Dispatches: same old, same old

The Channel 4 Dispatches programme last night returned to its theme of sending a reporter undercover to gather information on what’s being taught in mosque study circles and being peddled in mosque bookshops. The programme focussed entirely on the Regent’s Park mosque in London (or Islamic Cultural Centre, to give it its proper name), where it found that the bookshop, run by Darussalaam, which is known for publishing religious texts emanating from Saudi Arabia, was selling offensive DVDs including some from some Australian guy called “Shaikh Faiz”, who talked of killing kaafirs with much enthusiasm, and that the women’s study circle was telling women that they should not befriend non-Muslims or take British citizenship. This was, however, pretty much the head and front of the mosque’s offending, as far as could be told in this programme.

Let me start off by saying that I do think it inappropriate that the bookshop in a well-known mosque like Regent’s Park is run by a sectarian outfit, but this fact was not really dwelt on in The Return, nor was the fact that the old bookshop, which consisted of a few book stalls in the foyer, although it did not exactly sell books from across the religious spectrum, was not as Wahhabi-oriented as Darussalam is. Regent’s Park is not the “most important” mosque in the country, but for anyone who wants to make contact with Muslims, it is often the first stop. It is what many mosques call themselves: an “Islamic centre”, and its bookshop should not be contracted out to a sectarian publishing company, whether or not they were the highest bidder (although it could be that charity law made this necessary; non-profit organisations are not allowed to make decisions regarding contracts based solely on ethics, but must choose the best deal).

However, much of the material they found turned out not to be offensive, but merely dislikeable to their intended audience. Extracts were shown from a video of Khalid Yasin defending the practice of Shari’ah law as found in Saudi Arabia, which hardly counts as fostering extremism or separatism, and it is hardly news that some Muslims (and even perhaps others) favour these kinds of punishments. Given that the west has not come up with serious solutions to serious crime, other than ever-longer prison terms for acts which might lead to crime, such as carrying a knife, and that in parts of Khalid Yasin’s home country, teenagers have been jailed for life without parole for playing bit parts in crimes which led to a fatality, and yet gang-based crime is out of control in major cities in both countries, I can understand why anyone would defend a method of punishment which acts as an obvious deterrent. As for “Shaikh Faiz”, who is he? I have not come across him online in several years of browsing Muslim websites, forums and blogs. The extracts from his lectures shown on Undercover Mosque would easily turn many Muslims’ stomachs.

A female teacher was shown telling women that they should not travel long distances without a chaperone, which is nothing new - it has been appearing in religious textbooks associated with many schools of thought within Islam for centuries. In strict Muslim communities, women simply do not travel unaccompanied for distances of more than about 50 miles from their home town. There may be some difference of opinion on the subject today, because that distance could at one time only be done in three days, while today it can be done in less than an hour, but this ruling is widely taught and adhered to, and as unpalatable as it may be to some non-Muslim viewers (who would have been the vast majority, as Muslims would have been breaking their fast when it went out at 8pm last night), I fail to see why this was included in the programme as it in no way fosters extremism or separatism.

The programme brought in various purported Muslim experts, who included Musa Admani, the imam at London Metropolitan University, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the director of the so-called Muslim Institute, Mai Yamani (daughter of Shaikh Yamani), and two other hijabless Saudi women. The critique seemed to consist of “Wahhabi this, Wahhabi that”, and the emphasis was that these were “Saudi teachings” being promoted by the “Saudi religious establishment”. Conspicuously absent was Abdul-Hakim Murad, who contributed to the last programme; I am not sure whether he was contacted for this programme, but he received a substantial amount of criticism for participating in the last one. However, the teachings about Shari’ah criminal law and women travelling have nothing to do with Wahhabism at all.

The female interviewees did a fairly good job of puncturing the ludicrous Saudi claim that there was no “Saudi religious establishment”. However, the inclusion of Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, a figure with no credibility in the Muslim community, gives away the malicious intent behind this documentary. How on earth can anyone be taken seriously when they have been running a “parliament” for several years without having any elections? Why has his organisations’ record as an Iranian mouthpiece during the Rushdie affair been forgotten, not to mention the fact that those he attacks now - the Wahhabis - are an enemy of those he is well-known for supporting - the Iranians? Their record on women’s rights is not far removed from Saudi Arabia’s, and the only terrorism by a religious Muslim government (as opposed to a secular Arab state or by a mere group) on British soil has been linked to Iran. He is no longer questioned on any of this, but allowed to use his organisations as a basis for his own self-promotion.

This programme looks like another attempt to find more incriminating material than they actually found, and the emphasis on one speaker’s defence of Saudi criminal law and a female speaker telling women not to travel without a chaperone suggests that they really did not find much. The fact that the offending videos from the last programme are still on sale suggests that Muslims in general, and particularly those who ran the bookshop, did not consider the points raised in it worth addressing; they regarded it as a hatchet job brought about by spying and then cutting and pasting the footage gained from spying. This time round, they took the spying beyond the mosque and into the female teacher’s personal home. If they do indeed preach disassociation from non-Muslims but do not advocate violence, that only puts them in the same category of religious groups as the Haredi Jews of north London, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Plymouth Brethren, all of whom hold themselves apart from wider society to a greater or lesser extent and regard themselves as an élite above everyone else; these Muslims are actually less isolationist than those groups anyway.

In light of the fact that the company behind Undercover Mosque was threatened with prosecution for their earlier programme, it does seem that this was a vindictive attempt to hold Muslims up to ridicule, the time of its airing being further evidence of this. They apparently found very little genuinely offensive material, and much which they merely disagreed with and expected their audience to disagree with as well; if the point is that such material should not be taught in mosques, or presumably other religious institutions, that is an argument against freedom of religion and freedom of speech. There is a case to be made about Wahhabi penetration in this country and the trouble it caused in mosques and on university campuses, but why would non-Muslims care about what could be dismissed as a bunch of Muslims disagreeing on minute matters of theology? So, they had to resort to playing up threats and whatever they could hold up to mockery. Even more so than the original, this programme was almost entirely without substance.

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