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Islam and the voice of reason

By Anne Simpson.
14 August 1999
The Herald, Glasgow

FACE TO FACE with Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui

Next to a bookie’s office on Fulham Palace Road, there is a nondescript entrance to the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain. Inside, the stairs are dark and narrow, and the tiny rooms seem shrunken by too many filing cabinets and over-burdened shelves. No grandeur, then, but a sense of crammed activity and agitated causes. The notice board is dominated by Kosovo images, and on top of a cabinet the muffled spin of an electric fan inadequately cools the heated matter of the day. For Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the Parliament’s leader, things have been even busier than usual. In Yemen, the verdict on the Aden Eight has just been announced bringing with it requests for Siddiqui, in London, to give radio interviews, produce press releases, take frantic calls from the British Muslim families involved, to step up freedom pressure by the Foreign Office.

The aim, at the very least, he says, is to see the men returned to this country for a retrial. “Let the Yemenis allow the British police and judiciary to go through the evidence which they claim proves these boys were planning a terrorist campaign in that country.” Siddiqui urges this with the ingrained anxiety of a man who knows he and his colleagues are up against the political battalions. “What we are after is fairness. If they are guilty, then we will accept that, but everyone knows there has been a terrible travesty of justice in this case, and that is at the very core of the issue.”

Meanwhile, the men themselves are proving a cussed embarrassment to the FO and Yemeni officials who insist that a deal for their release was on the cards if they had accepted the verdict.

But since the Britons rejected that option, they now face months, maybe even years, waiting in the Hades of an Aden prison for their appeals to be heard. “They have always protested their innocence and said their ‘confessions’ were extracted under duress, and we have always supported them in that, just as we support their latest decision,” says Siddiqui. “If these men are not allowed to clear their names, their future in Britain is also ruined.” Nor would this be an isolated consequence. In Siddiqui’s opinion, such is the virulent strain of Islamophobia in this country that a law-abiding community would simply feel it, too, had been criminalised.

“The Foreign Office said all along that it would only intervene when the verdicts were known. We are now at that point, and any failure on its part to act will just give the signal that the human rights of British Muslims are not deemed important.” As it is, there is already a sense of grievance arising from the case of two British nurses convicted of a colleague’s murder in Saudi Arabia. Tony Blair actually went to Riyadh to plead on their behalf, but the most he is said to have done for the Aden Eight is to write letters demanding their torture allegations be properly investigated. “In fact, we have said all along that we are willing to co-operate with anyone who has evidence of any terrorist activity within our community. But even the British police have announced they have no proof of wrong-doing by these boys.”

The Muslim Parliament, an informal lobby established in 1992, was asked early on by relatives of the Eight to mobilise support, and Siddiqui also spent three weeks in Yemen, observing the bulk of the trial. There is no doubt whatever in his mind that the men are innocent. Yet, even accepting that the trial was widely condemned as a mockery, how can he be so certain that the convictions were wrong? One of the men is the stepson of Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri, the London cleric who leads the extremist Supporters of Sharia, while the name and mobile phone number of another were given on the Internet, listing him as Sharia’s information officer. “Look, Jack Straw’s son was linked to drugs. Did that implicate his parents? No. But in the past few days some of the media have been saying that Muslims should come forward to stop the nutters among us from training recruits. Well, there are no such training camps here. Anyone who thinks they know otherwise should provide the evidence to some human rights organisation and the police, and let them examine it.”

Right from the beginning Siddiqui says he knew the Aden trial was politically motivated. “Perhaps the boys were foolish to go to Yemen at an emotive time. They were arrested there on Christmas Eve, and in December America and Britain were bombing Iraq.” Siddiqui says that somehow word got out that the Yemenis were negotiating a deal to allow the Americans the use of Aden’s port to facilitate the raids. “This really infuriated people there, and you will remember that before the men were held, a group of Western tourists were hijacked by fundamentalists.” In the Yemeni government’s bungled attempt at rescue, four of the hostages were killed, and Siddiqui is among those who believe that as a result of the tragedy enormous pressure was on that government to come up with something to restore its credibility. The “Discovery” of an international conspiracy to destabilise Yemen and its renewed detente with Britain, perfectly fitted the bill.

“The only evidence the court had was the men’s confessions which had been extracted through torture, and when I said this to various people out there they looked astonished that I should even mention it because for them that was the regrettable norm. We met the editor of the Yemen Times, who said: “Look, three times I have been arrested, so everything you say, I know. This is the unfortunate way things operate here.”

Unelected and unofficial, the Muslim Parliament consists of delegates from different sectors of the British Muslim population and acts both as lobby and conscious-raising platform. “During the Rushdie crisis over The Satanic Verses, it became very obvious to a group of us that the community was not prepared or ready to counter the demonising of Islam. Much of our society here is still very tribal, and we had no philosophers, no journalists who could really articulate why Rushdie’s book was so offensive. In fact, no people in the media at all, and hardly anyone who could face the camera.

“That really shook us, and then, of course, the news came that our children were doing very badly in schools, drifting into drugs, crime and gang warfare. So the realisation came that we had to have a vehicle for debate where everybody would be represented, and a means of lobbying for solutions.” Funding comes from the community itself and over the past seven years the organisation has operated its own loans systems to help at least 300 students through higher education. But the name parliament is surely misleading? “Well, we intended to call ourselves something like the Council for British Muslims, but the press, in writing about us in the first instance, described us as a parliament, and it just stuck.”

The argument against such a platform, of course, is that it reinforces, rather than eradicates, a ghetto mentality. For instance, Siddiqui says that at present the aim is not so much to encourage Muslims to stand for the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments, or the Welsh Assembly, but for them to organise themselves collectively outside the political system. That way, he claims, they are in a stronger position to negotiate Muslim interests with whichever party responds best, and thus offer it a bloc vote. It’s an old tactic which the trade unions, and indeed the Establishment, once used very effectively. But is it a wise move for a multi-national culture in transition?

Siddiqui, married with four children and resident here since 1965 after arriving from Pakistan to study chemical engineering, doesn’t see it as a retrogressive step. “You must understand that most of our people in Britain came originally from villages, and while the younger generation feels itself totally integrated, that has created tensions with some of their elders who still have to be encouraged. We have to say to them: “You live here physically. You must live here mentally as well.” To this end the Muslim Parliament, last month, took the radical step of condemning forced marriages within the community, making it clear that they were not valid under Muslim law and that sexual relations in such circumstances amounted to rape.

It was an explosive decision but Siddiqui has no intention of muting the issue. “Marriage is a social contract in Islam and cannot be made without the freely given consent of both parties. But for too long we have allowed silence to provide the false shield of religion for this cruel practice. Now, however, there is a real feeling that we must end something which is not just unlawful but inhuman. In fact, none of the religious scholars we consulted has claimed our stand is wrong.” Indeed, on this subject the parliament has been ahead of the Government which last week announced an inquiry into forced marriages, thought to involve more than 1000 people a year in Britain. An independent working party, chaired jointly by the Bangladesh-born Baroness Uddin, and the businessman, Lord Almed, will now consult widely with the 1 million-strong Asian population, but the real spur to the campaign was the meeting last May between the Home Office Minister, Mike O’Brien, and a Bradford couple who have been in hiding for six years after receiving alleged death threats from the wife’s family because of her refusal to marry a cousin in Pakistan.

That case is not untypical of those also reaching Siddiqui in a desperate bid for help. But for those already trapped, the crusade against such lonely unions carries a painful corollary: “It is logical, Siddiqui says, that the children born of a forced relationship are illegitimate under Islamic law.

So the resolution of one problem may, for many, impose another. Yet that itself would count as nothing if mutual tolerance came as easily as breathing.




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