Dr Bari: Government stoking Muslim tension
By Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson
Last Updated: 6:44pm GMT 10/11/2007
The head of the Muslim Council of Britain does not mince his words on integration, report Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson
There is fear and loathing in Britain. This week, the head of MI5 claimed there were 2,000 people involved in terrorist activity and children as young as 15 were being “groomed” to be suicide bombers.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari: Britain must beware of becoming like Nazi Germany
Gordon Brown announced plans to require immigrants to learn English and Downing Street said the Prime Minister wanted to double the number of days that terrorist suspects can be detained without trial. Then, just as the Metropolitan Police was being censured for shooting the Stockwell One, the Lyrical Terrorist became the first woman to be convicted of terrorist crimes.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), thinks the Government is stoking the tension.
“There is a disproportionate amount of discussion surrounding us,” he says. “The air is thick with suspicion and unease. It is not good for the Muslim community, it is not good for society.”
The 53-year-old special needs teacher has a gentle manner and a quiet voice – he describes himself as a “community spokesman” rather than a “religious leader” – but he does not mince his words.
Britain must, he warns, beware of becoming like Nazi Germany.
“Every society has to be really careful so the situation doesn’t lead us to a time when people’s minds can be poisoned as they were in the 1930s. If your community is perceived in a very negative manner, and poll after poll says that we are alienated, then Muslims begin to feel very vulnerable. We are seen as creating problems, not as bringing anything and that is not good for any society.”
There is, in his view, no such thing as Islamic terrorism.
“Terrorists are terrorists, they may use religion but we shouldn’t say Muslim terrorists, it stigmatises the whole community. We never called the IRA Catholic terrorists.” Dr Bari thinks Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, made the extremists’ job easier by giving a bleak picture of the threat on the eve of the Queen’s Speech.
“I think it is creating a scare in the community and wider society. It probably helps some people who try to recruit the young to terrorism. Muslim young people are as vulnerable as any others. Under this climate of fear they will begin to feel victimised.”
The Prime Minister’s plan to increase the length of time terrorist suspects can be detained without trial is also, he believes, misguided.
“Even the police haven’t asked for more than 28 days. As far as we know there is no clear evidence of the need for more time.”
Control orders and stop and search powers are further increasing the sense of alienation among Muslims, Dr Bari says, and the Metropolitan Police are not helping matters either.
“There was institutional racism and institutions as massive as the Met find it hard to change. They need more Muslim police officers. I’m not going to use the term trigger happy – sometimes the police can make mistakes – but they need to do their job in a better way.”
Sir Salman Rushdie should never have been knighted, he says. “He caused a huge amount of distress and discordance with his book, it should have been pulped.”
Critics say the MCB – an umbrella organisation with 500 affiliates – has itself contributed to the growing sense of unease in Britain. The Government has cut funding to the council following claims that it had links with extremists. A Tory report this year accused it of promoting segregation.
Dr Bari insists he is simply trying to unite disparate communities. “On the one hand we are accused of not engaging, being insular, and on the other hand of being too political. We can’t win.”
The MCB was criticised for boycotting Holocaust Day but he says he did not mean to offend Jewish people: “It should be inclusive, commemorating all massacres.”
According to a recent report by the Policy Exchange think-tank, the bookshop at the east London Mosque, which Dr Bari chairs, stocks extremist literature.
“The bookshops are independent businesses,” he says. “We can’t just go in and tell them what to sell … I will see what books they keep, if they have one book which looks like it is inciting hatred, do they have counter books on the same shelf?”
He is more careful about who is allowed to preach in the mosque. “If I hear of a specific preacher who is inciting hatred I will ban him from preaching but I cannot disallow him from praying.”
In Dr Bari’s view, suicide bombers are victims as well as aggressors. “I deal with emotionally damaged children,” he explains. “Children come to hate when they don’t get enough care and love. They are probably bullied, it makes a young person angry and vulnerable.
“The extreme case could be suicide bombers, it is all they have … The people who become suicide bombers are really vulnerable.”
Although he stresses there is no justification for suicide bombing – “killing innocent people is completely forbidden, Islam is very emphatic on that” – he says British foreign policy has driven Muslims into the arms of the extremists.
“Criminal people have used that as a weapon to encourage young people, those who don’t have any anchor in themselves, [to become suicide bombers]. Iraq has been a disaster, the country has been destroyed for no reason, that had an impact on the Muslim psyche.”
His passion is to integrate Muslim and British cultures – he says integration must go both ways.
“Everybody can learn from everyone. Some of the Muslim principles can help social cohesion – family, marriage, raising children with boundaries, giving to the poor, not being too greedy.”
British people could, in his view, benefit from arranged marriages. “I prefer to call them assisted marriages,” he says.
“Marriage should not be forced on people but parents can be a catalyst … Young people are emotional, they want idealism. Older people have gone through all sorts of things and become a bit more experienced. A child will always want to eat chocolate but if he does then he will become fat. He needs to be given things that are good for him too.”
“Alcohol is the worst drug long-term,” he says, and adds that the Government should consider banning drinking in public places, as it has done with smoking.
Dr Bari believes Britain would benefit from a little more morality: “Religion has principles that can help society … Sex before marriage is unacceptable in Islam … On adultery and living together we should try to go back to the religiously informed style of life that helps society”
Abortion should also be made more difficult. “By the time a foetus is 12 weeks old our religion says that the child has got a spirit.” Homosexuality is “unacceptable from the religious point of view”.
Is stoning ever justified? “It depends what sort of stoning and what circumstances,” he replies. “When our prophet talked about stoning for adultery he said there should be four [witnesses] – in realistic terms that’s impossible. It’s a metaphor for disapproval.”
There should be more modesty too. “You shouldn’t be revealing your body so much that it can be tempting to other people. I hope my daughter wouldn’t wear a bikini but I also hope she wouldn’t wear a burka.”
Dr Bari runs guidance courses for parents of all faiths. “Children are like plants, if you don’t look after them they will grow wild and weeds can come in.” The same is true of Britain, he says. “There is plenty of freedom in Western society but boundaries are sometimes hard to see.”
Name: Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari
Job: leader of the Muslim Council of Britain
Family: married with four children
Background: he grew up on a rice and jute farm in Bangladesh on the outskirts of Dhaka
Career: trained as a pilot, before moving to Britain and switching to academia, PhD in physics King’s College London, science teacher in Haringey, special needs educator for Tower Hamlets.
Favourite things about Britain: fish and chips, cheese, shirts and ties