Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)

16 NOVEMBER 2004


  Q100 Chairman: Good afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you very much indeed for coming this afternoon. Unfortunately, one of the witnesses, Jagdeesh Singh, has not found his way here as yet but I hope he will join us before the session extends too far. As you know, this is the second hearing of the Committee into the impact of terrorism on community relations. We did also hold a one-off hearing last summer about the use of police stop and search powers and we will be taking that into account in our report. I wonder if briefly each of the witnesses could introduce themselves for the record and explain the position they hold in each organisation they are from.

  Mr Whine: Michael Whine, defence director of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a director of the Community Security Trust.

  Mr Grunwald: Henry Grunwald, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

  Mr Khan: Sadiq Khan, chair of the legal affairs committee of the Muslim Council of Britain.

  Mr Sofi: Khalid Sofi, vice-chair, legal affairs committee of the Muslim Council of Britain.

  Q101 Chairman: Can I start by asking each of the organisations a fairly general question? What is your own assessment of what has happened to social cohesion in this country since international terrorism achieved such a high profile on 9/11 and then obviously the subsequent events in Bali and Madrid?

  Mr Grunwald: We are very grateful for the opportunity of coming along to give oral evidence to you this afternoon. We are concerned about the effects of the incidents that you have mentioned on social cohesion, on relations between the faith communities. We as the Jewish community are committed to maintaining good relations and we do all that we can to ensure that problems that might impact from other parts of the world do not get in the way of maintaining those good relations here. It is probably right to say that there have been divisions amongst faith communities since 9/11. The Jewish community has felt particularly apprehensive and concerned. We, as I am sure some of your members will know, have had to increase the security measures at many of our communal buildings, synagogues and schools, although unfortunately we have become all too used to living in one sense in a fortress condition because we have had to have security at our synagogues, our schools and our buildings for a long time now. There is no doubt that there has been an increased need for that since 9/11 and since the threats from international terrorism have grown.

  Mr Khan: There is in a perverse way a positive result as well as a negative one. In positive terms, there has been greater inter-faith dialogue and working relations post the incidents you referred to previously. It has also led to mature discussions within communities and good relations being built with the government and respective Parliaments. It has led to better relations than we have had hitherto with the police, a dialogue with the security services, more open systems of accountability with various bodies, so there has definitely been a positive side to the horrific incidents you referred to. On the negative side, as far as we in particular are concerned, quite clearly there has been a well documented increase in criminal acts against the visible Muslim community and those who get mistaken as Muslims as well in the UK post 9/11. Islamophobia is on the rise and there is clearly a link between reprisals and other incidents. There has also been the impact of some of the terrorist legislation on the perception in the Muslim community about the way they are policed and the relationship they have with the authorities. There is both a positive and a negative consequence of the things you talked about.

  Q102 Chairman: What would you say were the reasons where there has been a rise in tensions for that rise to take place? At the previous evidence session two types of phenomena were described to us. One was the impact of what government and the police had done and the other was the influence of groups active in the community. Sometimes accusations were pointed at particular faith groups who were seen to be responsible for aggressive actions against another faith group. Far right organisations were also blamed for being active in that way. In your own assessment, where would you say the balance of problem lay, where there has been a problem, between the things the government has been responsible for causing or for doing and those that have been other members of the community, other community organisations or other community groups?

  Mr Khan: Our starting point is a recognition that there is a positive duty on the government to look after its citizens. We think that is only right. You will be aware—I have some copies with me—that the MCB produced a rights and responsibilities card which recognises and understands the responsibilities on the government. As far as the rise in tension is concerned, there are two issues. One is the real concern about a community feeling they are being targeted rightly or wrongly by legislation passed by a government seeking to protect it, especially in the context that victims of terrorism are likely to be Muslims in this country, Bali, Istanbul or elsewhere. You know of the increase in stop and searches in the Muslim community. You know of those who are detained indefinitely and what their faith is. You know also the disparity between the figures for those who have been arrested and the very small number of convictions. Out of 14 convictions, only three are of the Islamic faith. There are issues regarding actions of the Government/police. As far as community activities are concerned, we have seen far right groups being far more sophisticated than they ever have been before. We have seen on the BNP website and in the language used by far right groups targeting of Muslims as opposed to what has historically been the case: ethnic minorities, blacks and Jews to an extent. I am not suggesting that anti-Semitism is on the decrease but the BNP is now far more sophisticated, as are far right groups, than they have been. You will be aware that the government is trying to close the loopholes with regard to far right groups who use the English language deliberately so they are inciting hatred against persons associated with the Islamic faith but not inciting hatred against a race. Up until recently, the duties that exist on public authorities against discrimination in the provision of goods and services existed to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race but not on the grounds of religion which was a real problem with regard to the police and immigration services. That loophole also is going to be closed with, hopefully, an announcement in the Queen's Speech.

  Mr Grunwald: Our concerns are not so much against any actions of the Government that might have heightened tension. The concerns of the Jewish community are really coming from threats that have been made—let me be specific—by al-Qaeda to attack Jews anywhere in the world. That is not just an inchoate threat, an unfulfilled threat. The concerns of our community in relation to terrorism are real and stem from attacks that there have been in Djerba in April 2002, in Casablanca in May 2003, in Istanbul just over a year ago—the one year anniversary has just passed of the attack on the synagogue—and foiled attacks on Jewish targets in Berlin and Düsseldorf in September of last year. Because the threats have been made and carried out elsewhere, there has been a heightened concern and apprehension here that the same thing will happen to this community. That has nothing to do with the acts of our Government. We welcome what the Government does to deal with the threat from terrorism.

  Q103 Chairman: Would it be fair to say that your main concern, as far as the Board of Deputies is concerned, is about organised international terrorism of that sort rather than what might be described as more random acts by individuals who think they are following the same philosophy but are acting as individuals in local communities and have a deep strand of anti-Semitism?

  Mr Grunwald: There are two separate issues. There is the international threat which is of concern to us and the concern that some British citizens might be caught up in those threats and therefore carry out attacks on Jewish targets in this country. The second issue, I suppose, is the other one that you refer to and that is the increase in anti-Semitism which we refer to in our submission. We have given you the figures for recent years. We are not at the end of this year and the figures for this year will not come out until some time next year because we collate and check them very carefully, but it looks as if there has been a continuing increase in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic incidents here this year. Those are carried out by people from within British society. Whether they have any proper place in British society is another question. They are not necessarily just random acts. It is nice to think that somebody just wakes up in the morning and decides, "I am going to carry out something." Our concern is that it is more than that. We do not point the finger at any particular community. We have concerns obviously about far right anti-Semitism. We also have concerns about some elements from within the Muslim community, not the Muslim community as a whole. We have no doubt that the Muslim community as a whole want nothing more than to live their lives in this country in peace as British citizens, enjoying good relations with the rest of us, but there are some groups which are fed by anti-Semitic literature and material that comes into this country from abroad. There is real concern that that feeding leads and has led to the increase in anti-Semitic incidents.

  Q104 Chairman: Mr Khan, you have been very forthright as the Muslim Council in condemning terrorism, al-Qaeda and those groups. Mr Grunwald is perhaps describing a wider group of people who are not organised as part of the al-Qaeda network but who may within the Muslim community as a small minority of it advocate an extremist point of view in relation to Jewish people. Do you acknowledge that as an issue or a problem and how big a problem do you think it is for your community as a whole?

  Mr Khan: Anti-Semitic attacks?

  Q105 Chairman: Yes, the extent to which that is coming from sections of the Muslim community. It may not be in any organisational way or tied to al-Qaeda.

  Mr Khan: I think you would need to be wearing blinkers not to recognise that there is an issue, especially on campuses. I do some work with an organisation called Alif-Aleph which is trying to foster really good relations between those of the Muslim and Jewish faiths on campuses. We recognise there has been a problem on campuses with some of the bigotry you are talking about. We continue to seek to work with various communities. Anti-Semitism is a problem for us as well. Nobody likes citizens being verbally or physically abused but I think it is unfair to blame an entire faith for the actions of some members. Just like I would not dare to say that all whites are racist murderers because of the Stephen Lawrence killing, nor can it be fair to hold Muslim organisations to account for the stupid actions of people who follow the Muslim faith on campuses.

  Q106 David Winnick: In the evidence that your organisation has given to us on page 15 there is a rather kind reference to the cleric whose visit to this country was and remains the subject of a good deal of controversy. You know who I am referring to.

  Mr Khan: Yes. You referred to him last time I was here as well.

  Q107 David Winnick: He was quoted on Qatar TV as saying the following: "Oh God, deal with your enemies, the enemies of Islam. Oh God, deal with the usurpers and oppressors and tyrannical Jews. Oh God, deal with the plotters and rancorous crusaders". Say someone was trying to come from Israel who made the same sort of remarks about the Islam religion. Would we want such a person in our country as a visitor?

  Mr Khan: This dialogue is taking place at the moment. You will probably have seen it in the letters page of The Guardian and there is a debate about the balancing exercise between the rights and responsibilities of freedom of speech that we have in this country and the importance of having an open dialogue. I cannot comment on the specific quote you have given but there is a consensus among Islamic scholars that Mr Al-Qardawi is not the extremist that he is painted as being by selective quotations from his remarks. If there was a concern that his entry to the UK would not be conducive to the public good and would lead to public disorder, the Home Secretary has the right to have an exclusion order placed on him to prevent him coming into the UK. The reality is that this man has been to the UK on more than 25 occasions in the last X years and we know the Home Secretary has used his power, for example, to exclude many others from the UK on that premise. If it is good enough for the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London to allow him into the UK, I am not going to have a theological debate about selective quotes that he may or may not have said in the particular context, but what I do know, for example, is in a very long interview he gave to the BBC a few months ago a 15 second snippet was used to try and demonise him. I cannot defend him. It is for him to defend himself, but it does not help foster an open relationship if you are selecting quotes to do with what this man may or may not have said.

  Q108 David Winnick: Does it help race relations for someone to be welcomed into this country who, as far as I know, has not denied saying what I quoted a moment ago? All religions have extremists. I have read one or two comments from rabbis in Israel which to me are equally disgusting as the remarks of this person. My question is if someone, an Israeli cleric, rabbi or whatever, a scholar as he may be, had made those remarks about the Islam religion and about Muslims, would we not be right in trying to prevent such a person from coming into our country, whatever the Home Secretary of the day may or may not wish to do?

  Mr Khan: If you want to use a hypothetical example, the answer is yes, of course. We have a real life example of what happened in this particular case and it went through both the Mayor of London, upon whom there is a positive duty under the Race Relations Act to foster good relations, and the Home Secretary. I think it is unfair for the MCB to be held to account for actions taken by the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London. There is a consensus amongst Islamic scholars that this man is not the extremist he is painted to be by certain quarters.

  Q109 Mr Clappison: There are issues where you and the Jewish community would have a common interest in putting forward the same points of view. It seems clear there is also a need for leadership within both communities in the light of some of the things which we have heard about and to try and give a good lead to the sort of elements which you were describing, who are not representing the Muslim community. Do you have meetings at a high level between the Muslim Council and the Board of Deputies?

  Mr Khan: We have regular, quarterly meetings. I am not at those meetings but my understanding is that we have bilateral meetings on a regular basis.

  Mr Whine: We have been meeting the Muslim Council for some time, although our relationship is a little bit fractured as a consequence of international events, but there are any number of venues and means by which we are meeting—that is, the Board of Deputies and representatives of the Muslim community, both of a bilateral nature like our joint meetings with the MCB, and through multilateral organisations of which we are both members.

  Q110 Mr Clappison: You mentioned certain tensions which there have been but when was the last time there was a meeting between the two leaderships?

  Mr Grunwald: It is several months ago. We have been trying to fix a date for a meeting now for several months. We are waiting for suggested dates to come to us from the Muslim Council. There ought to be more frequent and regular meetings and at those meetings we ought to agree to differ on certain issues on which we are never going to reach agreement but there is a whole range of issues on which we can and ought to work together. The will is certainly there on our part. Mike has referred to a slightly fractured relationship and, if I can pick up on what Mr Winnick has said in relation to the visit made by Al-Qardawi, we felt—and we were not the only group that felt—that this was not a man who should be given a public platform in the way that he was. A whole coalition of moderate Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs have been seeking to meet the Mayor of London to discuss this visit. So far he has not agreed to such a meeting taking place. When we raised our concerns at the time of the visit, we were a little upset at being accused of being the Zionist lobby in calling for this man not to be given a public platform in the way that he was. We were called that by the Muslim Council. The relationship is a bit fractured. I would like to see it mended. I would like to see it healthy because I think it is important not only for our individual communities; it is important for British society that we work together on all those issues where we can.

  Q111 Mr Clappison: I understand entirely the desire to have spiritual leadership and also to exercise freedom of speech that we all enjoy but, without going into particular quotes, when a coalition like that comes together representing different issues, is that something you would be prepared to reflect on?

  Mr Khan: A spin on a coalition is not quite a coalition. Let us not get into how big or moderate a coalition is. As far as our relations with other faiths are concerned, in addition to the meetings that are had where there are many other faiths present, we also have regular meetings with the Hindu Forum. That is very relevant on issues in Kashmir and tensions there. Problems that occur overseas should stay overseas and we have regular contacts. We are seeking to start meetings with the leader of the Sikh community, although that has not happened yet. In addition, we have good relations with the churches. We are giving joint submissions on issues to do with religious hatred and other issues as well. We are working with the CTBI [Churches Together in Britain and Ireland] and other committees so it would be unfair to leave you with the impression that we are some sort of isolationist group that does not meet with our brothers and sisters from other faiths and those who are not in our faith. For example, we work with the inter-faith network and there is the work that the DTI is doing on the issues of Equality and the Human Rights Commission. I do not want to leave you with the impression that the hand is put out by other faiths and is not being taken by us. We meet regularly with other communities. I am afraid I am not senior enough to meet with the board in the MCB so I cannot give personal experience.

  Q112 Mr Clappison: There is one other avenue I would like to explore with you on that arising out of the evidence we heard last week. As you may know, Gerry Gable gave evidence to us and he was talking about the aftermath of 9/11. Like him, I was very concerned after 9/11 that there would be attacks upon the Muslim community. He told us that after 9/11, in his experience, whilst undoubtedly there were tensions and problems for the community, there was not the rise in attacks which perhaps we might have thought there would be. You may have some views on that. What he did say was that there were increases in attacks on the Jewish community following 9/11 and some of the propaganda which came into the country. Have you any reflections on that and on the question of leadership to lead people away from that sort of attack?

  Mr Khan: I think it is all documented that there has been an increase in anti-Semitic attacks. There is also quite clear evidence that there has also been an increase in Islamophobic attacks on the visible Muslim community and that includes Sikhs and Hindus as well because obviously if somebody is going to attack you they do not ask whether you are a Muslim, a Hindu or a Sikh. There have been quite a few attacks on mosques, attacks to human bodies, cemeteries and all sorts of other examples. There are really good examples of police forces, local police commanders and communities working in partnership to prevent reprisal attacks. Where I live in Tooting we had a really good example of the local police showing leadership at the local council and the local mosque straight after 9/11. There was high visibility policing outside the mosque, up and down Tooting High Street, and advice given by the police on how to check bins near the mosque because of the experience of the David Copeland incident, where to place CCTV cameras and all the rest of it. I am afraid there has been an increase in Islamophobic incidents and, secondly, we should not forget the really good work that police forces up and down the country have done, working with the community to avoid those increases being higher than they otherwise may have been.

  Q113 Mr Clappison: I completely accept what you say about Islamophobia and the need for anybody in a community or in authority in the police force to bear down on that sort of attack and deal with it, but going back to my original point about the increase in attacks in the Jewish community, do you accept there is a need in the Muslim community for vigorous leadership on their part to try and prevent that sort of attack from taking place?

  Mr Khan: The Muslim community must and does seek to provide leadership to prevent attacks on any community. Hate crime is hate crime. It would be unfair for you to be left with the impression that we only look after our own. We are concerned about hate crime against any community. We seek to do whatever we can to prevent that happening, just like our brothers and sisters in other faiths also speak out eloquently when there is a Muslim under attack. Jewish, Sikh and Hindu leaders have also been at the forefront in saying Islamophobia is wrong and those on the left also have been saying it is wrong. Hate crime is wrong, full stop.

  Mr Whine: Whilst the top down leadership dialogue is there but is fractured, the bottom up dialogue is probably more effective and continuing, less subject to strains as a consequence of international affairs. We do not control it and half the time we do not necessarily know what is going on. We receive reports continuously of synagogue/mosque longstanding relationships. There are half a dozen continuing initiatives at street level, one in Stamford Hill where you have a strictly orthodox community rubbing up against a growing north African community which has been working for some years, a very effective one in Manchester and any number of other local initiatives between Jews and Muslims which I think are probably more effective in the long run because they are creating real bonds of contact and friendship at that local level, rather than something imposed from the top down by people like ourselves.

  Q114 David Winnick: Do you sometimes consider the possibility of inviting representatives of the Muslim community to speak at meetings of the Board of Deputies, if not in the present atmosphere which you have mentioned, when matters perhaps are more relaxed?

  Mr Grunwald: There is no problem with that at all.

  Q115 David Winnick: Has that been considered?

  Mr Grunwald: We have on occasions invited representatives from the Muslim community to events that we have organised at the Board of Deputies. I have no problem with that. None at all.

  Q116 David Winnick: There have been questions, mine included today and on previous occasions, about parts of the Muslim community being affected by anti-Semitism. Do you not feel that there are a number of people in the Jewish community who are not necessarily anti-Muslim as such but have very little understanding of Islam and have a prejudiced view, if only of what is happening in the Middle East? Do you not think more could be done by the organised Jewish community to try and get your people, your community, to understand what Islam is, where it springs from and its practices which in so many respects, as I understand it, are akin to the Jewish religion?

  Mr Grunwald: I fear that you are right in this sense and you are equally right about an understanding on the part of members of many minority groups and religions about other people. Within the organised Jewish community, stemming from people who have been long serving members of the Board of Deputies, we have the Three Faiths Forum. Sir Sigmund Sternberg founded that together with Sheikh Zaki Badawi and others a while ago. It is designed specifically to foster understanding and conversation between Muslims, Jews and Christians. We have the Indian Jewish Association, which again stems from the work of the Board of Deputies, to get away from the misunderstanding, the ignorance, to which you have referred. Alif-Aleph that Sadiq mentioned is a very important initiative to try and take away the blinkers that many people in both groups but in all religious groups have about other people. We are very staunch members of the inter-faith network. We are involved in lots of inter-faith initiatives with all the different religious groups in this country because ignorance is at the root of so many problems.

  Chairman: Can I welcome Mr Singh? I will bring you into the discussion in a moment.

  Q117 David Winnick: Mr Khan, would your organisation at its top level invite the Board of Deputies to make a presentation of its views and so on?

  Mr Khan: I agree with everything Henry has said, but there has been an increase in grass roots activity at regional levels as well. You are right: there need to be even more cordial and open relations between the two faiths.

  Q118 Chairman: Mr Singh, would you introduce yourself and the organisation you come from? Perhaps you could say what, from the point of view of the Sikh community, you have seen as the impact on community relations and the change in community relations since 9/11 and the other terrorist events.

  Mr Jagdeesh Singh: There is a great deal I can say but I will endeavour to summarise it into a few sharp points. The most immediate issue that has come up for the Sikh community following 9/11 has been the very visible and very ongoing cycle of racist attacks that Sikhs have been subjected to immediately following 9/11 and continuously so as international affairs continued in a state of abeyance and have gone from high to low and so forth following 9/11. We would definitely say 9/11 represents the opening up of a new phase of racialism, a new phase of racism, vocal racism and physical racism that the Sikh community has definitely experienced. We are aware that other visible minorities like Sikhs, in the sense that Sikhs are very visible as you can clearly see, have equally at various levels also suffered following 9/11. Certainly for the Sikhs, for the first time in their history in this country they have suffered what appears to be a very deliberate, very random, very fashionable—I underline the word "fashionable"—form of racism in that a Sikh person could walk down a street and will often be referred to as, "There is Bin Laden. Let's have a shout at Bin Laden. Let's throw something at Bin Laden. Hey, Mr Bin Laden, why don't you fuck off back to your own country." These are quite casual, quite random, quite daily, quite ordinary words that Sikhs are being subjected to, not by every person, but by that section of society that considers it quite okay to select its victims and launch attacks at them. Sikhs feel that 9/11 has been a trigger for that section of our society, that very tragic, small, factional section of our society, very much a sore part of our society, that racist part of our society, that racist, thuggish part of our society, to go out and randomly, casually pick out people with beards and turbans and randomly swear at them, abuse them and so forth. That cycle of attacks has not receded. If anything, it has continued at a consistent pace and there have been instances of Sikhs being not only sworn at in a very virulent way, vulgar, racist language, but Sikhs being savagely beaten up. I had the pleasure of being beaten up on 26 September earlier this year, around the very time that Ken Bigley's case was very much in the headlines. As I walked home one evening at eight o'clock I was told that we Pakis were causing a great deal of problems in Iraq. I was told it was because of us that Ken Bigley was in trouble in Iraq. As I chose to walk on, I was then savagely attacked. That particular incident epitomises the kind of verbal brutality and physical brutality, the verbal aggression and the physical aggression, that members of the Sikh community are suffering. The point is: are we to treat this as part of life? Are we to treat this as part of an ongoing situation? As a community we feel very much exposed, very vulnerable but even more so we feel that the British government has done next to nothing in terms of putting into place any form of measure by way of public statements of support.

  Chairman: I am going to stop you there because there will be plenty of opportunities in the questions that arise to all witnesses to move on to what should be done. You have set out your experiences and perspective very powerfully.

  Q119 Mr Prosser: I want to ask you some questions about the media and the effect media coverage of events has had on minorities, especially Islam. What practical suggestions can you make to improve the media coverage of these matters in this country without infringing on freedom of speech and freedom of expression?

  Mr Grunwald: There should be more good news stories. There are many instances of good community relations in many parts of the country, not just in synagogues and mosques—there should certainly be more of that—but between synagogues and churches, between synagogues and temples. They are initiatives that we support and that we want our members to become involved in, but good news does not make the front pages. You are much more likely to find a newspaper showing a story of a broken window in a synagogue than you are of a meeting that might have taken place the night before between members of different faiths in that same building. Frankly, I do not know how you get more good news stories into the media, but that would go a long way towards making people see that it is not all bad; it is not all something to be condemned, but there is good stuff to be promoted.

  Mr Khan: We recognise from the way newspapers report about the Government that the Government has very little control about what newspapers print and what the TV shows. We recognise there is a limit about what can be done. There are things that can be done. The use of language is very important. Hate crime is hate crime and similarly terrorism is terrorism. We find it offensive when before the word "terrorism" the word "Islamic" or "Muslim" is inserted. It does not help. There is an issue about leadership being provided by the government or people with power and influence. I would query whether the PCC does enough when it comes to, for example, high profile arrests or arrests made of "Muslim extremists" but if you are lucky it will get a line a week later or 14 days later when those eight people have been released without charge. There is also an issue about police tip-offs. For example, how could it be that the press could report so soon after the arrests in Manchester inside the premises of those Kurdish people that programmes were found for Old Trafford games? There are issues about whether there is any tip-off going on between people in positions of knowledge and the press.

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