Search for sanity
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Date: November 2002


Photo: Inayat Bunglawala
"Malicious generalisations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West."
Inayat Bunglawala, Media Secretary for the Muslim Council of Britain, talks with Christopher Nield about ‘The Quest for Sanity’ – a collection of Islamic reflections on 9/11 and the war on terror.

fish: Why has the MCB decided to put together the personal and political reflections of ‘The Quest for Sanity'?
IB: This has been a very difficult year for British Muslims. We have had to face a seemingly relentless barrage of disparaging journalism and cope with heightened tension in many areas. It is important that we document what has happened and our hopes for the future. ‘The Quest For Sanity’ represents a small contribution from the MCB to the wider debate about our responsibilities on this Earth.

fish: How has the Muslim community been portrayed by the media in the past year?
IB: The Palestinian academic Edward Said once observed that malicious generalisations about Islam have become the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West.

Just to give one example of this in practice, in October 2001, enormous media exposure was given to the news that a handful of British Muslims had decided to make their way to Afghanistan to help resist the expected US invasion. Instead of contextualising this news by pointing out that most British Muslims had chosen to express their opposition to the war through peaceful means and lobbying their MPs, the coverage in some quarters seemed almost designed to stir up violence against British Muslims.

Large sections of the media engaged in a deliberate and incendiary policy of exaggeration and scaremongering that was certain to contribute towards inciting a hatred of mainstream British Muslims.

For example, the pro-Israeli columnist Melanie Phillips declared: ‘The attitude of many British Muslims should cause the greatest possible alarm that we have a fifth column in our midst… Thousands of alienated young Muslims, most of them born and bred here but who regard themselves as an army within, are waiting for an opportunity to help to destroy the society that sustains them. We now stare into the abyss, aghast.’ (The Sunday Times, 4th November 2001.)

fish: Throughout Europe there's been a swing to the right of the political spectrum – even in traditionally socialist countries such as France and Holland. Is day-to-day discrimination against Muslims increasing? If so, why?

IB: Support for the far right has risen largely due to its exploitation of the sensitive issues of immigration and asylum seekers - many of whom are from Muslim countries. Evidently worried by this, and trying to reclaim ground lost to the far right, our Home Secretary warned of schools being ‘swamped’ by the children of asylum seekers.

It is perhaps indicative of the measure of hostility now being engendered towards asylum seekers that the word ‘bogus’ is no longer even thought necessary to be prefixed to them. It is simply assumed that they have no legitimate claim to seek safety in the UK.

The physical attacks on asylum seekers we have seen in several parts of this country – some of them fatal – are quite shocking, but not surprising given the quite vicious nature of much of the media coverage and some very unhelpful official pronouncements.

fish: Violations of basic human rights in Muslim countries are common. Yet the secular human rights movement is sometimes seen as a form of cultural imperialism. How can human rights be upheld in a way that is authentically Islamic?
IB: The whole concept of a ‘secular human rights movement’ is alien to Muslims. Islam is a comprehensive way of life that should guide Muslims in all that they do. There is no ‘secular space’ in Islam where its principles are not meant to be applicable.

Where human rights abuses occur in Muslim countries they should be remedied by recourse to the values of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad was sent by God to liberate mankind from the tyranny of other men so that we could all worship God freely.

The establishment of the rule of law is a priority in the Muslim world. In too many Muslim countries, there are undemocratic regimes that consider themselves to be above the law.

fish: A Kurdish man I recently spoke to said that people in northern Iraq generally want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but they don't trust America either. What is your view on military action against Iraq?
IB: All Muslims are agreed that Saddam Hussein and his grotesquely oppressive regime represent a tragedy for the Iraqi people. They are personally responsible for invading the neighbouring Muslim countries of Iran and Kuwait in which hundreds of thousands of human beings died. It would be good to see the back of Saddam’s regime and a genuine representative government established in Iraq.

However, there is united British Muslim opposition to any war with Iraq. This has much to do with a deep suspicion of US motives, with many Muslims believing that the real aim of the United States is to secure long-term access to the region’s valuable resources, as the former Cabinet Minister, Mo Mowlam, recently declared.

The MCB Secretary-General, Iqbal Sacranie, recently stated: ‘There is widespread unease among British Muslims about the selective implementation of UN resolutions relating to Iraq and the deliberate overlooking of UN resolutions on Palestine and Kashmir. The United States' doctrine of 'regime change' and 'pre-emptive strike' is regarded as setting a dangerous precedent and is a sure recipe for creating international disorder.’

fish: For many, the key to peace in the Middle East lies in resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine. What do you think world leaders could do to assist this?
IB: A lot of the responsibility on this issue lies with the United States government. The US is perceived in the Muslim world as the main backer of the repugnant policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinian people. The US supplies $3 billion a year in ‘aid’ to Israel – more than to any other country in the world. It keeps Israel equipped with all the latest weaponry and bombs. The fighter planes and bombs that we see falling on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza are, in the main, US-made.

No significant US pressure has been placed on Israel to force it to withdraw from the illegally occupied West Bank and Gaza or to dismantle its illegal Jewish settlements - which increase in number every month. Indeed, earlier this year, President Bush described the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon – a man regarded as a war criminal in much of the rest of the world – as ‘a man of peace.’

The suffering endured by the Palestinian people and the way they have been made homeless in their own land is truly unimaginable. They have been made to pay a very heavy price for European crimes against the Jews in the Holocaust. The Palestinian people are continually being asked to endure humiliation after humiliation in the guise of making ‘compromises’ with Israel. That is unacceptable.

fish: The world is reeling from the recent terrorist attack on Bali. What is the MCB's position on the current situation?
IB: We express our sorrow and condolences to the families of all the victims, particularly our fellow British citizens. We urge the Indonesian government to investigate the crime and punish all those responsible for carrying out this evil act. They should also make sure that no internal or external criminal element is able to exploit the present tension in the world for their own objectives.

fish: Is there any particular passage or message from the Qur’an that you find of special relevance to these perilous times?
IB: ‘O you who believe! stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that you do.’
Al-Qur’an 5:8.

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