Muslim Council of Britain should back off

The attack on BBC presenter Emma Barnett is designed to ensure no one can challenge it, writes Douglas Murray


LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 08: Emma Barnett during the #March4Women 2020 at on March 08, 2020 in London, England. The event is to mark International Women's Day. (Photo by Lia Toby/Getty Images)

February 25, 2021 14:45

BBC presenters sometimes have legitimate grievances. One is that they get it in the neck whatever they do. Ask softball questions and some license-fee payers will ask why they didn’t play hardball. Subject your interviewees to hardball questions and people who love the interviewee will accuse the interviewer of bias.

The best broadcasters ride through this. Andrew Neil was never soft on anyone. Jeremy Paxman pulverised everybody who sat opposite him. In a similar vein you could never claim any fear or favour in Emma Barnett. Though not a rottweiler in the Paxman mode, the radio and occasional television presenter for the BBC is one of the corporation’s brightest stars. She is deeply inquisitive, sharply intelligent and has the manner of the perfect interviewer — someone who wants to help the listener find out what is going on. It is surprising that the BBC does not use her more.

But thanks to an interview she carried out earlier this month, a dedicated group of high-profile figures is trying to make sure that we only hear less from her. Recently, Barnett was presenting BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. In one segment, she interviewed the new head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Zara Mohammed.

Mohammed recently made some news by becoming the first female leader of the MCB, which describes itself as the largest umbrella-group of British Muslims. So it was perfectly appropriate that Mohammed should be asked onto Woman’s Hour.

However, when it comes to the MCB, nothing is simple. For over a decade, the group has been deemed so radical that consecutive UK governments will have no dealings with it. In the 2010s, the then-Labour government cut off all dialogue with the MCB because of its links to extremism. This included the fact that during an engagement between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, one of the MCB’s senior members signed a declaration which the government said called for attacks on British naval vessels and on Jews around the world. The Labour government — and all governments since — rightly regarded the MCB as beyond the pale.

Still the MCB have spent recent years trying to make inroads into government and communal bodies. A common aggravation inside government has been how many Jewish “representative” communal groups have continued to partner with and promote the MCB, even as government refuses to.

So there are more than enough questions to ask the MCB, and in her interview Barnett tried to get into one of them. Using a tone which was no more or less hostile than usual, Barnett pushed Mohammed on one question in particular. Obviously it was nice that the MCB had its first female leader, she said, but how many female Imams are there in the UK? Mohammed claimed that she did not know the answer. Barnett pushed again, carefully and politely. Mohammed claimed that it depended what you meant by an “Imam”. This went on for some time. Of course, listeners were able to come to their own conclusions — such as that Mohammed was avoiding the question because the answer is a big fat zero.

There are a couple of female Imams in Europe. I have met Germany’s first, a remarkable woman who has 24-hour protection to defend her from extremists in her own faith. In 2008, it was national news in the UK when a woman first lead the prayers at Muslim worship in Oxford.

And if the answer is zero then that is interesting. Some astute listeners may even have had the chance to wonder whether the appointment of a woman leader to an organisation as controversial as the MCB is not intended precisely to distract attention from darker questions about the group. Given the questions she could have asked, Barnett was at the respectful end of the spectrum.

But a coalition of public figures thought otherwise. A letter of complaint about Barnett’s interview was sent to the BBC and made public last week.

Signatories included Diane Abbott, Naz Shah (the Labour MP who has her own track-record of overt antisemitism) and the embittered Tory peer Baroness Warsi. All condemned Barnett for being “strikingly hostile”.

They also made sure to damage Barnett’s reputation by smearing her with the all-encompassing and deeply vague accusation of “Islamophobia”. MCB-supporters in the media gleefully smeared the presenter. Radical activists on social media did the rest.

Of course, these activists know what they are doing. They want to make sure that groups like the MCB have a free ride, not just on the BBC but in the culture as a whole. They want to ensure that questions that would be asked of any priest or rabbi are deemed out of bounds for any representative of the Muslim faith.

What is more, these activists wish to make everyone who does not follow their rules pay a reputational cost.

To date, the BBC has refused to apologise for the interview and has rightly stood by their excellent presenter. But it is interesting how many “public figures” have exposed themselves again in this episode. Not just because they want to protect the dubious MCB, but because they genuinely seem unable to cope with the idea that equality means being treated in exactly the same fashion as the rest of us.

And that includes having to answer the same difficult questions that anybody else would if they were sitting in the same chair.

February 25, 2021 14:45

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