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Three tests for a new All-Party Group on Islamophobia

By Paul Goodman

As far as I know, I was the first MP to call for a Parliamentary inquiry into anti-Muslim hatred and violence - last March, writing on this site, and concluding as follows -

"There are calls at present for an all-party inquiry into Islamophobia– mirroring the previous all-party enquiry into anti-semitism.  I doubt whether the comparison holds.  As I wrote earlier, there’s no Muslim equivalent of the Community Security Trust.  This is doubtless because Britain’s Jewish and Muslim communities are very different: the national background, ethnicity, languages, and theological approach of the latter vary enormously.  It’s hard to envisage an All-Party Group on Islamophobia representing the interests of all Britain’s diverse Muslim communities.  It’s easy to imagine such Islamist groups as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat e Islami infiltrating such a group for their own purposes.

For this reason and others, some will want either to declare that Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred aren’t real problems at all, or that government and Parliament have no role in tackling either.  I disagree with this view.  There’s evidence - like that cited earlier - that the hatred of Muslims and anti-Muslim violence are serious problems .  Something should be done.

I suggest a proper Select Committee inquiry to take place during the next Parliament.  The most suitable vehicle would be the DCLG Select Committee, since the DCLG deals with community cohesion.  It would collect written submissions, take oral evidence, issue a report, make recommendations.

It should take evidence as widely as possible.  If the Jamaat e Islami or the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to make representations, they should be allowed to do so.  So should think-tanks specialising in counter-extremism, such as the Quilliam Foundation or Centri.  So should the police.  So should those who believe (wrongly, in my view) that Islamophobia is an imaginary construct, and doesn’t exist at all.

Could such an inquiry be exploited by Islamists?  Yes.  Is that a good reason for not having it?  No.  Why?  Because the problem of the hatred of Muslims and anti-Muslim violence, in particular, is grave.  It's a wound that can only fester.  Parliament has a role to play in drawing the poison."

The best part of a year later, Parliament is taking the wrong fork in the road.  To the best of my knowledge, the DCLG Select Committee isn't conducting an inquiry.  However, an All-Party Group on Islamophobia is to be set up and, according to Andrew Gilligan, will be staffed by an organisation called Engage, which he claims -

I've written previously on this site about the East London Mosque and Anwar Al Awlaki.  Gilligan headlines his article: "Islamists establish a bridgehead in Parliament".  It would be easy to fix the spotlight on Engage, and ask further questions about the organisation.  However, it would also be wrong, at least at this stage.  Rather, the light should be shining on those MPs and Peers involved with the group.  After all, they - and not some outside body - are responsible for the project: where it meets on the Parliamentary estate, who comes to those meetings, what's said, what's done, what's published.

It's essential to grasp the aim of some British Islamists: to gain credibility, patronage, and muscle among British Muslims.  Regular access to Parliament, meetings with MPs, invitations to receptions, conferences at which Ministers can be inveigled to speak, appointments to working parties, contributions to reports, places as advisers, grants for projects (paid for, of course, by taxpayers): all these are means of building up their position among Britain's Muslim communities.  Trying to get politicians to attend the regular Global Peace and Unity (GPU) conference is a classic example - see here, here and here.

They've made headway with the Liberal Democrats.  Simon Hughes spoke at the GPU and Nick Clegg fought a ban on Coalition MPs going.  They've divided Labour, which has, on the whole, been more resistant.  Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears and Ruth Kelly wanted to confront the ideologies from which extremist views and terrorist acts grow.  Jack Straw, John Denham and Sadiq Khan have more conciliatory instincts.  But to date, the various Islamist movements have had little joy with the Conservative Party, now the senior partner in government.

David Cameron appointed Pauline Neville-Jones, now a Home Office Minister, as his Security Adviser. He labelled the Cordoba Foundation "a front for the Muslim Brotherhood".  He ordered that relations be broken off with the Muslim Council of Britain after the Daud Abdullah controversy.  In Opposition, he called in for Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Ibrahim Moussawi to be barred from Britain - and, in Government, Theresa May banned Zakir Naik.  He helped to ensure that no Conservative MP, let alone Minister, spoke at the GPU this year.

I'm not breaking any news by pointing out that Sayeeda Warsi took a different view on the GPU. The Observer and the Daily Telegraph reported last month that she wanted to go to and speak at the conference as, puzzlingly, did a fringe anti-semitic organisation.  No Conservative Minister, of course - let alone the co-Chairman of the Party - has so much as a moment's time for extremism, or would address a GPU conference without denouncing this vigorously.  But a minority view within the Party dissents from Cameron's approach to these matters, and a small minority of Tory MPs doubtless think that there are benefits to engaging with such groups as Engage.

But while meeting Engage is one thing, permitting or encouraging it to run an All-Party Parliamentary Group quite another.  This, by the way, is what the secretariat to an All-Party Group can effectively do, in some circumstances.  I expect that the group, mirroring the All-Party Group on Anti-Semitism, will want to hold a formal inquiry, along the lines of a Select Committee one.  This would ask for written evidence, take oral evidence, and draft and produce a report.  In such circumstances, the secretariat concerned would issue invitations, handle arrangements, write a draft.

If this project's to flourish (and my reservations proved wrong), three conditions are essential -

  • A different secretariat should be appointed.  To have enough authority to support such an inquiry, the secretariat concerned must be representative of British Muslims (in so far as this is possible); certainly trusted by the various political, ethnic, national interests concerned; expert, and dispassionate.  Whatever one thinks of Engage's views, it doesn't fit this bill.  It's essentially a monitoring website or an attack website (depending on one's point of view) which targets non-Islamist Muslims in particular - see here, here, here, and here, for example.  It's unclear who staffs it.  Over the last two weeks, its 37 posts have prompted a mere 47 comments.  Its Newsletter section contains only two items: the last one is dated October 2009.  This doesn't suggest that it has a large readership, or is representative of any significant interest.
  • Any enquiry must take a wide range of evidence.  As I wrote above, there's no reason why the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaat e Islami shouldn't give their view to a group of MPs.  But it goes almost without saying that they should be cross-questioned rigorously.  And evidence should come from a wide range of sources, representing a broad range of views.  No enquiry would be worthwhile without evidence from such former Ministers as Blears and Kelly. Some of the Barelwi pirs who founded the British Muslim Forum have strong views on Salafi as well as anti-Muslim and anti-Islam extremism, as does Dr Tahir Al QadriQuilliam and Centri are well briefed on ideologies.  Searchlight is expert on fascist and neo-nazi incitement and violence.  The Community Security Trust could give advice about the protection of buildings and people.  Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad is one of Britain's leading Islamic teachers and writers.  An old Fleet Street hand who knows who the media works is essential: perhaps a former Editor who now lectures on journalism?  Policy Exchange, our contributor Robin Simcox from the Centre for Social Cohesion, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens and Shiraz Maher would put the concept of Islamophobia under a magnifying glass, should also give evidence - and be probed no less vigorously than anyone else.
  • Any conclusions must be practical.  A diatribe against Fleet Street would be futile.  Suggestions of new religious hatred laws would be both wrong and counter-productive.  A new state monitoring apparatus, or anything like it, would be wasteful.  Instead, any recommendations must concentrate on establishing facts; refining data; improving reporting; protecting mosques, worshippers, schools, pupils, events and citizens; working with the police; exchanging ideas with other religious groups.  Any report must recognise the symbiotic relationship that Islamist extremism has with anti-Muslim extremism.  Above all, it must see the problems in perspective - and acknowledge that Britain has been a warm home for Muslims, as it has been for those of other minority faiths.

> Also on ConHome today: The second part of Martin Parsons' series on radical Islam


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