Panorama: a parade of irrelevance

John Ware and the director of British Muslim TV, climing a flight of stairs.So, on Monday night BBC’s Panorama responded to last week’s massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices by dusting off a 25-minute feature on “British Islam”, in which John Ware, who had fronted a previous ‘investigation’ into Muslim leadership which used secret filming and promoted the wholly unrepresentative Taj Hargey as the answer to everything that is wrong with Muslims in Britain, used the “Happy Muslims” video and various other snippets of one or two Muslim scholars saying offensive things to promote the idea that the root of terrorism is a “them and us” attitude among Muslims, rather than genuine violent extremism or western foreign policy. No attempt was made to prove a link between the massacre in France and the state of the Muslim community here, probably because there isn’t one. (You can see it here until next year if you’re in the UK.)

Interestingly, the programme didn’t even investigate the claim that one of the attackers had been ‘mentored’ by someone who ‘had connections’ to the Finsbury Park mosque, which until 2005 was run by genuine, violent extremists originally led by Abu Hamza until he was arrested. They were not just violent in terms of supporting armed extremist groups around the world; they were violent to other Muslims in various mosques, starting fights and, in one case in the mid-90s that I am aware of, disrupting weddings on the grounds that alcohol was being consumed (in a mosque, of all places — it wasn’t). However, the Finsbury Park mosque community more closely resembles, in terms of the backgrounds of its members, the French Muslim community than the British one. The majority of Muslims in France are north and west African; most of ours are South Asian, with other minorities (notably Somalis) dotted around.

Second, there was no investigation of real conflicts between sectarians and other Muslims in the UK. There is, for example, currently a fight to prevent a major mosque in north-west London being taken over by Wahhabis who are registering new members in large numbers to oust the presently mainstream committee. This is all over social media and any thorough investigation into conflicts in the British Muslim community would have revealed it, and people willing to talk about it (though perhaps not to John Ware). Of course, that a mosque in Britain which has a history of promoting a moderate version of Islam was under threat does not really concern the programme-makers; they are really only interested in telling non-Muslims that Muslims hate them.

The programme claimed that what it called “non-violent extremism” served as some kind of conveyor belt to terrorism, in the words of one of the interviewees, taking them to the door. “Extremism” no longer means promoting hate or hostility; it means ideas that are contrary to what mainstream society believes, particularly as regards the status of women, homosexuality or popular culture in general. The programme offered the notorious “Happy Muslims” video from last year as an example of how “good Muslims” behave, dancing to one of the year’s biggest pop songs. Lots of Muslims objected to that video and the culture of conformity and bullying surrounding it; the branding of people who objected to the demand that we approve of and share a video which was un-Islamic in many elements, besides being an irritating and banal song written and performed by someone whose other material was objectionable; the programme went along with the dominant view that these people were just puritans and killjoys. (They featured a video criticising it by a group of Muslim women in niqaab, but that seems to have been taken down.) This may sound appealing to some white, middle-class viewers, but it sets up a situation where Muslims can be found at fault for being too different, particularly when it could possibly cause any social difficulty. There is already an attack on halal slaughter by the self-styled animal rights lobby; it could be extended to portray Muslims as self-isolating by refusing non-halal meat, as well as social functions where it is going to be served. The upshot is that Muslims are only allowed to be Muslims in the sense of private belief and worship; in other words, kind of like another form of Christianity but with slightly different terminology, as far as outsiders can see. And that’s not Islam.

John Ware and an Asian man holding a piece of paper, with an old-style red British phone box behindThey also attacked Muslim satellite TV, the Islam Channel in particular, for cultivating a sense of victimhood or “grievance narrative” among Muslims, and for using slogans like “Voice of the Voiceless, Voice of the Oppressed”. Well, when the British media routinely cast Muslims in a bad light, when a publicly funded broadcaster puts out a hit job on Muslims in Britain when something happens involving Muslims in another country, when talk shows are full of jabbering bully-boy hosts like Nick Ferrari, manipulators like Vanessa Feltz, and bigots whose bigotry is rarely effectively challenged, perhaps a channel is needed to give a voice to those excluded by the mainstream media. In the middle of this is a segment on the murder of Lee Rigby, as if Muslim anger about western foreign policy will necessarily lead to murders in the street, and as if Muslims shouldn’t talk about it in case it does. Even the police said that the two men’s intentions were not known even to al-Muhajiroun, let alone to better established groups.

Britain’s Muslims are in many ways in a stronger position than those in France. The religious mainstream is based in traditional Islam, albeit a divided version of it which is heavily laden with Indian and Pakistani culture, but it does heavily rely on scholarship, not on ill-informed opinion. It is not compromised by having to survive in a dictatorship and do deals with politicians, as the scholarship in many Arab countries is: I have never heard it said of an Indian or Pakistani scholar (however much he may be criticised for anything else) that you cannot trust him as he’s in President or General so-and-so’s pocket. This is important in keeping some young religious people away from genuine (violent) extremists, who often call mainstream scholars sell-outs or infidels. Of course, neither mainstream conservative religiosity nor the “grievance narrative” of the likes of the Islam Channel will satisfy some people, whose grievances are fed by stories in the mainstream press. They believe it, if it fits their prejudices.

In short, it’s an unnecessary programme designed to stir suspicion against Muslims for something that Muslims in Britain have nothing to do with. It neither established, nor attempted to establish, a link between the Charlie Hebdo attack and British Muslims. There has not been a single successful terrorist attack in the UK since 2005 and only two attacks on individuals (the MP Stephen Timms, who survived and Lee Rigby), both committed by individuals, not groups. They provided no evidence that the concerns they raised had anything to do with terrorism, only speculation. Its message was “a good Muslim is one who isn’t too Muslim”: one who waves Union Jacks on demand, dances to pop songs and doesn’t think too much about foreign policy. Well, this type of Muslim who will sell other Muslims out for the camera will always be a minority.

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