. You’re a valuabel part of the society that this government wants to build. A modern civic society - free from prejudice but bound by rules. You are a well-established part of our multi-cultural nation...you, like us, share a passion for education..."

    There was a honeymoon period in which the log jam holding up Islamia Primary School's application for voluntary aided status was cleared, several Muslims were appointed to the House of Lords and the religion question on the Census - lobbied for by the Muslim Council of Britain - was actively supported by No. 10.

    The search for a pliable leadership

    In the events following 9/11, Muslims in Britain joined the great number of British people disagreeing with the Government's unquestioning support of the US neo-con agenda in its misadventures, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Organisations like the Muslim Association of Britain were at the forefront of the anti-war coalition, and many Muslims joined the anti-war Respect Party. The Muslim Council of Britain also proved independent and opposed Government policy. On one occasion in late 2001 when a number of Muslim leaders were invited to No.10, the PM's communications chief Alistair Campbell came up to them and said: "You now have a selling job to do". The guests did not oblige - No.10 had misjudged the integrity of the community leaders.

    In what can only be an orchestrated approach in media management, regular public attempts were then made to cut the Muslim community to size:

    - Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain: Muslim immigrants can be very isolationist and need to integrate more (May 2002)

    - Home Secretary David Blunkett: It is a worrying trend that young second-generation British Muslims are more likely than their parents to feel they have to choose between feeling part of the UK and feeling part of their faith - when in fact as citizens of the United Kingdom and adherents of a major faith they should feel part of wider, overlapping communities. ... there is a real risk that instead of religion helping to build civic society and a sense of belonging among those who might otherwise become alienated, religion could actually increase that alienation (October 2003)

    - FCO Minister Dennis MacShane: Muslims choose between the "British way" of political dialogue and non-violence and the "way of terrorists" and asked Muslims to use clearer and stronger language against terrorism (November 2003)

    - Home Office minister Hazel Blears: Muslims will have to accept as a "reality" that they will be stopped and searched by the police more often than the rest of the public…If a threat is from a particular place then our action is going to be targeted at that area...It means that some of our counter-terrorism powers will be disproportionately experienced by the Muslim community (March 2005)

    In July 2005 the event that was dreaded by the country happened – for voluntary aided status was cleared, several Muslims were appointed to the House of Lords and the the bomb blasts in London killing over 50 people including a number of Muslims. The MCB called for a judicial inquiry into the events, but this only served to exacerbate annoyance in No10. The MCB took the view, subsequently supported by well-informed institutions, that the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, had worsened the security situation at home. Government would not countenance an inquiry that would expose the foreign policy disasters, and instead sought to shift responsibility in the direction of the Muslim community. Red-herrings such as 'shariah law', 'self-segregation' and non-attendance at the Holocaust Memorial Day were used to hold up an assortment of yellow and red cards to the community and its representative bodies. For example

    - Home Secretary Charles Clarke: ...there can be no negotiation about the re-creation of the Caliphate; there can be no negotiation about the imposition of Sharia law; there can be no negotiation about the suppression of equality between the sexes; there can be no negotiation about the ending of free speech. These values are fundamental to our civilization and are simply not up for negotiation (October 2005).

    Trevor Phillips , chair of the Commission for Racial Equality provided support: Muslims who wish to live under a system of sharia law should leave Britain...We have one set of laws ... and that's the end of the story. If you want to have laws decided in another way, you have to live somewhere else" (February 2006).

    - Secretary of State Ruth Kelly: Government had to "stamp out" Muslim schools which sought to change British society to fit Islamic principles (August 2006)

    Government also began putting up more explicit signposts that the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was not up to the job of providing 'leadership' to the community. Visiting Leeds in November 2005, Mr Blair indicated that that Muslims found it easier to blame others than to look inward; that "given half a leadership", Muslims would "face up to the extremist menace in their midst". It became common knowledge that in the view of Home Office senior civil servants, the MCB had punched above its weight long enough. In any case, Government would much rather negotiate with multiple groups, rather than a single, over-arching body. Interestingly around the same period The Observer carried no less than three pieces critical of the MCB (13th August 2005), including a grilling on the front page and editorial. A couple of weeks later John Ware's Panorama programme 'A Question of Leadership' portrayed the MCB as a problem organisation contributing to 'extremism' in the country. Actions of its Secretary General, such as attendance at a memorial service for the founder of the Palestinian movement Hamas, and non-attendance in the 2005 Holocaust Memorial Day, were 'failures in leadership'.

    The quest for a pliable, replacement leadership of the community was to take unusual turns. For a while the British Muslim Forum seemed to be the 'King's Party', and it was given prominence in semi-official publications such as 'British Muslims' from the British Council. On 19th July 2006, Ruth Kelly launched the soi-disant Sufi Muslim Council in the House of Commons: "I welcome the creation of this Council to represent the Sufi community in particular. I look forward to working with you as one of a number of organisations who have an interest in developing strong and thriving Muslim communities". The individuals at the helm of the SMC have been quite unknown for their contribution to community development in the last four decades. At the Labour Party Conference, John Reid seemed willing to don the mantle of speaking up for the Muslim 'silent majority'. First he made reference to his recent experience at Waltham Forest, later adding: "Because if we, in this movement, are going to ask the decent, silent majority of Muslim men - and women - to have the courage to face down the extremist bullies, then we need to have the courage and character to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in doing it".

    October 2006 speech by Secretary of State Ruth Kelly MP & the MCB response

    The speech entitled "Britain: our values, our responsibilities" by a cabinet ranking minister called for "fundermental rebalancing of our relationship with Muslim organisations from now on....In future, I am clear that our strategy of funding and engagement must shift significantly towards those organisations that are taking a proactive leadership role in tackling extremism and defending our shared values". The MCB was to offer a point by point rebuttal, decrying the notion of 'sweetheart' deals.

    Ruth Kelly Speech, 11th October MCB response, 14th October
    And since the July 7 attacks - an attack on Muslims as much as anyone else - there has sadly been evidence of a sustained terrorist campaign. The Police and Security Services have disrupted a number of further attacks. And we know that followers of Al Qaeda are planning others. The scale of the threat means great urgency. And this can produce mistakes. But these mistakes have sometimes been seized on by some to falsely suggest that the Police are the enemy rather than the terrorists. They aren't - they deserve all of our support. A serious and tough security response is inevitable for all of our safety. You say that in their anti-terror efforts the police will occasionally make mistakes, but that these mistakes should not be been seized upon 'to falsely suggest that the Police are the enemy rather than the terrorists.' We would certainly agree with this and in a letter that was published in The Times on 8th June 2006 following the tragic raid in Forest Gate, London, we added that 'if the Police make mistakes - as they inevitably will because of the very nature of this kind of intelligence work - then it is equally important that these are duly acknowledged. This is not a matter of apportioning blame, but of maintaining trust and building a genuine partnership to defeat a terror threat that looks as if it will be with us for some years to come.'
    For example, I would defend staunchly the right of anyone to disagree with government policy, including foreign policy. I think it is right that we should support the newly elected governments of Iraq and Afghanistan but respect the right of those, including some of you in this room to disagree. So we need a full and frank debate. But where I think there is a danger is if in debating them, that is used to suggest foreign policy here is anti-Muslim overall. For this ignores the fact that Britain led the international community in intervening militarily in Kosovo to protect Muslims from ethnic cleansing, that Britain was among the biggest donors to Pakistan following last year's devastating earthquake or that Britain is spearheading the drive for Turkey's membership of the European Union. We would concur with your assessment that our country's foreign policy is not 'anti-Muslim overall'. However, in light of many other factors, including the leaked memo from the Joint Intelligence Committee in April 2005 which stated that the Iraq war "has reinforced the determination of terrorists who were already committed to attacking the west and motivated others who were not" and also the recent remarks by the Head of the British Army, Sir Richard Dannatt, in which he said "I don't say that the difficulties we are experiencing around the world are caused by our presence in Iraq, but undoubtedly our presence in Iraq exacerbates them," we have cause to wonder whether some of our foreign policies are, in fact, contributing towards undermining Britain's national security. You may recall that in April 2004, more than 50 former British Ambassadors, High Commissioners, Governors and senior international officials, including some who had long experience of the Middle East, sent an open letter to the government appealing for an end to some of our policies in the Middle East 'which are one sided and illegal' and indeed, 'doomed to failure'.
    It was this Government, of course, that also brought in the Religious Hatred legislation. It was necessary and right to do so despite the controversy it caused.

    But it is designed to tackle those who incite hatred, not just those who cause offence. If we value free speech and freedom of religious expression, we will all have to accept that from time to time we will feel insulted or offended by other people's actions or comments. As a politician, I know that better than most.

    There are also some people who don't feel it right to join in the commemorations of Holocaust Memorial Day even though it has helped raise awareness not just of the Jewish holocaust, but also more contemporary atrocities like the Rwanda genocide. That's also their right.

    But I can't help wondering why those in leadership positions who say they want to achieve religious tolerance and a cohesive society would choose to boycott an event which marks, above all, our common humanity and respect for each other.

    When society's core values are transgressed, it can, as a minimum, lead to resentment. But at worst if we fail to assert and act to implement our shared values this makes us weaker in the fight against extremism and allows it to flourish.

    And this means extremism of every kind. I attended the celebrations on Sunday to mark the 70th Anniversary of East Londoners standing up to Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists.

    While there I reflected on what was an example of the triumph of British values over extremism. And we need the same unity, courage and commitment to these values now.

    You say you accept that people and organisations have a right not to attend the Holocaust Memorial Day and yet add that you 'can't help wondering why those in leadership positions who say they want to achieve religious tolerance and a cohesive society would choose to boycott an event which marks, above all, our common humanity and respect for each other. When society's core values are transgressed, it can, as a minimum, lead to resentment. But at worst if we fail to assert and act to implement our shared values this makes us weaker in the fight against extremism and allows it to flourish.'
    Your suggestion that the MCB is not fully committed to religious tolerance and community cohesion merely on the basis of a single criterion of non-attendance at the HMD is both inaccurate and absurd. Since when has the achievement of community cohesion been dependent on attending the Holocaust Memorial Day? We find it most patronising to be lectured to in this way.

    The MCB has always been, and remains, fully engaged in bridge-building with all sections of British society, including with other faith groups. We have often taken the lead in bringing together faith leaders in the pursuit of peace (for example, our participation in the Interfaith Centre at the Millennium Dome, our goodwill reception at the Commonwealth Institute, etc).
    It may be that you are not aware, or have not been correctly informed, that the MCB had always stated from the outset in 1999 when the idea of a Holocaust Memorial Day was first mooted by the Home Office, that we would be honoured to participate in such a commemoration provided that it gave equal respect to the innocent victims of all genocides and mass killings around the world, regardless of their racial or religious background. This is a fundamental Islamic principle. We cannot accept that some people are more worthy of remembrance than others purely on the basis of their race or religion. For that reason, we have called and continue to call for a more appropriately named Genocide Memorial Day. You say that the HMD event marks 'our common humanity and respect for each other', but if that is really the case, then why the continued refusal to make it more inclusive by naming it a Genocide Memorial Day?

    The plain fact is that for some years now, a particular political interest group and certain allied journalists have tried to intimidate the MCB into remaining silent about the ongoing injustice and human rights abuses perpetrated against the Palestinian people. They have singularly failed in their ignoble aim. It now seems that those same individuals and groups are seeking, via the HMD, to coerce the MCB into abandoning a key principle - the equality of all human beings. We hope it goes without saying that this attempt will also not succeed, God Willing.
    Moreover, the manner in which some persons have politicised the Holocaust Memorial Day is truly demeaning. As the MCB has repeatedly stated, the cry 'never again' should be for all people. That said, we would assure you that we have met and continue to discuss these issues with the Holocaust Memorial Trust in order to find a way to bridge the differences between us. In addition, we take this opportunity to reiterate that we are absolutely committed to working together to maintain good relations with Britain's Jewish community. Indeed, at national level, the MCB worked with the BOD on halal/sechita and circumcision issues and at the grass roots level, MCB affiliates - for example in Bristol - are engaged in project work with local Jewish bodies as a means of promoting better understanding. There are many other initiatives being carried out jointly by the two communities in a spirit of enhancing mutual understanding and respect.

    As Gordon Brown said yesterday, "Unless moderates can establish themselves at the centre of their communities and faith, extremists could grow in strength and influence".

    So I promise we will increase our commitment to work in partnership with you and communities throughout Britain who show through their words and actions that are determined to take on the extremists and defend values that the vast majority of us share.
    It is not good enough to merely sit on the sidelines or pay lip service to fighting extremism. That is why I want a fundamental rebalancing of our relationship with Muslim organisations from now on. Since taking up my post, I have actively sought to develop relationships with a wider network of Muslim organisations, including those representing young people and women.
    In future, I am clear that our strategy of funding and engagement must shift significantly towards those organisations that are taking a proactive leadership role in tackling extremism and defending our shared values. It is only by defending our values that we will prevent extremists radicalising future generations of terrorists
    Because we know that some things that you are doing are making a difference.
    Good quality teaching of and about Islam in schools for all faiths; Imams and Mosques who are in touch with young people; strong leadership programmes for young people; projects that engage and empower women; deradicalisation programmes and diversionary activities; programmes that build bridges between communities, learning and sharing from others; active civic and democratic engagement; and voices within Muslim communities taking on the extremist messages, undermining their twisted interpretations of Islam.
    All these are taking place within Muslim communities across the country. All can reduce our vulnerabilities to extremists.

    We take note of your statement "It is not good enough to pay mere lip service to fighting extremism. I want a fundamental rebalancing of our relationship with Muslim organizations from now on". We note too, Secretary of State, your speech at the launch of a sectarian Muslim body on 19th July 2006, where you stated, "that is why we are looking to organizations and individuals across Muslim communities to be vocal and challenge the ideology of extremists". The inescapable and preposterous intimation behind these two remarks, when taken together, appears to be that mainstream Muslim organizations - including the MCB - have been half-hearted in confronting extremists. This is demonstrably untrue and deeply insulting.

    " Following the 9/11 atrocities, it was the MCB which took the lead in organising a special national conference for UK Imams and 'Ulama (religious scholars) which declared that British Muslims had a duty to 'uphold justice, honour their 'social contract', state differences of opinion with government policy openly and in a measured tone, and do not indulge in any criminal or subversive activity whether against people or property.'
    " Following the Madrid train bombings in March 2004, it was again the MCB which took the lead in writing to each and every mosque and Islamic institution in the UK to urge a concerted effort to work for the peace and security of all in our country. To this end, our letter appealed to all Islamic organisations in the UK 'to liaise with the local Police and give them the fullest cooperation in dealing with any criminal activity including the terrorist threat.'...
    " In September 2004, in an unprecedented move, the MCB produced half a million copies of a Pocket Guide on Rights and Responsibilities in which we prominently printed the Anti-Terror Hotline Number and in which we described the averting of possible terrorist attacks as "an Islamic imperative". The Pocket Guide was produced by the MCB working in close cooperation with the Association of Chief Police Officers....
    " In April 2005, with the UK General Elections just around the corner, the MCB published a special Voter Card for British Muslims urging them to 'get more actively involved and participate in the democratic process.' The voter cards were distributed to Mosques and Muslim community centres around the country with a view to channelling Muslim concerns about foreign policy, anti-terror legislation, underachievement in education etc, peacefully into increased participation in mainstream politics.
    " Secretary of State, there are many other pertinent examples we could have listed here of the work that the Muslim Council of Britain - a voluntary organisation - has diligently carried out in recent years to help combat extremism and safeguard our society, but we hope that these will be sufficient to dispose forever the canard that mainstream Muslim leadership bodies are not playing their due role in this common effort.

    We have noted your decision on funding and engagement with some amazement and deep concern. It appears clear to us that the publicly announced 'shift' in your policy regarding funding is arguably unlawful. The indication that only those organisations that agree with your particular strategy as the best way to fight extremism will receive your favours is another way of saying that only those who support your government can expect to receive public funds. Access to public funds should not and cannot be dependent on such considerations as on who is and who is not attending the Holocaust Memorial Day. As a responsible representative organisation the MCB has a duty to represent and reflect the views of its constituents fairly and if those views are unpalatable to the government of the day, so be it. The legal framework and traditions of our country do not allow the government to be vindictive or punitive in the use of public funds. As part of our constitutional duty to work for the common good of British society as a whole and our Islamic commitment to seek justice, the MCB will not be deflected from its duty or commitment to social cohesion and a just society by the possibility of being treated less favourably and unfairly by the government.

    Let us state for the record that the MCB has never received a single penny from the government for its core work. Of course, we have exercised our right to apply for project funding - in common with other faith organisations. British Muslims happen to constitute the second largest faith group in the country and all studies indicate a consistently higher level of deprivation than in other faith groups. For instance, 33% of Muslims live in the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. Unemployment among British Muslims is three times higher than the national average. 69% of Muslim households are below the poverty level as compared with 22% nationally. This is just to give a few examples of our difficulties. And yet we have never sought or received any preferential treatment, contrary to popular misconceptions. Indeed, this unwarranted perception, which for some reason is not clearly refuted by the government, only serves to feed resentment and hatred towards British Muslims. We seek to have our community's needs considered on their own merit - not as a special case.

    No. 10's role

    Is the Secretary of State's stand based on advice from her department's civil servants or direction set by No. 10? On the one hand there is no doubt that there are some mandarins, formerly with the Home Office's Race Equality and Faith Cohesion Units, who are more comfortable with dealing with minority communities on the base of race relations policy and Muslim community activism has rattled their cages.

    The Prime Minister made a significant remark recently:commenting on the veil saga he added that an underlying factor was "about how Islam comes to terms and is comfortable with the modern world". In a similar note, Ruth Kelly is commended by a journalist (New Statesman, 23rd October) for being ready to "take the ideological batte to radical Islam".

    The Prime Minister is increasingly coming across as a man with a mission to reform the house of Islam. The Qur'an strikes him as a reforming book, but "by the early 20th Century, after renaissance, reformation and enlightenment had swept over the western world, the Muslim and Arab world was uncertain, insecure and defensive" (speech to the Foreign Policy Centre, 21st March 2006). He believes that the west is now target of a global Islamist conspiracy. He is repeatedly advising Muslims that they have a "completely false sense of grievance against the west" (The Guardian, 4th July 2006).

    The NS journalist indicates why responsibility for dealing with faith community matters had been placed in the Department of Communities & Local Government: "on the domestic front,the Prime Minister wanted to tackle the problem of Muslim integration by wresting control of this area from the Home Office. He used the May reshuffle to make a fresh start".

    So it appears that Ruth Kelly is being guided from No.10 - the pupil-orientalist and Svengali.

    the Daily Telegraph on 24th October reported that the Prime Minister had "ordered colleagues to start working with the leader, not the panderers in the Muslim community, pointing to a more critical approach to groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain".

    Secretary of State's response on 17th October to the MCB letter

    The letter begins:

    Dear Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari

    Thank you for your letter of 13th October.

    I stand by the principles outlined in my speech of 11th October, and believe it was important to outline them as a transparent statement of my Department's strategic intent. In short, my Department is accelerating its efforts to tackle extremism - and protecting young people from active grooming by terrorists - and we will work with any organisation, local or national, that is serious about condemning and isolating extremist activity. My role is to push for progress in this area, and to use my Department's reach into local communities to sustain that progress.

    My speech therefore set out how I wanted my Department to work in partnership with Muslim communities from now on. And today I held a session with Local Authority Chief Executives and representatives from local Police forces, to encourage them to accelerate their own work at a local level.

    I have made clear that extremism is a problem shared by all of us, and that we want to work with Muslim organisations and others to help drive out extremists from our communities.

    I want to galvanise work in this area, to look at what has gone before and how we can do it better, to consider who else might be able to contribute to the debate, and to make sure that my Department - with its powerful remit on equality and cohesion - can best build capacity within Muslim and other communities to enable them to isolate extremists.

    You raise a number of concerns, in response:

    .....

    - Firstly, the question of whether my speech suggests that Government will only engage with those who agree with us - particularly on issues such as Foreign Policy. This is absolutely untrue. Government regularly engages with organisations across the spectrum with whom we will disagree - that is part of our job. I also emphasised that I would defend the right of anyone to disagree with me.

    What I said in my speech was that it is possible for Muslim organisations to take a proactive leadership role in tackling extremists and defending our values - even while we disagree on policy. This is not about taking sides - it is about organisations promoting a more sophisticated vision of the problems we are facing together, and encouraging debate that can fill the vacuum otherwise exploited by extremists.

    - Secondly, whether my intention to prioritise my engagement and funding towards organisations that actively condemn extremism is unlawful. It is not. What I set out on Wednesday was our intent to prioritise our engagement with organisations that are helping to isolate extremists. I don't accept that those in leadership positions can be passive in tackling extremism and yet expect government support. The question the public are not unreasonably asking is why should any organisation object to taking a leadership role in tacking extremism?

    - And finally, how far the leadership role we expect Muslim organisations to take is bound up with other decisions - particularly relating to your points on Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). I am fully aware of the arguments you put around HMD being a selective memorial, but the HMD Trust makes clear that the central focus of the day is the Holocaust and events undertaken also provide an opportunity to commemorate other atrocities. That is why I see the day as being about our common humanity, and why I do not agree that a boycott is the right approach. I would strongly urge you to engage in a positive dialogue with HMD.

    .....

    My door is open to any organisation that shows a genuine commitment to tackling extremism. There are already a number of organisations that understand and support this position. Those in major community leadership positions can play a pivotal role in isolating extremists and the damage they are causing up and down the country.

    I am absolutely clear, as I have said on many occasions, that this can be done without having to agree with the Government on every issue. Protecting freedom of speech is one the key principles I am setting out to defend by isolating extremists.

    The public - both Muslim and non-Muslim - are demanding action on these issues and as a Government we intend to take it. We would like to do so in partnership as tackling extremism is a task for everyone.

    Ruth Kelly

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