When the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill received Royal Assent on February 12, it had dawned upon Britain’s Muslim community that a new era of ‘McCarthyite witch-hunting’ had begun. After 13 years of the war on terror, the CTS Act serves as one of the most damaging pieces of legislation to affect not only the Muslim community, but the wider British public.
Counter-Terrorism and Security Act
In effect, public sector workers will be forced to become state spies, obliging doctors, dentists, university staff, school and nursery teachers to report their colleagues, patients, students and pupils as young as three to the authorities. Additionally, the bill which has been criticised by more than 500 professors as being a threat to freedom of speech fell on deaf ears.
The underlying problem with the CTS Act is that like every piece of legislation that the government has implemented post 9/11 and 7/7, legal terms are broadly undefined. Labels such as ‘extremism’ and ‘British values’ will be misapplied, and defined by the authorities in an ad hoc manner to alienate the entire Muslim community. Inevitably, we will see an increase in unsubstantiated reporting based on paranoia and fear, a spike in unlawful detention, and the criminalisation of Muslims who follow orthodox Islam.
In light of this daunting reality, a joint statement against the Government’s alleged criminalisation of Islam was signed by numerous British Muslim organisations, scholars, imams, activists, teachers, doctors and journalists. The open letter which was issued on Wednesday had 62 signatories at the time of publication, but had reached 200 within 24 hours. The strongly worded statement was released after plans for further counter-extremism measures were leaked by the Telegraph in the weekend. The draft document outlines a “more assertive” approach to promoting British values and “challenging the extremists who fundamentally oppose them.”
Spearheaded by home secretary Theresa May, the crackdown would introduce vigorous regulations on citizenship and travel, as well as tougher measures to prevent Britons from travelling to war zones such Iraq and Syria. Immigrants who do not learn English could see their welfare benefits cut, as part of a muscular approach to impose integration, while citizenship would only be granted to those who embrace “British values” – whatever that may entail.
Joint UK Muslim Statement
The joint statement signed by a wide spectrum of Muslim figures from different theological, sectarian and political backgrounds stated:
1. Rejection of the exploitation of Muslim issues and the ‘terror threat’ for political capital, in particular in the run up to the General Elections.
2. The deploring of the continued public targeting of Muslims through endless ‘anti-terror’ laws.
3. Rejection of the portrayal of Muslims and the Muslim community as a security threat.
4. The use of undefined and politically charged words like ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ to criminalise legitimate political discourse and criticism of the stance of successive UK governments towards Muslims domestically and abroad.
5. Rejection of terms such as “extremist” to censor normative Islamic beliefs founded in the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
6. Commitment to robust political and ideological debate and discourse for the betterment of humanity at large.
7. Rejection of the Government’s support for brutal dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world.
8. Reaffirmation of holding onto Islamic beliefs and principles.
9. Calling upon fair-minded Britons to scrutinise the Government’s scare tactics, fear-mongering and machinations of politicians.
Notable signatories included: former Taliban hostage Yvonne Ridley, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law Lauren Booth, former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, and broadcaster Mohammed Shafiq to name just a few. Moderate Sufis, conservative Deobandis, orthodox Salafis, Shias, as well as teachers, lawyers, journalists, and health care professionals from around the country have signed the statement.
Though the Muslim Council Britain (MCB) is yet to sign, affiliates under their umbrella have supported the statement. Other organisations such as the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB), Inspire and Quilliam Foundation have not been approached due to their lack of grassroots support within the Muslim community, and their support for the Government’s much frowned upon and failing Prevent strategy, which is perceived with much suspicion by many Muslims.
Fact or fiction?
The open letter which received significant media coverage on Wednesday, demonstrated that large swathes of Britain’s Muslim community had unified due to communal concerns over the Government’s new anti-terrorism and counter-extremism policies, which would indiscriminately target Muslims.
A Home Office spokesperson told VICE News that: “It is utterly absurd to suggest there is any criminalisation of British Muslims. Everybody is equal in Britain — equality is a fundamental British value and one that we are proud to uphold. Instead of making unfounded statements the signatories should work with us to defeat extremism and terrorism and stand up to those whose twisted ideology subverts the peaceful religion of Islam.”
In the contrary, a number of key signatories told me that the Home Office’s response to Vice News was mere lip service to “tackling extremism”, and a guise to censor normative Islam by conflating it with the conveyor belt theory and radicalisation. With the General Election less than 60 days away, parliamentarians are battling it out over the economy, education, the NHS, housing, Europe and…national security. The rhetoric coming out of Whitehall on national security, especially after the ISIS executioner “Jihadi John’s” identity was revealed as Mohammed Emwazi, will be used to for political mileage. It is evident from all three political parties’ unquestioning support for the CTS Bill that the Muslim community’s concerns and interests were at the tail-end of their priority list.
However, as the number of Muslim signatories continues to increase, it will be interesting to see what tangible actions will be taken moving forward by the various figureheads to get their grievances taken seriously.
It issues a condemnation of the “ongoing demonisation of Muslims in Britain” and accuses the government of scapegoating Muslims in order to deflect attention away from crises in the economy, the national health service and “disastrous foreign policies”.
It reads: “We reject the exploitation of Muslim issues and the ‘terror threat’ for political capital, in particular in the run up to a general election. Exploiting public fears about security is as dishonourable as exploiting public fears about immigration.”
The statement also condemns the targeting of Muslims through what it describes as “endless anti-terror laws” and also mentions the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act recently passed by Parliament.
It says: “The latest Act of Parliament, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, threatens to create a ‘McCarthyite’ witch-hunt against Muslims, with nursery workers, schoolteachers and Universities expected to look out for signs of increased Islamic practice as signs of ‘radicalisation’. Such a narrative will only further damage social cohesion as it incites suspicion and ill feeling in the broader community.”
Among the signatories from Yorkshire include Muhammad Mustaqeem Shah from the Al Mustaqeem Centre in Bradford; Irfan Hussain from the Bradford Dawah Centre; Imam Ahmed Desai from Bradford; Director of Bradford-based Darul Ihsan Academy, Ibrahim Bismillah; Moulana Afrooz Ali from the Al Hikmah Trustee in Bradford; and Bradford Cllr Faisal Khan.
The list of over 100 signatories includes Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo Bay inmate and current outreach director for Cage, an independent advocacy organisation.
Endless anti-terror laws and anti-Muslim rhetoric are in danger of creating a witch-hunt scenario against Muslims, according to supporters of a strongly worded public statement signed by representatives of Britain’s Muslim community.
The statement comes in the wake of revelations earlier this week that the British Home Office is thinking of launching a “more assertive” campaign against Muslim extremism. It would include penalizing benefit claimants who do not learn English and forcing those applying for UK visas to commit to “British values.”
The signatories accuse the British government of “criminalizing” Islam and silencing “legitimate critique and dissent” in what it says is “the ongoing demonization of Muslims in Britain [and] their values, as well as prominent scholars, speakers and organizations.”
“We reject the portrayal of Muslims and the Muslim community as a security threat. The latest act of parliament, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, threatens to create a ‘McCarthyite’ witch-hunt against Muslims, with nursery workers, schoolteachers and universities expected to look out for signs of increased Islamic practice as signs of ‘radicalisation,’” the statement reads.
“Such a narrative will only further damage social cohesion as it incites suspicion and ill feeling in the broader community,” it says.
The statement says that exploiting public fears about security is as dishonorable as scapegoating immigrants, and deflects attention from real issues facing the country – such as the economy and the National Health Service (NHS). The exploitation of such fears plays into the hands of the big political parties who will “try and outdo each other in their nastiness” in the run-up to elections.
The statement cast a light on “endless anti-terror laws.” Since 2000, there have been 10 separate pieces of legislation which have given huge powers to the state and fueled media hysteria.
The list of over 70 signatories includes Moazzam Begg – a former Guantanamo Bay inmate and current outreach director for Cage, an independent advocacy organization which aims to empower communities affected by the war on terror. Islamic thinkers – such as Arzu Merali from the Islamic Human Rights Commission and Musharraf Hussain, chief imam of the Karimia Institute and an advisor at the Quilliam Foundation – also signed the petition.
Signatories also included members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organization regarded as controversial. It is banned in several countries, including Germany.
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) did not put its name to the statement, saying the organization found it difficult to sign because it represents 500 mosques with different opinions. However, individual members of the MCB did sign it.
Tauriq Ishaq, a senior spokesman for the Muslim Action Forum (MAF), told the Guardian that many Muslims are feeling alienated and disillusioned.
“People are being asked to compromise their faith and many feel there is no alternative here. The current environment has contributed to issues like young people leaving to go to Syria,” he said.
The signatories also drew attention to the double standards of the UK government, which lectures about peace building while also maintaining support for brutal regimes and dictators in many Muslim countries when the government stands to benefit from such actions.
“Muslim community rejects the state’s criminalisation of Islam and condemns moves to silence legitimate critique and dissent… We reject the portrayal of Muslims and the Muslim community as a security threat,” the letter signed by 128 activists, including imams, humanitarian activists, journalists and scholars said.
The signatories stated that UK politicians are exploiting the “Muslim issue,” including the public concerns regarding security and immigration, to gain more political capital and distract the public attention from problems in the economy and health service as the general elections approach.
“The latest act of parliament, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, threatens to create a “McCarthyite” witch-hunt against Muslims, with nursery workers, schoolteachers and universities expected to look out for signs of increased Islamic practice as signs of “radicalisation”,” the statement said.
The activists also said that the expedient use of “politically charged” worlds such as “radicalization” and “extremism” and labelling “normative Islamic opinions” as “extremist” impedes political dialogue in the country and serves as an excuse to silence speakers.
“It is time that politicians stop diverting the attention of the British public away from its domestic crises and disastrous foreign policies by repeatedly playing the ‘Muslim’ or ‘national security’ card,” the letter concluded.
Britain stepped up security measure following the activization of Islamic State (ISIL) Sunni extremist group propaganda in Europe. According to UK intelligence estimates, at least 600 UK citizens have joined ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
On Sunday, The Telegraph reported citing a leaked draft of the Home Office’s new counter-terrorism strategy, that the UK government is planning to introduce a number of steps to combat threat from Islamist extremists. The new measures include penalties for immigrants who fail to learn English or otherwise integrate into British society and a requirement for staff at job centers to look for claimants who seem like they may become targets for radicalization.
The UK government is inciting a “McCarthyite” witch hunt against Muslims, a prominent group of more than 100 Islamic scholars and activists has said.
Leading figures from Britain’s Muslim community signed an open letter released on Wednesday which accuses the government of the “criminalization of Islam.” They claimed that officials were using terms such as “radicalization” and “extremism” to silence voices of dissent, saying this could “be dangerous and leave the community unguided.”
The statement also accuses the government of using the specter of terrorism to divert the British public’s attention from “disastrous foreign policies” and for political gain.
The signatories — who include Anjum Amwar, the chair of NGO Women’s Voice, the former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, and journalist Yvonne Ridley, but no representative of umbrella group the Muslim Council of Britain — released the letter after plans for further measures against extremism were leaked by the Telegraph at the weekend. The draft document outlines a “more assertive” approach to promoting British values and “challenging the extremists who fundamentally oppose them.”
Under the proposals, individuals who have expressed extreme views could be banned from working with children unsupervised and will require job center staff to report claimants who they consider may be vulnerable to radicalization.
Headed by Home Secretary Theresa May, the crackdown would introduce tougher regulations around citizenship and travel, including tougher measures to prevent extremists from traveling to conflict zones. Immigrants who do not learn English could see their welfare payments cut, as part of a push to encourage integration, while citizenship would only be granted to those who embrace “British values.”
The strategy aims to tackle ideas and behaviors which, while are “often legal,” are said to cause “very significant damage” and potentially lead to radicalization, such as speeches by extremist preachers. Sharia courts and councils are also marked out as a cause for “concern” in some parts of the country.
Arzu Merali, a signatory and one of the founders of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, told VICE News that this clampdown has been happening for the last ten years, and the new bill will only “accelerate what is already happening” in creating a climate of fear and pushing extremists underground. She described the legislation as part of an agenda which at first “demonized but now criminalizes” certain issues.
The online statement — which had more than 60 signatories when it was released on Wednesday but hours later had gathered at least 40 more — says that labeling “normative Islamic opinions” as extremist “criminalizes legitimate political discourse.”
The controversial Counter-Terrorism and Security (CTS) Bill was passed last month, under which teacher and universities are legally obliged to “prevent people from being drawn to terrorism.” The bill has been criticized by over 500 professors as being a threat to freedom of speech. In the new plans, universities will be refused visa permits for speakers with extremist views. Merali said of such measures that “the overwhelming effect on most people, is not to turn them into violent so and sos, but create a complete disempowerment and state of fear, and of subjugation”. This could have a “self-fulfilling” effect where people felt compelled to leave Britain and find spaces they could express their views, potentially drawing them into situations where they might commit atrocities, she added.
Britain’s security services have drawn criticism after it emerged that Mohamed Emwazi, the Londoner named as Islamic State executioner Jihadi John, and three schoolgirls who disappeared from the capital in February, all managed to leave United Kingdom to join the Islamic State in Syria despite being on the authorities’ radar.
Advocacy groups who have been campaigning to stop the CTS Bill, have also criticized the tactics of intelligence agency MI5 in handling suspects, accusing them of harassing Muslims and pushing them onto the path of extremism. This has lead a battle of finger pointing, with Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond saying on Tuesday that “apologists” for terrorists shared some of the blame for their acts.
Programs already in place to tackle extremism have also been criticized, with a former senior Muslim police officer, Dal Babu, calling the Prevent anti-terror strategy a “toxic brand” which the Muslim community perceived as spying on their activities.
Shakeel Begg, imam at the Greenwich Islamic center which drew negative attention after it emerged that one of the killers of British soldier Lee Rigby had worshipped there, told VICE News that it was difficult to participate in Prevent as a Muslim leader because “the community will see you as spying on them.” This then became a barrier to engagement with young people, he said, adding that they might then go on to seek information in other quarters.
He told VICE News he finds himself constantly “worried” about saying the wrong thing and touching on contentious issues for fear of being criminalized.
Begg has attracted controversy himself after it was reported by the BBC that he had hailed jihad as “the greatest of deeds.” He is currently suing the broadcaster for describing him as an “extremist” who “encourages religious violence,” insisting that he was using the non-violent meaning of the term “jihad,” to refer to a spiritual struggle.
Merali told VICE News that she believed such strategies were encouraging Islamophobia and social division. “We need to get rid of the idea of Muslims as some sort of dangerous other who don’t deserve equality before the law,” she said. “[Or] we will not be able to change the highly racist culture which is rapidly developing, and is very damaging to the fabric of society.”
A joint statement signed by a number of prominent Muslim groups and leaders from all over the UK have condemned the British government for its perceived “criminalisation” of Islam, and accuses it of creating a “Mccarthyite witch-hunt” against the Muslim community.
The statement, signed by over 70 imams, sheikhs, advocates, activists, community leaders, community organisations and student bodies, rejects the “ongoing demonisation of Muslims in Britain” and accuses the government of scapegoating Muslims in order to deflect attention away from crises in the economy and the national health service and “disastrous foreign policies”.
“We reject the exploitation of Muslim issues and the ‘terror threat’ for political capital, in particular in the run up to a general election,” it reads. “Exploiting public fears about security is as dishonourable as exploiting public fears about immigration.”
Among the signatories is former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg, who is the director of outreach for controversial advocacy group CAGE, sheikh Omer Hamdoon, the director of the Muslim Association of Britain, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, members of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and former journalist Yvonne Ridley.
“We reject the portrayal of Muslims and the Muslim community as a security threat,” the statement continues, also taking issue with the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act.
“The latest Act of Parliament, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, threatens to create a ‘McCarthyite’ witch-hunt against Muslims, with nursery workers, schoolteachers and universities expected to look out for signs of increased Islamic practice as signs of ‘radicalisation’.”
“Such a narrative will only further damage social cohesion as it incites suspicion and ill feeling in the broader community,” the letter warns.
Theresa May’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill received royal assent at the beginning of February. The act bolsters existing powers for passport removal from those suspected of being involved in terrorist activities and allows the police to “disrupt” individuals who are suspected of leaving the country to join terrorist organisations overseas.
More controversially, the new act puts the responsibility on “specified authorities” to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”, imposing a duty upon pubic bodies such as schools and universities to address individuals they believe to be at risk of radicalisation.
The letter also condemns “the expedient use of undefined and politically charged words like ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’”, which the signatories believe “criminalises legitimate political discourse and criticism of the stance of successive governments towards Muslims domestically and abroad. We strongly oppose political proposals to further ‘tackle’ and ‘crack down’ on such dissenting voices in the Muslim community despite their disavowal of violence and never having supported terrorist acts.”
There are notable absences from the list of signatories, such as any representative from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the umbrella body that represents Muslims in the UK. No one from the MCB was available for comment.
One of the signatories to the letter, imam Shakeel Begg of the Lewisham Islamic Centre, explains that he signed the letter because he feels Muslims are being unfairly targeted by the government. “The main reason I signed is because of how the Muslim community feels about the government agenda, particularly about the new counter-terrorism act. They feel criminalised.”
“The act will hamper the work imams do, and the act is making community members feel worried,” he continues. “The government hasn’t been addressing Muslim issues. But even prior to the act the situation was worrying, with Muslims being unfairly targeted and scapegoated.”
Another signatory, Arzu Merali, director of research at the Islamic Human Rights Commission, points out that the diverse range of signatories shows that this is a problem that resonates with many Muslims, including many women.
“The Muslim card is being used as a political tool,” she says, adding that the new legal duty imposed on Muslims to report extremists is “terrifying” and “sends out the message that Muslims must be spied upon”.