Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-172)

16 NOVEMBER 2004


  Q160 Mrs Curtis-Thomas: The Government issued a document earlier on this year called Faith in the Communities. Have you received it and what do you think of it, given that it is first of its kind to be produced?

  Mr Khan: Is this a few months ago? Fiona MacTaggart? We did and we responded to it but I am afraid I could not answer that specifically. What I can say is that the relationship we have with the Home Office is infinitely better now than it ever has been and that dialogue is fostered by regular meetings with not just the Home Secretary but Fiona MacTaggart and other ministers in the Home Office. I cannot comment on that particular document. We do respond quite frequently to Home Office documents and relationships are very good with the Home Office.

  Q161 Mrs Curtis-Thomas: I am very pleased you said that.

  Mr Grunwald: Is it the document Working Together?

  Q162 Mrs Curtis-Thomas: Yes, it is.

  Mr Grunwald: Neville Nagler, who is the Director General of the Board of Deputies and sits behind me, sat on the working group to deal with that paper. We welcome any initiatives that the Home Office takes to improve relations between communities in this country.

  Mrs Curtis-Thomas: Thank you very much.

  Q163 Mr Green: Can we move on to the international aspects because we have heard a lot of encouraging evidence from all of you about efforts to promote harmony between faiths, but reading your evidence, the brutal truth is that each of you support the use of force in certain circumstances and you support some actions which others sitting at the table would regard as terrorism. How do you see your responsibility to try and avoid those very, very difficult issues from becoming issues which may seriously damage relations between your various communities on the streets of this country? Mr Khan first?

  Mr Sofi: We think that there should be no impact from international conflict in the UK and that is why MCB has been more into inter-faith work and other work with communities. No way should it have an impact and we should work with all partners, faith communities, government, and others to make sure it does not happen. For example, conflict in Kashmir sometimes has repercussions here and whenever there is an incident there have been meetings between communities and we have made sure it does not happen. We do not think the UK should have anything to do with it internally. We live in the society, we live within the community and that is how it should be.

  Q164 Mr Green: Mr Singh?

  Mr Jagdeesh Singh: Largely to reiterate what has just been said by Khalid, we have gone through that very experience post-1984 to 1995 and as a community we have been heavily tested by conflict in the Punjab with the tensions and the impact it has had on our families here. We have found that despite being a very active community in engaging in the disputes and the campaigns overseas that has not been a source of conflict with any other community here. We have consciously as a community encouraged ourselves not to make any issue a source of conflict here on the streets or in the neighbourhoods or in the general social cohesion of this country, and we have found that to be the case. We do not know of any stream or cycle of incidents that have erupted on the streets or in British society or any part of Britain as a result of the conflict in Punjab and therefore we can say with some confidence that disputes have occurred over there—serious violent disputes, serious political disputes, long-standing historical disputes which remain underway now—but they have not had a violent effect here. We would like to keep it that way. One thing we would add, and add very forcefully, is that in this country while the British Government has seen it fit to do what it has done in terms of anti-terrorism—banning various organisations and so forth—one thing very puzzlingly it consistently has done is to allow a prominent organisation, the VHP, to continue to function from North London from a prominent location—ie the Neasden Hindu Temple. It is a well-known organisation, well-known for advocating the murder of Muslims in India, well-known for promoting sectarian violence in India and well-known for arming its followers systematically and training them in guerrilla violence in India. Its language of violence and language of sectarianism is public record in India. It functions from premises and not just any premises but the most prominent Hindu premises you could find in the whole of London—the Neasden Temple in London. This matter has been raised in round table discussions with Home Office ministers again and again and again, but it appears to be something that the British Government does not want to do anything about.

  Q165 Mr Green: Does the Muslim Council share that view?

  Mr Khan: In our submission we mention them by name and there is obviously a concern about the feeling of double standards, yes.

  Mr Grunwald: We condemn terrorism in all its forms and we would call upon other communities to do exactly the same and not, as sometimes is given the appearance, seek to draw a distinction between one form of terrorism and another and to condemn some and not all. All terrorism is bad. All terrorism targets innocent individuals and should be condemned by everyone in this room.

  Q166 Mr Green: Do you share that view?

  Mr Khan: Absolutely.

  Q167 Mr Green: One of the other interesting things in your submission is that you say that tension in the Middle East inevitably results in an increase in anti-Semitic violence. "Inevitably" seems quite a strong word in that context. Why do you think that it is inevitable?

  Mr Whine: For two reasons and we have illustrated that with the appendices to our submission. It is not something that is unique to this country, it is a worldwide phenomenon, meaning that whenever there is tension not just between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours but general tension in the Middle East we see an increase in anti-Semitic violence around the world and in this country. Inevitable because that sort of tension is often accompanied by calls from people in the Middle East—clerics, governments, non-governmental organisations, a whole range—for their support communities abroad to come to their aid. Secondly, the police in this country, and now indeed in other countries, recognise that tension in the Middle East is a trigger point, so for some years now when tension builds up in the Middle East we get called in by the police, as I am sure other community leaders do as well, and told, "Right, okay, what can we do to make sure that tension remains over there and does not manifest itself on our streets?" What we did in our submission at the back, if you remember, is that we gave a couple of points of tension—violence between Israel and its neighbours or others in the Middle East—and then traced the spill-over effect in this country with the rise in incidents.

  Q168 Mr Green: One last point, again a sort of clearing up point for Mr Singh. You call for transparency in the handling of allegations of links with terrorist activities overseas. What would that mean in practice?

  Mr Jagdeesh Singh: Let me cite a live example. We have with us currently the case of Balbir Singh Bains in our submission. In a nutshell, Mr Singh has lived in this country for 25 years. He is an active Sikh linked to the Active Sikh Campaign based in the Punjab but living and working from here. He goes home, is arrested, is incarcerated for three years, is tortured in prison, is accused of all manner of terrorism. The Indian courts vindicated him very clearly and they said the entire allegations against him by the Indian government were completely unfounded. He then tries to return home, having cleared his name. The British Government refuses to allow him back home. He spends two years fighting, going through the procedures, going through the whole rigmarole of trying to return home to his family. In contrast, with that we have the revealing case of Peter Bleach. Peter Bleach is a prominent British arms dealer convicted in the late 1990s of terrorism in India, having been found dropping arms in certain parts of India. Peter Bleach is sentenced to something like 20 years in prison in India by the Indian courts. He is put into prison and spends six years in prison. During the course of his six-year imprisonment the British Prime Minister, the British Home Secretary and the British Foreign Secretary make consistent and frequent calls directed to the Indian Prime Minister to release Peter Bleach. They circumvent the legal system of India and circumvent his legal conviction to send him back home. There is a clear favouritism for Peter Bleach, a convicted terrorist. In contrast, a Sikh activist who has not even been legally convicted continues to be accused of terrorism by the British Government even after his vindication is denied for two years in a rigmarole of process and bureaucracy permission to return home. He has now finally returned home last month. He had to go through this whole process of delays and double standards and lack of information and lack of transparency. In contrast Peter Bleach gets special treatment.

  Q169 Chairman: Thank you, Mr Singh.

  Mr Jagdeesh Singh: The treatment he is subjected to is quite revealing.

  Q170 David Winnick: We know, Mr Grunwald, the poisonous nature of anti-Semitism which your organisation plays a leading part in combating. Can I put this point to you regarding the Middle East. Is there not a danger that some in the Jewish community, perhaps a minority but be that as it may, consider that any acute criticism of Israeli policy really amounts to anti-Semitism? It is quite likely not a view of the Board collectively, one hopes not, but is there not a danger in using the term anti-Semitism lightly (and we know in the Second World War anti-Semitism led to the destruction of six million people) and to those who disagree, as many of us do, very sharply indeed with Israeli policy, the tag of anti-Semitism can come lightly when I am sure you do not believe that such a tag should be used?

  Mr Grunwald: We are extremely careful before alleging that anybody or anything is anti-Semitic. Criticism of the policies of the Israeli government is not anti-Semitism. The most vocal critics of the policies of the Israeli government often come from within Israel itself, and that is one of the strengths of that country.

  Q171 David Winnick: I am talking about some, I am not talking about all. Do you try as a Board to persuade people that they should be very careful in using such terms when, as you have just indicated, there is no justification for it?

  Mr Grunwald: We do not bandy the allegation of anti-Semitism lightly. We take it very, very seriously. Where we do have a concern is where trenchant criticism of an Israeli government, whatever its political hue, turns into a denial of the very existence of the State of Israel and the right of the State of Israel to exist, and that, we say, is a form of anti-Semitism. When people seek to deny to the Jews alone of all of people in the world a right to their own homeland, then, yes, we at the Board and the community generally would consider that to be anti-Semitism.

  David Winnick: I understand the distinction.

  Q172 Mr Clappison: Very briefly to be clear on the terms we are talking about here, when we are talking about the repercussions of what happens in the Middle East—and nobody can control that and people are entitled to different points of view—and the anti-Semitism which the community suffers, are we talking there about people saying things or is it a question of physical attacks upon people, of people being attacked because they appear to be Jewish, synagogues and cemeteries being desecrated and so forth?

  Mr Grunwald: It is physical attacks on buildings, on cemeteries and on people. I have every sympathy with Mr Singh when he described his experience before. Coming back to Mr Winnick's point, criticism of an Israeli Government is acceptable but when Jews, who are visibly Jewish because of their garb if they are Orthodox Jews and they are wearing their head covering in the street or they are wearing distinctive clothing because it is the Sabbath or a festival, are attacked in the street by people who accuse them of being dirty Zionists (because all too often now the phrase "dirty Zionist" is used when they mean "dirty Jew") they do not bother to ask that person (a) if they would have any right to vote on an Israeli government or (b) if they did, whether they would support the policies of a particular government. They do not bother because it is not in their minds. They see a Jew and in their mind they make a linkage which is completely unacceptable and they are attacked. That is the concern we have and that is why it is so important to all of us to try to decrease the tension which gives rise to that sort of incident happening.

  Chairman: Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed for a session. You have given us a great deal to think about. Also thank you in your individual capacities for the leadership roles that you are obviously playing within your communities and between communities, so thank you very much.

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