Why Prevent Matters – Addressing the Rise of the Far Right

A couple of months ago I wrote a short post looking at the government’s Prevent strategy. Prevent has come in for a lot of sustained criticism over the years and some of it has been justified. I argued, however, that some inevitable mistakes made in the implementation of Prevent were no excuse to abandon an entire strategy that seeks to safeguard young people from all backgrounds – not just Muslims – from being drawn towards violent extremism.

Sean Arbuthnot, a Prevent practitioner, has written a very useful article this week looking at a far right Prevent referral he was involved in. A lot of misinformation and sometimes disinformation is spread about Prevent so it is helpful to be provided an insight into what actually happens during a referral and the methods utilised to try and draw young people away from a potentially violent path.

This week’s worrying far right demonstrations in support of the anti-Muslim rabble rouser Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (or Tommy Robinson as he is also known) who has been jailed for contempt of court should give those opposed to Prevent an opportunity to reflect on their stance. The anti-Muslim far right in the UK have been becoming bolder in their actions. Last summer’s terrorist attack on Muslim worshippers coming out of a mosque in North London was carried out by Darren Osborne who it transpired had been influenced by the propaganda of the far right.

A few years back, the Quilliam Foundation, announced to the world that Tommy Robinson had left the far right English Defence League and that they were planning to introduce him to their contacts in government. Many UK Muslims were understandably wary of this attempt at white-washing Tommy Robinson’s anti-Muslim past and were deeply sceptical about his supposed conversion to decency. I met Robinson during a TV interview soon after and wrote about it at the time saying that he didn’t seem to me to have really changed his beliefs but appeared to be looking to cleverly rebrand himself.

Maajid Nawaz and Tommy in happier times

By all means let us challenge government policies that are unfair or discriminatory. It is right to cast a sceptical eye over government initiatives. Yes, politicians often lie. That does not mean, however, that every statement a politician makes is a lie or that all government initiatives are worthless. This week’s actions by the emboldened far right should serve as a reminder of why Prevent is a vital part of our counter-terrorism strategy which aims to keep all of us – Muslims and non-Muslims – safe from those who wish to cause us harm.

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Book Review: The Human Instinct by Kenneth R. Miller

I have written previously on several occasions (see here for an example) about the influence that Professor Kenneth R. Miller’s splendid book “Finding Darwin’s God” had on me. Miller, a believing Catholic, very persuasively tackled a series of common objections to Darwin’s important theory and explained just how crucial it was to our understanding of the natural world. In the years since, I have recommended Miller’s book to many Muslims who have come to me with questions about evolution and the feedback I have received has always been very positive.

So, it was with a keen sense of excitement that I learned that Miller had just published a new book, The Human Instinct, this time tackling the issues of free will and consciousness and humankind’s place in the world.

One of the most common reasons for rejecting evolution is surely a fear that we would be relegated to being just another animal. Are we just another animal sculpted by evolution? Yes we most definitely are, insists Miller, but he points out that this is certainly not the end of the story.

“We are surely part of Darwin’s tangled bank. But we are also the only creatures to be able to transcend it.”

Along the way to establishing the key unique characteristics of human beings, Miller takes aim at some evolutionary psychologists who would seek to reduce all our behaviour simply to adaptations caused by Natural Selection.

There is no question that we are part of the natural world and that we evolved from earlier species and share common ancestors with the rest of the natural world. So what does Miller mean to tell us with his statement above that we “are able to transcend” those origins? Miller provides a telling example. He cites a Canadian study which found that stepchildren were 120 times more likely to be beaten to death by their stepfathers than children who were killed by their genetic fathers. Miller points out that this study was not a one-off. Similar results have been found in other studies in the US and elsewhere. This is a “chilling” statistic as Miller says, and appears to provide data to back up the thesis that there is a greater likelihood that stepfathers will kill children not related to them to ensure that their resources go only to their biological offspring and not unrelated children. That seems to be sadly true judging by the data, yet Miller refuses to allow the argument to rest there. He delves deeper and finds that the actual rate of stepfather infanticide in Canada was 321.6 per million i.e. the frequency of such tragedies was less than 1 in 2500.

“…the real question is not why evolutionary pressures are powerful enough to induce murder, but rather why they are so incredibly weak that in reality they almost never do…One might fairly generalise that stepfathers, by a huge margin, love and care for their spouses’ offspring effectively and are certainly not inclined toward violence directed at their stepchildren. If the drive to propagate one’s genes, which resides at the theoretical heart of evolutionary psychology, is so powerful, we should ask what other forces exist that seem to have checked that drive so dramatically. What about human nature today has enabled us to largely escape the amoral behavioural claims of our evolutionary past? There must be another, even more powerful influence, acting on the behaviour of stepfathers and everyone else, and I think we know what that is.”

Miller also looks at the current arguments promoted by the neuroscientist Sam Harris and others that seek to portray free will as being an illusion. The argument for behavioural determinism goes something like this: we, including our brains, are made of atoms. These atoms obey physical laws. Hence, there is no room for free will. What we think of as “our choices” are in reality made by our brains in advance according to physical laws. Miller disputes this line of reasoning and says that if we lack free will then our scientific logic itself would not be valid. We would no longer be able to claim we are making decisions on the basis of evidence and reason because our “reasoning” would be due to a combination of “genetics, circumstance, and uncontrollable external stimuli.”  So, the argument that free will is an illusion would appear to undermine the whole of the scientific endeavour.

Miller’s book can be regarded as a welcome pep-talk to remind humankind that although we are creatures of evolution that is not something to be ashamed of. Indeed, there is something truly unique to celebrate.

“What is truly remarkable…is that a mind made up of atoms was able to discover the atom. It is that a creature composed of cells was able to discover, dissect, and understand the cell. And finally, that an animal produced by evolution could identify that very process, to understand the marks that descent with modification left on body and mind, and then to rise far above the demands of mere survival. Evolution does not undermine our humanity, our capacity for reason, or our science. It is, in fact the foundation of each. We have become the reasoning animals we are because we are the products of evolution.”

Miller’s latest book contains evidence of his prodigious reading and mastery of his subject matter on virtually every page and this makes for a wondrous read.

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Anwar Ibrahim Free Again To Pursue Reform Agenda

Today’s release of the Malaysian political leader Anwar Ibrahim is a welcome day for all those who wish to see greater freedom, democracy and reform in the Muslim world.

Anwar was imprisoned on trumped up charges back in 1998 for challenging cronyism and corrupt practices in Malaysia. At a time when too many Islamic groups were (and sadly still are) overly focussed on the issue of Hudood penalties (the criminal code in Islam), Anwar urged people to rather turn their attention to the question of good governance and ensuring greater freedoms in society.

He argued that it is the very lack of freedom in many Muslim countries and the resulting dearth of vibrant discussion and debate on key religious and political issues that has strengthened conservative and retrograde interpretations of Islam. Encouraging greater freedoms and allowing multiple interpretations of Islam to be debated is essential to facilitate much needed creativity in addressing the challenges facing Muslim societies. Without this freedom, creativity is stifled and creativity is key to making progress.

At the end of 2001 I was invited (as part of the MCB) to a gathering of a hundred or so Muslims by the late Dr Zaki Badawi at a posh central London hotel where the guest of honour was Dr Mahathir Mohamad who was Prime Minister of Malaysia at that time and had just a couple of years earlier instigated the character assassination and imprisonment of Anwar. As soon as we were allowed to ask questions I made a dash to the microphone and asked how Dr Mahathir could possibly justify the unjust treatment of Anwar. A recalcitrant Dr Mahathir insisted that Anwar had engaged in criminal behaviour and his punishment was justified.

To Muslims of my generation, Anwar was a true hero and inspiration. He had been the leader of an Islamic student organisation, ABIM, in his youth and had made the transition into government where he became a rising star and was widely tipped to become the next Prime Minister of his country.

Anwar has suffered tremendously for his reformist stance which makes seeing him go free today all the more beautiful and moving. As the presenter in the video below of an Anwar Ibrahim talk on Islam and Democracy says, a person who stands firm on a principle and is prepared to suffer for it can end up moving a nation and indeed the world.

 

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Andrew Gilligan – the World’s Worst Journalist

Is there a working journalist with a more woeful record for getting it wrong and writing lies than Andrew Gilligan?

Today, the Sunday Telegraph accepted that Gilligan had written a defamatory story concerning the general secretary of the Finsbury Park mosque, Mohammed Kozbar, and had falsely portrayed him as being a supporter of Muslim extremism. The article, published in March 2016, was headlined “Corbyn and the mosque leader who blames the UK for Isil” so no prizes for guessing whose political career Gilligan was also hoping to trash at the same time. The Sunday Telegraph has removed the article from its website and been forced to pay substantial damages to Mr Kozbar while now admitting that “in fact, Mr Kozbar has never ‘blamed the UK for ISIL’”.

But, of course, this is not the first time that Gilligan has been caught out writing inflammatory rubbish. Just last August 2017, the Sunday Telegraph was again forced to apologise and pay damages after another Gilligan story fell apart after publication. This time it was forced to pay £20,000 in damages and apologise to Haras Ahmed for falsely accusing him of being an “Islamist activist” who was allegedly seeking to undermine the government’s Prevent strategy – a strategy that has many critics within the UK Muslim communities. The paper accepted that “whilst he is critical of the Prevent strategy (elements of which he believes are highly discriminatory), he does not support Islamist extremists and is in no way himself an extremist.”

And the year before that, in 2016, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph apologised to Mujibul Islam, a businessman in Tower Hamlets, following a series of Gilligan articles about him which the Telegraph accepted “suggested that Mr Islam was a willing beneficiary of…corruption”. The Telegraph papers accepted that the allegations were “untrue” and once again had to pay damages.

Gilligan now works for the Sunday Times. Interestingly, in February 2017, Gilligan wrote a story for his latest employers about a new so-called “Trojan Horse” plot by Muslims, including Nasim Ashraf and Hafizan Zaman, to takeover a state school in Oldham. The very next day the Daily Telegraph – Gilligan’s former employers – followed up on Gilligan’s exclusive story and wrote up a similar story. You can guess what happened…the Daily Telegraph was forced to accept that the allegations “were unfounded” and apologised and paid damages to the Muslims they had accused. You would have thought that the Telegraph papers would have learned to steer well clear of a Gilligan “story”.

And what happened to Gilligan’s original Sunday Times story? Well, if you click on this link it currently says “This article is the subject of a legal complaint from Mr Nasim Ashraf and Mrs Hafizan Zaman.” I don’t fancy the paper’s chances. Do you?

Could it be that the Sunday Times is now regretting employing the world’s worst journalist?

On the other hand, perhaps the Murdoch-owned paper believes that publishing inflammatory articles about Muslims is an essential part of its mission as a right-wing rabble-rousing newspaper.

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Book Review: The Qur’an – A Historical-Critical Introduction by Nicolai Sinai

I first read the Qur’an in English translation at the age of 18 during the summer break following my ‘A’ level exams and the start of university. Up until then I had largely only read the Qur’an in Arabic – a language I did not understand at the time – at the madrasa. The translation that I first read was by Marmaduke Pickthall which my mother had bought for me some years previously and I had put it aside as I was uninterested at the time. Now, during that long summer, on beginning to read the Qur’an I was at once gripped by the authority and immediacy with which the Qur’an spoke. This really was like no other book I had ever previously read. The Qur’an repeatedly claimed to be Divine speech and demanded to be taken seriously by the reader.

In the many years since that summer, I have purchased and read many different English translations of the Qur’an and have also sought out Western critiques of the Qur’an too. After all, a true faith should be able to withstand criticism, right?

Beginning in the late 1970’s a revisionist school of thought appeared amongst some influential Western scholars including John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook. This school claimed to have uncovered findings which undermined the traditional Muslim accounts of Islamic/Qur’anic history and argued that the Qur’an was not revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the early 7th century (610 – 632 CE according to traditional Muslim accounts), but was produced much later. Wansbrough argued that the Qur’an was produced in the late 8th/early 9th century during the Abbasid era. If true, these claims would cause immense damage to the Muslim worldview.

In his latest book “The Qur’an: A Historical-Critical Introduction“, Nicolai Sinai, an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University, says that the “…aim of the present book is to induct readers into the current state of the historical-critical study of the Qur’an.” His findings will be of interest to many Muslims and some detractors too.

Sinai quickly disposes of the revisionist school’s arguments. In the years since Wansbrough/Crone/Cook made their claims a number of Qur’anic fragments have been discovered – including a few years ago in Birmingham – that appear to strongly support the traditional Muslim account of the Qur’an’s genesis.

“…it appears increasingly certain that at least a large part of the Qur’an was extant by the middle of the seventh century, since several sheets from early Qur’anic manuscripts have now been subjected to radiocarbon dating. Thus, the testing of a folio belonging to a very substantial Qur’anic palimpsest discovered in the Grand Mosque of San’a has produced a likelihood of more than 95% that the parchment is older than 660 CE…the increasing number of such tests would appear to confirm that a very considerable portion of the Qur’anic text was around, albeit not without variants, by the 650s.”

The revisionist school had also claimed that Islam had not originated in the Hijaz but much further to the north near the border of Palestine. This argument was also taken up by Tom Holland in his book, In The Shadow of the Sword (which I reviewed here) and his accompanying sensationalist Channel 4 documentary “Islam: The Untold Story”. Holland argued that Islam’s origins lay not in the Makka that we know today, but much closer to the modern Israeli border in the north. Makka, argued Holland, was a much later creation by the Umayyads. Sinai debunks this hypothesis too. Sinai adduces a number of arguments which support the traditional Muslim history of Islam’s origins including pointing out that the Qur’an (33:13) explicitly refers to Yathrib (later renamed to al-Madinah) which is in the Hijaz and has been attested to in other literary and epigraphic sources. Sinai says:

“…[I have ended up] endorsing core aspects of [the traditional Muslim] scenario, namely, the historical existence of Muhammad, a default dating of most of the Qur’an to his lifetime and…a placement of the Qur’an’s genesis in the Hijaz region of Western Arabia…the prospects for identifying a compelling alternative to the traditional Hijazi locale and for explaining why and how the Qur’an’s true birthplace could have been so completely obliterated from Islamic historical memory are unpromising, to say the least.”

Sinai’s book also takes a look at how in the past many Western scholars had simply assumed that the Qur’anic suras (chapters) were roughly compiled out of groups of verses and observes how by contrast “a growing tendency in Western scholarship since the 1980s has insisted that many Qur’anic texts are in fact much tighter literary unities”. This is an interesting development and some Muslim readers will recognise that the late Pakistani Islamic scholar, Amin Ahsan Islahi, was one of the pioneers of this school of thought.

Overall, Sinai’s book has much to recommend it. His conclusions do not mean that the Qur’an is God’s Word of course – and I have written previously of how certain Qur’anic passages do pose a problem for modern readers – but it does serve to confirm that the traditional Muslim accounts of the Qur’an’s birthplace do appear to be sound.

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A Look at the Prevent Strategy – 15 years on…

It is fifteen years now since the then Labour government set up the Prevent programme back in 2003 as one of the four key strands of its overall CONTEST strategy (Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare) to try and reduce the threat of terrorism, yet it continues to remain highly controversial especially amongst UK Muslims.

Over the years there have been a number of widely publicised questionable referrals made to Prevent which have served to increase suspicions about its purpose. That sort of publicity understandably damages the standing of Prevent and contributes to increasing fears amongst other Muslims about how they and their children too might perhaps be suspected of being extremists by over-zealous officials.

It would be a mistake, however, to allow unfortunate referrals to overshadow the necessity of the Prevent programme in the first place. Mistakes are bound to occur.  In ordinary police work not every line of inquiry for a suspected crime leads to an arrest. Not every arrest leads to a criminal charge. Not every charge leads to a conviction. And not every conviction is safe. We are all human beings and human beings are fallible.

So, as Will Baldet, co-ordinator, Prevent Leicester, comments in a video about Prevent: “If inappropriate referrals are being made then I would want the training to be improved. What I don’t think is appropriate is that you abandon a strategy because somebody in the strategy has made a mistake. What you do is hone and refine the strategy.”

Back in 2010, I met with the then head of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, Charles Farr. Farr argued that the government had – quite rightly – set up anti-knife, anti-gun and anti-drug programmes to try and dissuade young people from getting involved in activities that might harm themselves and harm others. He said it would be untenable, therefore, if the government did not also have a programme to dissuade people from getting involved in terrorist activities. The government, regardless of its political complexion, has a primary duty of protecting its citizens and Prevent needs to be viewed in that light.

Earlier this week, the Home Office released figures for the year ending March 2017 which showed that suspected far-right extremists constituted 16% percent of those who had been referred to the Prevent anti-radicalisation programme. This was an increase of a quarter over the previous year’s figures. As we discovered earlier this year at the trial of Darren Osborne – the man who attacked worshippers outside Finsbury Park Mosque – he had, according to the judge, been “rapidly radicalised over the internet by those determined to spread hatred of Muslims…Your use of Twitter exposed you to racists and anti-Islamic ideology…In short, you allowed your mind to be poisoned by those who claimed to be leaders.”

In his parting speech in February 2018, Mark Rowley, the former head of counter-terrorism policing, warned “against the rise of the far right as he revealed that four extremist rightwing plots had been thwarted in 2017.”

Would we not want to see attempts made to engage with others like Osborne, whether they are suspected far-right activists or Muslims or whoever else, well before they get to the stage of actually carrying out terrorist attacks? That is the purpose of Prevent.

Roshan Salih, the editor of the 5 Pillarz website refers to Prevent as constituting “state Islamophobia” in the video I have linked to above. That criticism seems rather overdone and unhelpful. 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?

It is true that some of the Muslims associated with promoting the Prevent agenda are viewed with concern by the wider UK Muslim community as not being sufficiently independent. Certainly their lionising by journalists such as Nick Cohen, John Ware and Andrew Gilligan – who are not viewed as being exactly friendly to UK Muslims – continues to damage the Prevent brand. At the same time the reluctance of the government to engage with organisations that by all accounts do genuinely have significant support amongst UK Muslims, such as the Muslim Council of Britain and MEND, adds to the impression that the government is only willing to talk with Muslims that are sufficiently deferential and pliable.

And yet…the safety of the UK and our fellow citizens should be a concern for all of us. We should not refrain from co-operating with those tasked with maintaining our security. At the same time, it is absolutely right to raise any concerns we have about how Prevent is operating. And the government and authorities should be seen to be engaging with those concerns seriously with a view to improving the effectiveness of the Prevent strategy.

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Fiyaz Mughal Slanders Imams Over Anti-Semitism

Each day I receive an email from Jewish News Online in which they highlight some stories. Yesterday’s edition contained an article by Fiyaz Mughal – the founder of Tell MAMA – entitled “Chief Rabbi right to call out ‘see no evil hear no evil’ mantra on anti-Semitism.” The article was in support of the call from the UK’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mervis, for Muslims around the world to be more vocal in standing up to anti-Semitism. Mughal writes:

“The fact that there has not been one single Imam who has publicly spoken up about the need to tackle anti-Semitism within and beyond Muslim communities, is telling.”

When I read that I did a double take. Whaaaaat? Not a single Imam? In the whole world? Really? What was Mughal basing this on? How much research did Mughal actually do before he came up with that astonishingly sweeping claim? It took me all of ten seconds to type in the words “Imams condemn anti-Semitism” into Google and it turned up quote after quote by Imams across the world condemning anti-Semitism. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Here’s an extract from a Reuters story “Euro imams, rabbis pledge zero tolerance for hate preachers”:

“Seventy European Muslim and Jewish leaders pledged on Wednesday to show “zero tolerance” to hate preachers of any faith including their own ranks, citing what they called rising religious intolerance on the continent. Imams, rabbis and community leaders from 18 countries agreed to jointly counter bigotry against Jews and Muslims…”

That certainly sounds like Imams speaking out against anti-Semitism both “within and beyond” does it not? Several years back the Muslim Council of Britain (whose affiliates include hundreds of mosques) and the Board of Deputies of British Jews issued a laudable joint statement in which they said:

“We condemn any expression of Islamophobia, Anti-semitism  or any form of racism. We call for Muslim and Jewish communities to redouble efforts to work together and get to know one another.”

So, many Imams have indeed spoken out against the evil of anti-Semitism.

And how about Muslim communities? Just a few months ago, I recall reading a wonderful story in The Independent about a group of Muslims in Leeds who went to show solidarity with the congregants of a synagogue that had been defaced with racist graffiti. It was a really heart warming gesture. This story is especially poignant because in his article Mughal notes several examples of Jews displaying support for Muslims who are victims of anti-Muslim bigotry, but tellingly provides no examples of Muslims standing up in solidarity with Jews. At best one would say that conducting basic research  is clearly not a Fiyaz Mughal strongpoint. If one was inclined to be less generous, however, you might say that Mughal was rather dishonestly giving a very selective and partial portrait in order to deliberately bolster his misleading argument.

And then there was this contribution in the Jewish Chronicle from your present writer over a decade ago where I said:

“We have to be honest, and I think there has been a real danger – because passions are so heated around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – of genuine disputes over Israeli policies sliding to an easy, or casual, form of anti-Semitism…Muslims as well as others ought to be cautious about that. It would be absurd if, after being on the receiving end of prejudice, we ended up being prejudiced ourselves.”

And there are plenty of other similar examples one could quote from. All forms of bigotry, whether it is prejudice against Jews, Muslims or any other religious group, ought to be vigorously challenged. We should be wary of making sweeping generalisations of any group of people.

So, why did Fiyaz Mughal make such a manifestly false claim in the Jewish News in support of the Chief Rabbi? Interestingly, Mughal acted in much the same obsequious manner last summer when following the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in London Bridge and Borough Market – a time when public figures would normally have been extra careful not to encourage division in the UK – the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, wrote a very ill-judged article in the Jewish Chronicle saying:

“…it is time now for the diverse Muslim communities of the UK to stand up and be counted – to go beyond mere condemnation. I believe they need to stage a huge rally of their own in a prominent location such as Trafalgar Square.  Muslim religious and secular leaders must make the point loudly and publicly that these attacks are a perversion of Islam and the attackers will be liable to be punished after death and not rewarded in heaven. Every British mosque should be holding its own protest against terrorism, proclaiming Not in our Name.”

To their immense credit around 100 British Jews from a number of different synagogues and unaffiliated individuals wrote an open letter strongly rebuking Jonathan Arkush saying:

“We particularly reject the assertion that members of a religious or ethnic group must quickly and publicly denounce any members of that group who act repugnantly. We hope you will remember that this has been used to persecute Jews in living memory. Just as we as Jews have no responsibility for the actions of Jewish terrorist groups, Muslims are not personally responsible for the actions of groups such as ISIS. Finally, we are deeply troubled with your presuming to enforce a mandatory public reaction on the entire Muslim community in the wake of these attacks. We commend the Muslim community leaders who have spoken out against the terrorists, but it is not for us to dictate how people in grieving communities should respond. We stand with all our Muslim sisters and brothers, and all people of faith and no faith, in love and healing from these atrocities – together.”

It was a highly commendable letter which displayed genuine solidarity with British Muslims at a sensitive time when the terrorists and their supporters would have been desperately trying to set communities against each other.

But how did Fiyaz Mughal respond? Did he also roundly criticise the President of the Board of Deputies for trying to “enforce a mandatory public reaction on the entire Muslim community”? Of course not. The very next day, Mughal wrote an astonishingly ingratiating article for the Jewish Chronicle rushing to Arkush’s defence saying that the Arkush comments were “sensitive and thought through – and carried with it a deep sense of empathy and care for Muslim communities.”

A couple of years ago, Fiyaz Mughal was the subject of a fawning interview in the Observer by that notorious supporter and propagandist for the illegal war against Iraq, Nick Cohen. In the article, Mughal accused his opponents in the Muslim community of being “charlatans”. Well, there are certainly some charlatans around, no question. Perhaps Fiyaz Mughal should take a good hard look in the mirror.

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