Saturday, May 18, 2024

Islamist Blasphemy Brigades March on the UK

NewsIslamist Blasphemy Brigades March on the UK

A brigade of blasphemy bullies is radicalizing Muslims in the United Kingdom. That’s the takeaway from a new report published by the Commission for Countering Extremism established by the UK government in 2017 in response to the Manchester Arena attack in which two British-born jihadis killed 22 and injured more than 1,000.

Report author Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. (YouTube screenshot)

The report, titled “Understanding and Responding to Blasphemy Extremism in the UK,” and authored by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, an expert on extremism and terrorism, documents the growing threat of anti-blasphemy related violence perpetrated by local adherents of the far-right Barelvi Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) movement whose activism targets Ahmadi Muslims and non-Muslims who are accused of insulting Islam. Barelvism is a South Asian Islamist movement that some observers mistake as a moderate alternative to Deobandi Islamism, despite its role in introducing the death penalty for blasphemy in Pakistan. It has perpetrated vigilante attacks against apostates and non-Muslims in Pakistan.

The fundamental rights of individuals to criticize, question and mock all ideas, including religious beliefs, must be non-negotiable.

Stephen Evans, National Secular Society

Close observation of TLP activities as detailed in the report shows how Islamist movements seek to introduce the norms of their home countries into the West, terrorizing those they deem as opponents and trying to achieve a special status beyond discussion or criticism for their religious texts and tenets.

The TLP in Pakistan

TLP arose from street protests mobilized in 2015 by the late Khadim Rizvi, a Karachi-based Barelwi extremist cleric who used inflammatory rhetoric about preserving the honor of Islam and its prophet, Muhammad. Rizvi rose to prominence by advocating for Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who in 2011 murdered Punjab governor Salman Taseer, a critic of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. Taseer had called for a pardon for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian farm worker charged with blasphemy in 2009 over a row with her Muslim co-workers over a cup of water. When Bibi was acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2018 after eight years on death row, the TLP called for the murder of the judges and mobilized deadly riots that paralyzed the capital Islamabad, forcing the Pakistani government to negotiate with the TLP. Rizvi died in 2020.

TLP has gone on to inspire extra-judicial killings, lynchings, and kidnappings as well as death threats to Pakistani ministers, judges and police officers in the effort to preserve the country’s notorious blasphemy laws. These tactics work, finds the commission, with the Pakistani government repeatedly capitulating to the organization.

TLP in the UK

TLP has a branch of supporters in England (TLP-UK), whose leaders have, for now, refrained from calling for violence. In some instances, they even called on British Muslims to “express their anger in peaceful and democratic ways,” the commission reports. Nevertheless, “their rhetoric and the support some of them have expressed for violent anti-blasphemy extremists in Pakistan has the potential to radicalize their audience around the issue of blasphemy. This, in turn, may increase the likelihood of sectarian violence and terrorism in the United Kingdom.”

But the group hosts annual celebrations venerating Rizvi and it has incited alarming events. For example, they targeted a teacher at a school in Batley, West Yorkshire who in March 2021 showed students a cartoon of Muhammad from the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, as a stimulus for a discussion on free speech. In response, school officials suspended the instructor and he was forced into hiding after receiving death threats ignited by the TLP. The teacher has been given a new identity. He remains in hiding along with his partner and children, the Daily Express reported.

One month later, TLP-UK activists demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan and a boycott of French products outside of the Pakistan High Commission in London, protesting the French government’s ongoing support for cartoonists who depict Muhammad.

In June 2022, the TLP-UK caused trouble at screenings of Lady of Heaven, a feature film depicting the life of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima from the perspective of writer Sheikh Yasir Al-Habib, a Shia scholar from Kuwait living in the UK. Activists linked to the TLP-UK picketed the showings of the film, prompting its withdrawal from Cineworld cinemas to “ensure the safety” of their staff and customers. Baroness Caroline Cox, a member of the House of Lords, criticized the cancellation as “disastrous for the arts, dangerous for free speech,” likening the decision to a creeping extra-parliamentary blasphemy law.

In January 2023, TLP-UK activists protested the burning of a Qur’an in Sweden outside the Swedish Embassy in London.

In February 2023, TLP-UK supporters protested after a copy of the Qur’an was allegedly dropped and scuffed at a high school in Wakefield in central England. Four boys were suspended from school and received death threats after the controversy, driven in part by emergency meetings held by a local mosque at which TLP-UK supporters spoke. Home Secretary Suella Braverman likened those meetings to “a sharia law trial.” The mosque was later investigated for regulatory compliance by the Charities Commission.

Ajmal Shahpal, a British-Pakistani TLP-UK follower based in Nottingham, was convicted of encouraging terrorism in May 2023 after posting messages online that called for the deaths of perceived blasphemers, celebrated the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices, and posted a photo of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty’s severed head.

Effective Response Needed

To address the growing threat of anti-blasphemy activism, the Commission for Countering Extremism recommends that the government consider adopting anti-blasphemy extremism as a category for referrals to its Prevent counterextremism program. The government should also consider proscribing groups associated with anti-blasphemy extremism, such as the TLP, and banning their non-British members and supporters from entering the country.

Anti-blasphemy activists should be allowed to protest in a responsible way but the naming and shaming of alleged blasphemers like the Batley teacher should be discouraged.

The government should also review the charitable status of bodies and organizations linked to anti-blasphemy extremism. In 2021, the Charity Commission issued a warning to the charity Purpose of Life after it publicly named the teacher at the center of the Batley school incident in an open letter “written in such a way as to be likely to inflame existing tensions within the local community.”

Robin Simcox, head of the Commission for Countering Extremism, told The Times that “those seeking to impose any kind of blasphemy law in the UK cannot be allowed to succeed.” He said charitable bodies hosting speakers involved in anti-blasphemy activism were making the fight against extremism more difficult, adding that it was right that the government sought to prevent those with extremist ideologies from entering the country.

Stephen Evans, CEO of the National Secular Society.

National Secular Society chief executive Stephen Evans declared that “The report is welcome recognition of the need to address the disturbing rise in anti-blasphemy incidents across the UK.”

“Britain may have abolished blasphemy laws protecting Christianity, but vigilance is needed to ensure new blasphemy codes protecting Islam or any other religion are not imposed and enforced by intimidation or the threat of violence,” he said, adding, “A joint governmental and civil society response is needed to better champion freedom of expression as a positive value. The fundamental rights of individuals to criticize, question and mock all ideas, including religious beliefs, must be non-negotiable.” 

Hannah Baldock is a UK-based researcher on radicalization and terrorism.

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