Evliya Celebi at the Sulaymaniyyah Mosque in Istanbul

As a new year begins, I am grateful that I was able to once again visit Istanbul last year. A few years ago, I purchased An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi. Celebi lived in the 17th Century (1611 – c. 1685) and spent his adult life travelling extensively both inside and outside the Ottoman domains including the Caucasus, Crete, Azerbaijan, Syria, Palestine, Armenia, Rumelia, Eastern Anatolia, Iraq, Iran, Russia, the Balkans, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, Crimea, Greece, the Arab Peninsula, Sudan and Egypt. Today he would be described as a travel writer. His observations were published as a ten-volume manuscript, the Seyahatname or the Book of Travels. An Ottoman Traveller is a selection of extracts from the Book of Travels.

Evliya Celebi’s the Book of Travels is described by the translators/editors Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim in the introduction as:

“…probably the longest and most ambitious travel account by any writer in any language, and a key text for all aspects of the Ottoman Empire at the time of its greatest extension in the seventeenth century. It is also the product of an unusual personality – a cultured Ottoman gentleman, pious yet unconventional, observant and inquisitive, curious about everything, obsessive about travelling, determined to leave a complete record of his travels.”

My highlight of visiting Istanbul is always going to the Sulaymaniyyah mosque built (1543-57) on the orders of the Ottoman Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent (ruled 1520 – 1566). Below are some extracts from Evliya’s Celebi’s observations about the Sulaymaniyyah mosque in Istanbul taken from An Ottoman Traveller. I have added pictures taken from the internet to illustrate some of the Celebi’s passages. I have also added the original Arabic of the Qur’an to the translated passages for those who like to decipher the calligraphy.

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Description of the Mosque of Sultan Sulayman

It was begun in the year 1543 and finished in the year 1557, and is an exemplary mosque beyond description. The learned men who compose histories, and thus strike the dye on marble, have confessed the inability and failure of the best chroniclers to celebrate this unequalled mosque. Now, this humble Evliya ventures to write down in praises in as much as I am able.

First, this mosque divides in half the ground of old palace the Conqueror had earlier built. On top of the high hill, Sulayman Khan built a unique mosque overlooking the sea. How many thousands of master architects, builders, labourers, stonecutters and marble cutters from all the Ottoman dominions had he gathered! And for three whole years 3000 galley slaves, foot-bound in chains, would lay the foundation deep into the ground, so deep that the world-bearing bull at the bottom of the earth could hear the sound of their pickaxes. They dug until they had reached the deepest part, and in three years, by erecting a platform, the foundation was built up to the surface.

…The bowl of the indigo-coloured dome of this great mosque, up to its lofty summit, is more spherical than that of Aya Sofya, and is seven royal cubits in height.

Apart from the square piers supporting this incomparable dome, there are four porphyry columns on the right and left sides of the mosque, each one worth ten Egyptian treasures. These columns were from Egypt, transported along the Nile to Alexandria. From there Karinca Kapudan loaded them onto rafts and, with favourable wind, brought them to Unkapanu in Istanbul and then to Vefa Square…These four columns of red porphyry are each fifty cubits high. God knows, there is nothing like them in the four corners of the world.

The multi-coloured stained windows above the prayer-niche and the pulpit are the work of Sarhos Ibrahim. Mere men are too impotent to praise them. At noon, when these windows let in the rays of the world-illuming sun, the mosque interior shines with light, dazzling the eyes of the congregation. Each pane contains a myriad of varicoloured glass bits, in designs of flowers and of the beautiful names of God in calligraphy. They are celebrated by travellers on land and sea as a sight not matched in the heavens.

The prayer-niche and pulpit and the muezzin’s gallery are made of pure white marble…the lofty pulpit is made of raw marble and has a crown-like canopy, matched only by the pulpit in the Sinop mosque. And the prayer-niche could be that of Solomon himself. Above the niche, gold on azure by the hand of Karahisari, is inscribed the verse, Whenever Zacharias visited her in the Niche (3:37).

كُلَّمَا دَخَلَ عَلَيْهَا زَكَرِيَّا الْمِحْرَابَ

…There has never been to this day, nor will there ever be, any calligraphy like that of Ahmad Karahisari both inside and outside this mosque. The Creator granted him success in this field. First, in the centre of the big dome, is inscribed the verse: God is the light of the heavens and earth. His light may be compared to a niche that enshrines a lamp, the lamp within a crystal of star-like brilliance (24:35). He has truly displayed his skill in rendering this Light Verse.

…This mosque has five doors…Written over the left side door is: Peace be to you for all that you have steadfastly endured. Blessed is the recompense of paradise (13:24).

سَلَامٌ عَلَيْكُمْ بِمَا صَبَرْتُمْ ۚ فَنِعْمَ عُقْبَى الدَّارِ

Because Sulayman Khan is the conqueror of the seven climes, his name is mentioned not only here but in Friday sermons. And in all the lands of Islam, there is no building stronger and more solid than the Sulaymaniyyah. All architectural experts agree on this, and also that nowhere on earth has such an enamel dome been seen.

Within and outside this mosque the foundation is firm, the buildings elegant, and every piece of ornamentation the work of wondrous magic of extreme perfection. When the construction ended, the Grand Architect Sinan said, “My Padishah, I have built for you a mosque so solid that on Judgement Day, when the mountains are carded like cotton, the dome of this mosque will roll like a polo ball before the carder’s bow string of Hallaj Mansur.”

…Once this humble one observed ten Frankish infidels with expert knowledge of geometry and architecture who were touring this light-filled mosque. The gatekeepers had let them in, and the caretakers had given them special shoes so they could walk around and see it. Wherever they looked, they put finger to mouth and bit it in astonishment. But when they say the doors inlaid with Indian mother-of-pearl, they shook their head and bit two fingers each. And when they saw the enamel dome, they threw off their Frankish hats and cried out in awe, ‘Maria, Maria!’

…This humble one requested their interpreter to ask them how they liked this building. One of them turned out to be capable of speech. He said, ‘All things, whether created beings or man-made structures, are beautiful either on the inside or on the outside. Rarely are the two beauties found together. But both the interior and exterior of this mosque were constructed with such grace and refinement. In all of Frengistan we have not seen an edifice built to such perfection as this.’

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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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Book Review: The Quran: Epic and Apocalypse by Todd Lawson

What is an epic and what is an apocalypse? After reading this book, it seems that Todd Lawson, an Emeritus Professor of Islamic Thought at Toronto university in Canada, is arguing that an epic provides a narrative about human origins, about self-identity, social structure and our relationship to the supernatural. In that sense, the Qur’an does indeed appear to qualify as an epic. And the apocalypse? Apocalypse is the Greek work for Revelation, Lawson informs us, and reveals secrets about the heavenly world and Divine judgement. So, the Qur’an would qualify on that count too. Great, now – what?

Well, according to Lawson, the situation the world finds itself in means that everyone should better acquaint themselves with the Quran.

“No book has had a greater impact on the history of humanity and the development of world culture. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that to make it part of the educated global citizen’s reading – what used to be thought of as “soul formation” – is a desideratum of some urgency.” (p xii)

I try and keep an open mind with all books. After all, an author – especially a university professor – has often spent years carefully thinking about various issues and their arguments deserve to be heard respectfully before we come to a decision on whether they sound reasonable or not. Here, Lawson, made an argument that I found intriguing:

“If read in the tanzil order of revelation, the Quran sounds like an apocalypse; if read in the order of the mushaf, the Quran sounds like an epic…As sacred epic, then, the Quran is concerned not with a particular ethnic group (unlike previous epics), rather it is concerned with forging a new group for which it is providing a universal narrative. The new group is humanity. This is not a mere literary achievement; it is an epoch-making shift in religious consciousness.” (p xvi-xvii)

Does viewing the Qur’an as epic and apocalypse aid our understanding of its message and power. Lawson claims that it does:

“To recognise the Quran’s apocalyptic and epic voices and their contrapuntal relationship is to observe something quite essential about the way in which the Quran commands and grips an audience, the way it teaches, and the way in which its readership, its audience, develops its attachment to the book.” (p24)

There may perhaps be something in this. I recall reading somewhere – I can’t remember where – of a religious bookseller in a Muslim country who said his best-selling books all concerned topics about the Last Day and the Divine Judgement. But that is hardly conclusive.

I think Lawson is on surer ground when he contrasts the Qur’an with some other epics (think of the Old Testament or the Hindu scriptures):

“…the epic voice of the Quran also offers a critique of other competing, more narrowly ethnic or national epics. The Quran thus calls forth a universal human identity through its insistence on the originary Day of Alast, on the certitude that all human communities have received divine guidance from the same unique and only God, and that all humanity is participating, consciously or not, in a process of civilisation, an epic journey from ignorance to knowledge or enlightenment.” (p 169)

I have read much of the Old Testament and have always found the narrow focus on Israelite history to be somewhat off-putting. The Qur’an by contrast in its very first surah says that it is a message from the “Lord of the worlds” and its final surah calls on us to “seek refuge in the Lord of humankind”. It is an avowedly universal message.

Lawson’s book also includes a Chapter on “Joycean Modernism in Quran and Tafsir” which in practice contains an extensive discussion about the views of the “Iranian Prophet” Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi (or the Bab) – one of the central figures of the Baha’i faith. The chapter seemed out of place in a book about the Qur’an until I learned that Professor Lawson was himself a Baha’i. The chapter seemed a bit forced and would have been better published separately rather than in a book about the Qur’an.

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Standing Up To UK Government Extremism

Yesterday, the Home Secretary, Sajid Javed, gave a speech in London on “Confronting Extremism Together”. At a time when nationalist attitudes are on the rise in Europe and we have a US President whose open bigotry and stoking of white nationalism could quite conceivably lead to the assassination of Muslim Congresswomen such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, it is all the more crucial that all of us who seek a better and more tolerant future work together and challenge those who seek to undermine our freedoms and shared values.

Firstly though, how can we define extremism? The Home Secretary, offered the following definition:

“At its heart, extremism is a rejection of the shared values that make this country great: freedom, equality, democracy, free speech, respect for minorities, and the rule of law.”

That isn’t actually a bad definition and it is quite likely one that – hopefully – all decent minded people would be able to subscribe to.

The Home Secretary singled out two groups by name for criticism yesterday – both Muslim led organisations: CAGE and MEND. Are these groups really extremist? The Home Secretary did not say why he believed that they fall foul of the above definition of extremism. That was a very curious omission especially when he went to the length of specifically singling them out in his speech.

Both organisations have done some valuable work. MEND has focused on challenging anti-Muslim bigotry in the media and successfully campaigned to ensure that police forces throughout the country record incidents of anti-Muslim hatred, just as they were already recording incidents of anti-Jewish hatred. CAGE has done us all a service by shining a light on the area of government funding and creation of supposedly “community-led” Muslim groups. Quite a number of Muslim groups that have come into being in recent years try and portray themselves as being independent whereas they are actually creations of the Home Office and its secretive Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU). No doubt such disclosures are embarrassing to the Home Office and especially to the groups that are trying to portray themselves as being “independent”, but the government should not have tried to conceal this information from taxpayers in the first place. Sadly, honesty and transparency are qualities that quite a few people in government have issues with upholding.

This is not to say that CAGE and MEND are above criticism. I think both CAGE and MEND made a major mistake in failing to support the government’s counter-terrorism programme PREVENT. There is no question that mistakes have been made with PREVENT but that does not mean that the programme as a whole should be scrapped. No government facing a terror threat can afford not to have a counter-terrorism programme seeking to unify communities against the very real threat of violent extremists be they of the al-Qa’ida/ISIS or far-right variety.

Still, let’s get back to the government’s definition of extremism. Is it one that the government itself would pass? Let us take a look at some of the actions (not mere words) that we have seen in recent years from our government:

  • The government provides £13.4 million/year in funding to the Jewish Community Security Trust “to ensure the security of Jewish faith schools, synagogues and communal buildings following concerns raised by the Jewish community.” Which other minority faith group organisation receives this amount of funding? There are over ten times as many UK Muslims as Jews. Do you think that a UK Muslim group receives £134 million or even the same annual £13.4 million to ensure the security of Muslim schools and mosques etc? Of course not – and incidentally I would not want them (or the CST) to. We fund the police to ensure the necessary safety and security of all communities and the money should surely be given to them instead. See here for my previous blog on this issue. The government is clearly failing to treat minorities equally. Is the government therefore extremist by its own definition?
  • Is the government really a promoter of freedom and free speech? It has allied itself and maintains very friendly relations with highly repressive Arab regimes in the Middle East. Are the peoples of those countries not deserving of freedom and free speech? How would they regard our government’s policies in the region? As being extremist perhaps?
  • This week, David Lidington confirmed that the UK would not be establishing a judge-led inquiry to look into the UK’s involvement in the cases of rendition and torture that took place following 9/11. Amnesty International has branded the government’s failure as “disgraceful” and pointed out that a parliamentary committee had said ” it had been blocked by the Government from accessing all the necessary evidence and prevented from conducting a credible, thorough inquiry.” Bearing in mind that the overwhelming number of the victims of rendition and torture following 9/11 are Muslims, do the UK government’s actions demonstrate a “respect for minorities” and “the rule of law” as they require in their definition of extremism?

One of the foremost teachings of the Qur’an is that this life is ephemeral and a test and that the life Hereafter is the real home. It should enable Muslims to resist the allure of government positions and salaries at the expense of speaking the truth to power and seeking justice and fairness.

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WuduMate – Coming to a Workplace Near You?

During the course of helping set up the network infrastructure for a large new building in London I went for a wander – curious git that I am. On one of the floors I saw two rooms marked “Male Contemplation Room” and “Female Contemplation Room” respectively. I have often come across these types of rooms in other buildings and they are very often utilised by Muslim members of staff to perform their daily prayers.

However, this was only the second time I had seen facilities specially installed to allow Muslims to perform their ablutions prior to saying their prayers. At a previous site in Milton Keynes I had seen actual wudu facilities as you would find in a mosque and I was very impressed. Admittedly that was at a very large employer and they could well afford to provide such amenities. Anyway, I took the above pic at the new building of something called “WuduMate” and it wasn’t half bad. The water gushed forth quite forcefully as soon as you placed your hands near the spout and there did not unfortunately appear to be any type of manual control so it all made a bit of a mess around the contraption and you would need to clean up afterwards to avoid inconveniencing others or causing a slip hazard. Nevertheless, it was a lovely gesture in the middle of the city of London.

I wonder how widespread such facilities are? It has to be good for the mental health and well-being of staff to be able to take a few minutes out of their working day to say their prayers so it is surely in the interests of employers to provide such facilities.

Anyway, with the month of Ramadan now underway I wish you all a blessed month and may we all use the opportunity to grow spiritually stronger. Amin.

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Review: “Islam in the West” Special Report in the Economist

The Economist has this week published a special 12-page report on Islam in the West. The report seeks to look at “how Muslim identity has been moulded by external and internal pressures since the mass migration to the West began in the 1950s.”

As you would expect from the Economist large parts of the report appear to be factual, carefully researched and where editorial views are provided, these are on the whole sensible and liberal-minded.

For instance, when acknowledging the challenges posed by what appear to be regressive religious views and practices amongst some sections of Muslims in the West, the Economist argues that:

“Rather than intervene in doctrine, it is better to deal with social conservatism through argument and persuasion.”

It argues against the forced banning of burqas that we have seen in Austria, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Hungary and Bulgaria.

“To many Muslims and Western liberals, such policies seem counterproductive. Muslims feel stigmatised, alienated and defensive.”

It calls on the West to continue to uphold its enlightenment traditions of religious tolerance and freedom of belief:

“Having settled in the West…Islam seems destined to stay. The journey so far has not been easy. But a third generation of Muslims now seems set to become a permanent part of a more diverse, more tolerant Western society – as long as that society continues to nurture those virtues.”

The Economist appears to be correct when it observes that an Islamic identity was especially appealing to those second-generation Muslims that were not comfortable with Western norms or with their parents’ more traditional norms.

There are reassuringly few obvious errors in the Economist report though the “brief glossary” provided does seem to be a bit misleading when it provides the following elaboration concerning Ahmadis:

“Ahmadis: A Muslim sect considered heretic by many Sunnis for proclaiming its 19th-century founder in India, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, as the Messiah.”

I am pretty sure that the Shi’a – and not just the majority Sunnis – also consider Ahmadis to be a non-Muslim sect.

The Economist identifies what it sees as four main strands amongst Western Islam: Salafis, political Islam, liberals and lapsed Muslims. The Brelvis are unlikely to be happy about this (though to be fair, many Salafis would probably agree to place them in the “lapsed Muslims” category anyway!).

The phenomenon of – an admittedly tiny number of – Western Muslims engaging in acts of terrorism and brutality has clearly shaken the Western public and has led to a lot of soul-searching about how best to integrate the now 26 million Muslims in Europe. The Economist has surely done the right thing by standing up for religious plurality and tolerance.

Still, having said that, I would have liked to have seen more written about the impact on Western Muslims of the West’s policy of effectively turning a blind eye to ongoing Israeli crimes and brutality in the Occupied Territories, and the nod and wink given to Algeria’s military rulers to launch a coup to prevent the democratic victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1990/1991 by arresting the FIS leaders and crushing all dissent. More surprisingly for a report on Western Islam there appears to be nothing said about the genocide of Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 and how that affected European Muslims.

As a third generation of Muslims in the West now prepares to take the helm, many interesting challenges face the Muslim communities in the West. In a West where the role of religion has been very visibly declining, will Islam follow the same course and be largely confined to the private sphere as the secularisation thesis asserts? Will Muslims accept that universal human rights must trump the restrictions advocated by conservative interpretations of ancient religious texts if human societies are to achieve greater equality and opportunities for all?

The editorial in the Economist is hopeful about the future:

“If today’s varied and liberal form of Islam continues to flourish, it may even serve as an example of tolerance for the rest of the Muslim world.”

Insha’ Allah.

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Independent Review of Prevent – An Opportunity To Raise Concerns

Almost a year ago, I wrote a short blog looking back at 15 years of the Prevent anti-radicalisation strategy and raised some concerns that UK Muslims had about Prevent and said that “the government and authorities should be seen to be engaging with those concerns [of UK Muslims] seriously with a view to improving the effectiveness of the Prevent strategy.”

Last month, in welcome news, the government announced an independent review of Prevent. We have all heard appalling stories about alleged Prevent-related interventions but on closer inspection, I have personally found that quite a few of these stories have been presented in a less than balanced way with important contextual and relevant information often missing. So, let’s be grown up about this. As I stated in my earlier blog:

“Let’s be frank about what a referral to Prevent actually means. It means that your case – if it is deemed to be a cause for concern – will be assessed by a panel which will include local police officials and local authority figures and they will discuss whether your case may benefit from intervention in the form of mentoring etc that might perhaps be useful to you. It is hardly waterboarding, right?”

So, this review should be seen as an opportunity for UK Muslim groups that have been critical of Prevent to come forward with their case and provide recommendations for what can be done to improve matters. And for their part, the government needs to ensure that the review is indeed really independent. The MCB’s Secretary-General, Harun Khan, raised a valid point and will have spoken for many when he said:

“We welcome the government’s support for a review. However, those tasked with its implementation must have the independence, credibility and trust required to deliver it.”

In my experience, the Prevent brand was unfortunately badly tainted by the then Labour government’s decision back in 2008/9 to cut off relations with large community led groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain while funding (and promoting) new outfits such as the Quilliam Foundation which were widely disliked by UK Muslims because of their leadership’s support for the illegal war against Iraq and their attempts to whitewash the dispossession and terrorisation of the Palestinians by the Israelis.

In addition, a number of new Muslim outfits that emerged around this time under the Home Office/Prevent umbrella and claimed to be “independent” but were to UK Muslims evidently anything but independent.

Having said this, the government obviously must have a counter-radicalisation strategy. Bearing in mind that the government has strategies to tackle knife crime, gun crime and drugs, it would be clearly untenable if it did not also have a strategy to try and prevent people, be they Muslim or non-Muslims, from being drawn towards violent extremism.

I have heard some pretty unconvincing arguments against Prevent. One of the most common arguments that is repeated online is that a disproportionate number of those referred by Prevent to the Channel programme (which seeks to provide mentoring and support for vulnerable individuals) are Muslim. For example, the Guardian reported last month that:

“The Home Office said that since 2012 more than 1,200 people had been supported by Channel, a mentoring programme that is part of the Prevent strategy. Of the 394 people who received Channel support in 2017/18, 179 (45%) had been referred for concerns related to Islamist extremism and 174 (44%) for concerns related to right wing extremism.”

As Muslims currently constitute between 3-4% of the UK population, these critics say that it is a clear example of discrimination that 45% of those referred to Channel are Muslim. But is it really? If a significant part of the current domestic terror threat to the UK is from al-Qa’ida or ISIS-inspired terrorism – as it clearly is – then the laws of mathematics make it rather likely that a significant percentage of those referred by Prevent for possible mentoring will be UK Muslims. To argue that this constitutes discrimination is a bit like claiming that Christmas discriminates against turkeys or Qurbaani against sheep.

I very much hope that UK Muslim groups will actively contribute to the independent review and put forward their concerns about Prevent. By helping make Prevent more effective they will be contributing to the safeguarding of our country and its people. And there can be few better ways to demonstrate the genuine teachings of Islam in action than by cooperating with others to safeguard innocent lives.

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