Delivered by Osama Saeed at an event on Preventing Violent Extremism as part of Edinburgh’s Festival of Spirituality and Peace – 17th August 2009 at St John’s Church
Ladies and gentlemen, we face a threat from Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism. Government strategy has varied on this over the years from emphasising the role of Islam, to taking Islam out of the lexicon completely.
There have been witchhunts at various times against people termed Islamists. I have been labelled as such on occasion by a coterie and so has the organisation I work for. I reject such a description of my politics. As far as the SIF is concerned, I wouldn’t even term it a Muslim organisation, much less an Islamist one.
We exist to build bridges, in a Scotland where half the people view Muslims as a threat, and a world which is said to be engaged in a clash of civilisations. We’re not a think-tank, and like to think of ourselves as more of a do-tank. For the young Muslims that are involved in the organisation, we wanted our generation to stop complaining, and instead set up a platform to ply our energies into.
Since launching last year SIF has taken on projects tackling poverty at home and tried to get Muslims to take climate change more seriously. We’ve not been afraid to be critical of Muslims. We’ve called for action against forced marriage and we condemned young Muslims for vandalising an Edinburgh synagogue. We will soon be initiating a drive for more Muslims to register as organ donors.
We are running a Future Leaders programme which is equipping young Muslims with the confidence and contacts to get ahead in the mainstream of society. Some of them have been involved in Etisal, the trade expo we are organising to build investment links between here and the Gulf, Turkey and Malaysia in particular. We’ll also be delivering Salaam Scotland, a cultural festival of art, music, literature and film that will allow Scots to sample a side of Islam they don’t normally experience, but which we also hope will encourage and inspire the emergence a cultural expression from Scottish Muslims which has hitherto been lacking. Already as a result we’ve seen young Muslims mixing it with some of the cream of the business and cultural communities.
We’ve got no interest in Islamism. The only time we’ve had to think about this is when the accusation has been put at us by people with a right-wing agenda who don’t want to see Muslims doing well. My view on organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood is that we should not be transplanting Eastern complexes into a British and Scottish context.
Without getting overly defensive about it, there are many non-Muslims who have watched me grow up. If I was anything other than a liberal I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am today. Instead, amazingly, often these people are even portrayed as dupes to a sinister agenda.
My views have certainly developed over the years though. I’m still in my twenties, my ideas have moved on and there are things that I said, emphasised and believed years ago that I wouldn’t and don’t now. This is the same with most people. Dare I say it, people are a bit more “radical” in their youth.
My open challenge to right wing critics that like to throw these labels of “Islamist” about is to prove it isn’t just a fig-leaf for attacking Muslims who have a different view of foreign policy to them. They can’t stomach a Muslim who was strongly opposed to the Iraq war, without finding some way of attacking them.
This is not a minor point. Free expression is rightly guarded for all in society. This does not seem to be the same for antiwar Muslims. For young Muslims angered by foreign policy, dissent through democratic channels is essential. The alternative is to bottle up energies through potentially dangerous sources on the internet. The kind of McCarthyism that pervades on Muslims has led to a climate of fear where individuals and organisations are now afraid of putting their heads above the parapet on what are key causes of terror. If the purpose of these critics is to counter terrorism, they are in fact achieving the opposite.
Other critics are undoubtedly pursuing a racist agenda using Islam as a cloak for it. Others still, hate Islam and right now it is open season.
These cheap attacks are easy to effect. Muslims are guilty until proven innocent in the court of the media. This is by operating the Muslim version of “Are you still beating your wife?” questions. Though in our case, “Are you still beating your four burqa-clad wives?” The very fact that this cloud hangs over people with next to no basis is completely unacceptable. Charles Moore claimed last year in the Daily Telegraph that I supported suicide bombing because I used the phrase “martyrdom operations” once in my life. The Telegraph defended him. A quick search of the Telegraph’s own pages shows they’ve actually used the phrase plenty of times. One rule for them, another for a Muslim.
The BBC once got in touch about something objectionable that a speaker at one of our events had said. They didn’t seem to find it absurd that not only had he said nothing untoward at our event, the comments in question were actually made months later, and on the BBC!
Too much is made of who is talking to who and where. Agreement with one set of another Muslim’s opinions is taken as wholesale acceptance of anything they ever say both previously and even in the future. We’ve had people from different faiths at our events, and different party political persuasions. It’s immature to think we can agree with everything they all say and believe, particularly when they’ve not even said it on our platforms. Much is made of what organisations I used to be part of, without pause for thought that I actually did leave them.
Whatever I say, for some kooks and conspiracy theorists, particularly on the internet, it is never going to be enough. Robert Wilensky said that “We’ve all heard it said that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the internet, we know this is not true.” Some of these people, and in one case someone who didn’t even feel the need to cloak his prejudice under anonymity on the internet, believe that I am ‘lying for Islam’. They will never be convinced.
But in any case, for the record, my view is that the debate on Islamism is irrelevant. In any state, most laws are going to be man made. Very little is actually stipulated by the Quran, and this is the problem with groups like Al-Muhajiroun that want to set up Islamic states. Take the burning debates in Scotland. How we get out of the economic crisis, tackle climate change, public or private investment into public services, and whether we should be independent to take a few examples. Action on these is not dictated chapter and verse in our Holy Book. This will always be the case and needs people to determine the best course of action.
These people should have clear accountability to the people they govern. My only concern with the politics of the Muslim world is not who should be in power now or once elections are established, but to make sure elections are established in the first place. For the people to determine the course of their country, and choose the leaders who represent their principles and policies.
For those that want more of an Islamic character to society, this is not a political issue. It is properly aimed at the social and moral fabric of society and can only be achieved by reasoned argument and popular acceptance. Islamic character is a private affair of the heart and can only be won by appeals to those hearts, not force.
The level of freedom and human rights available in the Muslim world will ultimately determine our safety here. Open dissent and vibrant societies there will drain the swamp and grievance from which Al-Qaeda’s ideas can flourish. This requires a shift in our foreign policy away from alliances of short-term self-interest in the Muslim world. This has got to end.
Democracy in the Muslim world. There’s a radical idea I can support.