A Muslim critic of jihadi violence in England has been driven into hiding by threats from radical Muslims. Every day that he is forced to remain in hiding is an affront to the rule of law and an insult to mainstream Muslims and to British citizens in general.
The man in question is Mohammed El-Saeiti, the former imam of Didsbury Mosque in Manchester. It’s the mosque where Salman Abedi, the perpetrator of the May 2017 attack on the Ariana Grande concert, worshipped. El-Saeiti, who testified as a witness in the 2021 inquiry about extremism at the mosque, went into hiding after three men stood outside his house in Manchester and threatened him, with one of the men warning the imam “You’ll be dead” if he continued to speak out against extremism.
Abedi, of Libyan heritage, was a member of Didsbury Mosque where Saeiti served as imam for ten years before he was dismissed in 2020 from his post. He was ousted after criticising the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda and the Libyan militia group, Ansar al-Sharia. During the 2021 inquiry into extremism at Didsbury, Saeiti told investigators that the mosque had allowed Islamic radicals to meet on its premises.
Indeed, such was the extent of Islamist influence in the Didsbury Mosque that 91 people signed a petition calling for him to be removed as imam. One of the signatories was Hashem Abedi, Salman’s younger brother. The inquiry heard how Hashem was more influential than his brother with his online presence and connections and sympathies with extreme violent Islamic views since at least 2014.
Giving evidence to the inquiry, Dr. Matthew Wilkinson said that while Salman was chosen to do the deed, it was his brother that played a role in his radicalization. Hashem Abedi is currently serving a life sentence for helping his brother carry out the 2017 attack in the Manchester Arena which killed 22 people and injured hundreds.
Then Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the attack and described it as one motivated by the “evil ideology of Islamist extremism.” May was correct – Islamist extremism was to blame for Muslims taking up arms against a liberal democracy they once called home.
Officials are saying all the right things in terms of tackling Islamist extremists, but their words aren’t having much of an impact when both moderate Muslims and their allies are forced into hiding for standing up to extremists or British values of free speech.
It happened to a religious studies teacher at Batley Grammar School in the Yorkshire town of Batley and Spen in 2021. During a lesson on blasphemy and free speech, the teacher showed satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad to his students. One student took issue with the depiction and complained to his elders. A mob hounded the school for weeks to get the teacher fired. But the campaign didn’t stop at just mere protesting. The teacher had received death threats and had to flee his home in Batley and Spen and go into hiding.
To make matters worse, the Islamic charity Purpose of Life publicly identified the teacher at the center of the controversy, potentially putting his life at risk. The charity only received an official warning from the Charity Commission. The Conservative and the Labour Party said nothing, essentially leaving the school to deal with the matter internally. This shameful act of abandonment has left Islamist extremists emboldened to continue their campaign of protecting Islam from critique and Islamists from scrutiny.
A minority of Muslims are openly and lawfully campaigning for their Islamist aims – skirting the boundaries of the law to avoid prosecution. They are pressuring secular schools into adopting Islamic blasphemy policies, using threats and intimidation to get their way. They promote online petitions targeting imams who dare to challenge their Islamist extremism.
What transpired with El-Saetiti was no chance encounter. The imam has been on the radar of these individuals for some time. Indeed, Al-Saeiti had not only received death threats on Facebook but was also targeted at the mosque by Salman Abedi’s relatives before he carried out the attack on the Manchester Arena. It seems quite clear that the life of the imam will be in imminent danger for quite some time.
Counter Terrorism Policing North West moved Al-Saeiti out of his home in Manchester to protect his life. This is, of course, a prudent step to take, but it must not be the only step taken. Counter-terrorism police must find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. This will send a strong message to would-be jihadis that it is their extremism that will be run out of town, not law-abiding citizens. Failing to punish El-Saeiti’s tormentors could promote the impression that the government is soft on extremists.
Moderate Muslims and their allies are on the front line in tackling Islamist extremism, but this fight isn’t just theirs — it’s the government and the general public’s as well.
Unless there is a joined-up strategy to tackle the menace of Islamist extremism, we can expect more acts of terrorism to occur.
Wasiq Wasiq is a journalist specializing in defense and terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter: @WasiqUK