With the foiling of the alleged conspiracy by radical Islamists to devastate transatlantic air travel — at the height of the US–UK tourist season — Britain has emerged, a little more than a year after the London Tube bombings, as the apparent main target for jihadist terror in Europe.
This has little to do with British policies, poverty, discrimination or Islamophobia. Simply put, a million or more Sunnis of Pakistani background, who comprise the main element among British Asian Muslims, also include the largest contingent of radical Muslims in Europe. Their jihadist sympathies embody an imported ideology, organised through mosques and other religious institutions, rather than a ‘homegrown’ phenomenon, as the cliché would have it. They are symbolised by individuals like Rashid Rauf, the British-born Birmingham Muslim who was arrested on the Pakistan–Afghanistan border two weeks ago and who is now the chief suspect in the terror enterprise, and his brother Tayib, who is in custody in the UK.
Dr Irfan Ahmed Al-Alawi, head of the UK Islamic Heritage Foundation and an outstanding British Muslim adversary of the extremists, put it well at a Washington conference on Euro-Islam in June. He declared, ‘Students who graduate from the Muslim schools in England and those who become extremists have the same brainwashing done to them as the Taleban. There is extremist Islam within the United Kingdom — yes, there is — and we should clean out our own house.’
I learnt about the problem of British Islam — which is unique when compared with Muslim community life in France, Germany and the rest of Western Europe — while pursuing my commitment to moderate Islam worldwide. I became Muslim in 1997 in Bosnia–Hercegovina, following a decade of reporting and writing about the end of Yugoslavia. In the Balkans I learnt about the Saudi cult of Wahabism, which aims to control all Sunni Muslims around the globe and inspires al-Qa’eda. Before and after 11 September 2001 I worked to expose Wahabism. I then co-founded a public charity, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, as a network of moderate Muslims in the US and Canada, Western Europe, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Israel, the Balkans, Turkey, Pakistan and India, and Central and Southeast Asia. But as I travelled back and forth, to Britain among other places, and spoke to British Muslim representatives in international forums, it became clear that the UK faces the most serious jihad danger of any country in Western Europe.
Imported Muslim clerics are the basis of the threat. Islam in the UK is overwhelmingly influenced by imams and other religious officials born in Pakistan and trained in that country or in Saudi Arabia. Pakistani Sunni mosques in Britain are major centres for jihadist preaching, finance, incitement and recruitment. The Islamic picture in the UK is much darker than that in Germany, where most Muslims are Turkish and, when they turn to radicalism, follow either a Marxist or a nationalist inspiration — or even that in France, where social dislocation and violent outbursts by the discontented young have produced, perhaps surprisingly, efforts by leading clerics to calm the community.
By contrast, the leaders of British Islam — exemplified by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) — have assumed a posture of truculence, obstruction and indignation when any suggestion is made that jihadist sympathies infect their ranks. British politicians and media exacerbate this problem when, apparently baffled, they rend their garments in dismay over Muslims and converts raised to be British but turning out anti-British. The problem is not British society. British Muslim youths who enlist for jihad act not out of negative experiences of British culture or politics, but as tools in a deliberate process of indoctrination, carefully pursued by imams and agitators mainly imported from Pakistan with Saudi backing.
Unfortunately, the Blair government, notwithstanding its support for the US administration of George W. Bush, seems to be completely paralysed when dealing with this matter. I witnessed the pathetic paradigm of official Britain’s relations with radical Islam at two recent colloquia held to address ‘discrimination against European Muslims’ (terrorism is a subject off the agenda at such affairs). One was called in Warsaw by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) last year, and the other was sponsored by the UK Foreign Office and the Saudi-financed Organisation for the Islamic Conference (OIC) at Wilton Park in May.
At the former conclave, dominated by British Muslim representatives, the Brighton-based Pakistani-ethnic imam Dr Abduljalil Sajid, of the obscure Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony, blasted Tony Blair for an alleged assault on civil rights after the London bombings of July 2005. Imam Sajid entertained delegates with anecdotes of how he harassed Blair, acting out his insistence that Islam and terrorism are completely unconnected. To many Muslims present, the bombings and the radicalism that inspired them were nothing compared with the need of said Muslims (and demagogues) to appear to defy British and other Western authorities.
Perhaps more dismayingly, a London Metropolitan Police representative spoke exclusively in the idiom of political correctness. He reassured his audience that British law enforcement would go out of its way to avoid ‘stereotyping’ and Islamophobia, which he defined as presuming that suspects in terror conspiracies might be found among Muslims. Not one British Muslim speaker indicated that 7/7 might have created fear of Islam; rather, they argued that an exaggerated British concern about radical Muslims leads to fear, prejudice and oppression that drive Muslim youth to disaffection and violence. Thus does the aggressor assume the costume of the victim.
The Wilton Park meeting in May similarly included British Muslim speakers who, following the uproar over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, tried to blame tensions exclusively on non-Muslims. These included Sir Iqbal Sacranie, former head of the Muslim Council of Britain, who in 1989 suggested that death would be ‘perhaps, a bit too easy’ for the dissident author Salman Rushdie. Also at the conference was the Malaysian leader Dato Abd Aziz Muhammad, who spoke in support of the Palestinian terrorists of Hamas. The concluding entertainment was a rapid-fire discourse by Tariq Ramadan, the Euro-Islamist philosopher employed at Oxford, who is repudiated by many British Muslims for his links with the fundamentalist Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood and his defence of terrorism.
Professor Ramadan spoke in favour of calm in the dialogue about Islam, both from Muslims and non-Muslims, but he also made it clear that he remains eager to condemn the Western democracies. He also figured in the least impressive attempt by the British authorities to address the challenge of Islam after 7/7: the creation by the Blair circle of the grotesquely named ‘Radical Middle Way’. This is a circuit of Muslim Britain by Ramadan and other public figures, some of them mere poseurs, who offer young believers, in place of extreme radicalism, some kind of moderate radicalism, as indicated by the programme’s title.
Apart from Ramadan, the risible roadshow has included a Kuwaiti jihadist, Tariq al-Suweidan, and a Californian charlatan, Joe Hanson, alias Hamza Yusuf. Hanson varies his message according to his audience: when he speaks before crowds where jihadists dominate, he proudly repudiates any questioning of radical Islam and shouts his hope that others will also ‘fail the test’ of moderate belief. But in meetings with non-Muslims he claims to be the number one enemy of Wahabism in the West, describes himself as an adviser to George W. Bush (on the basis of a single comment at a gathering) and postures as a spiritual Sufi.
Still, if al-Qa’eda may generally be traced to Saudi Arabia and the doctrines of Wahabism, the cancer that threatens British Islam has an essential Pakistani connection. Pakistan’s military ruler, Pervaiz Musharraf, continues to promise the US and the UK that he is a firm ally against extremism, and his emissaries plead that Pakistan is an equal, if not a more vulnerable and suffering, victim of terror. But Musharraf appears impotent to do anything about it apart from the occasional arrest.
Pakistan has a level of uncontrolled Islamist bloodshed exceeded only by Iraq. Along with adherents of Wahabism, the country is swarming with fanatics of the fundamentalist Deobandi sect, which originated in India and part of which metastasised into the Taleban. The Masjid-e-Umer mosque in Walthamstow, a converted synagogue attended by at least eight of the alleged terror plot suspects, is a Deobandi institution. These homicidally inclined ideologues summon the madrassa boys to riot for the benefit of global television news. They do so at the command of political parties standing for exclusive sharia law, fundamentalist theology and aid to the Taleban and al-Qa’eda. Among these movements, some merely drench the mosques and streets of Pakistan with blood, like the infamous murder machine known as Sipah-e-Sahaba or Knights of the Prophet’s Companions. Others, bearing such names as Jamaat-i-Islami (Community of Islam) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous), maintain extensive international paramilitary networks.
This constellation of crime is backed by senior officers in the Pakistani army, the country’s ISI intelligence establishment and other armed bodies of the state. And the entire system is imported to every country where Pakistani Sunnis reside. Whether in Britain, the US, Canada or elsewhere, these zealots silence moderates through slander and intimidation, stir militancy and intrigue against their most hated enemies: Shia Muslims first, then Jews and, of course, Christians.
It may be impossible for General Musharraf to rid his country of jihadist violence. But Britain need not and must not permit Pakistani religious gangsters to continue their control of British Islam. Britain should require that Muslim clerics be at least trained and certified in Europe, if not in Britain, according to a classical, anti-radical Muslim curriculum that reinforces loyalty to the legitimate authorities. Britain should not, out of fear of the accusation of racism, refrain from investigating jihadism in mosques on British soil. The authorities should take the time to identify and support authentic Muslim moderates, and not be satisfied with schemes turned out on the hoof at ministerial meetings, which involve recruiting ringers for the radicals to play at reform. The alternative to such a programme of action is to encourage the jihadist assault on Britain, and further use of Britain as a base against America and the world.
Stephen Schwartz, author of The Two Faces of Islam, may be contacted at www.islamicpluralism.org.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 19, 2006