New Political Landscape

Observers on the UK government’s approach to its Muslim communities were left rather in the dark after the surprise results in May this year, writes Hisham A Hellyer.

Traditionally, the Liberal Democrat Party has been rather supportive of Muslim community organisations, and has stood squarely behind them when the state was deemed to have encroached on civil liberties (a frequent complaint after the 7th July bombings in 2005). Even more traditionally, however, Muslim community spokespeople (representative or not) have been very wary of the Conservative Party, worrying that their historic attitude to diversity and pluralism in the UK (not the best of track-records) would cause them to be rather unfriendly if the Tories came to power.

Then May 6th happened, and then the coalition government came into office. There was certainly writing on the wall before then – the Conservative Party had individuals like Michael Gove or Liam Fox who were often criticised within Muslim community circles as being too right-wing or neo-conservative; whether on domestic or foreign issues. The Conservative Party manifesto mentioned a plausible ban taking place against Hizb ut-Tahrir – a non-violent political Islamist organisation in the UK which the previous government wanted to ban, but feared would prove unsustainable under British law. The Liberal Democrats’ emphasis on civil liberties, on the other hand, proved to be quite popular with many Muslim Britons, as was their ease in building links with Muslim community lobby groups.

The coalition agreement was a mish-mash of both parties’ policies – and on the subject of banning Hizb ut-Tahrir, the agreement was virtually silent. So, the question was asked, what will this new government be like?

We still do not know the answer to that, but we have a bit of an indication now, possibly. Last month, the government’s Home Secretary decided to ban three Muslim speakers from entering the UK: Zakir Naik, the Indian televangelist who is described as one of India’s most influential ‘spiritual gurus’; Bilal Philips, a Jamaican convert and graduate of the University of Madinah in Saudi Arabia; and Areeb Islam, another convert from South Africa. Areeb Islam is rather less well known, but Bilal Philips and Zakir Naik are known to harbour conservative views on a variety of religious and cultural topics. Philips has been accused of being very sectarian, with an affinity for the Salafism of Saudi Arabia (often described as Wahabism), and Muslim scholars in the Indian subcontinent have routinely denounced Naik for going against what they perceive to be Islamic doctrine.

None of them seem to have been particular violent, or encourage violence – but certainly, at least two of them seem to have attracted the ire of certain Muslim groups both in the UK and elsewhere (particularly in the Indians subcontinent). One of these groups is the Barelwi movement – a staunch Sunni group with roots in India, which is Sufi inclined, naturally opposed to the Salafism of Saudi Arabia. For a long time, English speakers who graduated from the University of Madinah have taken particular exception to the practices of Sufism, often describing those who indulge in such practices to be heretics of one type or another. Its not surprising to see why Barelwis and other Sufis might be quite pleased not to see Philips enter the UK. It might also explain why Philips, someone who was a long term resident of Sharjah in the UAE, left in 2003, and has not returned since. Some relate this to the UAE’s conscious decision to re-affirm its historical approach to Islam, which was Sufi-oriented and characterised by an adherence to one of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence.

Some Barelwi scholars have taken a particular dislike to Naik, owing to his reported positive statements regarding the infamous Yazid – a medieval ruler who is believed to have ordered the slaughter of many members of the Prophet’s family. Such reports did not do too much to ingratiate him with the Shi’i community – whether in the UK or abroad. Others fault Naik for his lack of scholarly training – trained as a medical doctor, he is not a trained member of any religious establishment. Thus, when news of his ban came through, it was not entirely surprising to see the British Muslim Forum, a UK lobby group that represents a large number of Barelwi mosques, came out in favour of the ban.

All of this has led to suggestions that the UK’s Home Office is strategically positioning itself behind certain groupings in the Muslim community, as opposed to others. Ostensibly, there is the concern about security, but it is curious that such a concern would be raised now – Naik and Philips have been coming to the UK for years, and have not been deemed a security threat until now. As such, it is clear that there were voices arguing against a ban within the government. That’s not to say other countries have not banned Philips in particular – Australia banned him in early 2007. Shortly after the UK ban, Canada also banned Naik.

It is interesting to chart out what this may mean for Muslim community relations with the Government for the future – the ban has certainly made it some friends, but also some enemies.

Hisham A Hellyer is Fellow of the University of Warwick, and Director of the Visionary Consultants Group.

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