An encounter with radical Islam

Last Friday, I was on the panel at City Circle, an impressive discussion group of young professional Muslims. The subject was Muslim representation and the programme I made for Channel 4, Who Represents Muslims, screened on Channel 4 on Friday 14 July.

Also on the panel with me were Sir Iqbal Sacranie, former head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Yahya Birt, from the Islamic Foundation and Madeleine Bunting the new director of Demos.

The discussion between Sir Iqbal and myself grew heated and I lost my temper with the Islamist knight on several occasions (Bunting intervened to suggest we should all be much nicer to each other). I was particularly irritated by Sir Iqbal’s response when I asked him what meetings he had had with the victims of 7/7 (I should have said survivors). At this point he said that he himself was a victim of 7/7: an astonishing display of arrogance and insensitivity.

Challenged by Bunting, he reiterated his comments at the height of the Rushdie affair that death was too good for the author of the Satantic Verses. (His actual words were: “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him … his mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks for forgiveness to Almighty Allah.”) He then went on to express his support for Pakistan’s Hudood Ordinances, a series of brutal “sharia-inspired” laws introduced by the former dictator General Zia al-Huq. Under the laws women must have four witnesses to prove a charge of rape or face a charge of adultery herself. Sacranie argued that it was not for those in the West to say that such laws were wrong if they were accepted by the people of the country where they were imposed. He refused to be drawn on whether the sentence of stoning was one he approved of in such cases.

However, he did confirm that the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami party, which has been accused of human rights abuses in Pakistan and Bangladesh was represented in Britain by the UK Islamic Mission, an affiliate of the MCB.

Sacranie's credentials as an apologist for the more unpleasant aspects of political Islam were confirmed for me that night. But the links of his Bangladeshi successor, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, to Jamaat politics may be more direct. He is president of East London Mosque, a focus for Jamaat-i-Islami sympathisers in Britain. The mosque and the London Muslim Centre, which adjoins it, have regularly played host to Delwar Hossein Sayeedi, the hell-fire Bangladeshi MP, whose abortive fund-raising visit to Britain caused such a stir earlier this month.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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