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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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.