BBC Sacranie Interview Airs

I’m back in the land of dial-up modems for a few weeks (hence one reason for the lack of recent postings), but one upside is that I was able to watch Sunday’s Panorama on the Muslim Council of Britain, which the Observer discussed last week (I blogged on their reporting here).

The programme was made by BBC journalist John Ware, and has, as expected, led to controversy. The MCB’s response can be seen here, and it makes some comments about Ware’s understanding of Islam that I would agree with (particularly his odd claim that most British Muslims are Sufis, and that this makes them non-political). The BBC has received 250 complaints, while yesterday’s Guardian carried a critical opinion piece by Madeleine Bunting:

Ware veered erratically from the McCarthyite absurd to some legitimate accusations. First on the charge sheet were examples of the former: the “conviction that Islam is a superior faith and culture which Christians and Jews in the west are conspiring to undermine”, and a “distaste for western secular culture”. This is ridiculous; I’ve yet to meet a member of any faith who doesn’t believe in the superiority of their beliefs, while fear of being undermined is similarly common. Since when has “distaste” become a cause for suspicion?

I would agree with Bunting with her point about faith, but her “McCarthyite” claim lacks balance, as does her charge that the programme was “a powerful boost for the increasingly widespread view that there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim” (Ware has responded to Bunting today). In fact, a good proportion of the programme provided a showcase for moderate British Muslim figures who deserve higher profiles: these included Taj Hargey; Mehboob Kantharia (a founder of the MCB), and Musa Admani of London Metropolitan University.

Much of the programme was focused on Iqbal Sacranie, the general secretary of the MCB who reportedly spent the days before the broadcast lobbying critical voices to withdraw from participation in the programme. Sacranie responded to numerous questions from Ware, in places putting him right about how the MCB works. From the transcript:

John Ware: Isn’t it important for you as the leader of the Muslim community in Britain to put the Imam of the Leeds Mosque right when he says that the war in Iraq is about plotting to decrease the faith of Islam.

Sir Iqbal Sacranie: Our job is not to go and monitor what every single Imam in this country is delivering at the Friday Khutbah. This is perhaps an over estimation of what we as a community organisation can do. We have representatives from across the country, organisations that take our view, it’s such a diverse group of membership that we can only agree upon.

Bunting claims this question reveals Ware’s “lack of comprehension of the Muslim community”; it seems to me a rather uncontroversial journalistic exchange. Elsewhere in the interview, Sacranie performs less well, as he is asked about Palestinian suicide bombings:

John Ware: Do you think targeting Israeli civilians is terrorism?

Sir Iqbal Sacranie: Targeting any innocent people in any part of the world, any part, is an act of terror, whether it’s carried out by individuals, whether this is carried out by groups or whether it’s carried out by states, all fits in the definition of terrorism.

But why can’t Sacranie just say yes or no? It’s not a trivial point: Islamists believe that there are no innocent Israelis, because of universal conscription (Israeli children are therefore just future soldiers). Ware presses on:

John Ware: So if Hamas is targeting civilians in Israel, that’s terrorism, is it?

Sir Iqbal Sacranie: Well, I’ve explained to you.

John Ware: No, no…

Sir Iqbal Sacranie: Hold on, whether it is Hamas, whether it is Israel, whether it’s anybody else, any part of the world, we have no distinction. Why are you making it such a difficult question? In simple answer to it, loss of innocent civilian life, we make no distinction between the life of a Palestinian or the life of a Jew.

Now, here the transcript is kind to Sacranie. In fact, on TV it seems that he was about to mention “Israeli civilians”, but this brought on a weird stuttering fit. What he actually said was:

…we make no distinction between the life of a Palestinian or the life of a of a of of a Jew.

Overall, Ware was hard on Sacranie, but no more so than such a public figure should be expected to take. Sacranie came across not so much as a fanatic (despite his wish for a law that would ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses), but more as a rather weak character unwilling to say things that might upset fundamentalists among his constituency.

After the interview was recorded, the MCB’s first response was to whinge about Jewish conspiracies (or “highly placed supporters of Israel in the British media”, as they put it) for subjecting Sacranie to awkward questions. They would do better to take on board the criticisms of the alternative Muslim voices that Ware has been good enough to bring to our attention.

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