On 16 October 2015 I took part in an event organised by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA). This was a panel discussion with the title “The Big Question: Is Islam the Cause or Solution to Extremism?”
iERA is a charity whose purpose as stated on the Charity Commission website is “The advancement of the Islamic religion. To educate and inform humanity about the noble message of Islam. To train Islamic educators to deliver talks, seminars and other public engagements. To produce and distribute Islamic education resources. To carry out research into contemporary issues facing the Islam and the Muslim community.”
The Wikipedia entry for iERA records some of the criticism that has been directed at the organisation. In my opinion its worldview is illustrated by the reference to "the criminalisation of Islam" in iERA's event publicity and description of the event on YouTube.
I was aware of iERA's reputation when I accepted the invitation to appear on the panel. However I was confident that with the panel being chaired by Peter Oborne I would receive a fair hearing. Furthermore the event was likely to attract an audience of primarily younger people who needed to hear my views and not just the views of other panellists who may take a very different position from me on the issues.
At the simplest, there is not much point in me spending my time "preaching to the converted."
The event took place in the east end of London at the Perrin Lecture Theatre, Blizzard Building, Queen Mary University of London and was recorded. It can be watched lower down on this page.
Listed from left to right as they appear on the screen, the panel comprised:
The session was intended to last for 90 minutes but continued for 1 hour 48 minutes. I recommend watching the entire video; the picture and sound quality are good.
I have transcribed below my own contributions, very slightly edited to convert the spoken English into written English. (You never speak exactly as you would write unless you are reading a speech verbatim.)
Apart from three questions Peter Tatchell raised, I have not transcribed anyone else's contributions. It would take too long to do them in full. Abbreviating them would risk distortion. Instead I recommend watching the video.
All panellists were posed this opening question. I responded:
“I am the chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum but I am here to speak on my own behalf. I am not speaking for the Conservative party or even speaking on behalf of the Conservative Muslim Forum.
Extremism is something that you can find amongst people of all religions and amongst people of no religion. For tonight, I want to concentrate on extremism amongst Muslims. That is not because I think Muslims are a particular problem but because you never analyse anything properly if you jump all over the place. Therefore I am not interested in talking about extremism amongst Jews, Christians etc.
To analyse the categories a bit more, let’s start with “violent extremism”. Violent extremism is the sort of behaviour that we saw from the 7/7 bombers and the killers of Drummer Lee Rigby and from the many failed plots that there have been over the last 10 years in the UK, let alone elsewhere. I think everyone on this panel would agree that violent extremism is completely wrong.
Where it becomes more controversial is the category which the Government refers to as “non-violent extremism.” A non-violent extremist as far as I am concerned is someone who believes basically the same things that the violent extremist believes but does not wish to engage in violence himself.
The 7/7 bombers' leader Mohammad Sidique Khan, told us exactly what he believed. He thought he was a soldier fighting for Islam, doing the right thing etc. Somebody else who is not going anywhere near planting a bomb but who believes Mohammad Sidique Khan was doing the right thing in my view is unquestionably a non-violent extremist.
Then it obviously becomes more difficult as you get towards grey areas. At one extreme you got a completely normal rational human being, a full equal citizen of our society. On the other extreme you have a non-violent person but one who really believes that Mohammad Sidique Khan did absolutely the right thing. In between is where you have to draw the line.”
Peter Oborne asked me “The Conservative government is saying that certain behaviours, certain kinds of dress [are hallmarks of extremism.] Hazel Blears mentioned praying five times a day. How happy are you with those as badges of extremism?”
“The Government as an example has never condemned different forms of dress. Theresa May has been adamant that in the UK we are not going to ban the wearing of niqab. You get the odd lunatic backbench Conservative MP with a private members bill trying to ban the wearing of niqab but in no way does he speak for the government. So I completely reject that. [Peter Oborne’s assertions.] As for Hazel Blears, I am not here to defend Labour Party politicians but I would not pay any attention to what she said.”
The event format was pre-submitted questions being asked from the floor. These were normally directed at particular panel members.
The only question from the floor directed at me was from Ms Mahbuba Hussain:
“In an interview on the Ummah Channel in July, you said ‘I have no hesitation in saying that I believe homosexuality is a sin and something God has said is wrong.’ Is it fair to say that in accordance with David Cameron’s logic you are now a non-violent extremist who is now on the conveyor belt to possibly carrying out violence against homosexuals?”
I responded as follows:
“I’m tempted to be funny and say that at least on the conveyor belt with me will be the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But I’m an accountant so I’m not allowed to be funny!
It would be helpful to also include what else I said in that program about homosexuality. This was that I believed firmly that homosexuals are entitled to absolutely the same civil rights as everyone else in society. Although at a technical level I wanted to do ‘equal civil marriage’ in a different way, I support the basic principle that homosexuals should be able to enter into a legal relationship giving them the same legal rights that my wife and I have as people who are married.
The key thing is the totality of a person’s beliefs. You can’t simply pick one particular thing that a person says or believes and use that as the sole way of identifying whether that person is a potential violent extremist, whether they are being radicalised, whether they are just completely normal citizens or have already started to go off the rails.”
The debate ground to a halt when Peter Tatchell wished to ask all the other panellists some questions. The chairman Peter Oborne ruled this out of order. After a certain amount of shouting, the debate resumed!
Peter Tatchell’s questions were:
- “Are there any circumstances in which you would support Shariah law?
- Are there any circumstances in which you would support Shariah law punishments such as execution for blasphemy, apostasy, women who have sex outside marriage, and homosexuality?
- Are there any circumstances in which you would support Shariah punishments such as stoning and amputation?”
Even though the chairman had ruled Peter Tatchell out of order, as the debate proceeded some panellists decided to respond to Peter’s questions.
I chose not to answer them out of respect for the chairman since Peter Oborne had ruled them out of order. However after the debate had finished, I gave Peter Tatchell private answers roughly as follows:
- "This is a very complicated question. For example the UK government has modified certain aspects of its tax law and regulatory law to enable Shariah compliant finance to be carried out in the UK but without making Shariah a part of our legal system and while maintaining the principle of one law for all citizens. (If we had had more time, I would have referred Peter Tatchell to my page Shariah is more than a set of legal rules.)
My next speaking opportunity came after Zara Faris had been excoriating the Government’s approach to British values, asserting that British values are not an answer, demanding abandonment of the use of the term "extremist", repeating the myth that the Iraq war was about resources etc.
“I completely disagree with Zara. Let’s take a concrete example.
In 1991 when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Saudis invited America, Britain, France and many other countries including Pakistan, Egypt etc. to form a coalition to liberate Kuwait. You had people like Osama bin Laden getting completely outraged because as far as he was concerned to have any non-Muslim soldiers in Saudi Arabia was committing a sin. That’s what motivated people like Osama bin Laden. Coming back to…”
Interruption from Zara Faris: “Are you saying foreign policy is not a cause for terrorism and [denying that] that the solution [to terrorism] would simply be to change foreign policy?”
I continued: “Foreign policy is cited quite regularly by terrorists as their reason for committing terrorism…”
Interruption from Anas Altikriti: “Robin Cook cited it, intelligence chiefs cited it. The 7/7 bombings, every security chief came out and said it was because of the Iraq war. It’s not just terrorists, it is intelligent academics who are citing foreign policy…”
“Let me finish. I’m supposed to be speaking and you are just interrupting me.
As I said, British foreign policy is regularly cited by terrorists as a reason for committing their acts of terrorism. That’s not a surprise, and that’s why our security services warned before the Iraq war that it was likely to increase the risk of terrorism.
We do not base our country’s foreign policy on whether or not some people might then be motivated to commit terrorism. We base it, as Peter Oborne said, on the national interest. You can argue whether the Iraq war was or was not justified. We make British foreign policy in the national interest: what is good for the country as a whole?”
There was some inaudible heckling from the audience. This led Peter Oborne to check with me that I was not defending the Iraq war and I confirmed that I was not.
“Let me give you another example. When we intervened in Sierra Leone to save Muslims, our present intervention in Iraq is to help one group of Muslims to defend themselves against another group of Muslims, I totally support what we are doing in Iraq today. We intervened in Bosnia, we intervened in Kosovo…”
Anas Altikriti interrupted again to say that he agreed that the national interest was a valid reason but went on to challenge the ethics and capability of the people taking the decisions.
I responded: “We choose our government in this country.” Anas Altikriti interrupted again citing Tony Blair and the “dodgy dossier”.
I have a policy of not interrupting others, and consider such behaviour with repeated interruptions simply rude.
Each member of the panel was given the opportunity to make closing remarks. Mine were:
“It is attitudes to Islam that are the cause of extremism and it is different attitudes to Islam that can be the solution to extremism.
Being more specific, when people think that they are entitled to impose their Islamic religious beliefs on other people, regardless of whether they are imposing them on Muslims or on non-Muslims, that is where extremism starts. And the solution is to recognise that Islam is entirely a matter between the individual and God and for nobody else.”
I did not participate expecting to be popular with the audience and wasn't. For example nobody applauded my closing remarks.
I participated because it gave an opportunity to convey my message to them and hopefully influence at least some people. Overall, I believe my participation was very worthwhile.
I was slightly frustrated to receive less talk time than the other panel participants, in particular because I never interrupted anyone else. I believe in being courteous even when others are not.
I think the event would have worked better with fewer panellists as that would allow more detailed discussion and more real debate. Stronger chairmanship to curb interruptions would also help.
I recommend watching the full video to formulate your own opinion regarding the views of the other panellists.
Just click the "play" symbol.