Thursday, July 17, 2008
The political knives are out for Shahid Malik, Britain's first Muslim minister. For years poor Malik has bent over backwards to toe the New Labour line and be the epitome of an acceptable, moderate Muslim.
But Malik also knows his own community and, when a ministerial edict went out to boycott the largest Islamic cultural and political event ever staged in Britain, he balked.
By any reckoning, he argued, the IslamExpo extravaganza, which attracted 50,000 people over the weekend, was a mainstream gathering and an important opportunity to win hearts and minds. Only when his departmental boss, the international development secretary, Douglas Alexander, cracked the whip did Malik relent.
Now he is paying the price in time-honoured style. First, he was taken to task in the Times by Dean Godson, research director of the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange, which was last year found to have relied on faked evidence for an inflammatory report into extremism in British mosques.
Then, as if by magic, a knocking story appeared, complete with a withering comment from a "Whitehall source" about Malik's "seriously poor judgment", detailing the minister's failure to realise that a peace meeting he was due to address with his department's knowledge was linked to the Moonie cult.
Anyone who attended IslamExpo will know that it was, as Boris Johnson's champion Andrew Gilligan put it, an "impressive and serious" celebration of the diversity of Muslim art and culture.
The political debates brought together a broad range of voices - from the US Nixon Centre's Robert Leiken to Rached al-Ghannouchi, who played a key role in reconciling mainstream Islamism with democratic principles in the 1990s - as well as many more women than attend most mainstream British political events.
They would have been broader still if some of the harshest critics of British Muslim leaders had not joined the government and Tory frontbench boycott, which took in Stephen Timms, the employment minister, and Conservative community spokeswoman Sayeeda Warsi, as well as the unfortunate Malik.
The trigger for their abandonment of a rare chance to engage with thousands of British Muslims seems to have been an article by the increasingly extreme anti-Islamist campaigner, Ed Husain, comparing the event to a British National party rally.
His case for such a patently absurd claim was that some of the organisers had had links with Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, though the details are contested. But it was enough for Hazel Blears, whose communities department has been taking an ever-harder line against the most politically active sections of the Muslim community, to insist on a boycott.
Note that there is no suggestion of involvement in current terrorism in this controversy, in Britain or Israel. The issue is the government's growing hostility to dealing with anyone connected with the highly diverse movement that is Islamism.
This is a political trend that has violent and non-violent, theocratic and democratic, reactionary and progressive strands, stretching from Turkey's pro-western ruling Justice and Development party through to the wildest shores of takfiri jihadism.
But it's largely on the basis of this blinkered opposition that the government is now funding Husain's Quilliam Foundation, promoting other marginal groups such as the Sufi Muslim Council and turning its back on more representative bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain.
This is a dangerous game, whether from the point of view of reducing the threat of terror attacks on the streets of London or narrowing the gulf between Muslims and non-Muslims in the country as a whole.
As opinion polls show, most Muslims around the world are broadly sympathetic to Hamas as a movement resisting occupation of Palestinian land - and British Muslims are no exception. If such attitudes become a block on engagement with official Britain, or are ignorantly branded "Islamofascist", then the government and Tory opposition are going to end up talking to a very small minority indeed.
It's a risk well-recognised by some inside government. As one minister argues: "This cannot continue, it's completely counterproductive. You have to engage with those with influence over those you want to influence."
Some Muslim activists trying to work with government blame Blears' Sufi Muslim advisers, Azhar Ali and Maqsood Ahmed; one senior local authority specialist despairs that by refusing to deal with Muslim organisations the advisers crudely brand Islamist, ministers are "isolating themselves from the majority".
Blaming advisers is too easy. The British government, which is taking part in the military occupation of two Muslim countries, is hardly in a position to throw up its hands in horror at sympathy with political violence abroad.
But blurring the lines between support for those fighting foreign occupation and backing for violent attacks on civilians at home helps get the government off the hook of its own responsibility for the terror threat.
Part of the explanation given for pulling out of IslamExpo was that one of the organisers had expressed sympathy for suicide bombings in Israel. That was also the basis for banning the radical cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi from Britain.
However, both David Cameron and the government-backed Quilliam Foundation have strongly praised another cleric, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, even though he is also on record as supporting Palestinian "martyrdom operations". The crucial difference is that al-Qaradawi is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, the most popular opposition movement in the Arab world, while Gomaa is appointed by the pro-western Mubarak dictatorship.
This is also the key to official policy towards Muslim organisations in Britain. The groups currently regarded as beyond the pale - such as the organisers of IslamExpo - are those keenest to promote Muslim involvement in British society and politics.
But they are also the most actively opposed to western policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine - an important point of common ground, incidentally, with most non-Muslim Britons.
The organisations the government backs, on the other hand, are those who keep quiet about the wars the US and Britain are fighting in the Muslim world.
If the priority is really community integration and prevention of terror attacks, this sponsorship of clients and stooges is going to have to stop.
[Picture from IslamExpo 2008, The Islamic Garden http://www.islamexpo.com/attractions.php?id=10&art=14].