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Ben Rogers: Standing up to Islamism and speaking up for persecuted Muslims

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and serves as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. He was the Conservative Party Parliamentary Candidate in the City of Durham in 2005, and travels regularly on fact-finding visits to countries such as Burma and Pakistan.

Last week the Islamists gained a lot of attention. There was the Centre for Social Cohesion’s excellent report on Islamist literature in British public libraries. Then there was The Times front-page story on Sheikh Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul Haq. And then there was Osama bin Laden’s greeting.

Yet despite these news reports in the past week – and despite 9/11, 7/7, and the attempted bombings this summer in the West End and Glasgow – much of Britain, and particularly middle-class, liberal, progressive Britain, has still not woken up to the challenge of Islamism on our own doorstep. 

As a human rights campaigner and someone wishing to pursue a career in British politics, I view the issue of militant Islamism with the utmost concern. The teachings of Islamism are contrary to all the values I cherish: freedom, human dignity, equal rights for all. 

Leftists and extremists – an unholy alliance

The bizarre alliance between the far left led by Ken Livingstone and George Galloway, and the Islamists baffles me – the only thing that unites them is a deep hatred of America. Ken has been outspoken in championing gay rights and women’s rights, yet he promotes people who would execute homosexuals, stone adulterers and keep women hidden behind burqas or in the home. Galloway’s lewd display on Big Brother would surely make the Islamists hit the roof? Yet Tower Hamlets council merrily provides hundreds of books glorifying terrorism and inciting violence and hatred – at the taxpayer’s expense.

According to The Times, Riyadh ul Haq is poised to become leader of an Islamic sect which controls 600 mosques in Britain, 17 of Britain’s 26 Islamic seminaries and produces 80 per cent of British Muslim clerics. He is a man who is on record as criticising any Muslim who says they are “proud to be British”, teaches Muslims to hate Jews and Christians and calls on Muslims to “shed blood” for Allah. In addition, he and his followers would outlaw art, television, chess and music, demand “entire concealment” for women and regard football as “a cancer that has infected our youth”. Clapping is a pagan practice and should be prohibited, and no Muslim should celebrate someone’s birthday, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day or the new year. He doesn’t sound much fun. One of his disciples claims that music is a means for Jews to spread “the Satanic web” and that the Royal College of Music is a “Satanic influence”. My sister is a violinist and a graduate of the Royal College of Music. I rather object to her being described as “Satanic”. 

Last month, the extremist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir organised a conference in Alexandra Palace, “to revive the Caliphate system of government”, attended – the group claims – by thousands. Ed Husain’s book The Islamist, which I reviewed on this site last month, gives an insider’s account of Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s agenda, and it is extraordinary that we continue to allow them to operate in the UK – despite them being banned in many countries, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and a promise by Tony Blair, after 7/7, to ban them here. 

All of these issues pose several challenges for us. There are two specific reactions that we should avoid. The first is to bury our heads in the sand and hope that it will go away. It won’t – and if we carry on in our politically correct ignorance, the challenges will grow. The second is to react with Islamaphobia – hatred and violence which undermine the very values of freedom and tolerance which we seek to defend.

Wake up, Whitehall

Riyadh ul Haq was guest of honour at a Whitehall reception last year. He is by no means the only Islamist to have been courted by the government. Officials need to wake up from what a Pakistani commentator describes as our “blind ignorance”. 

At all levels of government there is a need for change. The Home Office has been infiltrated by Islamists. In several asylum applications by apostates from the Islamic world, Muslim Home Office translators have been found to have deliberately misrepresented the applicant’s testimony.

In the Foreign Office, while there are good exceptions, there are plenty of out-of-touch diplomats with a romanticised view of a world of deserts and camels inspired by Lawrence of Arabia. On my first visit to Pakistan, I met with a Senator from the Awami National Party (ANP) in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). By the standards of NWFP, he is a progressive liberal. Yet he told me that the British High Commission in Islamabad is in constant dialogue with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a pro-Taliban pro-al Qaeda coalition in power in NWFP – but never talks with the ANP. The next day I met a middle-ranking diplomat at the British High Commission. He confirmed this was true, but added: “There’s nothing to worry about with the MMA. They are just a lot of men with big beards who make a lot of noise.” I put it to him that they have introduced Shari’a law in NWFP. To my total astonishment, this British diplomat looked at me bemused and said: “What’s the problem with Shari’a law?” And yet Shari’a conflicts with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in two major ways – it requires inequality before the law for non-Muslims and for women and it forbids the right to choose or change religion. A serious overhaul of Whitehall is overdue.

Embrace moderates

But equally important, we must avoid the other extreme – hatred of all Muslims and Islamophobia. We must seek out and reach out to moderate Muslim communities at all levels – nationally, locally, politically, individually, within our communities and beyond.

This week I had two experiences that provided some balance in my mind to the steady flow of reports emerging about Islamism. The first was a meeting I had Ed Husain. Deeply thoughtful, gracious, intelligent, inspiring and courageous, Ed Husain knows infinitely more about Islamism in Britain than I will ever be able to know – because he used to be an Islamist. David Cameron and other senior British politicians in all parties ought to read The Islamist if they have not already done so, and then meet with Ed Husain – and with others like him. They should stop giving in to pressure from radicals posing as moderates in the Muslim Council of Britain – and seek advice from those who really know what is going on from the inside.

Then on Saturday, I spent five hours with a community of forgotten, persecuted Muslim refugees in Stratford, east London. They are Rohingya from Burma. Persecuted by Burma’s military regime and ignored by Burma’s democratic movement, they need a voice. Gracious, gentle, hospitable and profoundly moving, these people told me one by one why they had fled their country. “We are stateless people in our own country,” one man said.

Treated as non-citizens in Burma, the Rohingya are denied all basic rights – banned from travelling within Burma, denied permission to marry and refused access to education, they say they are “facing an identity crisis”. Subjected to rape, forced labour and religious persecution, they are desperate. Mosques have been destroyed by the regime, and they are denied permission to repair or build new mosques. “Even animals have the right to move from one place to another, but we don’t. And without access to education, we become living dead.” 

With tears in his eyes, one young man gently described some of his experiences in Burma. “Every day of our lives we face harassment and humiliation,” he said. Stories abounded of small but grinding incidents. A 70 year-old man with tuberculosis denied a seat on a boat because he was a Rohingya. A group of Rohingya students stopped at a police check-point on their way to prayers, and ordered to take off their skullcaps. A student with all his papers in order stopped at a check-point and turned back – when he asked the police what the problem was, he was told: “Your religion is the problem”.

As I sat and listened to these stories, my heart broke. When I asked them how they felt about Islamism and the spread of teachings of hatred, they smiled. One said: “Can’t you see in our faces what we believe?” I could – their faces were gentle, kind, peaceful, beautiful. Another said: “Our people don’t have time for [Islamism]. Our people think only of the problems they face – our suffering in Burma, and how to put food on the table for their families.”

But then I asked whether there was any danger that the Rohingya could be radicalised. Their leader, a wise, thoughtful man who had a book about Martin Luther King with him, nodded gravely: “If the situation does not change, there is a possibility that they could be driven into extremism. If they think they have no friends in this world, no one to stand up for them – and if the Islamists offer them such help – there is a possibility in the future that they could be radicalised.” Such a possibility fills me with horror. Not just because Burma is a passion of mine, but because it would be a tragedy for the Rohingya people themselves.

A twin-pronged approach

So what do we do? We need a twin-pronged approach: stand up to Islamism, at home and abroad, while at the same time stand up for persecuted Muslim populations like the Rohingya. Speaking up for the Rohingya is right in itself – in the interests of humanity – but it is also strategically important.

Here at home, let us put an end to the insane political correctness that is taking root. Christmas is Christmas, Easter is Easter, and it is our tradition to eat hot cross buns. Why consign centuries of history to the dustbin just because we think such traditions might offend people of other religions? In fact, most people from other religions think we’re barking mad to do so – they would have more respect for us if we took pride in our traditions, as they do in theirs. Similarly, why strip hospital chapels of crosses and other Christian symbols and change them, effectively, into Muslim prayer rooms? I believe passionately in religious freedom for all, and believe it is a strength of our society that we allow mosques and temples and synagogues and that everyone is free to choose their form of worship. But why trash Christianity, and simultaneously build a mega-mosque for the Olympics? 

Secondly, let us take head-on the challenge of reciprocity – and at the same time re-evaluate our relationship with Saudi Arabia. A Pakistani Christian friend of mine told me of a conversation he had had with a Saudi Arabian friend. The Saudi was recounting to him the number of mosques built in the UK. The Pakistani Christian said: “That is wonderful. What a great example of religious freedom, that a country with a Christian tradition should allow so much space for other religions. But what about building some churches and temples in Riyadh and Jeddah?” The Saudi’s entire demeanour changed. “Oh that is impossible. That is a completely different matter.” Why? Why do we tolerate Saudis spending billions of dollars on mosques, madrassas, literature and the spread of Wahhabism in the UK – when there is no religious freedom in Saudi?

Thirdly, let us be bold in dealing with issues of apostasy and blasphemy. Why should someone who decides to leave Islam and take up another faith be killed, as Shari’a law’s rules of apostasy teach? If a Christian gives up his or her faith, the most you would get is an over-zealous evangelical pleading with them and quoting scripture. Most Christians would be more moderate, and would view it simply with a twinge of sadness. No Christian that I know would kill someone who leaves the faith. We would respect their freedom to choose.

And blasphemy. Why should someone be killed for saying something, whether intentionally or not, that may be deemed insulting to Islam? Of course the religious sensitivities of people should be respected. No one should wilfully set out to insult. But people insult Christianity all the time – Christ’s name has become for many a swear word. The media is full of derogatory and offensive material, generated by extreme secularism. Militant Islamists themselves preach all sorts of offensive lies about Christians and Jews. But the most you would get from a Christian is a letter of complaint to the BBC – and most of us decide to turn the other cheek. Cartoons insulting Christianity are not uncommon – but we don’t burn flags, riot and make blood-curdling threats in response. Can you imagine what would have happened if instead of making the cartoon “Popetown” a couple of years ago, the BBC has made “Mullah-town”? 

Fourthly, let us abandon our current faulty ‘multi-culturalism’ which has led to the reverse – ghetto-isation, separation, isolation - and instead develop a society that is integrated and cohesive, one which respects and embraces diversity, but enhances unity. One in which different racial and religious communities interact and show mutual respect. 

Let us take these steps in a manner that truly values humanity. Let us be consistent with the values we defend. For that reason, we need to speak up for the Rohingya people of Burma and other forgotten communities like them. We need to work in partnership with peaceful, moderate Muslims who share our respect for life, liberty and human dignity. One of my Rohingya friends, describing his vision of Burma – a nation of many different ethnicities – put it beautifully: “We want to build a country that is like a garden. If you are designing a garden, you don’t just plant one type of flower throughout the whole garden. You plant several different types, and they grow side by side, together, sharing the same soil.” That vision is one for Britain as much as it is for Burma. We do not need to chop down the roses to make room for the daffodils and tulips – they can grow together, if we get the right soil and we sow and water well.


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