Stop whingeing and show leadership

By Shahid Malik (THE TIMES, 10/02/07):

It seems to have been a rollercoaster two weeks since I had the privilege of delivering the keynote speech at the National Holocaust Centre’s memorial event. The audience in Nottinghamshire included Holocaust survivors as well as some 20 or so young Muslims.

The presence of these young people was both significant and symbolic in the face of the now ritual boycott of Holocaust Memorial Day by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Its flawed moral leadership places the MCB alongside the likes of the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, as nonattendees. It’s tragic. But today our country needs us to unite like never before in the face of growing extremism, both the traditional BNP white supremacist strain, as well as the new strain of extremism in the name of Islam.

Over the past two weeks, issues of integration, security, liberty and leadership have been swirling in the public domain. Sometimes the debate has been ridiculous. The Bishop of York making the absurd comparison between today’s Britain and Uganda under Idi Amin. His comments found support from Abu Bakr, who was released this week after being arrested following the alleged plot to kidnap a Muslim soldier. Mr Bakr claimed that Britain was “a police state for Muslims”.

While I can understand his hurt and anger — I myself was arrested by police (and had to go to hospital) while on peacemaking duties as a race equality commissioner during Burnley’s riots — I certainly do not share his view. Yes, the police and security services discriminate but not on the ground of religion; rather on grounds of those who engage in terrorism.

The police don’t always get it right but they are being placed in an invidious and near-impossible position. Following 7/7 they were criticised because Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the suicide bombers, wasn’t fully investigated. Today, where mass murder is the objective and suicide bombing the means, the police investigate those not merely at the centre of their radar but also those on the periphery, and they intervene at a much earlier stage to avert a possible terrorist atrocity. If the police have reasonable suspicion, then society demands that they act.

The Government has adopted a twin-pronged approach to deal with extremism: first, legislation that would help to make our communities safe and, secondly, to tackle the social conditions that allow extremism to flourish. The Government has understandably placed greater emphasis in the aftermath of 7/7 on the former but now is the urgent time to give equal consideration to the latter or risk further alienating British Muslims, the very people who are key to defeating this extremism.

The dilemma for government has always been to find a partner with whom they can work; but Muslims are not a homogeneous mass and the national organisations don’t necessarily have local solutions.

Ruth Kelly, the Communities Minister, has set down the rules for engagement with government. Attending Holocaust Memorial Day is a prerequisite. The MCB cannot enjoy the privileges of partnership with government without shouldering responsibilities. David Cameron has gone farther, stating that the MCB are extremists. I don’t agree. The MCB hasn’t sufficiently challenged extremism but that doesn’t make it extremist. It has chosen the easy, populist path of solely “defending” Muslims. In doing so, it has abdicated the other side of the leadership role — introspection — challenging internally to eradicate extremism. Instead, it is reduced to reinforcing the victim narrative that dominates Muslim discourse.

So where next for government relationships with Muslims? The Government has for sometime worked well with the British Muslim Forum (BMF) and its 600 mosques. Last year Ms Kelly attended the launch of the Sufi Muslim Council (SMC). But the lack of any grassroots structure and its sudden emergence has left many within the Muslim community deeply suspicious.

The Government has introduced a £5 million budget to empower Muslims at council level to tackle extremism — a welcome shift of power to local people. Government must never again be dependent on one group. Instead, where necessary, government departments or local councils should develop contact groups of Muslim individuals with expertise, experience and credibility. For example, Muslim health practitioners — not the MCB or BMF or SMC — would be consulted on health policy. That way we eradicate politics and power struggles.

True leadership can be as simple as showing goodwill — such as embracing the remembrance of an attempt to annihilate a people because of their religion. Goodwill breeds goodwill and defeats mistrust. So it is not all doom and gloom: those young Muslims who joined me in Nottinghamshire on that memorable day demonstrated that true leadership we need.