Mosques should be banned from recruiting foreign preachers unless they speak excellent English, according to a senior Muslim politician.
In an attempt to tackle Islamic extremism, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham called for imams from overseas who apply to preach in Britain to undergo strict language and “Britishness” tests in their countries of origin. Those who refused would be denied entry to the UK.
The peer also called for non-English speaking imams already in Britain to be prevented from preaching until they master the language. Lord Ahmed, a member of Tony Blair’s Preventing Extremism Taskforce, said: “We should not allow imams to enter the country who do not speak English and who do not understand our modern way of life.
“They should be tested to a much higher standard on language and British culture before they leave Islamabad, Delhi and Casablanca, and if they refuse they should not be allowed in.”
The proposal sparked a row among Muslim leaders. Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, called the plan “ludicrous and completely unworkable”. He added: “The move to English needs to happen as an evolutionary process. Many elderly worshippers cannot understand English.”
At present, imams enter Britain under a special visa scheme for religious ministers, and need only basic English. Most preach in Urdu, an Asian language which many young British Muslims do not understand. As a result, according to Lord Ahmed, youths are increasingly turning to “Middle Eastern political preachers” who address followers in English but twist the words of the Koran, sparking disillusionment and anger.
A survey of 300 mosques by the BBC this month revealed that only 6 per cent of imams in Britain preach in English, while only 8 per cent were born in the UK. Shortly before stepping down as prime minister, Tony Blair introduced a voluntary scheme for imams to receive training in British language and culture. However, Lord Ahmed believes that compulsory controls are needed to thwart youths such as Mukhtar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the failed 21/7 London bombings in 2005, and Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. It emerged during their trials that both had been brainwashed by imams at Feltham Young Offenders Institution.
Lord Ahmed said: “You can’t be ‘wishy-washy’ and implement English lessons voluntarily. They must be compulsory, like in Germany where all sermons have to be delivered in German.”
Lord Ahmed, 50, who became Britain’s first Muslim peer in 1998, said that the training could be funded by the Muslim community. He said: “Mosque committees have plenty of money – cost is not a problem. There is a willingness to do this amongst British Muslims. It is not a radical proposition to 95 per cent of the community, but certain self-interested parties, who also exclude women and children from mosques, portray it as a burden because their membership cannot speak English.”
The Home Office tried to introduce a “Britishness” test for foreign-born imams in 2005 but scrapped it after protests from parts of the Muslim community.
Lord Ahmed spoke out after a meeting with Muhammed Abdul-Bari, the head of the Muslim Council of Britain. Mr Bari gave evidence this month to Lord Ahmed and other Muslim politicians as part of the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Tackling Extremism. Mr Bari said he did not recognise the problem of non-English speaking imams. He defended all-male mosques, and said the Government “could not ignore” the impact that its foreign policy had on creating home-grown terrorists.
Khalid Mahmood, the Muslim Labour MP who is the chairman of the inquiry, said that he was “deeply disappointed” with Mr Bari’s comments and claimed the MCB was “hindering the fight against terrorism.
“Mr Bari’s stance in blaming -foreign policy and domestic -conditions simply antagonises the situation. We are trying to move -forward and get a solution to this issue, while he is reverting to the same tired, old arguments,” he said.