On Monday morning I was speaking to school pupils in Warrington. Accordingly the first I heard about the letter from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to mosques and the resulting furore was when I saw David Cameron on TV defending it vigorously.
As a chartered accountant, my immediate reaction was to track down the full text of the letter (available here) and read it. I thought it was fine, and could not see why any Muslim should object to it.
Yet I heard the Muslim Council of Britain’s (MCB) Deputy Secretary General Harun Rashid Khan complaining about it on BBC Radio 4’s “World at One” (story starts at 07:16), and afterwards the MCB sent Eric Pickles an open letter.
In passing, I was quite pleased to hear David Cameron say on the radio “Everyone needs to do more to tackle violent extremism”, which is almost verbatim the title of a website page I wrote nearly four years ago.
The MCB’s complaints
Reading the MCB letter I identified the following complaints, which are quoted alongside the text in the DCLG letter which appears to have upset the MCB.
(Their letter does not itemise the offending DCLG text; the table below is entirely my own work.)
|No.||MCB complaint||DCLG text|
|1||“Indeed, as one of the largest Muslim umbrella bodies in this country, we did not receive this letter.”||N/A|
|2||“we do take issue with the implication that extremism takes place at mosques”||“show them these men of hate have no place in our mosques or any place of worship”|
|3||“that Muslims have not done enough to challenge the terrorism that took place in our name”||“But there is more work to do.”|
|4||“you were somehow endorsing the idea that Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society”||“You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity.”|
|5||“We also reject suggestions that Muslims must go out of their way to prove their loyalty to this country of ours.”||“There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country.”|
|6||“That is why we feel your letter to Muslims, at this critical time, could have been worded differently.”||N/A|
Are the MCB and I reading the same letter?
All of us have preconceptions which emerge when we construe text that is not written in legal language aspiring to eliminate all possible ambiguity. (Sadly ambiguity still creeps into legislation all too often!)
As one would expect from reading my piece “How do British Muslims see the UK Government?”, my starting point is to assume, unless proven otherwise, that DCLG regards Muslims as a valued and integral part of Britain.
Actually no assumption is necessary, since DCLG spell it out: “British values are Muslim values. Like all faiths, Islam and its message of peace and unity makes our country a better and stronger place, and Britain would be diminished without its strong Muslim communities.” The MCB appears to have ignored this text when construing the DCLG letter.
Before looking at the specific MCB complaints, it is essential to remember that every text must be read as a whole, with individual sentences understood in the context of the entire document. I am perpetually pointing this out to people who latch onto particular verses in the Quran which they regard as problematical without considering what the Quran as a whole is saying.
Responding to the complaints
With regard to MCB’s first compaint, I would have expected national organisations to be written to, not just mosque imams. I suspect that the MCB got omitted as a result of DCLG’s database decisions, rather than any desire to keep them in the dark.
As to the second, the DCLG statement of aspiration seems unobjectionable to me, especially in a letter written to mosque leaders. The DCLG letter is not saying that people are being radicalised in mosques today.
However the MCB’s objection is excessive; while most radicalisation appears to take place outside mosques, it would take a lot to convince me that nobody had ever been radicalised as a result of preaching in UK mosques. Hopefully that is not happening today.
The proper response to complaint three is that with a problem as serious as this, none of us can ever do enough. If any of my children were radicalised and committed terrorism, I would be asking myself for the rest of my life what more I could have done to prevent that.
The most serious complaint, the fourth, arises from not understanding who the intended recipients of the message the DCLG is writing about are. While it would have helped if DCLG had stated that explicitly, it is clear from reading the DCLG letter as a whole that this message is primarily intended for Muslim young people, to help reduce the risk of their being radicalised.
I also see a secondary audience, not suggested by DCLG’s text, which is the rest of British society, since getting the message over to them aids community harmony. The Government is not an intended recipient of the message, not least because the DCLG letter makes it clear that the Government already “gets it.” The same overall response applies to the fifth complaint.
At a trivial level, complaint six is always true, since any human text can always be improved. However what the reaction of the MCB and some other Muslim groups shows is that perhaps DCLG should have allowed for the risk of recipients having existing negative preconceptions.
DCLG could then have gone out of its way to spell out exactly who the above messages were intended for, rather than assuming that the recipients would read the letter as it is clearly intended to be read.
The MCB letter concludes by requesting a meeting. If I were Eric Pickles, I would invite them in to ask how the MCB is going to help tackle this issue which is of vital concern to all of our society.
The MCB and I
In the interests of full disclosure, from 2008-2010 I was an elected member of the MCB’s Central Working Committee and chaired their Business and Economics Committee. Since then, I have had no connection with them apart from an annual donation of £100.
I believe that the organisation’s heart is in the right place, but that it has impaired its effectiveness by trying to please too broad a range of British Muslims.