Reflections on “Undercover Mosque”

Having seen Channel 4’s documentary Undercover Mosque, which was shown earlier this evening (see earlier entry), I am now more reassured regarding the material quoted from the preachers they showed; however, the programme-makers repeatedly interspersed the ugly material emanating from a handful or so preachers from one wing of the Wahhabi sect with material which is more mainstream but is simply distasteful to western ears and images of women wearing niqab. The clear intention was to show that some of these people are two-faced, talking about inclusion and tolerance in public but shouting about dirty kuffar when they do not think non-Muslims are listening. In this much they succeeded. (More: Thabet @ Eteraz, Austrolabe, Kashif, Inayat Bunglawala @ CIF, Yahya Birt.)

Reading the DeenPort discussion thread on this subject, an influential contributor calls this “old news”, as here:

If a cleric is foolish enough to have two-faces, a nice touchy feely public face and a nasty bile spewing private face then whatever befalls him/her is what their own faces have earned them and no amount of “misquoted” or “out of context” will convince me to defend such views and such a person as I know for a fact that such people routinely talk like this in private.

Another contributor accused the programme-makers of sensationalism, noting that the halls in which they spoke were practically empty other than during salat. My own sensationalism charge stems from the continual use of phrases like “brainwashing”, particularly aimed at the University of Madinah. I have not been to the UM myself, but I would not have thought those involved needed much brainwashing. Wahhabism (and Ahl-e-Hadeeth, the branch of it on which this programme concentrated) does not spread like the “Church of Christ” cult with people striking up conversations in the street, but is an established presence in many Muslim communities. One way into it, particularly Ahl-e-Hadeeth, is being born into it, but it also spreads through university Islamic societies and through contacts in inner-city ghettoes. It is well-known that much of the small Afro-Carribean Muslim community in south London belongs to another branch of the sect, which controls Brixton mosque and a network of other mosques across the country.

From my personal encounters with Wahhabis in London, I am certain that part of the appeal is ethnocentric, particularly for converts. However, another part is the fact that it aims to do away with “divisions between Muslims” and with harmful cultural practices. Those who accuse the Wahhabis of doing away with the rich cultural heritage of the Muslim world often forget that this heritage includes not only all that “wonderful music” they’d have us all listen to but also female genital mutilation and the biraderi nonsense found in the Pakistani community here.

Returning to Dispatches, it irked me considerably that images of women in niqab were shown again and again. I’m aware that some Britons are uncomfortable with niqab, but no evidence was shown that those women had anything to do with the preachers who were shouting about dirty kuffar. As I’ve said before, women who wear niqab come from virtually every point on the spectrum of moderation and “fundamentalism”, and not all women attached to political Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahreer wear niqab. In fact, most of the women I’ve seen around HT do not wear it. At the couple of al-Muhajiroun functions I attended (and no, I was never a member), most of the women I saw did not wear niqab.

The programme also showed the preachers discussing what are actually normal Islamic opinions and practices and seemed to suggest that they were morally equivalent. For example, the command to enforce prayer on older children in the family, and to hit them if they refuse, is not limited to the people shown up as extremists in the programme: it comes straight from the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). In Islam the prayer is an extremely serious matter; in the west, some parents hit their children for things of considerably lesser importance. It’s not illegal for a parent to hit his or her children in the UK. It never has been.

It’s worth pointing out that the group featured only really represents a small segment of the Muslim community, even in Birmingham. One commentator at DeenPort made the point that Ghamkolvia, the Bareilawi mosque, “rules the roost in that part” of Birmingham, which everyone who knows the community knows. People who don’t agree with them don’t go to the talks, don’t buy the tapes and DVDs and generally don’t listen. However, the programme is likely to cast more suspicion over the Muslim community generally, not just the small group involved, while much of the Muslim youth get defensive and accuse Channel 4 of taking their words out of context and the profile of Uncle Tom pseudo-Sufis is raised further; this outcome could have been avoided if they had stuck to the facts, without resorting to inflammatory side facts and juxtapositions.

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