Stoking Fear of 'Britain's Islamic Republic' Leads to Growing Intolerance Towards Muslims

Criminals may claim whatever they like, but accusing a whole community over their criminality will lead us nowhere.

The awful killing of 17 people in Paris by three apparently Al-Qaeda and Islamic State- linked French nationals of Muslim faith has outraged the international community. Muslims, including myself and others in Britain, have overwhelmingly condemned this massacre. Millions rallied for unity in France on 11 January. A balanced debate on the freedom of expression, liberty and tolerance can only take Europe and our fractured world forward.

Sadly, some on the political Right are not helping by shabbily attacking Muslim individuals in this country for all sorts of issues. There is also a flagrant demand that all individual Muslims take responsibility for the criminal acts of others. When all across Europe are worried about the fallout from the Paris killings this can only be music to the ears of Islamophobic hate mongers.

Criminals may claim whatever they like, but accusing a whole community over their criminality will lead us nowhere. Why should Muslims be asked to apologise, when it is not expected of others? Did we ever expect all Irish Catholics to apologise for the IRA bombings, or all Christians for Anders Breivik...?

One such columnist, who is known for his destructive obsession with the Muslim community, has once again made a broadside against some Muslims, in an article Paris attacks: Why this could happen in Britain (The Telegraph). The article criticises a recent House of Commons meeting on a report about radicalisation and extremism, organised by the Claystone think tank. The author of the report and chairman of the event were renowned individuals of non-Muslim faith. But Andrew Gilligan, the Telegraph journalist, targeted two Muslim individuals from around 100 others in the audience for his diatribe.

Mr Gilligan's tirade against many Muslim leaders is not new. Since a Dispatches film he made for Chanel 4 in 2010 ('Britain's Islamic Republic'), done with shoddy research, he has been using his own brand of regurgitation to 'prove' how certain British Muslim individuals and organisations are working to create an 'Islamic Republic' in Britain (as if working in the public domain is a no-go area for Muslims).

Although nearly five years on there is no sign of this Islamic Republic emerging anywhere in the UK, Mr Gilligan (doubling up as the London Mayor's cycling czar) has not stopped his invective. Many in my community see this as nothing short of a painful joke: Muslims are one of the least represented groups in media and politics. Beyond the prism of Tower Hamlets, on which Mr Gilligan so obsessively focuses, Muslims lack a great deal of representation.

In his most recent piece he attacked me again for my past links with an organisation called the Islamic of Forum Europe (IFE), a Tower Hamlets based community organisation. He cited an incorrect and out-of-context comment I made on stoning nine years ago. Whilst he has 'exonerated' me from 'any act of terror', he has outrageously suggested "it isn't all that far from condoning violence against people deemed to breach "Islamic norms" to what happened in the bloodstained offices of those other offenders against Islam, Charlie Hebdo."

To put things right, my comment on stoning in 2006 was totally misquoted in rightwing media. The point I was making was that "I cannot comment on a theological issue, I am not a religious scholar. This is an issue for Muslim majority countries to decide yes or no". I had asked for a correction, but as expected it was not followed.

Andrew Gilligan has a particular obsession when it comes to east London and the IFE. His Dispatches programme painted a very dark picture of Tower Hamlets and the IFE. I was IFE's first President from 1988 for a number of years and during that time, in its formative years, IFE was primarily focused on developing professional young people in the local area, as well as among the Bangladeshi community in Britain.

Towards the mid-1990's I moved on to help the historic initiative to form a national Muslim umbrella body, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). IFE by then was gradually becoming a community organisation in Tower Hamlets, despite its grandiose name.

The 2003 illegal invasion of Iraq polarised the country and angered many young Britons. As a result, the 2005 national election attracted a significant number of young Muslims, including many from IFE, to the newly-formed Respect Party. Its leader, George Galloway, was elected as the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, with a massive swing against the Labour party.

In the Dispatches programme Mr Gilligan was at pains to prove that the IFE was an 'extremist' organisation with a hidden agenda of 'entryism' into Tower Hamlets politics that went against Britain's 'democratic values'. Loud-mouthed nobodies and activists with tenuous connections to the East London Mosque (ELM) were painted as some kind of fearsome cadres. The programme seemed to imply that takeover was just around the corner.

But his tirade continued in the pages of The Telegraph, too. Mr Gilligan had curiously dark readings of common Islamic phrases, such as dawah (to teach and invite other people to Islam), to creepily insinuate an Islamic takeover was being planned.

Dispatches had also obtained some choice quotes and undercover footage of a few activists claiming to have 'their people' inserted into positions of power. The well-publicised film could only show a few lower-level IFE 'activists' gloating how they (IFE) were making inroads in running Tower Hamlets politics; anti-ELM rants from some well-known hardcore secularists in our local Bangladeshi community (who were known for their dislike of the ELM) supposedly showed how ordinary Bengalis were in fear of the IFE.

The fact that not a single leader worthy of mention from the IFE was shown to be contributing in the film, let alone saying anything anti-democratic or hateful, spoke volumes about its neutrality.

In making his documentary, Andrew Gilligan and his team probably felt they had to teach Britain's Muslims a lesson about democracy. But they would do well to remember that democracy is messy, difficult, and means having to deal with people with whom you disagree. If he and his fellow programme makers were incapable of doing this, then they were the ones who needed a lesson in what it means to be British.

It is important to keep in mind that the single-most potent allure of British society has, for hundreds of years, been liberty; the liberty to adopt and maintain different philosophies, lifestyles and beliefs that have been hard-fought for in civil and sectarian wars, revolution and glorious counter-revolution for a thousand years. Those great struggles, physical and philosophical, were more often than not centred on religious freedom as Protestants, Calvinists, Methodists, Catholics and others all vied for the space to be who they were and practice as they wished to.

By setting preconditions for Muslims who want to be part of that, we do not allow them this most fundamental of advantages to the British way of life. We do not offer them liberty, and without that the notion of Britishness is a hollow one.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant.

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