THE BLOG

I Know About Islamic Radicals... I Was Attacked by One

25/03/2015 16:42 GMT | Updated 25/05/2015 10:59 BST

My friend Muddassar Ahmed has drawn my attention to an article by Sunday Telegraph columnist Andrew Gilligan, arguing that his inclusion on a Government advisory group was akin to Militant Tendency entryism into the Labour Party. "Islamic radicals are practising entryism of their own", he wrote, "into the heart of Whitehall".

Muddassar grew up in my constituency. I presented him with an achievement certificate at his secondary school. Before the 2003 vote in the Commons on military action in Iraq, I turned on the local television news one evening to see a report about Muddassar campaigning against me in our High Street. Soon afterwards, he was in a deputation I met just before the vote, asking me not to support it.

I made it clear I would be supporting the Prime Minister. Muddassar - with many others - was involved in angry local protests about my decision. In the 2005 General Election, my majority was sharply reduced. Muddassar was later featured in a memorable TV documentary campaigning unsuccessfully with the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) against Jack Straw in Blackburn.

By that time, however, we had started to talk. I found him bright, thoughtful and engaging. I nominated him for the summer school of Oxford University's Centre for Islamic Studies, where he thrived. He joined the Labour Party, but was unsuccessful - apparently because of his MPAC connection - in being selected as a Council candidate for the 2010 elections.

I introduced him to friends from the corporate responsibility movement. He set up a public affairs company focused on bridging divides between Muslims and other communities. It had a struggle to begin with, but has since done well, winning contracts from the US Government, the UN, Muslim NGOs and others.

Andrew Gilligan argues that he is not fit to serve on a government advisory panel today because (i) of his role in MPAC, when he was barely out of college; and (ii) because he gave advice to the proposers of the Megamosque in East London. Youthful errors of judgment are not normally regarded as leading to lifetime bans on holding positions of responsibility. A lot of people have attempted to give advice to the Megamosque project - unfortunately it has rarely been heeded - but nobody is suggesting they should all be disqualified from normal democratic activity.

What we need - and what I believe will happen - is that, over time, distinctively British Muslim institutions will develop. It's a process the Jewish community - once regarded by many Britons as alien - went through very successfully in the twentieth century, with state funding for Jewish schools an important element in the successful transition. The Chief Rabbi has a respected national voice and a wide influence. I look forward to British Islam making the same journey.

People like Muddassar Ahmed - with both a confident British identity, and a profound commitment to the Muslim faith - will be key to enabling that to happen. It would be absurd to rule him out of taking part on the basis Andrew Gilligan suggests.

I am a Christian. When I was growing up, it was widely assumed that faith was on its way out. There were - it was thought - a few elderly people and some eccentrics who still believed, but it was merely a matter of time before the whole phenomenon would die out.

That view is not tenable today. In my constituency, churches have taken on responsibility for providing food for destitute victims of welfare cuts, and shelter for the homeless during the winter. Mosques, temples and Gurdwaras are thriving, and are key institutions in our local community. It used to be thought that a multi-faith community was, by definition, fragmented. But because so many residents belong to a faith institution, and as a result feel part of the wider society, our community is cohesive. Mosques and other places of worship are making key contributions.

I am not blind to the dangers of Islamic extremism. I have been a victim of it myself. But to allow the development of a confident British Muslim community - contributing fully to and at home in the United Kingdom - we need to encourage bright young people like Muddassar Ahmed to play as full a part as we can.