Book Review: A Very British Muslim Activist

What an incredible journey Ghayasuddin Siddiqui has been on. Arriving in Sheffield as an impoverished Chemistry PhD student from Pakistan in the early 1960s, he would be heavily involved in the earliest UK student Islamic societies. It would be a natural progression for the young Ghayasuddin who back home had been an activist with the Jamaat-i-Islami, a leading Pakistani Islamic movement.
As a teenager in the early 1950s he had made a long cross-country trek from Karachi to a prison in Multan to visit the charismatic founder and leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Mawlana Mawdudi. However, it is the UK that would become home to Ghayasuddin.
Following a meeting with another charismatic figure, Kalim Siddiqui, the two would go on to found the Muslim Institute for Research and Planning in the early 1970s. The Muslim Institute would focus on trying to understand the reasons for the poor state of the Muslim world and would dedicate itself to searching for answers to the predicament of the Muslim ummah. An answer would come in the form of the 1978/79 Islamic revolution in Iran. “Kalim bhai, I think something is happening in Iran,” the book records Ghayasuddin as understatedly saying at the time (p85).
In Imam Khomeini’s revolutionary Muslim masses, Kalim and Ghayasuddin would come to see a genuinely home grown movement that was explicitly anti-colonial and fully determined that their country Iran should not be yet another submissive US client state in the oil-rich Middle East. At a time when quite a few Muslim organisations were seeking and being granted funding from the fantastically corrupt Saudi regime (as indeed the Muslim Institute had also done up until then), this would mark a clear break for the Muslim Institute from a number of other UK Muslim organisations. This rivalry between Saudi and Iranian supported Muslim organisations continues right up to the present day of course.
Ghayasuddin would be granted an audience with Imam Khomeini in person and when in 1989 the Imam issued his fatwa (legal opinion) regarding the Satanic Verses affair, Kalim Siddiqui – as Director of the Muslim Institute and the UK’s foremost supporter of the fatwa would get huge publicity and become a household name in UK Muslim communities.
Dr Kalim was a clever strategist and saw that the energies unleashed during the many marches and demonstrations against Salman Rushdie’s book could perhaps be utilised for a more constructive purpose: that of helping UK Muslims become better organised and empowered. In 1990, the Muslim Institute published the Muslim Manifesto, a document that called for the formation of a Muslim Parliament in the UK.
It was during this time that I – a student at the time – first came to meet Dr Kalim Siddiqui and Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui (no relation). I was impressed by how the two Siddiquis refused to be intimidated by the UK establishment and were prepared to speak out at what was clearly unfair treatment by the then Conservative government. It was only anti-Muslim bigotry surely that allowed the government to fund over twenty Jewish schools for the much smaller Jewish community, yet refuse to fund a single Muslim school. We should not forget that the Tories would make repeated excuses for refusing to fund Muslim schools and this would only change in 1997 following the election of the Labour party into power.
The early 1990s would see the break up of formerly communist Yugoslavia into a number of independent republics, but when the Bosnians declared independence, they were immediately attacked by Serbian and Croat forces. The Muslim Bosniaks were being slaughtered by their own former countrymen that had Serb and Croat heritage.
Today’s generation should be reminded in schools that the last genocide that occurred in Europe was not that of the Jews over 70 years ago at the hands of the Nazis, but of Muslims in Srebrenica less than twenty five years ago. And outrageously, the main European powers had imposed an arms embargo on Bosnia, so while the Serbs and Croats would continue to be armed by their neighbouring republics of Serbia and Croatia, the democratically elected government of Bosnia could not legally purchase arms to defend its beleaguered and surrounded population.
To many British Muslims, it appeared that the European Christian powers were more than happy to turn a blind eye to the eradication of a Muslim population and culture in Europe. So much for “Never again.” To this day it grates to recall the pompous and superior tones with which the then UK Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd would justify the enforcing of the arms embargo. The book, I think correctly, identifies the tragedy in Bosnia (and later in Chechnya) as signifying the beginning of the radicalisation of some UK Muslim youth. The Muslim Parliament would defy the Tory government and openly raise funds throughout the UK for the jihad in Bosnia to defend its Muslim population.
In 1996, Dr Kalim Siddiqui would pass away and the leadership of the Muslim Parliament and the Muslim Institute would be invested in Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui. Within a year I had become aware of  serious trouble at these bodies when I received an odd letter at home. It said – from memory – that Dr Ghayasuddin had betrayed the ideals of the Islamic revolution in Iran and it was forbidden to send funds (sahm-i-Imam) to him and the organisations he headed. Sahm-i-Imam is a Shi’a term and I am not a Shi’a so I did at the time wonder why I was sent that letter. Anyway, some familiar figures from the Muslim Parliament that I had known for several years soon left and distanced themselves from Dr Ghayasuddin. The book does not name names and only says “Several members were revealed to have been under the bankroll of the Iranian government and were rapidly relieved of their positions,” (p180). This biography is not a warts and all story. You have to join the dots yourself.
Since 1996, Dr Ghayasuddin appears to have become rather less enamoured with the Islamic revolution in Iran and has changed a number of his views. He would later even go on to join the board of the British Muslims for Secular Democracy. That is something I cannot imagine the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui ever doing. He would also become a committed champion of the rights of Muslim women and would campaign to ensure that those who married under the Islamic Nikah ritual in the UK were properly protected by law. The book describes him as a Muslim feminist. After challenging the behaviour of the UK government Dr Ghayasuddin also began to challenge the unjust behaviour of many within the UK Muslim community. 
It is a fascinating and courageous transformation and yet this book does not explore the reasoning behind the dramatic changes in so many of his former views from being a committed advocate of Islamic revolutions to becoming a secular democrat. I think that is an opportunity missed as I think Dr Ghayasuddin has plenty of valuable life lessons to pass on to today’s newer generation of UK Muslims.
Today, the UK government continues to treat Muslims disdainfully. We have a Prime Minister who openly mocks the religious attire of some Muslim women as resembling “letterboxes”. Propagating Islamophobia day in and day out is a staple of much of the UK’s media. The UK government does not treat all forms of xenophobia as equally abhorrent. In particular, its funding of the Jewish Community Security Trust (£13.4 million a year) dwarfs the funding it provides to challenge bigotry against the much larger UK Muslim community. The UK government enthusiastically supported the US invasion and bombing campaign of Iraq despite the invasion being declared illegal according to international law. Yet the UK government refuses to contemplate any punitive action or sanctions – let alone any serious action – against Israel for its continued illegal occupation and settlement building in Palestine.
The campaign to ensure that the UK government acts more justly continues. At the same time it must be admitted that UK Muslims also need to look much more critically at themselves and their own role and actions in the UK. As this book demonstrates, for almost the whole of his adult life Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui actively threw himself into these campaigns and for that he surely deserves to be honoured.
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