Watch out: democratic Muslims about
|Thursday, March 4,2010 12:30|
|By Inayat Bunglawala|
We had a fairly good idea of what we were to be treated to in Andrew Gilligan's Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on Monday about the Islamic Forum Europe (IFE) – a mainly Bengali Muslim organisation headquartered in Whitechapel, East London – right at the outset, from the programme's hyperbolic title: "Britain's Islamic Republic".
Gilligan's chief charge was that recent years had seen the IFE gradually increasing its influence in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. His programme accused them of trying to "infiltrate" the local Labour party so that they could subvert the local council and bend it to an extremist "Islamist" ideology in a tactic reminiscent of Militant tendency in the 1980s.
A number of talking heads were introduced to support this theory. Jim Fitzpatrick, the Labour environment minister and also MP for the neighbouring seat in Poplar and Canning Town, said that he believed the IFE were sending their members into the local Labour party to act as "entryists". Gilligan related to us that between 2006 and 2008 there had been a 100% increase in the local Labour party's membership.
There is something rather perplexing about all this. For a number of years now, British Muslims have been told that they must all eschew terrorism and instead seek to influence policy through the process of democratic engagement. In Tower Hamlets we have seen young people – particularly following the deeply unpopular war against Iraq – seeking to do just that and join the local political parties including George Galloway's Respect party. And instead of being commended for this they get smeared as being "entryists" by people like Fitzpatrick. Of course, Fitzpatrick's bitterness would have nothing whatsoever to do with the fact – not mentioned by Gilligan – that he is up against George Galloway in the upcoming general election and his majority of 8000 might not be enough to save him – just as the pro-war Oona King's 10000+ majority failed to save her in 2005.
Another witness for the prosecution was Houriya Ahmed from the Centre for Social Cohesion – whose director Douglas Murray is on record as saying "All immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop ... Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board." So no agenda there obviously. Ahmed argued that the IFE were intent on "imposing a medieval interpretation of Islamic law" on the rest of us. Gilligan appeared to accept this nonsense uncritically – but what actual evidence had he uncovered in support of this claim? Gilligan went to Tower Hamlets council and found – take a deep breath now – that there were prayer breaks held during some council meetings. This in a borough where according to the 2001 census Muslims constitute 36% of the population. Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather. The impertinence of these Muslims!
Finally, we were treated to the spectacle of Paul Richards – the former political advisor to the ex-communities secretary, Hazel Blears – claiming that the IFE was anti-democratic and that the government should not have anything to do with it.
Now I have known a number of IFE activists for many years and if truth be told I have always thought them a bit too socially conservative. Gilligan's video clips of events held at the London Muslim Centre – which is largely run by IFE members – showing two speakers, albeit from an outside organisation that had hired the LMC hall, engaging in deeply offensive rhetoric about gays and women – cannot be easily shrugged off. The IFE must take some responsibility for events that are held in their flaghship centre and tell those who engage in such incendiary talk that they will no longer be welcome to hire their premises and should buzz off. However the fact is that a uniquely British Muslim identity is emerging in the UK. That emergence will require existing social and political structures in what have been until recently largely immigrant communities to grow into and mesh with those of mainstream society.
To refuse point blank to engage with those structures is to ensure their detachment and marginalisation, creating a vacuum in which – as we have seen elsewhere – rejectionist ideologies flourish.
All in all, Gilligan's documentary left me with the feeling that there were elements in the Tower Hamlets Labour party who were rather aggrieved that they could no longer take the votes of local Muslims for granted and that many of the new members who were joining the party did not look as if they were going to be unquestioning followers. If that is indeed the case, then I think the IFE may have helped do us all a favour.