2nd December 1998
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) hosted a luncheon meeting with the Home Secretary, Rt Hon Jack Straw, MP on Wednesday 2nd December 1998 at the Banqueting Centre of the Lords Cricket Ground in London. Over two hundred guests – from both Houses of Parliament, Heads and members of diplomatic missions, media organisations, distinguished guests from other faith communities, representatives of MCB affiliates, Muslim professionals and Muslim businessmen – were present at the luncheon.
Iqbal Sacranie, Secretary General of the MCB, in his opening address welcomed the Home Secretary to the first such meeting hosted by the Council. This was indicative of the Home Secretary’s heartening response to Muslim concerns and his readiness to address the issues at stake.
He pointed out that since the Inaugural Convention of the MCB in November 1997, many meetings had been arranged with senior members of the Government and various government departments. Some of the concerns raised and the issues taken up by the MCB had resulted in positive movement on the part of the Government. The removal of the Primary Purpose Rule for immigration cases and the granting of state funding to two Muslim schools went a long way towards reassuring British Muslims.
The amendment to the Crime and Disorder Bill ‘making it absolutely clear that where there is a religious element to a particular crime, if the hostility is even partly racist, it will be covered by the new provisions’ whilst falling short of outlawing religious discrimination per se, was a move in the right direction. The MCB would continue to press for full fledged legislation on outlawing religious discrimination. The Home Secretary’s support for the inclusion of a question on religious identity in the Census 2001 was also greatly appreciated by the Muslim community. The MCB now looks forward to this provision being included in the White Paper to be published early next year and subsequently being enacted into law.
There were other positive aspects in the Government’s dealings with the Muslim community. The agreement for the provision of a funded Muslim advisor for the Prison Service announced yesterday (01/12/98) was a case in point. The emphasis on Family Values and the beginnings of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy were welcome news. From the Muslim side members of several affiliates of the MCB – like the Muslim Doctors and Dentists Association and the Association of Muslim Schools – had been active in working with different government agencies and initiatives to help foster an understanding of the community’s feelings and needs.
However, this did not mean that the Muslim community had no further expectations from the government. In the light of the Merton Council’s action where it was argued that it is not unlawful to incite hatred against Muslims or their places of worship because Muslims are not regarded as a racial group, the need for clear legislation on incitement to religious hatred was becoming urgent and cannot be postponed. There was also grave concern that the newly acquired powers under the anti-terrorism legislation carry ‘the serious risk of compromising our own respect for civil liberties, the rule of law and commitment to human rights’. Indeed, in an atmosphere muddied by the media’s penchant for ‘Islamophobia’, when some persons were detained under the new laws, newspaper headlines screamed ‘Moslem plot to bomb London’. Wrong signals from the government followed by media frenzy could so easily and negatively impact on the lives of Muslims in Britain. Again legal sanction against incitement to religious hatred would probably stop the worst cases of abuse.
In conclusion Mr Sacranie said, ‘I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of the Muslim Council of Britain to reiterate our support for all policies and initiatives that would contribute to our country’s strength, stability and well-being’.
The Home Secretary in his remarks, welcomed the opportunity to be the first Cabinet Minister to attend a Muslim Council of Britain event. ‘I am fortunate also to have many close friends who are Muslim. And I represent a constituency which includes 20,000 Muslim people… I firmly believe that British Muslims make Britain today a stronger, richer and more vibrant society. A truly dynamic society, in which people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds can live and work together, whilst retaining their distinctive identities’.
Mr Straw said that plaudits for the recognition of Muslim schools as eligible for state funding should go to his colleague, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education. However, he had worked for the principle since his days as education spokesman in 1987. Bill Morris, then secretary general of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) was his key ally during those days. He was glad that fairness had finally prevailed on this vexed issue.
The Home Secretary emphasised the attempts to capture the majority of offences committed against Muslims by the amendments to the Crime and Disorder Bill. He added, ‘we will be keeping a close eye on the cases that arise from the Act. We are already aware that a number of prosecutions are in the pipeline and I am happy to say that we are now starting to see the first convictions under the Act’.
He referred to the London Borough of Merton Case and stated that the media reporting of the case was not accurate. ‘In fact the judge made no finding on that issue at all because he didn’t think that it was right for a judge in a civil case to make a ruling on a criminal matter that wasn’t before him’. However, Mr Straw said, ‘I am very alive to the issues that the Merton case raised and I am sympathetic to the concerns of Muslim communities about the law as it stands’.
‘.. unfortunately I do not think that there is a quick fix… There are difficulties in defining religion to cover mainstream religions such as Islam without also covering what would better be described as pseudo-religions or cults. If ideas come forward from the Muslim community about how to resolve it, you have my assurance that I shall consider them’.
The Home Secretary then referred to a few initiatives that were already under way. His office was commissioning research specifically on religious discrimination. ‘We want to assess the current scale and nature of religious discrimination in Britain’. There is also to be a review of the Race Relations Act. ‘I want to ensure that we have the right statutory framework to build on the progress we have made so far so that we can guarantee equal opportunity for all’.
Mr Straw expressed his grave concern at the media image of Muslims. The very negative way in which the description “Muslim fundamentalist” was being used in the media and elsewhere to mean “terrorist” was discussed in a meeting with MCB representatives in June. ‘I agreed with the Council that this was wrong, and insulting to the law-abiding and peaceful Muslim community on the UK. I also made sure that everybody in the Home Office understood the need to avoid using this terminology’.
He then alluded the British government’s stance towards Saddam Hussein and its readiness to participate in the recent near bombing of Iraq. He appealed for British Muslim understanding on this issue. The oil-for food and medicine provisions in place could accommodate all the food and medical needs of the country. The Iraqi propaganda in this matter was totally unfounded. However, leaving Saddam Hussein unchecked could pause a grave threat to regional and international security.
The Home Secretary hoped that the attempts to legislate on the inclusion of the religious question in 2001 Census and other matters would not fall foul of the current ping pong between the two Houses of Parliament.
Mr Straw ended by saying, ‘I look forward to continuing to work with the Muslim Council of Britain on all the issues that we have talked about today. I think that we have already established a constructive and open relationship. Together we can work towards a better society for everyone’.
There followed a presentation by two children from the Islamia Primary School. The children presented a decorative plaque and a short poem to the Home Secretary as a mark of his support for the provision of state funding of Muslim schools. They also presented copies of Yusuf Islam’s latest recording, The Prayers of the Last Prophet, and a copy of Mels publication Islam: The Natural Way on behalf of the MCB.
Sarah Joseph, an English woman, highlighted her plight as a Muslim whose recourse to law for religious discrimination could not be subsumed even under the ‘stretched’ version of the Crime and Disorder Bill. This graphically illustrated the need for clear legislation on the issue.
H.E. Dr Mahmoud Hammoud the Doyen of Diplomatic Corps and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Cultural Centre, London expressed the support of the Muslim ambassadors towards attempts to co-ordinate Muslim affairs in the UK. In this context he was appreciative of the MCB initiative and welcomed the comprehensive programme of the Council. He promised to maintain a constructive relationship with the MCB.
Finally, in their short, but moving presentations, Baroness Uddin of Bethnal Green and Lord Nazir Ahmed of Rotherham, the two Muslim members of the Upper House, welcomed the MCB initiative and hoped that they would be able to develop a reciprocal relationship with the Council to enable Muslim community concerns to be properly presented and redressed where necessary. Both felt happy that a solid institution like the MCB had finally emerged to enable them to press Muslim concerns with credibility and confidence.
Yusuf Islam, the treasurer of the MCB, in his concluding remarks whilst thanking all the participants for making the event a success appealed to the Muslim businessmen to make an all out effort and contribute towards making the Council into a thriving and vibrant body.