Sunday, November 19, 2006

Newsnight's own-goal

While many of us may disagree with Hizb ut-Tahrir, the response must be through debate and argument, not innuendo.

Comment is free (article contains useful external links), Inayat Bunglawala

I have known about Hizb ut-Tahrir ("the party of liberation") since I left school for university in 1987. Its dedicated and earnest members were active at several London campuses trying to gain recruits among future British Muslim professionals.

Their message was simple, insistent and, to some, convincing: Muslim majority countries were in a backward condition due to a combination of incompetence on the part of their rulers and ruthless political and economic exploitation by western governments. They proposed that the creation of an Islamic super-state, the Caliphate, run by devout Muslims, would remedy these ills and help Muslims regain the respect they had lost in recent centuries.

For my part, I did not find their arguments attractive. I knew that HT were originally founded in Palestine in the early 1950s and that they were a minority presence in several Muslim countries and also now among Muslim communities in the west. But too often I found their members to be almost robotic replicas of each other: repeating identical verses of the Qur'an with the same narrow interpretation, showing no awareness of having studied the history of nations in any particular depth and having a rather black-and-white view of the world. Their call on British Muslims to refrain from participating in the UK's democratic system was - and is - to my mind, utterly self-defeating.

Last year, in the run up to the 2005 general election I participated in a debate in east London with Dr Imran Waheed, HT's media representative in the UK, in which I urged those present (several hundred youths) to fully participate in the British political process and pointed out that this was the recommendation of the overwhelming majority of UK Muslim scholars on the best way to protect our freedoms and work for the common good.

Just a couple of months later, in the aftermath of the July 7 bombings, when the prime minister vowed to ban HT, many Muslim organisations - despite their opposition to the group - opposed the ban.

So, I think what I am trying to say is that while many of us may disagree with HT's views and methodology, the way to respond must surely be by scrutinising HT's policies through debate and argument.

On Tuesday, Newsnight broadcast a dreadfully unfair and muddled report by Richard Watson which purported to show that HT were in reality encouraging their members to acts of criminality and tried to associate them with the encouragement of violence. If you haven't seen it yet, it is worth watching -
it is online here - to see the John Ware/Martin Bright school of filmmaking in action: plenty of insinuation and innuendo about wrongdoing on the part of HT; a dearth of any substantive facts. It was followed by Jeremy Paxman's interview with a representative of HT, Dr Abdul Wahid. Again, this is also worth watching, particularly for the quite understandable look of amazement on the HT rep's face at the dire quality of the Newsnight report.

Predictably, several tabloids picked up on the story the next day. The Daily Mail ran a front page story headlined "Fanatic at the Home Office" on the basis that Newsnight had found an alleged HT member who works as an IT officer in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. This man's photograph was printed in several newspapers. His actual crime? Nothing whatsoever, except that he was allegedly a member of HT. The Daily Telegraph reported that HT had 'infiltrated' the Home Office. In reality, HT members can be found working as Doctors, as teachers, accountants, you name it. They have to earn a living don't they?

The Daily Express said that the Home Office had made a "major security blunder". The London Evening Standard - which has become a very nasty Muslim-baiting paper since Veronica Wadley took over as editor from Max Hastings in 2002 - claimed, wrongly, that HT had "pledged to turn Britain into an Islamic state". Actually, HT's proposed super-state is only meant for Muslim-majority countries.

Thursday's Daily Mail seemed miffed that their attempt to get the Home Office employee sacked had not seemed to work: "Extremist at the Home Office will keep his job" was their headline this time. To many ordinary Muslims it will appear that it is rather the Newsnight team and various sections of the media that are indulging in extremism.

HT have responded to the Newsnight item on their website and have also vowed to distribute tens of thousands of leaflets discussing this episode outside mosques today after Friday prayers. I suspect that among those that will have watched Newsnight's report and read any of the subsequent media coverage, they will get a more sympathetic hearing than usual.

An own-goal, Newsnight.


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