Board of Deputies defends imam appointed to Tory inquiry into Islamophobia

The board criticised 'attacks' on Qari Asim, who was accused of supporting restrictions on free speech


The Board of Deputies has defended a leading imam after he faced calls to stand down from a government inquiry into Islamophobia by critics accusing him of questioning free speech.

The board criticised “attacks” on Qari Asim, the imam at the Makkah mosque in Leeds, who sits on the government’s Islamophobia panel last July to help create a definition of anti-Muslim hatred.

An article in The Sunday Times reported that the imam told an interfaith workshop in September 2018 that some Muslims want exceptions when it comes to free speech particularly where it concerns the prophet Muhammad.

The article reported that Mr Asim had told the event that some Muslims argue “we can have exceptions to the freedom of speech, on the basis of there being some words or some actions being offensive or distasteful”.

Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, called on Mr Asim to “reconsider his role on the panel,” and accused him of supporting restrictions on free speech.

“The very point of setting up a group to tackle anti-Muslim sentiment is not to make Muslims feel like a separate group, but to make sure they are treated in the same way as everyone else," he told the paper.

“Mr Asim seems to want British Muslims to be less British than others."

The Conservative MP Bob Seely said: “There are serious questions about Asim’s suitability to lead a government inquiry.”

The Board intervened to say it agreed with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who also defended Mr Asim.

Mr Welby said: “Qari Asim is an outstanding leader and friend, committed to the common good.

“Having named views other than his own in order to confront them, he merits attention and respect, not distortion. British Muslims, and all of us, deserve better journalism.”

The Board said: “We absolutely agree with the Archbishop, Qari Asim is a firm friend to community cohesion & attacks on him undermine the important effort to define and tackle Islamophobia.”

Rabbi Harvey Belovski, senior rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue, also supported the Imam. 

He said Mr Asim was a “staunch supporter of the Jewish community. He is a talented and enlightened faith leader who devotes himself to spreading harmony and tackling divisiveness in our society.”

Mr Asim said the Sunday Times article took his comments out of context and he did “not support restrictions on free speech.”

He said: “The purpose of the definition of anti-Muslim prejudice will be to defend free speech, while challenging hate speech.

"The critique of political and theological ideas must be defended – while drawing a clear line when it comes to hatred against Muslims for being Muslim.

"The work done to tackle anti-semitic hatred, while protecting free speech, is a useful guide to the principles we should apply to anti-Muslim hatred.”

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