Reflections on last Sunday’s Panorama

I actually wrote most of an article for the Sharpener, a British group blog to which I occasionally contribute, about this awful programme, but stumbled on the bit where I had to deal with what it said about Iqbal Sacranie going to “pay homage” to Ahmed Yassin and not going to the Holocaust memorial. I don’t have much time to blog except late at night, and I was annoyed that it was taking so long and that I kept deleting bits, and ended up deleting the whole lot. However, I’ve got quite a bit to say about it, especially now that Abu Eesa has said that Panorama “told it how it was”. I don’t think so. There are an awful lot of distortions in this programme.

There are some who are already crying “Zionist propaganda”, which is the first thing people always think of when confronted with unjust coverage of Muslims in the mainstream media. I think they were playing to an altogether different gallery - the “anti-dhimmi” crowd in the right-wing media and blogosphere. Indeed, Robert Spencer praised the programme on his own blog. Perhaps this was what Abu Eesa was getting at; I still don’t think they “told it how it was”.

I didn’t get to see all of it for what I will call personal reasons, but there is a transcript of it on the BBC’s website. I walked in at the point where Muhammad Abdul-Bari of East London Mosque was squirming when interrogated about the use of the term “idol-worshipper” for Hindus. I appreciate that not all Hindus worship idols, but the term shirk, translated as polytheism or idolatry, is used in Islam for any compromise on la ilaha ill’ Allah (there is no god but Allah). Besides which, a lot of Hindus have no problem with the term. I have a pamphlet my sister brought home from the temple in Neasden, north London, which describes their figures as idols and their worship before them as “murti-puja”, which they translate as idol-worship. This was written by Hindus. I cringed when I watched this interview.

The criticism that some popular figures say different things in English to what they say in Arabic is a valid one, but in the case of the imam of the Meccan Haram, Abdul-Rahman al-Sudais, it must be asked if he writes his own sermons, or has to read one issued by the government, as happens in some Arab countries. In one sermon, the notorious insult “sons of apes and pigs” appeared, which strikes this writer as a school playground insult with no place in a religious sermon. He is, however, a renowned Qur’an reciter and people may well have come to the East London Mosque opening to hear his recitation.

Given that in all probabilities this programme would not have been made if the London bomb attacks had not taken place, it seems appropriate to ask what relevance the Islamic position on the fate of unbelievers, hardly a position unique to Islam (even today, contrary to what Neal Robinson of Louvain University says), has to the situation. The position of orthodox Islam on this issue can be found in this article. This is a tactic I’ve seen deployed frequently in coverage of Islamic issues since the July bombings: the mention of an irrelevant fact (or accusation) in order to increase fear in the reader.

The translation Ware criticises - only for its hardened stance on the fate of unbelievers - is part of a wider Saudi propaganda effort. It is one of the most unpleasant, jarring translations of the Qur’an in existence, from a group notorious for producing poor-quality, propaganda-laden translations of other Islamic books. In a translation of Sahih al-Bukhari, a multi-volume collection of hadeeth (reports about the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, and the early Muslims), Shaikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller notes that a 73-page introduction is inserted detailing beliefs of which the original author knew nothing - and that Saudi-financed organisations and individuals have even tampered with classical texts in order to further their sectarian agenda. Ware’s criticism shows another fault of non-Muslim criticism of Muslim extremists: while all too willing to condemn Muslims when they threaten or even offend non-Muslims, they do not care one whit about the effect these people have on the Muslim community. I noticed the same problem in the coverage of Abdullah Faisal’s case in 2003: the media mentioned his comments about Holocaust survivals and gas bills, about nuking 100%-unbelieving countries and about killing a Hindu in the street and taking his money, but not his horrendously-distorted comments about Bareilawis or his condemnation of certain black American “Salafi” preachers, which I mentioned in my essay on him.

Ware manages to dig up some guy called Taj Hargey, of whom I’d never heard before I watched this programme. You’d think if someone was prowling round Oxford’s Muslim community they’d bump into a real figure of authority like Shaikh Riyadh Nadwi, but I guess the shaikh wouldn’t dish dirt on the Muslims like Taj Hargey. In fact, there’s not much on the web about Hargey at all: there’s the “Crescent University” he tried to found (the website is now dead), and the money he raised from the Apple computer company for the “first black newspaper in South Africa”, which turned out not to be first at all.

Hargey is brought in to have a go at the Muslims for using the term kafir to refer to non-Muslims in conversation amongst themselves. No doubt the spurious racist connotation this has, as a result of its use by South African whites as an insulting word for black people, is what Ware and Hargey are getting at. Hargey claims that it contributes to “a virtual apartheid in parts of Britain”, as opposed to people settling around their own kind in areas convenient for the mosque and the Indian (or Arab) food shop. The claim of a connection is a dubious one, to say the least.

Hargey runs a “centre” for the promotion of what is called “progressive inclusive Islam”, which should ring alarm bells with anyone familiar with this type of activism in the USA and Canada. It includes some sincere people, some who want to follow their desires, and some outright traitors and political careerists. Since this programme was made, Hargey has issued a pronouncement on the supposedly non-compulsory nature of the jilbaab:

The jalabib (plural of jilbab) mentioned in this verse, moreover, refers to generic outer coverings and not to a specific dress or cultural uniform. The current fixation of some Muslims upon a particular costume is largely of modern derivation. The elective nature of the ayah is also strongly reinforced at its end by an emphatic reminder of God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness of those who, for one reason or other, do not wear the jilbab or outer-covering. See Yusuf Ali’s original translation and commentary on this ayah for further clarification.

This conflation of the promise of forgiveness with the preceding command not being compulsory is, of course, a very elementary error. Coming from a purported authority figure with an Oxford doctorate, it smacks of dishonesty. The notion that the requirements of a jilbab can be met with other loose garments is well-known, but in the Shabina Begum case, which is what brought the issue to public attention in the UK, the “Islamic” alternative offered by the school did not meet these requirements. I saw a picture of it in the Evening Standard. It included a headscarf, with a close-fitting shalwar kameez with short sleeves. It is inadequate.

Ware’s attack on the Ahle-Hadeeth also contains distortions. He omits to mention that the article which so offends him was in fact not written by a member of their group at all, but by a Lebanese “Salafi” scholar named Muhammad al-Jibaly whose writings can be found on the Internet at a number of locations, including here. It takes an unusually harsh line on Muslims taking part in any celebrations associated with non-Muslim cultures, and not just religious celebrations but also things like birthdays. Opposing opinions can be found elsewhere if one cares to look, particularly if one cares to look beyond Google. Not all scholars insist that Muslims refrain from the non-worship aspects of these celebrations (I’m talking about Christmas in particular here). The quote he offers is in fact inaccurate; it consists of phrases extracted from different parts of the article duct-taped together.

As for Ware’s interviews with Iqbal Sacranie, I need only repeat this comment in last Monday’s Guardian:

Ware is at his most McCarthyite when he challenges Sacranie to account for an imam in Leeds who is preaching that the war on terror is really a war on Islam. Ware insists that it is Sacranie’s job to “disabuse” British Muslims of this view and put this imam “right”. Ware laid down his own opinion and, with extraordinary presumption, demanded that Sacranie impose it on the Muslim community. In that short exchange, Ware revealed his lack of comprehension of the Muslim community. Sacranie only has as much power as the MCB affiliate organisations allow him - the idea of him putting an imam right is ridiculous. The tiny, volunteer-run MCB doesn’t have the power to police the views of its disparate membership. Sacranie and the MCB have a tightrope to walk. On the one hand, the government and non-Muslim Britain are piling on the pressure that they deliver a law-abiding, loyal ethnic minority. On the other, an increasingly restless younger generation of Muslims criticise the MCB as far too moderate, a sell-out establishment stooge cosying up to Tony Blair.

Which may well explain his “reprehensible refusal” to attend the Holocaust memorials earlier this year, something for which he may have faced much censure from within his community if he had attended. The relevance of the Holocaust to Muslims is very limited, given that it took place at a time when the ancestors of the Muslim community here still lived in India and the Arab world, and many Muslims regard reminders of the Holocaust as advocacy for Israel, as in fact it often is. As for Sacranie’s attendance at the Shaikh Yassin memorial, I find this difficult to understand unless he just happened to be at Central Mosque at the time. On the other hand, a lot of those who would carp at anyone for “supporting terrorism” are selective in the sorts of terrorism they themselves oppose, as Haroon recently detailed, notably willing to excuse such actions as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombings. (I would add that they also conveniently overlook the terrorism Zionists carried out in order to establish their state, and their agencies persisted in it even after this was done, carrying out assassinations and kidnappings in both Europe and north Africa.)

This programme’s thesis is that the community’s leadership is failing the community itself. My answer is that the community has for decades resisted any attempt to establish leadership, and has no structures whatsoever for doing so. Many organisations have appeared which attempted to “lead” the community, which as Q-News commented in its February 2004 edition, often amounted to a call to “unite, but follow me”, which in their view included the MCB itself. I would argue that Ware is not actually concerned about the MCB’s failure of the community, but its failure to protect society itself from extremist elements within it, which it actually has no power to do.

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