British Muslims must stop the war

Ehsan Masood
29 August 2005

If the London bombs of July 2005 precipitated a severe bout of soul-searching among British Muslims, BBC reporter John Ware’s Panorama investigation of their community institutions, A Question of Leadership – shown on BBC 1 on 21 August – has added to their angst.

Email lists, websites, public meetings and dinner-table conversations are buzzing with questions: why did the BBC do what many regard as a hatchet-job on the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB); did Tony Blair’s government have something to do with it; did John Ware have an agenda to pursue; and is the ensuing publicity good news for the ever – threatened flagship documentary series Panorama?

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust . He has also written on openDemocracy:

“The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation”

The questions are too large for a single article, but one thing is clear: the combination of these longer-term tensions and the short-term crisis provoked by the London attacks have created among British Muslims a mood of serious introspection. In coming to this story from a particular journalistic angle, John Ware may indeed have allowed some of his own assumptions to frame the film, but the story he discovered and presented has a basis in real events.

There is a war being fought at the heart of British Islam. Indeed, it has been waged since the mid-1970s when the first British Muslim community institutions were being established. It shadowed the evolution of these institutions in the 1980s; it persisted beneath the surface of the Rushdie affair in 1989; it continued during the discussions and consultations that led from the National Interim Committee on Muslim Affairs (Nicmu) in the mid-1990s to the formation of the Muslim Council of Britain in 1997. Its current manifestation is a conflict between the founders of the MCB (an organisation of 150 affiliates at its formation, which now gathers more than 250 under its umbrella) and those who chose not to join the body at its launch.

On a global scale, the basis for disagreement between the two camps is relatively minor. But each side is so entrenched in its position that relations have become bitter and personal. Two of the principal players, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the businessman secretary-general of the MCB and Fuad Nahdi, an experienced journalist and founding publisher of the British Muslim magazine Q-News, are no longer on speaking terms.

Why is there so much anger? What is the basis for the dispute? Why isn’t it out in the open so audiences (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) can make up their own minds? And could it one day end?

A faith of currents

British Sunni Islam is divided into many different sects, camps and groups. John Ware is right to point out that two of the broadest divisions are what can loosely be termed “Sufi” (often referred to as “Traditional Islam”) and “non-Sufi” (often called “Revivalist Islam”). The MCB’s members broadly come from outside the Sufi tradition. By contrast, the staff, publishers and supporters of Q-News are almost invariably committed Sufis, as is the American Muslim evangelist (and convert) who features prominently as a doctrinal point of reference in the magazine’s pages, Hamza Yusuf.

It can be forgotten, amidst endless talk of the rise of Islamism (or of political Islam), that possibly a majority of the world’s Muslims are inspired by (or may even be members of) Sufi orders. In practice this means they will be attached to a recognised teacher – a Sheikh (Arabic) or Pir (Urdu) – who dispenses to them lifelong guidance on personal and professional issues.

Some of the most effective Sufi teachers approximate to personal life-coaches, providing one-to-one emotional support, counselling and advice; though there is no element of compulsion in following their suggestions. They are often highly educated professionals who, in addition, have first-rate people skills.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are those who abuse the position of authority that comes with being a Sufi teacher. Britain’s Urdu-language newspapers, for example, are full of classified advertisements from Pirs who claim miracle powers from God, and promise to solve a myriad of requests, from passing exams to finding the love of your life – all for an appropriate fee. Others have a strong emotional hold on their followers, who find it difficult to take major decisions without the endorsement of their teacher.

Like many aspects of British Islam, the nature and impact of Sufism is mostly hidden from the public. It has not been studied or researched to any great depth; and no equivalent of British Sufi trade unions or professional bodies with agreed standards and codes of conduct exist to guarantee, regulate, monitor and sanction. This is a legal and professional black hole.

Such aspects of Sufism worry non-Sufi Muslims, who see them as an aberration from their interpretation of Islam. A further doctrinal difference is even more important: non-Sufis see the very idea of attachment to a Sufi teacher as an attempt to impose a clerical hierarchy on Sunni Muslims, where none can exist. Non-Sufi, Sunni Muslims tend to believe that they can learn the faith through books, lectures, seminars, workshops, or by more regular visits to the mosque.

Sufis, for their part, also accept that reading books or logging onto websites can convey didactic information about Islam; but they believe that true insightin matters of faith, including anything to do with matters of the spirit and the soul, needs human contact with people who are acknowledged to be both knowledgeable and wise. They point out that Sufi authority is transmitted via an established, historically-grounded hierarchy: teachers can give advice only when they have received permission to do so from their own teachers, who belong to a lineage that traces itself from the first generations of Muslims.

Sufis also regard the other side as being austere, devoid of an appreciation of culture and enjoyment, and preoccupied to an unhealthy degree with political power and control (all well-founded judgments). For them, one of the more worrying aspects of the MCB is that its more influential affiliates all have theological roots in anti-Sufi Islamism, drawing inspiration from people – such as the Pakistani Islamist Abul A’la Maududi or Egypt’s Hassan al – Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood – who actively campaigned against what for their part they saw as Sufi authoritarianism. These affiliates include organisations like the Muslim Association of Britain, the UK Islamic Mission and the Islamic Society of Britain


In contrast to the MCB’s significant public profile – its leaders and spokespersons are widely quoted and interviewed in the media, and consulted by government and police – Britain’s Sufis (like their counterparts abroad) have been relatively invisible, largely through their own choice: they do not formally identity themselves as Sufi, nor divulge the identity of Sheikhs and their followers to those outside specific Sufi orders.

The emergence of a more networked world makes such secrecy increasingly hard to sustain, and already many Sufi orders (or their followers) maintain websites advertising their identity and beliefs. In addition, Sufis are becoming much readier to debate with Islamists and with those (like myself) who are neither Sufi nor Islamist, yet who want to see a happier accommodation between Islam, pluralism, and other aspects of modern life.

A shared ground

For all that divides them, Q-News (and British Sufis more generally) and the MCB’s affiliates have five things in common:

First, both are highly literalist in their reading of the Qur’an. They feel (for the most part) little need to read the book in its historical context, and view each and every word as relevant for all peoples and for all time to come.

Second, both are strongly committed to the idea that a single, faith-based identity is more important for Muslims than any other type of descriptive label.

Third, both adhere strongly to the idea of umma – though more as a supranational network of believers than as a physical Islamic caliphate of the sort advocated by Hizb – ut – Tahrir.

Fourth, both share a worrying sympathy for censorship of views they find uncomfortable.

Fifth, both are genuinely struggling to come to terms with modernity and to understand how to handle difference and pluralism within Islam, as well as between Muslims and the world around them.

In light of this large area of agreement or at least affinity, could the two camps seek common purpose, or at least agree to disagree? Pakistan, a region where the Sufi/Islamist dispute has deep and often violent roots, may provide some clues. Sufis (represented by the

Also in openDemocracy on British Muslims’ problems, concerns and divisions:

Mohammed Sajid, “The gap between us”

Maruf Khwaja, “Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures”

”What happened? What changed? What now?” – a transcript of the 21 July meeting in London co-hosted by openDemocracy and Q-News

Abdul Wahid, “Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s distinction ”

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

A divided territory

This entrenchment of difference in Britain means that the war is likely to go on for the foreseeable future at least, as each side tries to cultivate new friends and win influence among those who count in government and public institutions.

The MCB and its network of specialist committees are in the lead in political terms; the organisation has cultivated good access to individual government departments, to the office of Tony Blair, and (with an eye on a possible change of political leadership) to the office of his chancellor and likely successor Gordon Brown. MCB members regularly meet with ministers and civil servants and are able to influence many aspects of public policy (the proposed law against incitement to religious hatred is just one example).

The Sufis, however, are ahead in media terms. A few (such as Fuad Nahdi of Q-News) are themselves talented and accomplished journalists, which in itself carries a lot of weight among reporters and editors. The mature understanding of many more Sufis of how the modern press in a plural society works has helped them to nurture good media relationships. Indeed, this contrast in sophistication is very evident in their respective contributions to the Panorama controversy among Sufis and non-Sufis.

The difference can be highlighted by seeing the MCB’s approach to the media as similar to that of “New” Labour both in opposition and in government: control and complain. When it heard that Panorama was planning a film about British Muslim leadership, the MCB’s first reflex would have been to try and exercise some control over the film’s editorial line; when that failed, it would try to mobilise its affiliates to bombard the BBC with emails complaining of bias and unfair treatment; once the programme was broadcast, it would seek a promise of some kind of “redress” from the BBC (at the very least, a slot on BBC Radio 4’s Feedback programme).

The Sufis are more subtle and proactive. For example, while the MCB’s representatives recorded their views to camera, the other side wisely chose to brief the BBC team – extensively, but off the record. With few MCB critics on camera, Ware had no choice but to use their information in his own narrative and in his own questions.

The Sufi strategy here is routine among public-relations professionals who advise clients involved in public controversies. The thinking is that if you represent a particular position in a controversy, the public is more likely to believe you if your views can be “embedded” in the measured cadences of a reporter rather than represented by the more polemical utterances of (say) a male Muslim wearing a long beard.

Most viewers would see the result, the Panorama documentary, as representing impartial journalism not partisan activism.

Panorama’s John Ware correctly identified a war being fought at the heart of British Islam. The problem – if you agree that there is one – is not just in the evidence it collected, but that the reporter seems to be firing some of the ammunition collected and supplied by one side for use against the other. The MCB’s media committee is no doubt planning to build on its response of 20 August and widen its range of targets. It would be far wiser to hold its fire; and even hold out an olive branch to its Muslim opponents. The internecine war between two of the most influential groups in British Islam problems has gone far enough. After July 2005, we all need to raise our sights.

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