Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 27 August 2005

What is the point of the MCB

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What was amazing about John Ware’s ‘A Question of Leadership’ on Panorama last Sunday was that it has taken nearly four years since 11 September for such a programme to be made. It simply and successfully did the basic journalistic job of asking difficult questions. The chief object of the questions was Sir Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain. Sir Iqbal was juxtaposed with moderate Muslims who unequivocally repudiate the doctrines of Islamist extremism and various apologists for them. What did he think of a group of people affiliated to the MCB who say that those who mark Christmas ‘will find a permanent abode in hellfire’? ‘It’s a view that they hold,’ said Sir Iqbal. The MCB had ‘no control’. Did he still think that Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses should be banned? There was ‘no law, sadly’, he replied, which could do this, but he had high hopes of the religious hatred Bill which is on the way. His view of Abul A’la Mawdudi, the thinker who advocated the methods of fascism and communism and taught that ‘Islam has not a trace of democracy’? ‘A renowned scholar.’ And of Sheikh Yassin, main ideologue of Hamas and supporter of suicide bombing? ‘A renowned Islamic scholar.’ One felt some sympathy for Sir Iqbal, because secular questioning about religious belief is often hard to answer in terms which an unbelieving audience can understand. But the question left in one’s mind was, what is the point of the MCB, supposedly the umbrella organisation for virtually all British Muslims? If it must accept pro-terrorist affiliates, if it cannot condemn suicide bombing and the killing and capture of British troops in Iraq unequivocally, if it opposes freedom of speech, what, as they say, does it ‘bring to the party’? Either it is itself extreme, in which case the government should have nothing to do with it, or it is too weak to help the cause of moderation.

On the day that the programme went out, the Sunday Telegraph reported that the MCB’s media spokesman, Inayat Bunglawala, has been selected for a Home Office ‘task force’ to tackle extremism. I know Mr Bunglawala quite well, and find him bright and charming, but he has written, I discover, that Hamas is ‘an authentically Islamic movement’ and ‘a source of comfort for Muslims all over the world’. If one wants extremists tackled, one must go elsewhere. This alarming quotation from Mr Bunglawala appears in an excellent new report, Islam in Britain, published by the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity. The report went to press before the 7 July attacks in London, but appeared after them, so the following prediction it makes reads horribly well: because of the radicalisation of Muslim youth in British cities, it warns, ‘The traditional reluctance of British-born Muslims to attack the UK may not hold out much longer.’

In the debate about ‘Islamic terrorism’, those who dislike the phrase quite often point out that people did not refer to ‘Catholic terrorism’ or ‘Protestant terrorism’ in Northern Ireland. This is more or less true (although one occasionally heard both phrases used), but there is a reason for it. The great majority of republican terrorists were/are Catholic and the great majority of loyalist ones were/are Protestant, but on neither side did the leaders preach that terrorist murder advanced the Kingdom of God or guaranteed the killers a place in heaven. IRA’s statements ‘claiming responsibility’ focused on the supposed injustice of British rule, not on religion, and most of its ideologues are secularists. Certainly leaders like the late Cardinal Thomas Fee and, particularly in earlier days, the Revd Dr Ian Paisley, did not cover themselves with glory. They fed the bigotry of their tribe. But there was no bin Laden of Rome or even of Ballymena.

We read that it was ‘refreshing’ that the late Mo Mowlam sent out her security officers to buy her tampons. Why, exactly? People rightly admire leaders who boldly confront pomposity, but security men are people under command who cannot answer back: how refreshing was it for them? When Mo Mowlam became Northern Ireland Secretary, she inherited a situation in which the food in Hillsborough Castle had recently greatly improved. It had been realised that the catering there should ‘showcase’ Ulster produce. A good cook had been hired. So when Mo started coming in at night, flopping down on the sofa, rejecting carefully prepared efforts and shouting ‘Get me a f—–ing pizza!’ she was insulting a lot of hard work and local patriotism. Her style might be post-1968, but what she was doing was as old, unfortunately, as human history — abusing servants, abusing power.

As everyone agonises about A-levels, there remains one examination which all agree has got harder to pass — the driving test. The reason for this is that our society considers road safety more and more important, and the test is essential to improving that safety. As a result, you never read reports complaining that fewer children from comprehensive schools than from independent schools pass the driving test: the only thing that matters is not what your background is, but whether you can drive. Any other way of treating the exam would be fatal, literally. But shouldn’t a similar rigour apply to academic exams? Isn’t the ability to write clearly, think straight, add up, etc., even more important for society than the capacity to do a three-point turn?

Who, or what, is ‘Lord Adonis of Camden Town’? A Greek restaurant? A hairdresser? A dubious card pinned up in a telephone box? No, he is one of Mr Blair’s education ministers. One reason I cling to the idea that the House of Lords should survive in some form is so that we can continue to have these flights of titular fantasy in our public life.

My colleague Christopher Howse has pointed out that you can tell that The Da Vinci Code is rubbish just by its name. Students of art refer to the man in question as ‘Leonardo’, ‘Da Vinci’ being simply the identifier of his town of origin. So Dan Brown’s title is the equivalent of a book about Jesus being called Of Nazareth. To be fair, though, these things do not follow a common rule. A friend of mine who had done a thesis on Correggio applied for an art history fellowship at a well-known university. One of those interviewing him for the post asked, ‘So where did Correggio come from?’ My friend replied truthfully, ‘From Correggio.’ He sensed at once that he should have spared his questioner’s blushes. He failed to get the fellowship.