Martin Bright on 30 Minutes

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Martin Bright’s documentary on British Foreign Office dealings with “radical Islam” finally aired on Channel 4’s 30 Minutes slot last night, and did not really contain any surprises for me. Martin Bright’s position is that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), in its dealings with the Muslim community, has largely restricted itself to dealing with groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Jama’at-e-Islami, to the exclusion of ordinary, moderate “Sufi” Muslims. The Muslim Council of Britain, according to Bright a JI front, called the documentary “the latest in a series of rather desperate attempts that have been made in recent months to try and divide British Muslims on sectarian grounds”; Bright has posted a reply at Comment is Free which dismisses the MCB’s response as a “stock response” of the sort which “is becoming as tiresome as Zionist cries of anti-Semitism when the state of Israel is put under any kind of scrutiny”.

The notion that the MCB is not representative of Muslims, or is a JI front, is not new - I can recall such opinions appearing in Q-News in the 1990s. The problem I have is the reasons why Bright considers them less than moderate: the fact that, for example, an Arab, Muslim scholar like al-Qaradawi regards it as acceptable that foreigners occupying a Muslim Arab land be attacked and killed. That those involved may well be extremists just as given to killing their own as to killing the occupier is neither here nor there: do we really imagine that Bright’s position would be any different if the “insurgency” was actually representative of the local population?

Bright also takes issue with the FCO’s decision to provide funding for a recent conference in Istanbul, at which al-Qaradawi was in attendance. He presumably means the Muslims of Europe conference, at which Abdullah bin Bayyah, Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Suhaib Webb and Abdul-Hakim Murad, among many others, were present. So it was an extremely broad conference which included British participants and many who have no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood at all.

Bright suggests that the vast majority of British Muslims are “Sufis” whose Islam is supposedly apolitical. He interviewed two people to make this point, Haras Rafiq (the owner of Bridges TV UK) and Khurshid Ahmed of the British Muslim Forum. (I presume this is not the same Khurshid Ahmed who was associated with the Islamic Foundation, who was a JI activist.) I strongly object to this mangling of Islamic terminology, which traditionally is not a sectarian label; it’s only used as such by modern opponents of Sufism. It traditionally meant someone who was very accomplished on the Sufi Path, not just someone who took part in some Sufi practices or merely approved of them. It’s also not true, either here or in the Muslim world, to suggest that Sufis are not political. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hasan al-Banna, was associated with Sufism, as has every major scholar of the Deobandi school which was a major influence on the Taliban, who were themselves “Sufis”. Several of the attendees at the Istanbul conference mentioned above were also “Sufis”, something Bright’s response at CIF does not address.

I don’t dispute that, when the government seeks to deal with a religious community, it should deal with people who represent all of it and not a small section, but al-Qaradawi is a fairly popular figure among Arabic-speaking Muslims in central parts of London if not among Urdu and Bengali-speaking ones (and their English-speaking offspring) in the inner cities and suburbs, and some of his books have been translated into English. As I’ve written here before, a lot of the youth seek out religious knowledge from Arabic-speaking sources because they are tired of the imported cultural hang-ups and sectarian animosities which affect some of the “Sufis” Bright proposes the government deal with in place of the MCB and MAB. They seek a more authentic Islam, not the culture of the back-home some of them have never visited.

(I should add that the fame of shaikhs like al-Qaradawi obviously increases when protests about his presence in this country from the Jewish community put him in the news. The criticisms of him are often connected to positions he holds which numerous other Muslim scholars hold, and when they concern his condoning of attacks on Israeli civilians, they are often from people more than willing to condone Israeli bombings of Arab targets in Palestine and Lebanon which kill civilians. It has never been suggested that people be barred from this country for approving of such tactics (pointless anyway, since there are already enough people here who approve of them). If, for example, the shaikh comes to this country to address a conference which is nothing to do with that situation and a storm of protest is raised by well-connected supporters of the other, better-armed, faction, who provide excuses for their own friends’ murderous attacks, the nauseous hypocrisy becomes obvious and people support the shaikh who otherwise would not.)

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  • Thersites

    Why should the Foreign Office- or any other part of government- spend any money on a bunch of religionists whether they are allegedly moderate or not and whether they are representative of the so-called communities they claim to represent or not?

  • Shamil

    Why should the Foreign Office- or any other part of government- spend any money on a bunch of religionists whether they are allegedly moderate or not and whether they are representative of the so-called communities they claim to represent or not?

  • Shamil

    I was meant to add “good question?”

  • I don’t think there is anything as radical Islam. Islam is Islam- pure. It teache love and peace.

  • ali-gation

    CITY CIRCLE EVENT: WHO SHOULD UK GOVT SPEAK TO? Friday 21st July 2006: ‘Who should the Government talk to?’ with Martin Bright, Political editor of the New Statesman; Madeleine Bunting, Director-elect of Demos & former associate editor of the Guardian; Yayha Birt, Advisor to The City Circle; and a Government spokesperson (TBC).

    6.45pm - 8.30pm, 45 Crawford Place, London.

    Controversy abounds about the nature and scope of the government’s current dialogue with the British Muslim community through Muslim organisations that are perceived to be out of touch with the reality of Muslim lives on the ground and aligned to fundamentalist Islamist parties overseas. Martin Bright has sparked new controversy with recent pieces in the New Statesman and a Channel 4 documentary to be aired later this week arguing that those “representing” British Muslims to government are deeply influenced by the views of Islamist political ideologues.

    So is the government’s engagement with Muslim groups having a moderating influence on them or promoting Islamist fundamentalism in the UK? Does the government recognise that the Muslim community is diverse and not homogenous with “one” voice? Is it making an effort to hear grassroot voices or those from different strands of Muslim opinion? Should the government have a role in aiding the creation of new indigenous British Muslim groups or is it up to Muslim communities to mobilise themselves? Join us next week for this vital and timely debate.

  • Yusuf, though we may come from very different approaches and leanings, I applaud the justice that you show when dealing with others. If we could all learn to be humble and respectful when dealing with others, whose opinions may even be diameterically opposed to our own, this would surely help us out of the bickering rut we so often finds ourselves in.

  • Lopakhin

    ‘The problem I have is the reasons why Bright considers them less than moderate: the fact that, for example, an Arab, Muslim scholar like al-Qaradawi regards it as acceptable that foreigners occupying a Muslim Arab land be attacked and killed.’

    Mr Smith - I think that the problem some people have with Mr Qaradawi’s position regarding Israel is that he supports attacks upon civilians inside pre-1967 Israel, i.e. what most of the world community considers to be ‘Israel proper’. He has said that, while he doesn’t support attacks on civilians in, say, the UK, Israel is different because most adults are military reservists and are therefore legitimate targets. I think that does make him quite extreme in terms of respectable opinion internationally, and set him apart from people who might say that Palestinians have a right to target Israeli soldiers and settlers. (For instance, he’s had a disagreement with Mayor Ken Livingstone on this matter.) Btw I don’t know that Mr Bright does hold this nuanced view, I haven’t read anything else he’s written about the subject.

  • Thersites

    “an Arab, Muslim scholar like al-Qaradawi regards it as acceptable that foreigners occupying a Muslim Arab land be attacked and killed.” As most “Muslim Arab” lands became so as a result of Muslim Arabs attacking and killing the previous occupiers there is a certain hypocrisy in this attitude to anyone but a muslim.

  • Excellent post. I think it is worth reading Bright’s positional document, ‘When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries: The British State’s flirtation with radical Islamism’ if you want to get the full flavour of his flannel. In short, it is utter tosh, and his definition of Islamism includes - as Salma Yaqoob points out - just about any Muslim with a political opinion. Bright condemns MCB for being “partisan”, rightly in my view, but if he thinks SMC are any less so, he needs to visit their website, which is virulently critical of Salafism and Wahhabism. It seems to me Bright has simply rehashed John Ware’s ‘two Islams’ thesis. Sad, coming from an otherwise distinguished journalist.