Indifference to intolerance

‘In effect, Waltham Forest Council has colluded in sectarianism for the sake of a quiet life’

 The Waltham Forest Community Faith Forum in east London is an umbrella body promoting religious harmony among Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, pagans — and more. Theoretically, each group has equal representation and powers. In reality, this does not seem to be the case and the issues experienced there are indicative of a wider problem affecting the ability to promote values of cohesion and tolerance. A call to a local MP by an aggrieved Ahmadi-Muslim imam gives us an insight into the problem: “We do not have equal voting rights on the forum. It is discrimination. I thought we were afforded equal rights in this country. It is why we fled here from persecution in Pakistan.”

Ahmadis see themselves as Muslims who follow the Koran, but that is not how orthodox Islam regards them. Many Muslims — both Sunni and Shia — regard the Ahmadi movement as heretical because it does not believe that Muhammad was the final prophet. The result has been decades of persecution, especially in Pakistan, where more than 250 Ahmadis have been killed and many imprisoned under blasphemy laws. Many Ahmadis have sought refuge in the UK. However, the organisations that press for their death have followed them. Leaflets calling for the death of Ahmadis have circulated in south London. Glaswegian Ahmadi-Muslim Assad Shah was murdered for his beliefs by a man who screamed: “Praise for the Prophet Muhammad, there is only one Prophet.” This ideology of hate and intolerance has, in pockets, affected other sections of the Muslim community, resulting in discrimination in a multi-faith forum in the UK. In effect, Waltham Forest Council has colluded in this sectarianism for the sake of a quiet life.

At a glance, the government’s Counter-Extremism strategy, launched in 2015, provided a strong approach to building a more cohesive nation. It aims to promote values of democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. It would therefore follow that my role, as counter-extremism coordinator for Waltham Forest, would involve ensuring that the local authority did not support organisations that were discriminatory and thus in conflict with those values. But I was informed that the Faith Forum’s constitution barred Ahmadis from having equal voting powers: only those belonging to certain faiths could hold such rights and under the constitution the imam could not stand as a Muslim representative or as an independent. As he began to gather support for a change in the constitution allowing him equal rights, I congratulated him. Consequently I was aggressively confronted by a forum trustee. She told me that Ahmadiyya were not Muslims and if they were given equal powers, she and her Muslim colleagues would boycott the forum.

Shockingly, my simple act of acknowledging the imam’s commitment to fight for his community was considered “not in line with the position held by the council” and I was threatened with disciplinary action. The council’s Head of Community Safety told me I was a “square peg in a round hole”, I did not understand the sensitivities around election times, and I should consider looking for work elsewhere. While my work with the forum was being obstructed, the anti-Ahmadi organisation Dawat-e-Islami — linked with glorifying the murder of Assad Shah — was hosted in a local mosque, with neither officials nor elected members batting an eyelid.
It’s a disgrace that a local authority should park such an issue in the run-up to an election. Would we accept the Waltham Forest’s Gangs Unit stopping work for fear they might upset the gang with the most voting members? Why, then, are councils like Waltham Forest so squeamish when it comes to countering extremism?

There are a number of factors at play here. First, there’s the erroneous belief that hard-to-reach, isolated communities are spoken for by a single group of unelected “community representatives”. This is an especially flawed approach when it comes to dealing with British Muslim communities because they are among the world’s most diverse. The result is a plethora of organisations and authorities who have been fooled into thinking certain figures can represent the Muslim community as a homogenous whole and then feel obliged to follow their directions. 

Second, the fear of appearing “culturally imperialistic”. This leaves some on the Left, in particular, floundering over whether to prioritise human rights or the values of minority groups, even if those values conflict with universal human rights. This identitarian approach bestows a lower human rights standard on minority groups and is inherently (if unintentionally) racist. It suggests a belief that minority groups are not capable of holding, nor should be expected to hold, to universal human rights standards. Discrimination between Muslim groups is permitted since we do not want to be seen to be imposing such standards on them.

Third, flexing liberal values risks being branded “Islamophobic”. It is time that the public sector and many politicians distinguished between anti-Muslim prejudice — which is racist — and legitimate criticism of faith — which is not.  Anti-Muslim prejudice is to describe a group of people in negative terms which don’t apply to the whole. For example, someone who calls a Muslim in passing a terrorist is committing a religiously-motivated hate crime because they are abusing an individual on acccount of a prejudice they hold towards Muslims in general.However, critiquing a religious practice is manifestly not the same as personally attacking an individual on account of a prejudice against their religion.

All three fears have left us with an incredibly weak approach to countering extremism. This downward spiral will continue unless we break the curse of trusting in community “representatives”. We need to become more aware of the true diversity of beliefs and attitudes within our minorities and  educate ourselves in what it is to be truly “Islamophobic”. Otherwise, we will continue to run the risk of cultural-religious identity factors being elevated over shared values, such as democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, mutual tolerance and respect for different religions and beliefs.

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