Review of “Muslim First, British Second”

A brother has asked me to review the Panorama programme entitled Muslim First, British Second which was on BBC1 on Monday night. You can watch it (as I did) on the BBC’s iPlayer here - I’m not sure if you can watch it outside the UK, but it concerns British Muslims mostly anyway.

The programme has one worthwhile point, but before we get to it, I must point out that the limitations of the brain-dead, soundbite-ridden half-hour format of Panorama is obvious in this programme as I have found in many others. Jeremy Vine is the main presenter, although he does not present most of it, and opens by telling us that “many British Muslims have divided loyalties”, cutting to footage of Muslims rioting and shouting “takbeer”. Brief clips are shown from an interview with Abdur-Raheem Green and there is some library footage of Khalid Yasin as well. Sensationalism is the name of the game here. (You may read my review of an earlier Vine handling of Muslim extremism here.)

The programme is presented by one Richard Watson, who starts off with images of “Britain’s south-west coast, noted for beaches rather than bombs”, the supposed setting for the attempted bombing of a café in Exeter (which actually is not on the coast) by Nicky Reilly, a convert with low intelligence and Asperger’s syndrome whose bomb did not explode properly and injured only him. There was speculation that Reilly’s radicalisation did not come entirely from the Internet, and that “an extremist in the local community held his hand”. Watson then diverges into the subject of persuading Muslims to join the fight against extremism and offer intelligence.

Watson shows a press conference by al-Muhajiroun in 2004 in which the speaker talked of the planes flying “magnificiently” into the Twin Towers and of the killing of civilians being “according to Islam … absolutely right”. More recently, he is shown attending a Muhajiroun-by-another-name group in London during a meeting at a publically-funded arts centre at which a video of Omar Bakri Muhammad is shown, encouraging Muslims not to obey man-made systems but only the law of Allah, and later on, a young man is shown heckling the presenter, telling him that everyone present hates him, and suggesting that something bad might happen if they met him in a dark alleyway. The man desists after Anjem Choudhary intervenes on the presenter’s behalf, but a young boy is shown mock-throwing an empty Lucozade bottle at the presenter behind his back. Back in the hall, Choudhary proclaims:

This is the Fir’awn (Pharaoh) of the day; we are like Musa (‘alaihi as-salaam) in the palace of Fir’awn; one day we will rise up and overthrow the Fir’awn insha Allah.

A takbeer goes up from the audience, followed by a massed “Allahu akbar”, at which point the programme cuts to footage of violence during the recent Gaza protests, accompanied by an explanation of how peaceful protests were at times exploited by extremists, and that grievances combined with “influences”, whether in person or over the Internet, could move someone from being aggrieved to wanting to carry out acts of terrorism, according to a police officer interviewed. The presenter tells us that it has been suggested that radical preachers are instrumental in this, among them Khalid Yasin (shown working out at the gym), “one of the stars of the preaching circuit”, who “doesn’t support terrorism, but has radical views”, among them that there was no irrefutable evidence that “there was a group called al-Qa’ida that did the September 11th bombings”, and that fashion designers whose names are on popular clothes are mostly “faggots, homosexuals and lesbians”.

So far, so offensive. However, the presenter then interviews a local female youth leader he identifies only as “Ayesha” (including the quotes), and here is what they said:

Watson: Why did you choose Shaikh Khalid Yasin, because he is a man who has some controversial views about some things, like homosexuality for example; he’s vehemently against homosexuality, and one might argue that in Britain that is a completely unacceptable point of view.

Ayesha: Well, homosexuality is not accepted in Islam; it’s not accepted in Christianity.

Watson: But we live in Britain.

Ayesha: But it doesn’t … we’re not discriminating against it; if you ask a question, “is it allowed in Islam?”, it’s not.

Why the presenter did not mention Yasin’s actual use of language is beyond me. Unaccepting views on homosexuality are common among Muslims; the language displayed in the clip is what causes the offence. If anyone really advocated that Muslims accept homosexuality, in the sense of homosexual conduct being permitted in the religion, that person would be an immediate outcast, because the prohibition is universally known.

He then explains that the issue of whether to court preachers with controversial conservative views has split those working in counter-terrorism. He interviews Abdur-Raheem Green, who is shown briefly stating that Islam, on some sort of philosophical level, is incompatible with democracy, challenging him that if he does not accept that, then he doesn’t accept man-made law and “Parliament just down the road”. “You’re a British citizen”, he tells Abdur-Raheem, who responds that this is true, but as a Muslim he still believes that he is bound by those laws. Chief Constable Norman Bettison of the Association of Chief Police Officers (he is the chief constable of West Yorkshire police, and was formerly chief constable on Merseyside) said that the police police violence, not ideas, and that he was willing to meet people who see the world differently to him, but not to tolerate them inciting violence.

There is yet more YouTube footage of Abdur-Raheem Green expounding more predictably controversial views, a pointless brief flash of an interview with him, a section on the embarrassment of ACPO taking advice from a man who advocated an Islamic state ruled by the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh (Bettison said that they would be extremely unlikely to take advice from him ever again).

Watson then explains that there is about to be a “sea change in government policy”, and that a source inside the Home Office had told him that they now wanted to move away from merely challenging violent extremism towards challenging people who opposed democracy and state institutions. Lord Nazir Ahmad was shown saying that people who preach hate and division should be isolated and that the mainstream community leadership should be empowered. Musa Admani voiced the opinion that cohesion was a separate issue from terrorism; that people who opposed homosexuality or “female rights” might not support violence.

Watson said he had found that there was a lack of trust within the community for the authorities; one young Asian man, sitting at the wheel of a white Mercedes, alleged victimisation and said that he did not believe “them lads” did the 2005 bombings (or rather, that the claim that they did was bollocks). Some Muslims, he said, also feel that people do not trust them; “Ayesha” from Derby told of an incident in which people took fright after she dropped her bag on the train and some fruit rolled on the floor. The government had allocated £80million to a programme called “Contest” to build trust within the Muslim community, but any hint of government control would undermine credibility.

An organisation run by Musa Admani, for example, who is supposedly “renowned as an inspirational preacher”, last year received £180,000 from the Home Office to develop some sort of training manual to deradicalise extremists. The Home Office wanted Admani to work with some business consultant whom he knew and with whom he had worked before, but the consultant, who had worked for an MOD think-tank and run workshops for NATO among other organisations, was getting more “hands on” and was undermining the project’s perception as a Muslim project. When Admani protested to the Home Office, they insisted that the project was dependent on her involvement; Admani then told them they could cancel the whole thing.

Back in Derby, Watson interviewed Shokat Lal of the Derby Muslim Forum who also received £100,000 from the Home Office to “prevent violent extremism”, but was facing suspicion within the community that people like him were acting as spies, and himself he suspected that it was about intelligence. Watson said that his intelligence sources told him that PVE really is about gathering intelligence, and that many intelligence analysts are already in place, and that every Muslim who had spoken out about foreign policy grievances could be placed on an intelligence database. Bettison flatly denied this; he said it was “much more holistic, much more long-term, much more engaging than the tactic you describe”.

The programme ends with the forecast that the government was shortly to come out with some sort of new policy on this issue, and that the “hawks” were winning the argument. Indeed, yesterday the Guardian reported that they had learned of a draft of the government’s “Contest 2” strategy, which includes a whole list of criteria for “extremism”, which includes the contention that Islam forbids homosexuality, advocating a pan-Islamic state, promoting Shari’ah law or believing in jihad anywhere in the world. This is clearly a very broad definition, and the first of these in particular would alienate any real Muslim. The influence of the Harry’s Place clique is obvious. I realise it is only a draft, but this is preposterous. Since when was homosexuality a significant issue for any of the groups they want to stop doing business with? They are mainly concerned about Palestine, Iraq, and other foreign policy issues, and Muslim rights in this country.

This Panorama was not the hatchet job some Muslims expected it to be, but it was a rotten film anyway. A sensational title, lifted from some mid-market tabloid and irrelevant to most of the programme; a line of questioning which was hostile to not only extremist but also conservative religious thinking; and generally not giving enough time to any issue before moving onto the next. The one important point in this film was that the government was wasting tax-payers’ money on obviously wasteful schemes to infiltrate the Muslim community by using untrusted (and not even Muslim) consultants with military connections, but would they have been trusted anyway? I suspect not, much as the Radical Middle Way has attracted suspicion from the beginning. With one failure after another, it appears that the government’s next proposal will be dismissed with ridicule by everyone outside a small clique of secularists.

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