An important article about ISIS 
What ISIS Really Wants by Graeme Wood emphasises the millenarian worldview that ISIS has and its belief that it is positioned to precipitate apocalyptic events that very many Muslims will be familiar with. The article also gives examples of how ISIS uses methods of justifying its actions that will also be very familiar methods to the street-corner preachers of many of the UK's urban Muslim neighbourhoods.

Graeme Wood's article is extraordinarily important for tackling extremism in the UK. It, and another similar article, The secret world of Isis training camps by Hassan Hassan, describe the minhaj, the methods, by which ISIS propagates and justifies its actions in a theological context. Apart from the violent subject matter, the method itself is very familiar to anyone involved with the Salafi awakening that has taken place in the UK over the past three decades. Most UK Muslims will be very familiar with the methods as they have been applied to relatively trivial matters such as the wearing of gold or the number of units of salaah in tarawih in Ramadhaan. Usually they have been deployed by Salafis exhorting others to join them, by challenging traditional practices rooted in orthodox Sunni fiqh, Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, Hambali, etc., and providing coherently argued alternatives that undermine the authority of orthodoxy in the mind of the potential recruit. Over those three decades, orthodox UK Asian Muslim imams and alims have completely failed to provide coherent counter arguments, due mainly to them being utterly ensconced in the century old Deobandi-Bareilvi argument. As a consequence, Salafi-ism has spread to become ordinary across the UK. While my statistics are not specific enough to demonstrate this, I believe that half of all new mosque projects in the UK in the last few years, are Salafi inspired.

There is nothing wrong with Salafi-ism per se, most Salafi jama'ats are many times better at community engagement and community responsibility than Deobandi, Bareilvi and Jama'at Islami (Maudoodi-ist, Islamic Movement) jama'ats and their organisers. But the method, the minhaj, has been one of antagonistic confrontation, using interpretations of source material intended to undermine the arguments of orthodoxy. ISIS use the same methods. Orthodox imams and alims will continue to fail to provide counter-instruction because, as I have said very publicly, they are completely unequipped to provide it - they simply do not have the knowledge.

For the last two decades, both individual and organised militants of the kind that have found their way into terrorism, have co-opted Salafi methods and twisted them to their own ends. Usually this has been done by individuals and small groups without the patience to analyse sophisticated tracts by advanced Al Qaeda theoreticians. ISIS, however, have as everyone has seen, packaged the mesasge up into very contemporary media, and are sitting in the very place where apocalypse-aware Muslims have been told to look. The more that comfortable westernised Muslim intellectuals decry ISIS without answering the specific theological challenges that ISIS makes, the more they look like the munafiqeen ('hypocrites' - traitors) that ISIS paint them as and that the apocalyptic prophecies foretold.

At this crucial point, Salafis have a vital job to do. They have to move from being the (mostly unintending) instruments of ISIS's rapid uptake, to being pivotal in undermining it. Shaikh Abdullaah al-Bukhaaree's fatwa is a start, but doesn't address the potency of the counter-claim that ISIS themselves are the force to end fitna. And it doesn't have much impact on the street corners of Whitechapel or Sparkbrook.

Countering ISIS's major impact on UK Muslims requires the following:

1. Salafis need to renounce the antagonistic methods they have used to garner support until now. They must replace it with tolerance and respect for different practices, which for them means, respect for the religious scholarship and authority that supports those practices. They must exhort their followers to do the same. They have a lot of burnt bridges to rebuild.

2. Proper, informed, educated debate has to take place across the Muslim community among its scholars and leaders, that puts aside sectarian differences and focuses on a corpus of argument that provides a sound, religiously based counter argument to the extremists. Bareilvis, Deobandis, etc, must recognise that their previous preoccupation with exclusive adherence to their own sect, has failed. They too must learn mutual tolerance and respect.

3. Salafis must produce, urgently, an emphatic and agreed document that clearly separates and opposes their doctrines to those of ISIS.

4. Government, security advisors and the media, must allow the Muslim community the space to debate extremist issues openly and fully without fear of being demonised or prosecuted. The theological debates that need to be had are complex and expose deep and controversial issues. Unless they are discussed with clarity and comprehensively, they will remain sources that ISIS and its ilk can exploit.

5. All masjids must end sectarian intolerance and exclusiveness. The Muslim community is plural, and that pluralism must be reflected in the way masjids are run, with full respect for differences and the masjid's resources shared between them. Sectarian exclusivity and sly briefing or rampant polemics against other sects creates the shadows which are used by extremists to nurture their beliefs and cultivate followers.


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Visit My Mosque: The unintended consequences of journalists’ power and influence. 
[I have updated this slightly, following news of Cathy Newman's apology and the revised understanding of events following publication of sequences of Streatham masjid's security video today, 12th February. I am pleased to say that little of the substance of my first entry requires change, and the concluding paragraph especially, stands its ground well. Changes are in bold italics.]

A single tweet by Cathy Newman scuppered the most substantial effort so far that UK Muslims have made to respond to the Charlie Hebdo murders. In hindsight it was quite predictable, but that is the unique feature of hindsight. Nevertheless there are valuable lessons to learn.

Firstly beleagured Streatham Mosque. I know this masjid very well, and for several decades. It does have facilities for women: in the past there was a partition across the main hall, and around the turn of the century they tore down a redundant workshop and built a women's hall from new. (At 1 minute 13 seconds into the video, there is actually a lady coming in to worship at the masjid.) It is also an affiliate of the MCB, and has a management committee with many members that are close to the MCB's supposed prevailing "Islamic Movement" ethos - an ethos which, incidentally, in the UK is quite strong on the involvement of women in its affairs. But it wasn't a knowing participant in the "Visit My Mosque" initiative. It is nevertheless a very busy masjid, with a wide range of activities hosted there. On the unfortunate Sunday noon morning, it was receiving a trickle of visitors for early afternoon salaah hosting a Somali children's supplementary school I believe (not even an Islamic madrassah class, but regular schooling from volunteer teachers), though I have not had that confirmed. Most mosques, masjids, have nothing so adventurous. Almost all mosques will actually be locked up and deserted between the pre-sunrise Fajr salaah and some time around noon, so had the Channel Four journo picked almost any other (non-participating) masjid, there would have been, not a surprised and suspicious man to turn her away, but the more traditional locked door and unanswered doorbell, and no story.

Secondly, Streatham Masjid's committee member and the unlucky fellow who intercepted Ms Newman. Tact and public relations skills are not part of the usual prerequisites for a seat on a masjid management committee, and certainly didn't feature here. The committee member was quoted as saying:

“There was nobody from the management or committee at the mosque that morning […] The person who turned the journalist away must have been someone with no authority - a worshipper. About 60% of our group is Somali, many of whom do not speak any English, so I think there was confusion. I intend to take action and find out what exactly happened, but I would like to apologise to Cathy Newman for what happened",

which, if true, betrays a not uncommon level of disdain that far too many management committees have for the riff-raff that trouble to worship in the average masjid. It is certainly a quote worth holding on to when I repeatedly make the case that masjid management committees are widely recognised as inept, unaccountable, intolerant and obstructive. A whiff of racism also hangs on the air, and there is a back-story here concerning Streatham masjid and its Sahel incomers. As for the ability to use appropriate English, another issue I have, then one has to ask who has more to improve on between Cathy Newman’s interceptor and the committee member. I have elsewhere highlighted the difficulties faced by anyone intending to drop in on their local mosque: locked up, or unable to converse in English, or rather twee notions of what the visitor’s religious belief might comprise, the absence of any sensible reception facility, the expectation that the imam will in faltering English, run through the “five pillars” of Islam without being able to explain anything about what Muslims do or think or believe. Even, and I have seen this, through ignorance of conversational English, the supposition that the visitor has come to make shahadah, i.e. become Muslim. (There is no record of any conversation in the video, so nothing to suggest any inappropriate words by anyone speaking with Ms Newman. However the committee member's reported response therefore sounds even more inept.)

Thirdly, the MCB and the “Visit My Mosque” idea. Very laudable, lots of good intentions. Very telling, however, that of the 1600 or 1700 masjids in the UK (depending on how I count them), only 20 were able to actually participate. The MCB should have been well aware of the consequences of widespread publicity, with puff pieces in all the major newspapers, yet minimal explanation of what to expect and where to expect it, or explanation of what would happen if the visitors turned up at any of the one thousand, six hundred and eighty or so non-participants. The MCB gets a lot of flak, some of it justified, some of it not, and much of it simply the unmoderated projections of fears and prejudices that permeate the UK's Muslim community. It is not the representative body of all UK mosques, and should desist from its claims about 500 affiliated organisations without much more careful explanation of what they are and what their affiliation means. 199 are masjids, mosques, by my counting. Others are schools, welfare groups and pressure groups. When I last collated the data, no less than 79 affiliates were incarnations of the various elements of the UK’s Jama’at Islami (‘Islamic Movement’) institutions, e.g. UK Islamic Mission (South Birmingham), UK Islamic Mission Midland Zone, Islamic Forum Europe (West Midland Branch), etc., which it would not be unreasonable to suppose, adds up to a single person! (In the laborious work I have done to identify masjids around the UK, I took the UK Islamic Mission’s list of branches, which is at face value a list of mosques, and discovered that a considerable number of them are private family homes – no doubt enthusiastic supporters, but hardly branches. Another point to take issue with about the MCB is just how current its affiliate list is. How many of the entities have paid their fairly minimal membership dues this year, compared with the numbers of lapsed affiliates, for whom it is not in the MCB’s interest to delete? My count added up 19 that by my reckoning no longer even exist. I will re do my statistics, because the MCB’s affiliates list has changed since I last did this, but a brief glance at it still looks very familiar to me. The MCB is very much less than the sum of its parts.

I was amused and flattered by the BBC’s report on the Visit My Mosque initiative. Juxtaposed to a link stating, “More than 20 mosques were expected to take part.” linking to the MCB’s list, was a link to my statistics report, covered by the text “The figure is a small proportion of the total number of mosques in Britain, which is estimated to be 1,750.” followed by the jewel in the crown, “The MCB said only 55-60% of mosques were affiliated to it, and the total includes small establishments such as prayer rooms in schools and offices.”! I have often taken issue with our glorious leaders’ innovative use of English, but Mathematics is my home ground. And 199 out of 1750 does not equal 55 or 60%! 11% may be nearer the mark. (And the first aid room in my office right now, is definitely not an MCB affiliate, even though it is where I and my colleagues make salaah in office hours.) Contrary to most criticism, the MCB genuinely tries to be inclusive of sectarian interests, and my statistics demonstrate that, except for the caveat about the currency of many affiliates’ status. However it will never be more than a fairly self-referential small group of enthusiasts in its current form. There is no representative body of Muslim interest in the UK. The MCB, for all its failings, is the only one that has tried and that has not been driven entirely by exclusive sectarian interests, and should be given credit for that. The problem for such a limited body, though, is that sectarian interests dominate the UK Muslim community, and a small group of enthusiasts at the heart of the MCB must be honest about what limited interest they wield, must be honest about their affiliates, must look for better ways to be inclusive, and must thereby avoid setting grand expectations about important initiatives like “Visit My Mosque”.

Here’s a suggestion. is a one-man-band. (It never, ever claimed to be the voice of UK Muslims, just a well-travelled harpie on the side!) Notwithstanding that, if you want to organise a similar event with lots of publicity etc., give me enough warning and share your plans. I may be able to set up map and collateral information that would help make it easy for intending visitors to find participating masjids and set expectations more appropriately.

The Visit My Mosque event itself was low key and trivial, but nonetheless important as part of the process of engagement. A single faux pas by a person totally unconnected with the event, received more, and damaging, publicity than the entire effort. Cathy Newman, you aren’t naïve to the influence you yourself wield. A moment’s thought before your tweet, and a little background work, not only to find which mosques were participating, but also to understand that mosques are not 24 x 7 drop in centres. They don’t even keep office hours. And the people who use them do not have degrees in public relations or catering. Your tweet was revealing: its response showed up failings in local mosque management and ability to engage, it showed up the limited role the MCB has in guiding UK Muslims. But it also showed just how precariously positioned the Muslim community is, to an impetuous rejoinder by a prominent media player. You and other journalists, and your counterpoint alter egos, the politicians, have grave responsibilities towards community cohesion. Take your responsibilities seriously please!


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Al Qaeda sit back and gloat 
Now that a little time has passed on which to reflect on the Paris attacks, it seems clear to me that AQ have achieved, at minimal cost to themselves, one of their worst successes in a decade; indeed they achieved far more than they probably hoped for, confirmed by the massed rallies in Paris. This is not the message you would believe if you follow the reaction in the media, no matter how sombre its tone, as they do AQ’s bidding and flood the media with reproductions of cheap jibe cartoons that only hurt ordinary, peace-hungry, western Muslims, cartoons that in other circumstances would justify criminal incitement charges.

Firstly the cartoons. AQ and its cronies have not the slightest concern about the ethics of westerners ridiculing the Messenger of Allah (S). Cynicism alone is their currency. They have always known that the response of western media to even to the threat of vengeance would be defiantly to publish more. On this occasion, the response has been overwhelming, with even the BBC throwing aside its own editorial guidelines and the Guardian its inclusive principles in the race to show how they would not be cowed. So what does this matter if AQ has no concern? AQ and ISIS, in slightly different ways, are playing the long game. They want power, not over the west, in which they have no interest, but over Muslims, all Muslims. Their aim is to construct the hitherto theoretical notion of Dar-ul Harb and its corollary, Dar-ul-Islam: a binary world view, the havens of "War" and "Peace" respectively. But there is no way such a thing can come about when patently ordinary Muslims in the west have no inclination at all to jump to the edicts of their self-proclaimed khalifas. Nor is it going to happen when many, many other Muslims would very much like to live by western values. to western standards of living, preferably also in western countries. Why should cartoons matter? In their own way, they matter just as much as the slaughter at the twin towers. Everything, big or small, that AQ can achieve that makes ordinary life for ordinary Muslims more unpleasant, and their aspirations for life in the west more unobtainable, brings AQ (or ISIS, or any other pretenders to the khilafa), significant steps closer to their goal. It is not simply a rhetorical point that places ISIS on the extreme edge of the political spectrum shared by neo-fascists - they want the west de-populated of Muslims just as much as does the BNP, EDL, Pegida and the Front National.

The people most affected will be those with the most to lose, the intellectuals, professionals, engineers and scientists, whose careers are blighted by association with a religion as violent and irrational as AQ can force it to appear to be. The more conscientious and sincere the Muslim, the more undermined he is by AQ. The more susceptible he is to explanations of his frustrations that can demonstrate western behaviour that is hostile to his creed, the more the balance shifts in AQ's favour. It only takes a tiny trickle of frustrated zealots to set the chain reaction in motion - a few dozen to Bosnia, a few scores to Afghanistan, a few hundreds to Syria ... All AQ has to do is to engineer western behaviour into hostility to ordinary Muslims, and the cycle begins. 9/11 was a starting pistol in a way that the Kenyan embassy bombings never could be. Cartoons supposedly depicting the Messenger of Allah, whether in a scurrilous context or not, don't offend AQ for a moment, it is what they want. When those cartoons appear at the margins, in semi-underground satires like Charlie Hebdo or overtly racist productions like Jyllands-Posten, they are merely true to type. When the mainstream media defend the liberal western value of freedom of speech and plaster the offending pictures all over their pages, no matter under what twisted justification of bad taste, AQ are dancing in the streets! The only ones whose sensibilities are offended are the ordinary Muslims living peacefully in the west, who now have demonstrable evidence that their feelings are valued at nothing by media and politicians. This is not an argument for appeasement of ordinary Muslims sensibilities, it is merely to point out that supposed defiance of AQ by the press is achieved by dumping the western value of tolerance and mutual respect. Would it be appropriate to counter the challenge of a latter-day Black Panther movement by re-instating "Little Black Sambo" to the place where I first remember it, as a standard primary school reading book?

AQ also play to the mob in the Muslim heartlands. Their Rambo-style murderous "revenge" on Charlie H delights the masses in Pakistan who nurture a self-righteous indignation over the antics of a far-away super-power. Among them will be many who see AQ as the renewed champion of their grievances and some who will be jump at the chance to join the cause, and a body blow to the reasonable people who call for patience and tolerance. That super-power's antics in their own lands only redoubles their enthusiasm to score against it. Among those, no doubt there will be a few who have already swapped their green passports for red or blue ones, and the cycle can turn around again.

Having watched AQ rub its hands with glee at the "punishment" of Charlie Hebdo, they will be over the moon with the execution of a Muslim police officer. There are few things that can undermine the cycle of violence and oppression, the standard model for assymetric warfare that we understand as terrorism. One of those few things is for the people under subjection, to take it on themselves to oppose the terrorists directly, not by co-option, not by tokenism, but by individual choice. They are the very symbols of the possibility of normality of Muslim life in the west, and AQ cannot permit that symbolism to endure. So while decent people praise the heroism of Ahmed Merabet, sacrificed doing nothing more or less than what his profession required, AQ will crow with delight at the bonus achievement of one of its recently avowed aims, the assassination of those Muslims who uphold law and public safety. In rhetoric they can and do denounce such people as murtads, heretics, but that is an empty rhetoric that speaks only to their converts. To actually achieve the execution of one such, and by evil chance circumstance, was something they could hardly have hoped for. So celebrate Ahmed Merabet's life and mourn his death, and remember that there are others who willingly take his place, for the sake of their religion and for the sake of your society and the place of Muslims within it, and be mindful that AQ, ISIS and the like, have a desperate need to single them out as targets. As long as such people continue to adhere to the principles of their religion, and are not driven to hide it, the rhetoric from AQ's sea-lawyers will sound hollow.

Now to the murders of Jews. Amedy Coulibaly clearly hadn't planned his murder of a traffic policewoman, it was probably a cold-blooded expedient to allow him to continue his mission. His apparent statement to a bystander that "we don't kill civilians" is however revealing, not simply on account of the officer's death, but for what followed. It was probably intended as a rehearsed ironic phrase, with propaganda value to offset against the technological slaughter of innocents by western military tools. It is also a standard trope of militant anti-Israeli extremists that men, women and children are all "military" targets because of the militarisation of Israeli society, regardless of even the most primitive of human decency to spare those who are not at war with you. Coulibaly demonstrated this in his execution of his Jewish hostages. In doing so, AQ/ISIS achieved the most public and cold-blooded execution of Jews since their campaign began. They have prised the lid off the powder keg of anti-semitism and the fear of it and its backlash, and tipped the full barrel on the floor, scattering the explosive across Europe.

Coulibaly was a convert. Not only that, he was from Senegalese parents. His culture and background gave him nothing at all of the gratuitous anti-semitism that pervades much of the Muslim community. It was something he learned as part of a discourse through his introduction to Islam, which appears to have been in the course of a prison sentence. This website has a theme that runs through all its counter-extremism narrative, which is the special place that converts have taken up in the ranks of Muslim-perpetrated political violence. The conventional view is that they (we, because I am also a Muslim convert) are easily led into extremism through their naivety and suggestibility, driven by their zeal. My argument is very much the opposite, that they are the drivers, catalysts or leaders of extremist actions, whose presence in a group of potential militants motivates the remainder to show their own commitment to a warped cause; catalysts because the group tries to show the convert, who has many options to pick, that they are the most committed and therefore most sincere and true to the faith, simply by willingness to sacrifice the most. The Paris attacks demonstrated rivalry between an ISIS affiliate and some AQ affiliates, and, for the sake of the mutually desired carnage, willingness nevertheless to co-operate. This shows the convert as instigator, who twisted the cartoon grievance premise into something with very wide, painful resonance, the murder of Jews for being Jewish.

It is difficult for many people among those outside of Islam who have regular relations with Muslims, to understand just how pervasive anti-semitism is among Muslims. Tacit assumption of shared liberal values blocks off the opportunity to recognise it. But as a long-time anti-racist, anti-fascist campaigner, I am astonished, myself, at the things I hear among Muslims who believe they are free to speak openly, internally among themselves. The problem is so ingrained that it is not sufficient simply to brand anti-semite Muslims as extremist: they include large numbers of people who are otherwise considered to be worthy members of the UK's Muslim establishment. Over the last decade I have made several attempts to push this problem into the open. Because of its pervasiveness I do not believe it is capable of being addressed through the usual ultra-tolerant, mutually supportive but essentially tame forums such as Inter-Faith. It needs the willingness for holders of strong-minded views from either side, Muslims and Jews, to force themselves and their counterparts to talk frankly through the tough subjects that divide them, deeply enough to be able to recognise each others' issues and digest them, in public. This is an absolutely vital task, yet whenever I have tried to raise even the suggestion (most recently in public in a Guardian-hosted event between Jonathan Freedland and Mehdi Hasan, when I was immediately sidelined), there has been a uniform blanking from either side. Until the anti-semitic currency among Muslims has been grossly debunked, it will remain as potent a narrative for extremists, especially for converts, as it has been for particular generations in modern European history.

Coulibaly carried out his callous executions of Jews, and in doing so put into perspective the only moment of grace this whole episode achieved. The French Malian Muslim Lassana Bathily did what any decent human being would do, and saved the lives of a number of the presumably Jewish customers from the predations of Coulibaly, probably not because he was a Muslim, or because they were Jewish, but because he was a decent human being. Therein lies the point however - most Muslims are decent human beings. His simple act of humanity undermined the AQ or ISIS strategy. Celebrate his brave and selfless act loudly, and celebrate his Muslim-ness publicly, because his was the one and only element of the whole scheme that thwarted AQ/ISIS and his Muslim-ness is what will stick hard in AQ/ISIS's craw. Look after him well, because they will resent what ordinary Muslims can achieve against them, when circumstances allow it to be made so.

Finally, Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers achieved their anticipated denouments in showers of bullets, just as they hoped, exiting like the Sun Dance Kid, swift and dramatic. That allowed them to remain transfixed in their zealotrous determination to fulfil their mission, with no remaining lifetime to fill them with thoughts of the possibility of being mistaken, regretful or simply hounded into enduring misery, unlike Adebolajo and Adebowale in the killing of Lee Rigby, who undoubtedly also believed that they could be mown down Hollywood-style in a stream of police bullets. It is again exactly what AQ and ISIS wanted, an assurance for other recruits to their nihilistic cause, that they too could avoid facing up to the consequences of their actions. I guess they probably did believe they would be shaheed in a noble cause and not pawns in a sordid one. Their selfishness will merely haunt their families dreadfully for the rest of their surviving lives.


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Charlie Hebdo, Security and the MCB 
It is a self-evident fact that the twelve murders at the offices of 'Charlie Hebdo' today are an act of mind-numbing barbarity. It is awkward for the MCB that news of the attack coincided with the MCB's press release "Confront terrorism by backing freedom: ... re-think the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill." Nevertheless, this message from the MCB is right, and the attack on Charlie Hebdo is an attack on freedom, which must be countered by endorsing freedom.

Firstly, on the murders: Throughout the period of his life in Makkah following the first revelations of the Qur'an when he was forty, through to the divine command for him to flee Makkah a dozen years later, the Messenger of Allah (S) sustained continual abuse, defamation, ridicule, violence against him and his followers, isolation and deprivation that caused the death of his deeply loved first wife Khadija (R) in the 'year of sorrows'. Yet in all that time he never allowed any of his followers to raise their hand against the enemies of Islam. Even later, in Madinah, no move was taken against the torture and murder of Muslims held captive remaining in Makkah, instead insisting that the Muslims of Madinah would stand rigidly by the horribly one-sided treaty they agreed with the Makkans. The battles that took place between them were all exclusively in the defence of Madinah, and the final victory over Makkah was a bloodless and overwhelming victory brought about by the Makkans' own machinations.

The point is, simply, that whatever satirists do to mock Muslims, the Qur'an, or the Messenger of Allah (S), we should be content that they are free to do so. One juvenile mocked the Messenger's mannerisms to his face. He gently placed his finger on the boy's chest over his heart, said a few words to him, and left him. The boy in due course became a great Sahabah, his heart constantly in the dhikr of Allah. If no one learns anything else from the cartoons saga, they will at least be aware that the Messenger of Allah was distinguished by his preference for white clothes, his full beard and his habitual imamah, turban. It really does take harpies to remind us Muslims of these basic sunnahs!

Now back to the MCB and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. The MCB's press release quite rightly ridicules the government's proposed measures to require providers of public services to monitor and detect signs of extremism and potential terrorism: something that politicians themselves are completely incapable of doing, and for which the security authorities have only achieved through applying mind-boggling resources. However, none of this should be necessary in the first place if it were not for the fact that Muslims themselves, and especially Muslim institutions, have so far utterly failed to tackle the problem. Today a dozen people in Paris have paid with their lives. But over the last fifteen years, so have hundreds of people in or from Britain have too, our own neighbours, friends and relatives, in the 9/11 catastrophe, the 7/7 disaster, and elsewhere overseas. Hundreds of members of UK Muslim families are incarcerated on terrorism offences. Yet there is barely a ripple of change in UK masjids - the same divisive, sectarian rhetoric or vacuous homilies from imams; the same impenetrably exclusive management committees, and the same ranks of dissatisfied dissenters. The same stories of unfulfilled converts to Islam, and returning youth, drawn in frustration to the margins where they find extremist notions meshing with their own experiences. The same selfish, incompetent and inept dealings by Muslims with their neighbours, around masjids and everywhere else. Not a single indigenous imam in a single UK masjid after three amply supplied generations - even where the imam speaks some English, it is embarrassing to listen to. There is hardly a single imam who is even capable of explaining intellectually what is wrong with ISIS or Al Qaida. The MCB has done nothing to change any of this, nor has MINAB, nor has any other umbrella body.

All the same, Muslims are not alone in the blame for this failure to tackle extremism. They have been rendered into a state of fear by sensationalist media and by draconian criminal sanctions - even against those such as the Nottingham University academics legitimately studying the material - so there are real government obstacles to actually confronting extremists, compounded by ignorance by security operatives, politicians and the media of what actually constitutes extremism. But until Muslim institutions pull their collective heads out of the sand, confront their own internal, sectarian and exclusivist problems, and actually start to tackle extremism and its causes (intolerance) within the Muslim community, they cannot expect anything different from a government that cannot indulge liberal thinking and liberal values.

Muslims should expect ridicule, expect satire, it is part of the currency of freedom of expression and freedom of religion. We should not be in the least fazed by it, nor do we need to repay its cruel barbs. What we have to do, to blunt its point, is to render it meaningless through our own exemplary conduct according to the Sunnah. Ironically, to be mocked and ridiculed, is itself a sunnah of the Messenger of Allah (S). The murderers of "Charlie Hebdo" have less understanding of the Sunnah, indeed of Islam, than the cartoonists who caricatured the Messenger of Allah (S) in his own Sunnah.

Wa'al akhir ud-dawana an-alhamdulillahi rabbil aalameen


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The Times: Out-of-touch imams can't halt terrorism, says advisor 
On 25th August I responded to an inquiry about UK Muslims and ISIS, from Laura Pitel, Political Correspondent at The Times. This resulted in a news article yesterday, 8th September, which used some of the material, but lacked any detail required to put in context of practical action. While what was published suggested I recommended a very liberal approach; my argument isn't liberalism for its own sake but for the sake of containment of the problems in a visible, identifiable space, at the same time forcing Muslim institutions to recognise their responsibilities and own up to their failings.

Laura Pitel, The Times: Can we talk about the police and government response to Britons going to join Isis? ISIS is of course a very topical subject, and one for which the landscape is evolving rapidly. It is clear to me that the current haemorrhage of militants and their protégés from the UK into Syria and Iraq demonstrates a substantial failure of the last ten years of PREVENT, legislation, and indeed Muslim community actions, to curb Muslim militants.

ISIS is exactly what armchair militants have been rooting for, ever since Shi'as seized the initiative and woke Sunnis up with Khomeini's revolution in 1979: it is in the right place - a threat to Israel (perfectly timed, with the gut-wrenching bloodshed of the latter's onslaught against Gaza), to 'decadent' Europe's [and NATO’s] borders, to the 'upstart' Shi'as, and (probably most overlooked because of analysts' presumption of so-called "Wahhabi" backing) an existential threat to Saudi Arabia itself. (I rather suspect many armchair militants are secretly hoping ISIS will evaporate before their own bluffs are called and their protégés press them to put their feet where their rhetoric is.) Whether the proper government response should be more proscription, legislation and harsher penalties, or something more liberal and indulgent is beside the point. There is a movement stirring that will continue to draw militant Muslims from the UK even if it is eventually destroyed in Syria and Iraq, and it won't be simply destroyed there, because it consists of many people from the region who see it as a deliverance, as the Taliban were seen at an early stage, to be a deliverance from the internecine war between mujahideen fighters after the fall of Najibullah and the Soviets.

The suggested responses currently being mooted by politicians are unlikely to have any de-motivating effect on those motivated to go: threat of loss of UK citizenship is of trivial significance to anyone embracing the apocalyptic vision of the return of the Khilafa and the opportunity to punch back at the perceived global enemies of what they see as a revitalised, muscular and purified Islam. Likewise few who depart under such circumstances would give much thought to the tribulations of the UK's criminal justice system were they ever to return. Kashmir, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnia spawned numbers of peripatetic militants, and whatever happens to ISIS, there will now be significantly greater numbers drifting around. [Since this was written, Peter Neumann’s ISCR has identified numbers of disillusioned people from the UK seeking a return. ISCR rightly states that they provide a potential rich resource of credible counter-radicalisation advocates.]

Calls for proscription of militant organisations in the UK presuppose that such entities are structured and organised - they are not, they are as amorphous and anarchic as any bunch of young men with aggrandised egos and autodidactic, Millenarianist theology can make them. Broadening the scope of proscription to include organisations such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir UK, is injudicious because HT, in particular, provides an irreplaceable lightning rod for idealist, intellectual Muslims to work out all the complexities of what it really takes to institute a workable political system, in public forums and on the public street, in plain view of plain-clothes Plod - the perfect antidote to any supposed conveyor belt into militancy. (Where would the rest of us be now without our own opportunities to thrash out Marx and Kropotkin in the Students Union?) [HT in particular have maintained a long-running intellectual campaign around the return of the Khilafa, and ISIS provides precisely what is required for HT to be forced to refine their doctrines to demonstrate how they would avoid such an abomination. Banning also feeds the temptation of ‘forbidden fruit’ and bolsters the militant credentials of otherwise-not-actually-very-militant bands. It also legitimises an otherwise absent grievance about Government criminalising Muslims oppressively, denying freedom of speech and freedom of association partially and injudiciously.]

Calls for curtailing extremist preachers face even tougher challenges - they are and always have been almost impossible to find in the UK's timorous and deferential mosques and its barely articulate (in English) imams who are employed by mosque management committees to make sure they don't step outside of a line drawn around the village politics of the clan in Mirpur, Jhelum, Sylhet or Surat from which their employers are, typically, exclusively drawn from. The few speakers and imams that make the headlines and exposés, were there, such as Abu Hamza, because the management committee [in that instance, of Finsbury Park Mosque] ran out of village imams to bring over, or they epitomise the worst of gratuitous, juvenile, anti-Semitic racism or of corporal child abuse, that exists endemic and unchallenged in the first and second generations of Asian Muslims. The latter are the very same ones who will stress how their particular mosque is a bastion against the 'extremism' that turns out to be nothing more than the doctrinal difference they have with their rival neighbouring mosque, Bareilvi briefing against Deobandi, Deobandi briefing against Bareilvi, and both camps utterly perplexed when it turns out that it is their own children who have turned to violent militancy.

On-line curbs face the inevitable obfuscation that faces any attempt at circumscribing publication in the media - once it has been recorded and made available in public, the more heavily it is suppressed, the more it gains traction through Samizdat routes or simply through myth-enhancing notoriety while remaining unread.

One immediate consequence of lock-down policies is that the already poorly informed religious scholars and community debaters are denied access to the very things and people they need to rehearse their arguments against. Fear of the authorities and media hounds, fear of sanctions against the community itself, simmering Islamophobic racism all push the topic of militant extremism right off the small list of safe topics imams and others are prepared to discuss, and the problem stays deep underground from Muslim institutions in the UK.

The problem is that the pattern of dysfunctionality among UK Muslims was cast three, four and five decades ago. While mosque building has continued apace, investment in capable imams and representatives, and capacity building among them, is almost non-existent. Even the relatively highly organised Deobandi seminaries place very few of their graduates in influential positions in mosques, because most mosques can't afford to pay a UK-standard living wage and instead recruit, nepotistically, someone who is inextricably tied into their own clan, willing to sleep in a makeshift room in the ramshackle two-up-two-down, grandly titled Bogglethwaite Central Mosque, and work for a small fortune only as measured in rupees. Such imams, typical of UK mosques, know nothing much of ISIS, would struggle to find Syria on a map, communicate to the community's youth in mother tongue or cringingly bad English, and are equipped only to argue out the Bareilvi versus Deobandi squabble of the mid-nineteenth century.

Muslim youth for their part, and the steady trickle of Muslim converts, equally significantly, are left entirely to their own devices when their euphoric religious awakening hits them, at the age when they are striving for an identity of their own. The most practical path for them to follow is that of the new Salafi movements. If they are fortunate enough to live in a neighbourhood where sufficient of the community have broken away from traditional allegiances to set up their own Salafi-inclined mosque and staff it (about a hundred such in the UK), or to enroll in a university with an active Salafi presence on campus - most universities - they will gain access to eloquently written and well produced descriptions of a version of orthodox Islam that is coherent, accessible and, most importantly for rebellious youth, anathema to the old school rival orthodoxies of Deoband and Bareilli madressahs. [I am far from being an advocate for Salafi interpretations of Islam, but am keen to impress the message that Salaf-ism is not of itself militant and is often the most engaged strand of Islam in UK society – it is vehemently opposed to the strands of Islam I espouse.] If they are unlucky, they may get a half-baked version of Salafism that gives them the supposed authority to conjure up their own interpretations and bibliomancy 'proofs' from Islamic scriptures. With no local Salafi institution to turn to, the more outspoken and egotistical among them will meld such homegrown philosophising with snippets of on-line web-board debate and emotive newsreel clips, with which to cultivate a determination to become the next great reviver of Islam. Youthful imaginations use such stuff to place themselves at the heart of an imagined world-changing secret conspiracy. This is the nature of self-radicalisation and it is desperately normal. For most, a comfy chair, the awe of their less well read friends, and a wireless internet connection are all they actually want. For some, put on the spot by their own egos, or their mates, or by rivals to the claim of most outspoken dissident in the community, or for the convert, driven by the aphoristic zeal of the convert, there is an awakening of the desire to act. Such is not the kind of stuff governments can legislate against or punish pre-emptively, or even predict, since they occur outside of established institutions and often in secret defiance of them. ISIS beckons.

My pen-sketch makes play on specific entities, Salafi, Deobandi, Bareilvi mosques, but these are not the source of any kind of radicalisation. The problem is, these are the very last places where extremism is debated, indeed where any kind of dissent is debated. They are the only institutions of any consequence that UK Muslims possess, so instead, perhaps counter-intuitively, these are the places where extremism should be debated and examined. But there are some fundamental problems to solve first. Firstly, mosques managed by one doctrinal faction or ethnic division, have good reason to be wary of dissenters whose ambition is to supplant management with a rival faction. Instead, tolerance, mutual respect and mutual understanding of alternative factions are all required, so that diversionary arguments that are currently widespread, can be put aside. (Bareilvis habitually claim that Salafi or Deobandi doctrines are the root of extremism; Salafis claim that Deobandis and Bareilvis have corrupted the sources of Islam; and Deobandis describe Bareilvis as polytheists and Salafis as without authority. All three post takfir against each other, against Shi'a and against pretty much any other form of 'deviancy'. Such a mutually poisonous atmosphere prevents meaningful debate about different doctrines from taking place.)

Secondly, mosques require completely open and transparent access to competent, stable and accountable managements - the secrecy and self-referential management that mosque managements currently use to protect themselves against rival takeover bids, prevents them from addressing dissenters' criticisms and allowing open and informed discussions. More importantly, it also therefore prevents them from identifying and engaging with dissenters who are being attracted, from whichever quarter, by militant rhetoric. And even more importantly, they cannot distinguish perfectly respectable dissenters and dissenters toying with extreme ideas, from those who are actively planning political violence, since any form of dissent is pushed out of sight of mosque imams, managements and responsible authorities.

Thirdly, none of the needed openness can happen in an atmosphere of fear of government, police, the press and the mob, and fear for the consequences for family members who are implicated in extremism. Criminality must of course be countered properly through judicial process, but it is horribly clear that politicians, police, the press and the mob cannot distinguish between behaviour that is a throwback to the Islam of migrants' home villages, activity that is the drama of furtive, exploring, young intemperates, and calculated attempts to threaten society with political violence. Bundling all these motivations together instead, has the consequence that disaffected Muslims on the margins of the Muslim community are further disengaged (potentially hanged for a sheep while snaring a rabbit) and pose a greater threat that is harder to identify. It has the consequence also of steadily increasing the prison population with a growing network of people who have been explicitly removed and who are therefore even more of a potent threat with less to lose, on their eventual release, indelibly labelled as 'terrorists'. And it gives those who choose to migrate to the new khalifa of Shams, a strong 'push' motive to reinforce their ideological 'pull'. When Osama bin Laden set in motion the 9/11 attacks, one of his core aims, in common with all asymmetric warfare strategies, was to undermine the comfortable settlement of Muslims in the West, of unleashing consequences that would drive capable and sophisticated Muslims back to an Islamic homeland that militants would rule over. Whatever differences exist between al Qaida and ISIS, that retrograde process is well underway.

The government must recognise that Muslim community institutions are very largely dysfunctional, but that there is no top-down solution to make them work - they are all local, self-governing and jealously independent of each other. Help is needed to make them functional, and only then will they be able to begin to address radicalisation among their own families. Help has very little to do with money and nothing to do with legislation, it is about inculcating tolerance and mutual respect among Muslims with differing flavours of the faith, about accountability for access to community resources, about cultivating rhetorical skills in English, and especially about gaining authoritative Islamic knowledge of the nature and substance of militant movements and arguments and then most of all, using that knowledge in open, multi-sided forum to draw would-be militants into challengeable debate, so that their potential followers can be challenged and can be given the tools to resist what are currently very tempting arguments. Right now the Muslim community has numerous leaders, but none of them has any following. Whatever any of them may say to discourage would-be ISIS recruits, no one is actually listening.

Laura Pitel, The Times: What, in your view is the way to address the issue you set out about the management of mosques? Minab - which was ostensibly set up for that purpose - has fallen out with the coalition and now has almost no contact with government. They had been pressured to cut ties with certain (unspecified) groups and were not comfortable about doing so. Do you have a view on Minab? MINAB is a typically top-down, enthusiast-led and therefore largely self-referential entity with negligible influence over the affairs of any mosque - even its affiliation requirements are the lightest possible touch, along the lines of "aspires to adhere to at least one of the (five) principles that MINAB espouses". It has no means of cajoling any mosque to progress, and does not even whisper about the cultural, ethnic and doctrinal sectarianism that sets mosques against each other and mosque managements against significant slices of their congregations. Nevertheless it is right that it should not cut links with any entity that is providing mosque-like facilities in the UK; pressure to do so comes from people who have not troubled to recognise that the problematic issues they associate with some groups, such as the dozen Ikhwaan-backed mosques associated with the Muslim Association of Britain, are not confined to explicit groups but are diffused throughout the Muslim community.

I have stressed already that remedial action cannot be top-down or under duress, it has to come from the grass roots and must not threaten the stability of mosque management even though mosque managements are at the heart of the problem. (When mosque managements get destabilised or become unviable, they immediately become vulnerable to eclectic and extremist groups, exactly as happened at Finsbury Park; as threatened to happen in Brixton at a similar point in time, and in a very few other cases). I have suggested in some detail the kind of steps that can be taken on my website, at
but they require mosque managements to recognise their deficiencies, for a concerted campaign in the mosque and its neighbourhood to promote mutual tolerance of rival factions, co-opting influential alims (scholars) where necessary, a controlled programme to open up the mosque's resources to plural doctrines, refreshing the mosque's management with capable organisers who are committed to transparency and plurality, access for imams and other interested people to authoritative Islamic and political analysis of controversial and extremist doctrines, introduction of open debate in local forums to address such issues, co-option of disengaged and marginalised dissenters into mosque activities, co-option of key figures from the authorities into the now opened up environment and exposure to them and the Muslim participants of the kind of debate that is currently the exclusive and one-sided preserve of militants. In a nutshell what is required is the normalisation of dissent and pluralism, so that extremist narratives can be challenged and counter-narratives can be exercised. Government, legislation and the police cannot do that.

Laura Pitel, The Times: Secondly (and forgive me if this question sounds rude), but how would you position yourself in the context of Muslim groups in Britain? Innes [Bowen, in her recent book “Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent”] discusses the difficulties for policy makers and the media of understanding how legitimate and representative one group or individual maybe versus another. On what experiences/connections do you base your opinions and how much weight do you believe you carry among different Muslim groups? I and the website are vigorously independent of any Muslim community entities; I am a lone operator, I make no claim whatsoever to be a representative or community leader. There are many mosque committees who are unpleased by the analyses I present and by the systematic way in which I identify their mosques' doctrinal and ethnic allegiances. On the other hand there are thousands of Muslims who visit my website for the very same directory information, returning frequently. During Ramadhaan and Eid-ul-Adha, these numbers peak at around 165,000 unique visitors per month, a substantial portion of the UK Muslim community. In short I carry negligible weight among Muslim groups and have no ambition to be otherwise, and have substantial weight among ordinary Muslims as well as considerable respect among researchers and investigators.

Laura Pitel, The Times: Can you tell me, what is your current role with regards to the police and/or the government? My participation in counter-radicalisation discussion and my website are activities I have pursued in my own time, and which have attracted the interest of some government officials and police forces through mutual associates and by reputation. They are not connected with my professional circumstances.


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