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Interview with Chaminda Jayanetti of The Samosa

Summary

1 June 2010

The interview below was originally published on The Samosa website, but is no longer there after a site updating.

'I'd invite Melanie Phillips to dinner'

Chaminda Jayanetti meets Mohammed Amin - the man who plans to shake up the Muslim Council of Britain.

She’s an odd choice of dinner guest for the man who wants to lead the Muslim Council of Britain, but frothing newspaper columnist Melanie Phillips could find an invitation landing on her doorstep on June 21st.

That is the day after the MCB elects its new secretary general, and if Mohammed Amin wins, Phillips – who issues dire warnings of the ‘Islamisation’ of Britain and calls for the government to give “no quarter” to the MCB – is on his invite list.

“I would be perfectly happy to entertain her to dinner,” says Amin. “Not because I believe I can persuade her in one dinner to change her views, but I just think it’s important to "

“We can agree to differ as human beings; we don’t have to be throwing things at each other.”

The statement typifies Amin’s bold approach. He sits on the MCB’s central working committee, but as current secretary general Muhammad Abdul Bari reaches his term limit, Amin – the first candidate ever to publicly declare an interest in the role – sees himself as an outsider looking to shake up British Islam’s main representative body.

Made in England

Amin came to Britain with his working class parents at the age of two. Both his parents were illiterate, but he studied at Cambridge University and rose to become a senior tax partner with accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“I speak English like a native, I think like a native in many ways. I have no memories of Pakistan; I was two when I came here. To me, home is here.”

He feels this outlook will help him connect with British Muslims who don’t come from very traditional backgrounds: “There are enormous numbers of successful Muslim Oxbridge graduates, accountants, lawyers, bankers – and at the moment the MCB has very little connection with people like that.”

Having recently retired, Amin promises to commit full-time to the role of secretary general. If elected, he says he will build links with British Muslim professionals to help swell the MCB’s coffers, and seek out affiliates from some of Britain’s newer Muslim communities, such as those from Turkey and Somalia.

Storm clouds on the horizon

Before the MCB plans for the long-term, however, David Cameron’s election as prime minister poses immediate challenges. Before the election, Cameron said the Conservatives would cut off formal relations with the MCB unless it distanced itself from its outspoken deputy secretary general, Daud Abdullah.

The row over Dr Abdullah continues the fallout from his decision to sign the controversial Istanbul Declaration following the Gaza conflict last year. Critics said the statement was antisemitic and potentially called for attacks on British warships – claims strongly refuted by Dr Abdullah.

Having been a left-winger in his student days, Amin is now vice-chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum. If Cameron tries to lock the MCB out of formal contact, Amin says his response as secretary general would be to offer to clarify Dr Abdullah’s comments and the MCB’s corporate view.

“But what is not up for negotiation,” he adds, “is the prime minister telling us who we can and cannot have as a democratically elected member of our body.”

Not that Amin is a defender of Dr Abdullah, who is ineligible to re-stand for his current job but is likely to maintain an elected role within the MCB. Amin pointedly says he had “a full and frank exchange of views” with Dr Abdullah after he signed the Istanbul Declaration, while the MCB is changing its rules to ensure statements made by senior figures in a personal capacity do not contradict its agreed line.

But even if the MCB dodges that bullet, another storm could brew if the new coalition government pursues the Tories’ election manifesto pledge to outlaw the hardline Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Any move by the government to ban the pro-caliphate group, which is not an MCB affiliate, is likely to provoke a storm of protest given the lack of hard evidence linking Hizb’s UK organisation to terrorism.

The coalition agreement is woolly on a Hizb ban, saying that where an organisation “has recently espoused or incited violence or hatred”, the government “will proscribe [it], subject to the advice of the police and security and intelligence agencies.”

Amin takes a cautious line. While he describes Hizb’s ideology as “wrong, wrong and wrong” – in its analysis of the past, the present and the future – he is not convinced the evidence exists to justify banning it.

“An organisation should not be banned if it’s putting forward nonviolent policies, even if you don’t like them, and I’m not aware of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK doing anything other than arguing in a democratic, lawful way for changes to the governmental system.

“The point that Conservatives are making, I understand, is that Hizb ut-Tahrir UK is an integral part of Hizb ut-Tahrir worldwide. What the Conservatives are arguing is that the global entity promotes terrorism right now today.

“I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. But if the global entity is promoting terrorism right now today, and if the UK arm is an integral part of the global entity, that would be the logic of the position they’re putting forward.”

Is that a logic he shares? Amin is not certain where the evidence stands.

“You would need to know a great deal more about the precise linkages between the UK arm and the global arm, you would want to know if money was passing backwards and forwards between the UK arm and the global arm etc. And I’m not in a position to have that kind of data.”

A new focus – education and employment

But away from the kind of controversy-cum-circus that so often follows the MCB in the media, Amin’s real passion is to refocus the organisation on prosaic but crucial matters for Britain’s Muslim communities – education and employment.

In terms of education, Amin is concerned that many inner city state schools – where most British Muslim children study – are “appalling”.

“The reason why schools in leafy suburbs do well and schools in inner cities do badly isn’t funding; it’s aspiration among the teachers, aspiration amongst the children, attitudes of parents, and those are all things which are capable of change.”

Amin wants to see parents of Muslim state school pupils taking more of a role in how those schools are run by becoming school governors. Under him, the MCB would communicate more with Muslim parents on how to raise their children’s standards and spread best practice between schools.

“It’s a question of focus,” he says. “Actually putting real MCB attention and focus on that, rather than on reacting to hostile statements by government ministers.”

His nuts-and-bolts approach to effecting change also shows through with his agenda to improve employment prospects for young British Muslims, working with groups such as Mosaic and the Adab Trust to mentor young Muslims and help them with training and career progression.

As chair of the MCB’s business committee, he launched a mentoring scheme with the MCB youth committee. He believes a national mentoring programme for young Muslims could raise aspirations and encourage people to believe that they can get better jobs and careers.

Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel

Although Amin supported the Iraq War in 2003, he now describes the invasion as illegal, saying the country was misled by Tony Blair over the threat from weapons of mass destruction. He opposes an immediate withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, favouring a strategy aimed at marginalising hardcore Taliban elements that support Al-Qaeda.

Amin supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel while backing the Arab League’s two-state peace plan. And he is solidly opposed to the ongoing boycott of Hamas: “I believe that the West has handled Hamas completely wrong … I don’t believe that proscription is productive. What we should be doing is bringing Hamas back into a political process.”

Nevertheless, he doesn’t want the MCB to give a running commentary on foreign affairs: “It would make comments on issues of British foreign policy as and when appropriate, but I believe that what it really needs to do is concentrate on practical things that affect Muslims in this country.”

Amin has visited Auschwitz, and insists the MCB should never have stopped attending Holocaust Memorial Day. Indeed, he wants to build better relations with the Board of Deputies, the main Jewish representative body in the UK, which has had regular run-ins with the MCB in recent years.

“The Board of Deputies has had its own problems with compartmentalisation, because it keeps sending documents to the government saying, ‘don’t talk to the MCB until they sort out their attitude to the Middle East’. That isn’t going to get anybody anywhere. We need to work together on issues that matter in this country.”

The terror threat

But no matter what the MCB says and does over the coming years, the threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism will continue to loom large. The MCB was clear in its condemnation of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, July 7th, and the attempted attacks in London and Glasgow in 2007 – although that hasn’t stopped sniping from critics who claim it could do more.

Amin identifies three causes of violent radicalisation of some British Muslims. First and foremost, he pinpoints discontent over international affairs as a key issue. He is currently reading The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe, which documents the driving of Arabs from their land in Israel following partition.

“As you learn more about that, you’re entitled to feel angry.” He gives Israel’s ruinous attack on Gaza in 2009 as an example. “If that doesn’t make you angry, what will make you angry? However, that isn’t enough to make people into terrorists.”

Amin felt deep anger over Gaza, but he didn’t blow up a train because of it. As a senior Conservative Muslim, he wrote to the then-shadow foreign secretary William Hague to express his concerns. He says that a sense of powerlessness is what turns anger into something more sinister.

“If you feel that you can make a difference, you are far less likely to feel that terrorism is the only answer.

“For several years I’ve been encouraging Muslims to get involved in political parties, to stand as candidates, because it’s only when you get significantly more real political power in this country are we going to see this country’s foreign policy stop being quite so biased in favour of Israel.”

The final step comes with a misunderstanding of what Islam teaches about violence. Amin gives the July 7th bombers as an example. “If people believed that if they did that kind of thing they’d go to hell, they wouldn’t do it. People will heroically sacrifice their lives in a cause. There are very few people who will heroically sacrifice eternal damnation in a cause.”

Could the MCB be doing more to counter violent extremism?

“The MCB has condemned terrorism on many occasions. I believe if I searched for it, I would not find a simple statement from the MCB saying that we believe that suicide bombers deserve to go to hell, and have every hope and expectation that they go to hell.”

Step away from the resistance

But while British-based preachers who openly support terrorism are now subject to prosecution, there is another class of rhetoric – support for ‘resistance fighters’ against British and American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and Israeli forces in Palestine. The legal position in such cases is less certain – but in moral terms, Amin is clear.

“For a British citizen to go to Afghanistan for the purposes of fighting against the British armed forces is treason – full stop.”

Amin explains: “When the British and Americans invaded Iraq, the Iraqi army had the right to shoot back under international law; nobody would disagree with that for one moment.

“While the Iraqi army had the right to shoot back, a British citizen who had gone to Iraq and signed up with the Iraqi army to shoot at the British, in my view would still be guilty of treason.”

So if elected, how would Amin feel if an MCB-affiliated mosque hosted a preacher calling for ‘victory to the resistance’ in Afghanistan and Iraq?

“Very unhappy. Doesn’t mean I could do anything about it, which is a separate issue.”

Islam, doctrine and dogma

Discussions over violent extremism often become conflated with non-violent extremism – or, alternatively phrased, deep religious conservatism.

But even accepting this distinction, surely the MCB’s role in assisting the integration of the British Muslim community is harmed by preachers at affiliate mosques urging British Muslim women, for example, not to leave the house without their husband?

“Refusing to let an organisation affiliate to the MCB because they have those views does not help one iota in terms of getting a single woman out of the house,” says Amin. “You’re far more likely to achieve things if you’re talking to each other.”

Amin himself is keen for the MCB to encourage British Muslim women to enter the jobs market, and favours a positive strategy to achieve this goal. “What you can do is be constructive. You produce more and more women role models, you profile them. One of the things in my manifesto is a Muslim of the Week, and I would want to profile Muslims from the entire spectrum, including lots of working mothers.

“There’s a great deal that the MCB can do in a positive way that doesn’t involve having arguments about who can and cannot be a member of the MCB.

“It comes back to the tone from the top,” he adds. “If you’ve got a secretary general who is talking to Muslim students, is visiting them regularly – it’s up to people who are not from the extreme conservative wing of Islam to speak up for themselves.

“But the MCB will always be a broadly based organisation because that’s what it’s there for. There is a place in the MCB for people who have beards and a place for people who are clean shaven.”

Of more concern to Amin than the words of isolated preachers at mosques is racism and demonisation towards British Muslims. While taking a stand against those Muslims who he says provide fuel for this hatred, he wants to promote the idea that Islam is as much as Western’ religion as Judaism or Christianity, having existed in Europe for 1,300 years.

He is troubled by the media discourse around Islam in Britain, highlighting a controversial report by the Centre for Social Cohesion into student Islamic societies. “They’d gone into student Islamic society bookshops or libraries, found a copy of Milestones, and said, ‘this is a hotbed of radicalism’.”

Milestones is the defining work by Sayyid Qutb, the 20th century Muslim Brotherhood leader who many regard as the founding father of radical Islam. Critics say the book cast mainstream Muslims as infidels.

“If you come to my house,” says Amin, “you’ll find a copy of Milestones. I haven’t actually got round to reading it yet, but I do own a copy of Milestones. I bought it a few years ago after 9/11 because I’d heard about Sayyid Qutb and I wanted to see what the guy was saying.

“But to brand Mohammed Amin as an extremist simply on the grounds that he owns a copy of Milestones, without reporting that I’ve got x copies of the Bible, or Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War, is somewhat selective.”

The gay question

But it is perhaps the MCB’s attitudes towards homosexuality that are most regularly highlighted by its critics. There are no gay Muslim organisations affiliated to the MCB, and with a handful of exceptions, senior MCB officials are uniformly critical of homosexuality, despite its acceptance into British society over the last 20 years.

Amin is clear: “I personally believe that homosexuality is a sin; that if you commit homosexuality you are in severe danger of going to hell, unless God chooses to forgive you. I also do not believe it’s an equally appropriate lifestyle compared to heterosexuality.”

Nevertheless, he supports civil partnerships and says he is totally against any discrimination towards homosexuals; indeed, he points out that he worked alongside openly gay people while at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “I see no incompatibility in both my positions.”

As for affiliation, Amin draws a dividing line between a group that tries to help gay Muslims to break out of homosexuality, and an organisation that promotes homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle for Muslims. He would be sympathetic towards affiliating the former, but would be totally opposed to affiliating the latter.

“Let’s move to another activity – alcohol. Right now today, there are Muslims who drink, there are Muslims who don’t drink. The Muslims who drink by and large know that they shouldn’t but they just do.

“If there was an organisation of Muslim reforming alcoholics, people who wanted to stop being drinking Muslims, I’d be sympathetic. If there was a group that says, ‘we’ve decided that alcohol is absolutely ok, we encourage all Muslims to drink’ – I just could not see that organisation fitting inside the MCB. I personally would be voting against them.”

But there is no controversy in the MCB over British Muslims not practising polygamy, or not getting married at the same age as Aisha (who is thought to have married the Prophet Muhammad at the age of six or seven), so why is there such controversy over homosexual Muslims?

“It’s a practice that is fundamentally against what the religion teaches,” Amin says of gay Muslims.

“It’s not just that they’re lapsing a bit; they’re lapsing totally if they’re promoting it as an equally valid lifestyle.”

The difference between saying and doing

Amin’s manifesto is wide-ranging, but his fundamental point is that while the MCB has policies on a variety of issues, too often it doesn’t focus sufficiently on them to actually make a difference.

“Virtually every policy that I’ve mentioned in my manifesto, I think you will find already somewhere on the MCB website. There is a document about organ donation, where the MCB has obtained religious opinions from Muslim scholars saying organ donation is permissible. How often does the MCB really push that with the Muslim in the street?

“I want to change the emphasis. I want to go round addressing Muslim audiences around the country, taking questions about issues, but also actually putting forward an agenda, saying this is our country, this is how we live here, these are things that we need to do to make lives better for us as Muslims, for our children as Muslims, and for the non-Muslims in this country. Because the MCB is about the common good, not just Muslims.”

Mohammed Amin's full manifesto is available here

Published on Tuesday 1st June 2010

 

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