The Muslim Council of Britain has been courted by the government and lauded by the Foreign Office but critics tell a different and more disturbing story. Martin Bright reports
The Muslim Council of Britain is officially the moderate face of Islam. Its pronouncements condemning the London bombings have been welcomed by the government as a model response for mainstream Muslims. The MCB’s secretary general, Iqbal Sacranie, has recently been knighted and senior figures within the organisation have the ear of ministers.
But an Observer investigation can reveal that, far from being moderate, the Muslim Council of Britain has its origins in the extreme orthodox politics in Pakistan. And as its influence increases through Whitehall, many within the Muslim community are growing concerned that this self-appointed organisation is crowding out other, genuinely moderate, voices of Muslim Britain.
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.
One of the MCB’s affiliate organisations, Leicester’s Islamic Foundation, was founded by Khurshid Ahmad, a senior figure in Jamaat-i-Islami.
Another is Birmingham-based Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, an extremist sect whose website says: ‘The disbelievers are misguided and their ways based on sick or deviant views concerning their societies, their universe and their very existence.’ It urges its adherents not to wear Western hats, walk dogs, watch sport or soap operas and forbids ‘mingling and shaking hands between men and women’.
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.
Last week, Salman Rushdie warned in an article in the Times that Sacranie had been a prominent critic during the Satanic Verses affair and advised that the MCB leader should not be viewed as a moderate. In 1989, Sacranie said ‘death was perhaps too easy’ for the writer. Rushdie also criticised Sacranie for boycotting January’s Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony. ‘If Sir Iqbal Sacranie is the best Mr Blair can offer in the way of a good Muslim, we have a problem,’ said Rushdie. A Panorama documentary to be screened next Sunday will also be highly critical.
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 Sacranie 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 origins of the Muslim Council of Britain can be traced to the storm around the publication of the Satanic Verses in 1988. India was the first country to ban the book and many Muslim countries followed suit. Opposition to the book in Britain united people committed to a traditionalist view of Islam, of which the founders of the Muslim Council of Britain was a part.
The MCB was officially founded in November 1997, shortly after Tony Blair came to power, and has had a close relationship with the Labour government ever since. Its detractors claim it was the creature of Jack Straw, but his predecessor as Home Secretary, Michael Howard, also played a role in its establishment as a semi-official channel of communication with British Muslims. It remains particularly influential within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has a little-known outreach department which works with Britain’s Muslims. The FCO pamphlet Muslims in Britain is essentially an MCB publication and the official ministerial celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid is organised jointly with the MCB.
The Observer has learnt that the MCB used its influence in Whitehall to gain a place on the board of trustees of the Festival of Muslim Cultures, planned for next year. This extravaganza is designed to demonstrate the diversity and vibrancy of Muslim culture. The festival is funded by the British Council and has Prince Charles as its patron, but it has been told that it will need to be compliant with Islamic ‘sharia law’ in order to gain the MCB’s full support.
The organisers are now concerned that the festival will lose political backing if they invite performers who are seen to be ‘un-Islamic’.
Festival organisers already hope to invite the Uzbek singer, Sevara Nezarkhan, who does not wear the headscarf or ‘hijab’ and has worked with Jewish ‘klezmer’ musicians. It also intends to exhibit the 14th-century world history of Rashid al-Din, which represents the human form and the prophet Mohammed himself, thought by some strict Muslims to be forbidden. Other performers could include the Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour and the Bangladeshi-British dancer Akram Khan.
The Observer understands that the Foreign Office insisted that the festival organisers involved the MCB before they would give them their full backing. As a result, an MCB nominee has been taken on to the festival’s board of trustees. One source close to the festival organisers said: ‘We constantly found our efforts were being blocked and it kept coming back to the MCB and its sympathisers within Whitehall.’
The chairman of the festival’s trustees, Raficq Abdulla, said: ‘We will welcome the MCB’s trustee and hope his contribution will prove valuable. But we insist that the festival is not dominated by any ideology. The aim is to capture the values of Muslim cultures and bring them into the British mainstream. We are not here to be the mouthpiece of any Muslim organisation.’
The strain of Islamic ideology favoured by the MCB leadership and many of its affiliate organisations is inspired by Maulana Maududi, a 20th-century Islamic scholar little known in the West but hugely significant as a thinker across the Muslim world. His writings, which call for a global Islamic revival, influenced Sayyid Qutb, usually credited as the founding father of modern Islamic radicalism and one of the inspirations for al-Qaeda.
In Maududi’s worldview all humanity was split into believers (practising Muslims) and non-believers, whom he describes as ‘barbarians’. He was deeply critical of notions such as nationalism and feminism and called on Muslims to purge themselves of Western influence.
In 1941 he formed Jamaat-i-Islami and remained its leader until 1972. His writings do not advocate terrorism. But the language of Jihad in Islam, written in 1930, may seem violent to a Western reader: ‘The objective of Islamic “jihad” is to eliminate the rule of an un-Islamic system and establish in its stead an Islamic system of state rule. Islam does not intend to confine this revolution to a single state or a few countries; the aim of Islam is to bring about a universal revolution.’
Abdul-Rehman Malik, contributing editor of Muslim magazine Q-News, said: ‘Maududi saw the world in the same way that Sayyid Qutb saw the world: they both divided humanity into true believers or those in a state of ignorance. Many of the affiliates of The Muslim Council of Britain are inspired by Maududi’s ideology.’
Malik said that its leaders needed to be clearer about its position on suicide bombers. ‘You cannot be equivocal about innocent people. An innocent person in Tel Aviv is the same as an innocent person in Baghdad or London. The MCB has never clarified any of the critical issues and now the chickens are coming home to roost.’
The MCB’s Inayat Bunglawala said he had a deep respect for Maududi and defended the MCB’s affiliation to Khurshid Ahmad’s Islamic Foundation. He said: ‘Maududi is a very important Muslim thinker. The book that brought me to practise Islam was Now Let Us Be Muslims by Maududi. As for Jamaat-i-Islami, it is a perfectly legal body in Pakistan. There is no suggestion that the Islamic Foundation has done anything wrong. They have done fantastic work in publishing literature on Islam, including works for children.’
A spokesman for the Islamic Foundation confirmed that Khurshid Ahmad was chairman of its board of trustees. ‘The Islamic Foundation does not have links with the Jamaat-i-Islami. We promote assimilation, integration and encourage community cohesion. We do publish books by Maududi, but we feel these are books of merit to British Muslims.’
Sacranie said he believed that recent attacks on the Muslim Council of Britain were inspired by a pro-Israeli lobby in the British media. ‘The MCB carries out its activities through its affiliates. There are more than 400 organisations involved, representing 56 nationalities. Yes there is a following for Maududi in the UK. I am not a scholar, but in many areas I am inspired by what he has to say and in others I am not.’
There is no suggestion that Sacranie and other prominent figures in the Muslim Council of Britain are anything but genuine in their condemnation of the terrorist bombings of the 7 July. But their claims to represent a moderate or progressive tendency in Islam are becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.
The biggest test for the MCB will be its reaction to the more challenging aspects of the Festival of Muslim cultures. On this Sacranie was clear: ‘If any activities are seen to contradict the teachings of Islam, then we will oppose them. If you organise a festival in the name of Islam then it must be Islamic. We will advise them accordingly.’
There are those in Britain struggling to transform the austere image Islam has in this country, including the organisers of the Festival of Muslim Cultures, who will not find his words reassuring.