Muslim Council of Britain Responds to Observer

Following Sunday’s reports in the Observer, the Muslim Council of Britain makes a spirited defence (all hyperlinks in quotes added by me):

In an extraordinary attack today, The Observer (Sunday 14th August 2005) has published a front page article, a two page ‘Investigation‘ on pages eight and nine, together with an editorial, all seeking to vilify the Muslim Council of Britain.

Over three years ago, the Home Affairs editor at The Observer, Martin Bright, achieved some notoriety amongst British Muslims when he penned a cover story for the New Statesman (10th December 2001) entitled ‘The Great Koran Con Trick.’ In that piece, Bright tried his hardest – and quite miserably failed – to disprove the Divine origin of the Holy Qur’an.

Actually, that earlier article was rather weak, and annoyed some of the scholars whom Bright cited as evidence for his attack. Patricia Crone called the piece “offensive to Islamicists” (i.e. scholars of Islam); Gerald Hawting of SOAS decried “The spurious air of conspiracy and censorship conjured up in Martin Bright’s article” (Toby Lester wrote a better piece for the Atlantic back in 1999).

To give the substance of the current dispute: Martin Bright claims that the MCB has an underserved moderate reputation. Bright’s main complaint:

Far from representing the more progressive or spiritual traditions within Islam, the leadership of the Muslim Council of Britain and some of its affiliates sympathise with and have links to conservative Islamist movements in the Muslim world and in particular Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, a radical party committed to the establishment of an Islamic state in Pakistan ruled by sharia law.

…Jamaat-i-Islami activists in Pakistan have been involved in protests against images of women on adverts in public places. The organisation’s founder, Maulana Maududi, was a fierce opponent of feminism who believed that women should be kept in purdah – seclusion from male company. Although the MCB’s leadership distances itself from some of these teachings, it has been criticised for having no women prominently involved in the organisation.

The MCB disputes the lack of women involved. It also claims that:

Bright mentions that senior MCB figures have said that Mawlana Mawdudi – the founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami party was an ‘important Islamic thinker’ (and indeed he was) and that they share some of his views while disagreeing with others. The Jamaat-i-Islami party happens to be a perfectly legitimate and democratic party which through an alliance with other parties is actually in power in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan (one of four provinces in Pakistan).

Jamaat-I-Islami is, however, rather more controversial than that. The BBC reported at the beginning of this month that:

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has begun hearing a challenge to a law introducing a Taleban-style moral code in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

…”This is our right to reform society and its ills according to the ideology and according to the traditions and customs and teachings of the Koran,” Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami, told the BBC.

…The plan is reminiscent of the infamous Department of Vice and Virtue, set up by the Taleban regime in Afghanistan.

Under the new law, the principal duty of the cleric, called “mohtasib” – one who holds other accountable – will be to ensure people respect the call to prayers, pray on time and do not engage in commerce at the time of Friday prayers.

He will also stop unrelated men and women from appearing in public places together, and discourage singing and dancing.

Back in 2003, the Christian Science Monitor traced links between Jamaat-I-Islami and al-Qaeda, and noted the following assessment (tipped from Harry’s Place):

“The Jamaat has never condemned 9/11, and denies that Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization. This is a group that believes 9/11 was carried out by Jews in America,” says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author on terror issues. “The really scary thing is that this is also the most moderate Islamic party in Pakistan.”

Bright also notes that:

The MCB has now written to the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson, to complain about the programme in which reporter John Ware will challenge [Sir Iqbal] Sacranie, [the MCB’s Secretary General,] to justify his boycott of Holocaust Memorial Day and clarify the MCB’s position on Palestinian suicide bombers. In the letter, Inayat Bunglawala, the MCB’s media spokesman says: ‘It appears that the Panorama team is more interested in furthering a pro-Israeli agenda than assessing the work of Muslim organisations in the UK.’

The MCB notes that the letter is on its website, and complains that Bright did not explain their concerns properly. From the letter itself:

Remarkably, nearly all the questions that were put to Sir Iqbal Sacranie by the Panorama team were directly or indirectly about Israel. These included questions to do with the Holocaust Memorial Day, Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Shaykh Ahmad Yasin (the former leader of Hamas who was assassinated by Israel in 2004) and statements that have been made by the MCB affiliates, the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, The Islamic Foundation and the Muslim Association of Britain concerning Zionism and the struggle for Palestinian rights.

The BBC should not allow itself to be used by the highly placed supporters of Israel in the British media to make political capital out of the July 7th atrocities in London.

Maybe the Panorama interviewer was unbalanced (although we expect tough interviews in the UK); but one would have thought Sacranie would have welcomed the opportunity to put the record straight – unless, of course, he recognises a conflict between his own views and creating a palatable public image. The MCB’s rebuttal to Bright also declines to clarify its stance on killing Israeli civilians, although it talks vaguely about “Palestinian rights” (a cause to which I am committed, by the way). However, back in July the MCB’s Inayat Bunglawala (the author of the letter) agreed with a BBC interviewer that Israeli occupation cannot justify Palestinian suicide bombings, although the MCB would not cut off an affiliate who supports such attacks.

The MCB response continues with this most curious paragraph:

Meanwhile, The Observer’s editorial, condemns the MCB’s refusal to attend the Holocaust Memorial Day while notably neglecting to mention the reason why the MCB has taken this stance since the Holocaust Memorial Day was instituted in 2001. The MCB has called for a more inclusive ‘Genocide Memorial Day’ to be commemorated and believes that this would make the ‘Never Again’ subtext of the Day more effective and pertinent to today’s world. By singling out the Holocaust Memorial Day as a central reason to demonise the MCB, The Observer has, unwittingly, thereby served to confirm the MCB’s argument that there is indeed an ‘Israel test’ to which British Muslims are being subjected to.

So, the BBC asked Sacranie awkward questions because of “highly placed supporters of Israel”. Attending a Holocaust memorial is an “Israel test”. The Jamaat-i-Islami reportedly blames Jews for 9/11. This is going down a very unfortunate route…

One place where the MCB has a point, though, is here:

Martin Bright holds that the depiction in pictorial form of the Prophet Muhammad is only opposed by ‘some strict Muslims.’ This is a complete misrepresentation of the actual position which is that the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world regard any pictorial depiction of the Prophet as forbidden.

Bright may be a good politics journalist, but he does show a certain weakness when it comes to the details of faith. Perhaps he ought to run his copy by the Observer‘s religious affairs correspondent in future.