Thursday July 27, 2006
We must reject the extremists'
grip on the Muslim mainstream
British Islam's silent majority is starting to speak.
The government should listen, says Martin Bright The Guardian
The reaction to my Channel 4 documentary, Who Speaks for Muslims, has been at turns challenging, supportive, offensive, dismissive and deeply moving. Faisal Bodi's is one of the most peculiar (Let us speak for ourselves, July 18
My thesis was a relative simple one: that the Foreign Office has developed a policy of engagement with radical Islamism, which it sees as a mainstream Muslim ideology.
Through a stream of leaked Foreign Office documents I tried to show that this approach to Muslim belief had seeped into the rest of Whitehall, and I challenged the government to engage with wider Muslim society.
In particular, I argued that the government needed to listen to the silent majority of British Muslims, whom I referred to as Sufis. The launch last week of a new organisation, the Sufi Muslim Council, shows that the silent majority is finally finding its voice. It is a good sign that Ruth Kelly, the minister responsible for community cohesion, was present.
Bodi agrees that this group (he refers to them as Sufi-Barelwi) form the bulk of British Muslims originating from South Asia, but then suggests that engaging with organisations that represent them would be counterproductive. A clue as to why he thinks this can be found in the patronising phrase "shrine-centred folk-Islam", which he uses to describe the religion of the Sufi-Barelwi in their home countries.
His suggestion that "the alienation this type of Islam has engendered is a key factor
driving young people into the arms of extremism" is entirely without foundation.
On the face of it, my arguments are relatively uncontroversial.
The Foreign Office documents clearly illustrate the approach they have chosen, and several people that I interviewed (Muslim and non-Muslim) said they found the strategy worrying. Professor Chetan Bhatt of Goldsmiths College, University of London - an expert in religious extremism - argued that the government has a long history of engaging with representatives from the religious far-right in Britain, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-i-Islami as well as the Hindu BJP.
Like me, Professor Bhatt would situate himself on the political left. Conspiracy theories abound in this area, but Bodi's suggestion that we have reached our conclusions as a result of propaganda from the neo-Conservative Rand Corporation is almost as laughable as the Muslim Council of Britain's
suggestion that I am intending to "divide and rule" Britain's Muslims.
Such responses do not help advance the debate. I expected some criticism from the MCB, but it is depressing that neither they nor Bodi engaged with any of the real concerns raised.
The case of Delwar Hossein Sayeedi, for instance, a Bangladeshi MP who has described Hindus as "excrement", said that Britain has what is coming to it in Afghanistan and called for the death of US soldiers in Iraq.
Where is Bodi's condemnation of such language, and how does he explain that the Foreign Office's Islamic issues adviser, Mockbul Ali, described this bigot as "mainstream". Is this the kind of Islamist Bodi suggests we should engage with?
"Morality is doing what is right, regardless of what we are
told. Religious dogma is doing what we are told, no matter what is right."