Campaigner against ‘The Satanic Verses’ defends himself, saying the book hurt ‘millions’

Editorial from The Times (London), Aug 26, 2014, “Counsel of Immoderation: The Muslim Council of Britain is not a responsible body for government to consult”

Conor Cruise O’Brien, the historian, was a redoubtable foe of what he termed “unilateral liberalism”. He identified this as a stance acutely sensitive to threats to liberty arising from actions by democratic states, but phlegmatic about threats to liberty from the enemies of those states.

Much of the debate on security policy for western democracies in the 21st century has been shaped by this type of unilateral liberalism. At the weekend, Theresa May, the home secretary, indicated a welcome tilt away from that position, in proposing to introduce new laws to target extremist Islamist preachers.

Mrs May is, however, now being criticised by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an umbrella group representing some 500 affiliated mosques and other Muslim associations. The MCB maintains that Mrs May has cold-shouldered them when they are playing their part in opposing political extremism. In reality, the MCB has much more to do to prove its good faith and its suitability for involvement in public policy to defeat the toxic influence of jihadist extremism. Till it does, Mrs May should ignore it.

The murder of James Foley, the American journalist, by Islamic State , apparently by a British national, has put a spotlight on the number of young Muslims from this country who are travelling overseas to take up arms. Mrs May is considering legislation to target Islamist organisations and preachers who express extremist and incendiary views while not themselves engaging in violence.

She is right to do this. Such figures as the radical preacher Anjem Choudary may appear buffoonish yet their words constitute incitement to violence. And British Muslims have an essential part to play in exposing the extremists within their community and dissuading people from joining them. It was on that premise that Tony Blair’s government sought to include the MCB in its strategies to oppose terrorism and Islamist extremism.

That was a well intentioned but mistaken policy. The MCB is no supporter of the jihadists and Dr Shuja Shafi, its secretary-general, made a forceful statement last week calling on British Muslims to help counter the forces of Islamic State. Yet it does have a history of stances that it needs to scrutinise, explain and recant.

Far from representing a moderate strand within the Muslim community, the MCB, founded in 1997, has extended affiliation to some highly dubious groups, with links to the radical Jamaat-e-Islami party in Pakistan. Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the MCB’s secretary-general till 2006, first came to public prominence in an inflammatory and threatening campaign against Sir Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses in the 1980s. During Sir Iqbal’s tenure at the MCB, the group’s assistant general secretary was Inayat Bunglawala, aptly characterised by Christopher Hitchens as a preposterous and sinister individual whose public pronouncements include the judgment that the media in Britain are “Zionist controlled”.

The previous Labour government broke relations with the MCB in 2009 for the good reason that one of the group’s senior members was a supporter of Hamas, the Palestinian terror group. The MCB may wish to be consulted by government but it has no right to expect it. It has a guaranteed place in the public square. It needs, however, to earn its place in public debate by the wisdom of its counsel. That has so far been lacking.

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Sacranie’s reply (Letter to the Editor, Aug 28, 2014)

Sir, You attack me for my role in the campaign against the Satanic Verses in the 1980s (leader, Aug 26). I reject any notion that I led “an inflammatory and threatening campaign” against the author of that book. The campaign was for the withdrawal of the profane book that had hurt millions of followers of a faith who had little recourse to defend themselves. It was conducted in a civil manner, despite worldwide outrage and the fatwa of the late Ayatollah.

I yield to no one in my opposition to extremism. I have been physically attacked by the very real extremists whom you mention. It is most unfortunate that you now cast me in the same light as these extremists.

Sir Iqbal Sacranie
New Malden, Surrey