A new face of British Islam is rising. It needs your help

By Shiraz Maher, June 30, 2013
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It hardly needs pointing out that those who casually embrace one form of bigotry are also more easily disposed towards other forms of hatred. Take the English Defence League, which officially claims to concern itself only with opposition to Islamist extremism, but has repeatedly demonstrated that it actually opposes all Muslims.

A cursory look at the EDL reveals a nasty underbelly. Muslims — not jihadists — are dehumanised and labelled “vermin”. Members joke nonchalantly about attacking mosques, and call for an end to all public manifestations of Muslim life.

While British Jews will recognise such demonisation and alienation with depressing familiarity, the pathologies of antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry are different — although, as with any illness, produce nothing of any good.

More than two years ago, the CST warned British Jews that “EDL actions are violent and intimidatory… Any Jews thinking that they can shape such dangerous forces are utterly deluded”.

Jews should not feel they have no role to play

The far-right is resurgent across much of Europe. A recent report detailed how the so-called “counter-jihad movement” (which includes the EDL) is actually anti-Muslim, while also harbouring those with deeply antisemitic views.

Following the jihadist murder of Lee Rigby, the EDL and associated groups will be marching through London again this weekend. There is a case for Jewish leaders to make common cause with Muslims in confronting these new reactionaries — but they should also proceed with caution.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, by all accounts an erudite man, provoked serious criticism two years ago when he participated in an interfaith event with members of the East London Mosque, which is notorious for its extremist views.

A campaign has been under way within the Muslim community for years now to isolate these robed rogues. It is a delicate, non-linear process that gives grounds for cautious optimism.

Just consider the appalling reaction of the Muslim Council of Britain to the 7/7 attacks when they excused the murderous rage of the jihadists with reference to British foreign policy. Yet following Rigby’s murder, the MCB condemned it outright, making no attempt to explain it away with reference to Afghanistan. Moreover, nobody cared for the MCB’s maudlin tears.

The MCB would once have dominated the airwaves. Instead, a new set of leaders has emerged, perhaps the most important of whom is Usama Hasan. Formerly imam of an ultra-conservative mosque, he is now challenging the extremists he once led.

“Muslim leaders need to take ownership of the specifically religious aspects of the [jihadist] problem”, Hasan wrote after Rigby’s murder. This is a battle that only Muslims can fight, but British Jews shouldn’t feel they have no role to play.

In recent weeks, a Muslim group called Tell Mama has come in for severe and unfair criticism. Modelled on CST, Tell Mama has been assisted by it in setting up to monitor anti-Muslim sentiment. The group was subjected to a ferocious and unfounded assault by the Sunday Telegraph who accused it of “scaremongering” and artificially inflating the level of hostility directed towards Muslims following Rigby’s murder.

Tell Mama is new and, though gauche in many respects, it is badly needed. It was established by Fiyaz Mughal, who led the “Muslims Against antisemitism” campaign. Unlike most Muslim groups, Tell Mama also records intra-Muslim sectarian attacks. More importantly, it replaces the Muslim Safety Forum, an extremist group dominated by Islamists who support Hamas.

It is undeserving of the insidious claims levelled against it. British Jews already know the outstanding contribution CST makes to their community and will recognise the growing need for Muslims to have a similar organisation. This is why CST has offered Tell Mama extensive support.

The picture is not entirely gloomy. Yes, there is a serious problem among some elements of the Muslim community but the landscape of British Islam is also changing. The pushback against extremists is greater now than ever before.

And the theological fight is only part of it. The rest comes from confronting extremists with reference to the secular, liberal values of our society that protect the rights of all — a protection that religious minorities can appreciate more acutely than others. This is what should inspire Jewish and Muslim leaders to combine their efforts in staring down the extremists. After all, it’s not just the millenarian mullahs who imperil us — but also the bigoted jackboots of the far-right.

Shiraz Maher is a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation

Last updated: 11:45am, June 30 2013