A Response to the Home Secretary

On Monday 23rd March 2015 the Home Secretary, Theresa May, set out the counter-terrorism proposals that would be implemented by the next Tory led government after the general election. This is our response to those proposals and the wider debate surrounding the speech:

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, yesterday (23rd March 2015) outlined a raft of measures, which are part of the government’s counter-extremism strategy. The measures give powers to close down mosques or other sites where extremists congregate, the introduction of extremism disruption orders against those who incite hatred, and a review of how Sharia law is used by ‘Sharia Courts/Councils’ in Britain. The message behind the narrative was that the “UK would not tolerate extremists.”

The first point to make is that British Muslim Youth supports the government in its attempt to clamp down on extremism and terrorism. The vast majority of British Muslims accept that there is an issue with violence and carnage perpetrated in the name of Islam. As we saw a few days ago in Yemen, it is most often Muslims who face the brunt of this violence. Therefore, we have a vested interest in finding plausible and workable solutions. It also goes without saying that by virtue of being ordinary human beings, part of humanity that we abhor the murder of any innocent people. Period.

The problem with these proposals is that they sound radical – grab media headlines but lack any real substance. Take for example the powers to shut down mosques that promote extremism and hatred. Many people may wonder, what is wrong with proposals that aim to shut down ‘extremist’ mosques? Time and again, research and evidence has shown that radicalisation does not take place at mosques but mostly over the Internet, or in discrete places in small close-knit groups. Thus, the power is unnecessary because it addresses an issue that does not even exist. What it does do however, it fuels further distrust and fear within local communities who then believe that mosques are sinister places where hate and violence is spewed. It leads to situations like objections to the building of new mosques as we have seen most notably in Dudley; mass hysteria, false stories and public debates on mosques “ushering out” the likes of Cathy Newman; or parents refusing to send children on educational mosque visits in Rotherham due to a fear that they will not be safe.

The Home Secretary in her speech yesterday mentioned the ‘Islamist plot’ to take over schools in Birmingham, also known as the ‘Trojan Horse Scandal.’ However, this was nothing short of a lie. Only last week, Conservative MP and the Chair of the Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart, confirmed in the committee’s report into this scandal:
“Apart from one incident, no evidence of extremism or radicalisation was found by any of the enquiries into any of the schools involved.”

For Mrs. May to continue to peddle this lie yesterday was at best deeply misguided or at worst a pernicious and deliberate falsehood, to further stigmatise and malign the Muslim community.

Nevertheless, my problem with Mrs May’s proposals is her focus on the closing of mosques and not the opening up of them. If we are serious about ending radicalisation and strengthening community cohesion, then we must open up mosques to act as community hubs, start conversations and open our doors to one another. Take the Leeds Makkah Masjid, led by Imam Qari Asim MBE, who has worked tirelessly to help integration with mosque open days and events. Their projects have included feeding the homeless, engagement with young people and standing against radcalisation. Add to that the latest project launched by the Muslim community known as ‘Sadaqa Day’ – a day built around the Islamic idea of charity, in which Muslims and non-Muslims work together harmoniously to help those most in need in our communities. These are just a few of the countless efforts of engagement by the Muslim community in attempting to build understanding and community cohesion. Yet, it seems that despite the best endeavors of the Muslim community, it is never quite enough to prove our determination in tackling extremism.

As for the discussion on Sharia law, it is about time we introduced facts into this debate. We do not have ‘Sharia Courts’ operating in Britain. What we do have is Muslim arbitration panels which are generally governed under the rubric of the Arbitration Act 1996. Therefore, they act within the realms and are permitted by British secular law. These panels do not deal with any matters pertaining to criminal law. They are most commonly used by Muslim businesses to settle disputes in light of Islamic jurisprudence, or by couples in obtaining a religious divorce. In fact, section 10A of the Matrimonial Clauses Act 1973 gives regular secular courts the power not to make a civil divorce absolute until the parties have obtained a religious divorce. For Muslim couples, a religious divorce is the official way to end their marriage; therefore it has much greater credence and importance than a civil divorce, which is a mere formality. The secular law accommodates this vital function and must therefore be applauded as a true manifestation of ‘British values.’

These so-called Sharia Courts function in much the same way as Jewish Rabbinical Beth Dins; they are not a complete anathema to the British legal system. The mass hysteria that is pumped out in respect of these dispute resolution panels is nothing short of fear-mongering, and serves only to fan the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment in Britain. Do these ‘courts’ need greater regulation? Probably. Does it need more governmental over-sight? Quite possibly. I have long argued that the government needs to oversee and regulate the people who sit on these panels as arbitrators. The arbitrators need some form of accreditation and a minimum standard of qualification. Exploring these issues is perfectly acceptable and is supported. However, let us not paint them out to be something they most certainly are not.

Last but not least, we can never end a debate on radicalisation without the mention of ‘British values’. I believe the values of democracy, tolerance, freedom, justice and equality to be British values, but they are just as much Islamic as British in their nature. When your campaign against extremism begins with a bid to close down ‘extremist mosques’, alongside the hysteria created by the reference to ‘sharia courts’ and the non-existent Trojan Horse Scandal, you build an image of Islam and Muslims as one of being contrary to the British way of life. This creates many problems for Muslims and Muslim organisations. What follows is that Muslim personalities in the media and Muslim groups spend more time defending themselves against these accusations than actually dealing with the problems at hand. Yes, I have a problem with so-called Islamic clerics or Shaykhs that deem Female Genital Mutilation as being acceptable. Yes, I deplore them when claim democracy to be “evil.” I condemn them without fear or fervor when they support the killings of homosexuals and apostates. These views are extreme, bigoted and cannot and must not be tolerated. But the fact of the matter is, Muslim leaders and organisations spend most of their time condemning these fringe views, when they could be focusing on the positive and inspirational work that is being done in local communities.

Just as the threat from Muslim extremism is real, so too is the threat faced by Muslims from far-right extremists. Over that last few years Tell Mama (an anti-muslim hate monitoring agency) has done a valiant job in recording attacks against Muslims and Muslim institutions. Over 50 Mosques have been vandalised, set alight and desecrated in the last couple of years; countless Muslims (mainly women) have been attacked, and we have even had a religiously motivated murder of Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham. Whilst we welcome Mrs. May’s announcement that all police forces in Britain must specifically monitor Islamaphobic attacks, these proposal do not address the growing threat of far-right extremism.

Nor do these proposal address the underlying causes of rather extreme and hateful views of some 40% of the British public who, according to a YouGov poll, would like to see a reduction in the numbers of Muslims living in Britain. Surely, views such as these are an affront to ‘British values’ such as tolerance and plurality. In a speech where the Home Secretary mentioned British values no less than 13 times, it would appear that she is only interested in British Muslims demonstrating these ideals; and is less bothered about other people who do not subscribe to the same values.

Therefore, in my view if the government and the Home Secretary are serious about destroying the evil ideologies of extremism we need to focus unequivocally on all manifestations of these practices. Muslims do not need to be force-fed British values. We need to have open and frank discussions with young British Muslims about things that concern them and how they feel. Additionally, we need to understand the mindset that leads to radicalisation, rather than just implementing legislation that only to deals with radicals, at which point it is too late.

Finally, until we include young British Muslims in this debate, we are a far from achieving our aims in fighting terrorism in Britain. The challenges we face from extremism are real. We all need to do more and there are many fantastic initiatives being organised by Muslims and Muslim groups. Despite these efforts the government still views the Muslim community with suspicion and distrust. Instead they need to view us as equal partners in this fight, working towards the same shared eventual goals. These sorts of rhetoric filled speeches only alienate ordinary Muslims, and plant seeds of doubt and suspicion in local communities. With a general election only weeks away, the next government needs to have a long hard think about its policies and the messages it sends out when attempting to tackle the causes of extremism and terrorism.

Vakas Hussain (Twitter: @Vakas_Hussain)
Press/Media Officer for British Muslim Youth