Yes, says Bob Lambert, a former senior Met officer
Britain can be proud of how it has provided a safe haven for members and associates of the Muslim Brotherhood during the past three decades. Many escaped imprisonment and torture in countries run by corrupt dictators strongly supported by the west until the Arab spring. Now some are returning to their countries of origin to help build new democracies and bulwarks against future dictatorships in the Arab world.
In my book, Countering al-Qaeda in London, I document the bravery and success of Muslim Brotherhood activists in tackling al-Qaeda influence in Britain. This previously unheralded success is well illustrated by the removal of al-Qaeda influence from the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, a partnership project in which the local Labour MP, Jeremy Corbyn, played a leading role. Interestingly, my own role in that story, as head of the Met’s Muslim Contact Unit, has been criticised by Policy Exchange and other neoconservative think tanks as giving legitimacy and kudos to the Muslim Brotherhood, which they claim is “fascist”.
David Cameron, influenced by, among others, his Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has adopted the neocon argument that police forces and civil servants should not partner British groups or individuals associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and accuses them of being akin to the British National Party (BNP).
I agree that the police should not, under any circumstances, partner the BNP with a view to “deradicalising” violent extremists in groups such as Combat 18. However, I have found no compelling evidence to convince me that my former Muslim Brotherhood partners are similar to the BNP, and much to refute the claim. For example, the new management of the Finsbury Park Mosque works effectively with local Christian and Jewish groups. It is therefore wrong to characterise my approach as wittingly granting status and legitimacy to non-violent extremists – to set a thief to catch a thief, as some of my critics put it.
Instead, I have found the overwhelming majority of Muslim Brotherhood figures in Britain to be similar in outlook to Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda, the Islamist party that was victorious in Tunisia’s elections last month. Having gone from a modest home in north London to the plush new headquarters of Ennahda and the levers of power in Tunis, Ghannouchi is a good example of the compatibility between the political ambitions of many British members and associates of the Muslim Brotherhood and democratic norms.
To ignore their notable civic achievements and demonise them as a subversive threat is unfair, ill-conceived and serves to divert precious resources better deployed against real threats to public safety.
Dr Robert Lambert is the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s Muslim Contact Unit
No, says Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist activist
Until recently the domestic approach to the “Muslim Question” – involving issues of identity, citizenship, integration, extremism, immigration and religious freedom – could be caricatured as being populated by the “good”, the “bad” and the “ugly”. The “good” – patronising, self-righteous liberals, full of the very thing they riled against, colonial baggage – held that “the Muslim community” should appoint a “chief” to speak on behalf of his (for it was always a he) “savage” community, which could obviously not speak for itself or establish any form of identity beyond the collective “Muslim” label imposed on its varying cultures and sects.
The “bad”, being the inverse of the “good”, ironically carried the same baggage and insisted that, to integrate into western society, all Muslims must completely assimilate and shed any heritage from their “alien” culture, or “go home”. From this simplified, post-colonial polarisation emerged the “ugly”. These were politicised, agenda-driven Muslim umbrella groups that leapt at the chance of being chiefs for the Muslim “savage” and simultaneously claimed to defend Muslims against the “bad”.
The “community groups” naturally emerged from those who self-identified as exclusively Muslim in politics – the Islamists – and the UK-based Muslim Brotherhood affiliates were the most organised of these. Through such bodies as the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), or its south Asian counterpart, the Islamic Forum of Europe, the public face of Muslims became increasingly associated with politicised religion. By acting as a front for the political agenda of their parent Islamist organisations abroad, these so-called community groups hijacked the progress of Muslims as Britons by taking stances embroiled in the bitter politics of the Middle East.
I refer here to the likes of the former MAB spokesman Azzam Tamimi and his statement that, were he in Palestine, he would engage in a suicide bombing against Israeli civilians. I also refer to the recent, rather flippant posthumous praise that the MAB founder Kamal el-Helbawy heaped on the late leader of al-Qaeda: “I ask Allah to have mercy upon Osama Bin Laden, to treat him generously, to enlighten his grave and to make him join the prophets . . .”
My stance takes nothing away from the brutality of the Arab despots in contention to whom these groups emerged, or their right to claim asylum here, and does not detract from the many excesses of the Israeli government. I also do not restrict my concerns to Islamist groups. How one should engage with the Brotherhood inside Egypt is one thing – I shared a cell in Egypt as a prisoner of conscience with its current global leader and consider him someone I can talk to – but propping up such groups as Muslim “representatives” inside the UK provided the perfect scapegoat for the “bad” to tarnish all Muslims with the terrorism libel.
I would appreciate not having as a political interlocutor the imam of my local mosque; worse still an Islamist spokesman who is unable to see me as much more than a member of the Muslim Internationale in Britain, awaiting the return of the Caliphate somewhere else. My identity is made up of more than my faith alone.
I am a proud Muslim, but I am also a liberal, a Briton, a Pakistani, a Londoner, a father, a product of the globalised world who speaks English, Arabic and Urdu. And yes, I am even an Essex boy, with a distinct gait. Just as we refuse to be viewed solely through the narrow lens of “terrorism”, so we should refuse to be viewed only as Muslims. And we would appreciate not being patronised.
Maajid Nawaz is the director of Quilliam. He tweets as @maajidnawaz
A longer version of his article can be read here.