An Unprecedented Letter

Most of Britain’s main Muslim leaders signed this open letter to the Prime Minister yesterday:

Protect Civilians wherever they are

Prime Minister,

As British Muslims we urge you to do more to fight against all those who target civilians with violence, whenever and wherever that happens.
It is our view that current British government policy risks putting civilians at increased risk both in the UK and abroad.
To combat terror the government has focused extensively on domestic legislation. While some of this will have an impact, the government must not ignore the role of its foreign policy.
The debacle of Iraq and now the failure to do more to secure an immediate end to the attacks on civilians in the Middle East not only increases the risk to ordinary people in that region, it is also ammunition to extremists who threaten us all.
Attacking civilians is never justified. This message is a global one. We urge the Prime Minister to redouble his efforts to tackle terror and extremism and change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion.
Such a move would make us all safer.

Sadiq Khan MP, Shahid Malik MP, Mohammed Sarwar MP, Lord Patel of Blackburn, Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, Baroness Uddin, Association of Muslim Schools, British Muslim Forum, Bolton Mosques Council for Community Care, Confederation of Sunni Mosques Midlands, Council of Nigerian Muslim Organisations, Council of Mosques, London & Southern Counties, Council of Mosques Tower Hamlets, Da’watul Islam UK & Eire, Federation of Muslim Organisations – Leicestershire, Federation of Students Islamic Societies (FOSIS), Indian Muslim Federation, Islamic Forum Europe, Islamic Society of Britain, Jama’at Ahle Sunnat UK, Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith UK, Jamiat-e-Ulema Britain, Lancashire Council of Mosques, Muslim Association of Britain, Muslim Council of Britain, Muslim Council of Wales, Muslim Doctors and Dentists Association, Muslim Parliament, Muslim Solidarity Committee, Muslim Students Society UK & Eire, Muslim Welfare House (London), Muslim Women Society (MWS), Muslim Women’s Association, Northern Ireland Muslim Family Association (NIMFA), Sussex Muslim Society, The Council of European Jamaats, UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs, UK Islamic Mission, UK Turkish Islamic Association, World Federation of KSIMC, World Islamic Mission, Young Muslim Organisation UK, Young Muslim Sisters (UK), Young Muslims UK [1]

This letter is unprecedented in gathering together most of Britain’s Muslim parliamentarians and lobbying groups, something that has not really happened to this extent since 9/11. It features a junior cabinet member, Shahid Malik (a PPS at the Department for Education and Skills), as well as nearly all of the most prominent Labour Parliamentarians (but not, for instance, Khalid Mahmood, Labour MP for Perry Barr). It includes the most important regional and sectarian mosque networks and ethnic associations, and the two biggest umbrella bodies, the MCB and the BMF. Sufis and Islamists, despite attempts to separate them politically, religiously and morally in recent weeks, have come together in this letter.

The fact that the US and Britain knew in advance that Israel had planned to invade Southern Lebanon with the goal of destroying Hezbollah’s military capabilites lies at the heart of this unprecedented consensus among Britain’s Muslim leaders. Even with a ceasefire now purportedly in the pipeline, it is difficult to see how the clock can now be wound back: with the civilian casualties in Lebanon and Israel, the displacement of the civilian population of Southern Lebanon and the destruction of key infrastructure. Many British Muslims see Lebanon as the latest in a line of actual or threatened invasions or bombing campaigns in the Middle East. They worry that this will stoke up further resentment and anger at home.

The text of the letter was composed after the airliner plot and the arrest of two-dozen British Muslim citizens had come to public light. [2] The early indications are that this was an operation to rival 9/11 in terms of horror, scale and intensity. It is matter of great relief that it has been foiled; the alternative was unimaginable. The letter makes no explicit mention of this plot, but is it noticeable that it issues a global condemnation of all terrorism. This is couched in broad enough terms to mean different things to different people, as was no doubt a political necessity in getting such a large number of signatories together who hold distinctive views on how to define extremism, let alone tackle it. Differences among the signatories are already emerging publicly.

This context helps to explain why Shahid Malik attacked his co-signatories to the letter, the MCB, in the same Saturday edition of the Times:

Mr Malik, one of whose constituents was Mohammed Sidique Khan, the 7/7 ringleader, attacked the Muslim Council of Britain for failing to tackle extremism. He said that many figures within the council, the national body that purports to represent British Muslims and which is frequently consulted by Downing Street, were reluctant to tackle the threat posed to the community by extremist elements.

“The MCB has not challenged extremism in any regard since July 7,” he said. “It has been very good at an advocacy role on behalf of Muslims, usually blaming the Government, the police, the politicians. Sometimes that is justified. But it has been unable to look at the challenge of extremism, acknowledge it and deal with it. We really needed the MCB to take a lead after 7/7 and it was a great disappointment.”

Mr Malik said he believed that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the perceived inaction of the West could push young Muslims towards extremism.
He said, however, that community leaders had a duty to speak out and say that violence and terrorism were not the answer to Muslim concerns. “We have to work to create a zero-tolerance attitude to views that are unacceptable in a decent society, to say that the 7/7 bombers are not martyrs going to Heaven but sinners going to Hell.”

Muhammad Abdul Bari, the secretary-general of the MCB, rejected criticism that his organisation was denying the existence of extremism. He said that there was a problem of denial within a small part of the Muslim community but that it was not the biggest problem facing Muslims.

Dr Bari added: “I have spoken to many young people and scholars this week and they are 100 per cent supportive of the police if it is proven that everything the police are saying is correct. But many people have doubts after what happened in Forest Gate.”

He said that he and other MCB leaders were aware that elements of the community were at risk of being radicalised by fringe groups but believed that too much attention was paid to the subject. “The discourse in the media is about radicalism, extremism and alienation of the Muslim community, but this is not helping the Muslims or wider society because it creates an image of ‘us and them’.” [3]

The response of government ministers to the letter, which most likely got more attention because of the inclusion of Labour’s Muslim Parliamentarians, has been robust. The suggestion that British foreign policy in the Middle East has increased the threat of terrorism in Britain was dismissed by the Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, as ‘dangerous and foolish’. He also said that ‘no government worth its salt should allow its foreign policy to be dictated to under threat of terrorism.’ The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, described such a linkage as the ‘gravest possible error’. [4] Her deputy, Foreign Office minister Kim Howells, added,

I have no doubt that there are many issues which incite people to loath government policies but not to strap explosives to themselves and go out and murder innocent people. There is no way of rationalising that. I think it is very, very dangerous when people who call themselves community leaders make some assumption that somehow that there’s a rational connection between these two things. [5]

The Home Secretary John Reid described the letter as ‘a dreadful misjudgement’. It was misjudged as

No government worth its salt would stay in power in my view, and no government worth its salt would be supported by the British people if our foreign policy or any other aspect of policy was being dictated by terrorists. That is not the British way, it is antithetical to our very central values. We decide things in this country by democracy, not under the threat of terrorism. [6]

Unanimous and strong condemnation from right across the cabinet has been the order of the day.

This response, it seems to me, rather like after 7/7, makes no distinction between causal analysis and moral justification. All manner of experts in and out of government have already made the same causal argument as this letter has. Current foreign policy is not an originating causal factor: the roots for this stretch back to the Cold War at least. However, given the age of many of these Muslim recruits, some just teenagers, it is highly likely that their radicalization coincides with the travails of the post-9/11 world. It has to be admitted as an aggravating factor among other very pertinent causes, such as the spread of a violent theology, before a serious policy debate can actually start. One of the signatories, Sadiq Khan, Labour MP for Tooting, reiterates this point about the exploitation of discontent over foreign policy by radical recruiters:

We have not said that there is a link between foreign policy and acts of terrorism but rather that there is a link with the sort of materials that are used to radicalise young people. Many of us feel that we are trying to address these issues but it seems that we are in a boat trying to empty out water and that the vessel has a massive hole in it which is our foreign policy. [7]

This causal analysis is entirely separate from the argument about moral justification, which the government sees as the slippery slope to appeasement. In fact, Khalid Mahmood MP has described the letter in just such terms: ‘[i]t is just an attempt to raise their own individual profiles so they can … appease some of the more radical elements of Islam.’ [8] Yet, if neither the government nor Muslim community leaders are able to distinguish between the causal and moral dimensions of this crisis, then the prospect of feeling our way towards more effective strategies appears to be an increasingly remote one. In fact, if anything, the gap between Muslim leaders and government appears to be widening.

[1] Full-page advertisement, Times, 12 August 2006, 43.
[2] The idea of an open letter to the Prime Minister signed by Muslim leaders and organisations was seen by the MCB, according to a highly placed MCB source, as the continutation of the campaign to call for an immediate ceasefire. An earlier letter had been sent to the Prime Minister on 26 July 2006, prior to the first diplomatic crisis meeting in Rome, urging him to call for the prompt cessation of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel. It was a joint letter signed by major organisations like Islamic Relief, Oxfam, Cafod, Christian Aid, the MCB, War on Want, and the trade union, Unison. It can be accessed online here:
[3] Sean O’Neill, ‘Anger over Forest Gate fuels culture of denial for Muslims’, Times, 12 August 2006, 8.
[4] Ned Temko, ‘Beckett in policy row with Muslim MPs’, Observer, 13 August 2006, 4.
[5] ‘Ministers condemn Muslim leaders’,, 13 August 2006.
[6] Ibid.
[7] David Hencke and Hugh Muir, ‘Kelly: Imams failing to deter radicals’, Guardian, 14 August 2006.
[8] Ibid.