During the 1988 Rushdie affair, the violent fury in Britain unleashed against a work of literature, the Satanic Verses, and its author was chiefly organized by extreme Islamist factions within British Muslim groups, which later formed the core of the Muslim Council of Britain.
This was the first taste British society had of attempted mob rule and threats of violence by radical Islamic zealots attacking free speech. It revealed that the British public included throngs of irrational actors with scant regard for democratic values.
In his 2002 book The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror, American author and Muslim convert Stephen Schwartz warned about the use of the faith of Islam as a cover for “Islamofascism” – “a totalitarian ideology embodied among Sunni Muslims by such fundamentalists as the Saudi-financed Wahhabis, the Pakistani jihadists known as Jama’atis, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. And in the ranks of Shia Muslims, by Hezbollah in Lebanon” as well as the ruling Ayatollahs in Iran and their international henchmen in the Quds force.
“The other face of Islam” wrote Schwartz “….pluralist, spiritual and committed to co-existence with the earlier Abrahamic revelations, Judaism and Christianity, [is] the one we must cultivate and support if we are to help the Muslim world conquer its own destructive demons – its version of fascist and communist totalitarianism – and thereby help ourselves.”
Yet, for the last fifteen years, most politicians and media in the UK have resolutely ignored this advice. They have made the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) the first port of call on issues affecting the Muslim community in the UK, despite the fact its founders had established sympathies for the violent Jamaat-e-Islami Islamist movement in South Asia, which advocates the creation of an Islamic state and the imposition of Sharia law.
The extremism of some of the MCB’s affiliates and officials is well-established. The MCB’s former director general Muhammed Abdul Bari, for instance, also served as chair of Jamaat-e-Islami’s European arm, the Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE). The IFE claims it is dedicated, according to a 2010 report in the Daily Telegraph, to changing the “very infrastructure of society, its institutions, its culture, its political order and its creed … from ignorance to Islam.”
An IFE document seen by the Telegraph states that through “hisbah” (the enforcement of Islamic law) and “jihad,” the organization aims to create a global Islamic regime, the caliphate, and its primary work is focused on “Europe, because it is this continent, despite all the furore about its achievements, which has a moral and spiritual vacuum.”
Despite the pro-caliphate worldview of its founders, the MCB has often set the terms of the national debate on issues concerning Islam and Muslims.
No position held by MCB officials has proved too unreasonable for the media to balk at consulting them or instead seek a second opinion from the Muslim community: not when founding MCB secretary general Iqbal Sacranie said of Salman Rushdie that “Death is perhaps too easy for him”; not when eight Glasgow Mosques affiliated with the MCB issued a fatwa in 2001, accusing Scottish publisher and Qu’ran scholar Paigham Mustafa, on headed paper of its affiliate Glasgow Central Mosque, of “satanic thoughts” for questioning traditional Islamic practices such as stoning adulterers and apostates. The fatwa called on Muslims to “terminate these elements and to protect the youth from this temptation.”
The MCB’s influence even survived, in 2009, when the British government stopped engaging with the group after its deputy secretary general, Daud Abdullah, signed the Istanbul Declaration, which, a government minister declared, “supports violence against foreign forces – which could include British naval personnel” and advocates “attacks on Jewish communities all around the world.”
Most of the media did not flinch during the MCB’s six year boycott by the council of Holocaust Memorial Day; nor stop consulting with the MCB when the 2016 BBC Radio 4 documentary “The Deobandis” uncovered active links between leaders of MCB affiliated mosques in Edinburgh and Glasgow and the banned Sunni extremist group Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), which is linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
And there were no consequences for the MCB in 2015 when leaflets were found at one of its affiliates, Stockwell Green Mosque, which incited the murder of Ahmadi Muslims should they refuse to convert to Sunni Islam.
The fact that Islamists have relatively little support from British Muslims has not even dethroned the MCB as the media’s preferred Muslim organization. An ICM poll included in the 2016 Policy Exchange report “Unsettled Belonging” revealed that the MCB was considered the preferred political leadership of British Islam by just 9% of British Muslims.
Despite all this, the media has faithfully aerated the MCB’s relentless campaigns, including the group’s attacks on the government’s counter-extremism program, “Prevent,” despite the ICM and other polls indicating a majority of British Muslims support the program.
Few journalists challenged the Islamist group’s campaign to introduce a definition of “Islamophobia” that failed to distinguish between Islam and Islamism and was opposed by not just counter-terrorism experts, but secularists, moderate Muslims and defenders of civil liberties, minority and women’s rights and freedom of speech.
These MCB campaigns had a powerful backer in Baroness Warsi, former co-chair of the Conservative party, who, in a curious double standard, while demanding zero tolerance on Islamophobia, argued in a debate on the government’s Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill in the House of Lords in October 2018 that the UK must not “become a country that polices thought” and speech while insisting on an end to the government’s “non-engagement with a wide range of Muslim community organisations and activists” and demanding that many regarded as extremists must be forgiven.
Both the MCB’s Sacranie and Abdul Bari, as well as Warsi, were signatories to a letter of complaint last March to the BBC after the new female Director General of the MCB, Zara Mohammed, was persistently asked on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour program about the number of female imams in the UK – a line of questioning they claimed was “strikingly hostile,” prompting the BBC to remove a clip of the offending interrogation from its website.
Mohammad was elected chair in 2016 of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), an affiliate of the MCB and which, as the Times reported in 2015, the government’s Muslim Brotherhood Review concluded was established by the Muslim Brotherhood.
If Mohammed’s interviewer on Woman’s Hour had truly wanted to be hostile, she could have asked why she thought the chairpersons or officers of six FOSIS affiliates went on to conduct suicide bombings or be jailed for terrorism offences between 2006 and 2016. Former Prime Minister Nick Clegg commented in a 2011 speech that the group had “failed sufficiently to challenge terrorist and extremist ideologies.”
Former Commissioner for Countering Extremism Sara Khan lamented in the Guardian in 2017, after a spate of terror attacks in the UK that year, how “Fully exploiting the uncontested space we provided them, extremists promoted their supremacist, hate-filled ideology to thousands of Muslims on satellite channels, through social media, on campuses and community events, day in, day out. In the battle of ideas, deconstructing their ideological world view was then and remains now one of our greatest failures. And fail we did – collectively, as Muslim institutions, human rights organisations, anti-racist groups and governments.”
She added “While the Muslim Council of Britain perfected the art of issuing press statements, it did nothing to push back on such poisonous teachings.”
Swiss Yemeni professor of political science Elham Manea, who was almost radicalised by the Muslim Brotherhood in her teens, wrote in her 2021 book “The Perils of Non Violent Islamism,” that Westerners have been hopelessly gullible in their choice of “smiling and patient” Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi representatives as their go-to experts on Islam and Muslims.
The problem is clear. What, then, is the solution?
The answer may well lie with new reformist Muslim efforts. A new Muslim-led organization is determined to push back against Islamist ideology. The Oxford Institute for British Islam’s inaugural conference at St John’s College Oxford titled “Why British Islam? A Vision for the Future” ran from the 19th to 21st of August.
Manea delivered the opening khutbah (sermon) on “Women and Mosques” to a mixed gender congregation in the gardens of St John’s College, Oxford, where the call to prayer was sung by Malaysian-American Ani Zonneveld. Manea, also author of the 2016 book Women and Sharia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK, acknowledged that while change could be hard, even traumatic in any community, the time had come for mosques to become spaces where she could freely pray alongside her husband and daughter – an option that most British mosques, especially from the Deobandi tradition, simply do not allow.
“No one has a monopoly on truth. Only God can accept or reject a prayer – and no institution or person can place itself in a position as a speaker of our God Almighty,” she said.
The Oxford Institute for British Islam, at which Manea is a visiting fellow, aims to dismantle the barriers to integration into British society erected by a fundamentalist reading of Islam.
At its launch in May at St Peter’s College Oxford, Muslim academic Taj Hargey said “The Oxford Institute for British Islam will demonstrate that violence against non-Muslims, blasphemers, apostates, FGM, women’s suppression, stoning to death, all these barbaric practices have no Qur’anic validation. They come from the Hadith, the alleged sayings of the Prophet Mohammed written 300 years after his death, the sharia, a concoction of medieval clerical opinion and the fatwas, arbitrary rulings masquerading as religious decrees like Khomeini’s against Salman Rushdie.”
At a panel discussion in August 2021 at the Henry Jackson Society thinktank titled “Countering Caliphism: Towards Integration or Segregation?” Hargey, a PhD in Islamic and oriental studies from St Anthony’s College, Oxford, added: “This medieval mullah Islam is in direct contrast to pristine Quranic Islam. It wishes to recreate the unrealistic reversion to a mythical utopia of seventh century Arabia, a mirage of the idealised Islamic state that the Prophet Mohammed established in 632.”
“British Muslims need to sever the theological umbilical cord and ideological nexus that binds them to an archaic and irrelevant medieval Islam.” added Hargey and said the Institute aims to “theologically empower” British Muslims to embrace a more “enlightened, erudite and egalitarian” version of their faith.
Other speakers at the OIBI’s inaugural conference included Yasmin Alibhai Brown, founder of British Muslims for Secular Democracy; OIBI visiting fellows Usama Hasan, an imam, scholar of Islam and a former senior researcher at erstwhile Muslim-led counter-extremism thinktank Quilliam.
Additional guests included Professor Steven Greer, professor of Human Rights at Bristol University Law School, and author of the 2022 book “Tackling Terrorism in Britain: Threats, responses and challenges twenty years after 9/11; as well as Paigham Mustafa, author of a new 2016 English translation of the Qu ‘ran: “God’s Message to Mankind” and pamphlets such as “Everything You Wanted to Know About Radical Islam But Were Afraid To Ask.”
The MCB’s selective outrage about Emma Barnett’s “hostile” interview with Glaswegian Director General Zara Mohammed is nowhere clearer than in its silence about the fatwa issued against Mustafa in 2001 by eight Glasgow Mosques. Mustafa had to seek police protection in 2018 after receiving death threats on Facebook.
“That fatwa is a serious concern, and the MCB should have an honest debate about that,” said Usama Hasan, ahead of the launch of the Oxford Institute for British Islam in May. “The last 20 years since 9/11, especially the ISIS years, really brought home to a lot of people how damaging and dangerous old style or decontextualised interpretations of Islam were. Sadly the MCB for all their good work and good intentions, cannot deal with the problem of Islamist extremism.”
He added: “While I defend their right to defend Muslims from Islamophobia, the MCB haven’t grappled with the nuts and bolts of Islamist extremism, which exists in the hardline rhetoric of Sunni Islamist and Shia Khomeinist groups. An example of that is the MCB’s pointless and counter productive opposition to Prevent alongside hard-line Islamists like CAGE, which is a danger to national security. Because the threat is still with us, we still have plots coming from Islamist terrorists. It is a massive problem.”
As OIBI visiting fellow Dr Steven Greer wrote in his 2022 book Tackling Terrorism in Britain: Threats, responses and challenges twenty years after 9/11, “The principal contribution of non-Muslims and the state should be to support and encourage those interpretations of all faiths and ideologies which are life-affirming, tolerant and non-violent and to discourage those which are not.”
This means making the OIBI a new port of call on issues concerning Islam and Muslims in the UK, and reflecting the true cultural and ideological diversity of this growing constituency.
Hannah Baldock is a former research fellow at the Centre for Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society.