Religion, law and the constitution

Balancing beliefs in Britain

How would you describe your ideological or religious identity?

That is a very big question to start the interview… I was hoping ‘what is your name?’ My ideological or religious identity, in one word, I have to say Muslim…what does it mean to be a Muslim? The label of Islam, the label of Muslim, in this day and age is extremely, complex… probably the best word I can use… I was going to say controversial, but that is not the right word. It is extremely complicated. The reason why it is complex is because now there are people who look and sound like Muslims, but from an ideological perspective, in my opinion, are in no way, shape or form true to the spiritual definition of what it means to be a Muslim, following Prophet Muhammad’s example. If I can illustrate that by giving you one sentence… a definitive sentence from the Prophet Muhammad is,  “A (true) believer is somebody who keeps other people safe.” So, put simply – a Muslim is a peace-maker. So, linguistically and according to the teachings of the Prophet, (from which we take our Islam from) a Muslim is someone who keeps peace, and not only that, somebody who ensures that other people are safe.  So, you asked a very big question, and I have given you a big answer, because it is not a simple thing, but in a nutshell, my ideological, religious identity has to be in accordance with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, (peace and blessings be upon him). 

Do you think that GB is an equal and tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion and belief?

The first thing is that the question is very general and I am talking in general. If you had to ask someone like my father, who came to this country in the early 70s and he looks back at how Islam, his faith was welcomed… my father was a religious migrant.  He didn’t come exclusively for economic reasons, although that was an automatic add on. He came here instructed by his religious mentor, who said there was a need for religious leadership. He told him that he needed to come. If you look at the journey of England, and how Islam has flourished and developed… We are sat in a mosque, which is 2 or 3 million pound project… It is a rather substantial and complex project, and it started as a simple house.  Who made that happen? It was the local community, but had we not had the wider society tolerating this development, we wouldn’t be sitting in this mosque today. The growth and the size of faith schools across the country is also I think  a testimony to the tolerance of British society.  The first aspect of your question was about the status and the whole debate about tolerance and multiculturalism…We could talk about it for hours. In a nutshell, I would say, that there have been some mistakes surrounding multiculturalism.  I realise this is perhaps a little controversial for someone of my standing to say this so I shall illustrate it with an anecdote.   Few years ago, I was in a church inter-faith gathering, and an elderly Christian lady remarked,  “I really don’t understand our country any more”, I quizzed her,  “What do you mean?”, she said “We can’t even have hot cross buns at Easter time anymore.”  “Why can’t you?’, I challenged, “It is a tradition of this country, and England… Britain… is a Christian country in the main”… She said that the council had given advice to its local schools that it couldn’t do it anymore because it could be offensive to Muslims. You know what I said? “That is an absolute joke”, as the only member of the Muslim community present, I could see visibly the Christian audience was shocked at my comment. I further remarked, “It is a joke and it is political correctness going wrong”.

This is what I mean when I say in terms of this debate on tolerance and multiculturalism.  Another more serious example of this is the recent case of Rotherham where we know that the sexual exploitation of minors was not immediately and appropriately dealt with.  There was a clear failure of officials, who had responsibility on these matters because they did not act.  This failure to act  was purely because of the perceived fear of how communities would react.  For crying aloud, you are in a position of responsibility and authority… people haven’t put you there to be pandering to perceptions and political correctness … there are peoples’ lives at stake! I am very passionate about that, and I hope that comes across clearly, and that I raise my voice. I do think there is an issue around that. One of my teachers, who is 75 now, when he first came to England, he said that he hadn’t lived in many countries, but that his perception about Britain was very different from what he had found in other places… he said, “it seems to me a lot easier and a lot safer, and almost kind of better, to be a Muslim here than in other places.” And this is from an elderly chap… I often reflect about it when I visit Muslim countries… In my own experience, it is easier and safer to be a Muslim in this country than it is in other places. That is something which I am very proud of, and that is why I am very proud of being a British Muslim.

How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your Muslim faith in this country? Are there challenges, and if there are, are they social, political or legal in nature?

What are the challenges for a Muslim in Britain? Some of the key ones are the rise of… I would say… people use the phrase Islamophobia, and I have issues with that phrase… the point which I want to make, is that the challenges of being Muslim are people’s perception about what is being a Muslim, because of the problems which extremists have given us globally. Nowadays you get pulled off for having a beard like mine, you get pulled off in airplanes, because you wear a headscarf… what is all that about? That is about the image of Muslims which some people have portrayed in a negative way, which has nothing to do with the real Islam, and then people who come across Muslims perhaps for the first time in their lives, there are lots of areas up and down the country which don’t have large Muslim populations… I was in the north-east and there are some areas, and further up north, which have never come across a Muslim… and unfortunately the experience that I encountered wasn’t positive.  The reality is that there are extremists across the globe, who are terrorists and are using the faith of Islam to further their evil political views.  So when a person who has never come across a real Muslim in their life and their first ever encounter is someone like me sitting next to me on a plane and I start the journey as I normally would with some prayers… that guy who knows nothing about Islam and all he hears is about these people who blow themselves up, I am not surprised that if he sits next to me he is going to be worried, because the terrorist unfortunately looks like me.  Those are the biggest challenges… how do we portray to people that Islam and Muslims are safe?

The other one in terms of legal stuff…. In my role as an Imam here in the central mosque, the marriage and divorce situation. Islamic marriages conducted in the mosque are not recognised by the legal system. If the same marriage took place in my homeland of Pakistan, that marriage certificate is recognised.  That is a bit of an anomaly, which is a challenge, and on the flipside, there are the issues surrounding divorce, and all the peripheral issues which come from that. What constitutes Islamic divorce? How does it fit with the civil proceedings, and the whole issue surrounding Sharia courts and councils? That is certainly a challenge  The issue is about leadership, the fact that we don’t have an unified Muslim leadership. I think that if we did… the Jewish community has the Beth Din system. People have criticised the Islamic Sharia councils… these are becoming two States… but the Beth Din has been there for many, many years, and effectively it is the same system but nobody has criticised the Jewish community. This is about Muslim lifestyle choices, and the issue which we internally need to resolve is around the leadership. This is internal, but it has repercussions for the larger society.

Do you think that HRs which apply to everyone are a good or bad thing for British society?

Of course, they are!

Are there any ways in which the Muslim community have a practical impact on HRs in contemporary Britain? Are you actively campaigning on any issues?

Yes, one I am very passionate about is domestic violence and the lack of focus on women rights. I talked with someone yesterday… and she said that her biggest problem is that she was getting conflicting advice from religious leaders, and as a result, someone who is a victim of domestic violence, could be suffering because of the lack of clear guidance. I am not saying that any of the scholars I know… if someone came to see them, of course, they would try to help, but what she was saying is that in her experience, the issue is of accessibility… I have a surgery here which is of open access to both men and women.  People know that they can write to us through the email system and I have given lots of advice on that front.

Do you think that HRs are generally speaking respected by the Government and other public bodies in GB?

Yes, they are. I think so. I think we have a pretty good record. My father was talking about something the other day which is linked to this. We are talking about peace and humanity. He said that the word peace, and you will understand was coming from someone who is not English… he said that the word peace in Urdu means to grind… he said that if by peace, the Government wants to bring people together that is great, but if through some of those policies Muslims begin to feel they are being scrutinised, grinded… then we don’t want that kind of peace. The point he was making is that some policies sometimes inadvertently… I was having this conversation this morning with a senior person, and she was talking about extremism and the prevent strategy, and she said that this reminded her of the 80s when black people were targeted purely just because they were black. I have given you the example of the airport before… someone being taking off a plane because she was wearing a headscarf… if policies are there just to target Muslims’ lives, that is an encroachment on human rights. That needs to be addressed.  In my view it’s not the policy but the application of it by those who perhaps haven’t had appropriate training with this regard.

Would you say that public authorities intervene too much or not enough in the lives of individuals and groups, particularly in relation to freedom of religion and belief? Or do they get the right balance?

I think after Charlie Hebdo the issue freedom of expression has been debated.  As a religious community we had to face the question – is freedom of expression absolute, do we have the right to offend?  I actually orgnasised a public talk about this issue with a Christian friend who is an ex-journalist.  Islamically the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is held in very high esteem, and we cannot offend or criticise him in any way.  In liberal society there is a view that we should all have the ability to criticise and offend, unrestricted.  It is a very delicate and I must say highly emotional debate.  At the event, this what I argued: “There are laws in this country, right now, that don’t allow me to go outside and offend Jews, Sikhs, homosexuals, etc… it is enshrined in what we call Hate Crime Laws and the Equality legislation.  It is put in place to ensure that hate speech is prohibited and people don’t offend other people’s views and beliefs.  When the whole Charlie Hebdo debate came about, people were questioning Muslims, ‘what is all the fuss about? Why are you so difficult when it comes to the Prophet? We are in a free society and I should have the freedom to offend…”

I felt that was a bit of an anomaly to say the least.   I certainly am not saying that people should not have the freedom to speak freely as they wish but we already have legislation dealing with hate crime and hate speech, anti-hate legislation if you like.  So for me, that is where it fits. Maybe the extremists, again, have not done us any favour… this should be about all religious leaders… the campaign in which we were involved at that time was called a Campaign for Global Civility, we were not saying that only the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had to be protected.  Blasphemy laws should be about protecting all religious leaders.

Would you like to see a law of blasphemy in Great Britain?

Some of my colleagues have started to campaign about a law of civility, which is different from blasphemy. It is a more pro-active stance, we should be civil one another, and not allow being offensive… It is a very difficult one though.

Do you think that living in a democratic society makes it easier or harder for you to live in accordance with your Muslim faith? Is there any other form of government which you would consider preferable?

No, we have spoken about this in some of the training which we do around counter-extremism. Some of the stuff which is raised is that Islam does not allow any democratic rule, which is wrong, as it is contrary to the teaching of Islam. We explain that historically the companions were elected after the demise and the departure of the Prophet. In that sense it was a democratic system. As long as we have within our faith, almost an unwritten Constitution, a rule that says that Muslims living in a non Muslim land must abide by the law of the land, and you have to honour it. That is a theological concept within my legal school of Law, the Hanafi school. Extremist rhetoric states that nobody other than God can govern. That is their understanding of what justifies an Islamic State, and certainly not what the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) taught.

Given that we live in a democracy, does your faith mean that you have a personal responsibility to vote?

Yes, but with the responsibility to vote, there is also a massive responsibility to ensure that there is strong accountability.  Too many politicians and political leaders are allowed to get away with their broken promises once in power.  My faith teaches me that I should lobby and bring to account such people.

Would you like to see an empowerment of the judiciary in Great Britain to strike down primary legislation, in a similar way to the USA or continental Europe?

I don’t know the key differences between Great Britain and other countries, and I would prefer not to comment on that.

Would you say that an understanding of democracy as the will of the majority is problematic for minority groups? Is it more difficult for some groups to participate?

A remember a while ago one of my Islamic teachers gave a session about politics in the UK and how as a community we are very far behind – I don’t have the figures to hand to be honest, but we as a Muslim community are very unrepresented in British politics.  We should have a lot more MP’s in the Houses of Parliament in order to ensure that our voices are heard.  Am I happy with our representation? No, but the reason why… this is a general problem… there is apathy and mistrust in general about politics and democracy in general – it’s not just amongst Muslims.

Ten years ago with all the scandals of MP’s expenses and other issues, as a nation we started to mistrust our politicians.  So, if we say that as Muslims we need more representatives, the whole system hasn’t given confidence to the electorate to come forward and do more. I have spoken with passionate Muslims about this,  we need to do more,  what can we do about some important social issues? Some of the responses which young people hear online… Syria is an important example at the moment. Young people hear about the atrocities, they then just want to jump on a plane, join the battle and physically do ‘their bit’. But what they don’t realise is that the reality of life out there is very very different.  Death is a very real proposition – so what have they then achieved? Nothing, other than their understanding of martyrdom, which from a true Islamic theological perspective, if that war has not been legislated and properly constituted, it is a wasteful death. We try to encourage people to engage and work with the system.  That has been my attitude throughout my life. We have to try to encourage people to change things.  My father came in the 70s, as I said… my sister in law and my own wife, they come from very remote parts of Pakistan… and they know, if I may use the expression, what proper corrupt politicians are like and people can’t really make any sort of impact, whereas here we see some solid examples where people have stood up, raised their voices and changes have taken place. The Brexit vote was a massive thing. Giving the whole nation the power to make such a decision was a powerful thing. For the Prime Minister to stand and say ‘I am going to allow this referendum to happen’ knowing that it could be the end of his political career, that was a very brave thing to do. No matter what my views are about this politician as an individual, it was a very noble thing to do. This is the system which we have and which allows this to happen. 

Do you think that is problematic that members of the HoL are not elected by the citizens?

Many MPs end up in the Lords. It would be interesting to see the percentage of non former MPs. Is it a problem? I wish I had more time to think about this one. It is a big one. I know it was an ongoing debate… I am not sure. Let me ask you the powers of the House of Lords.

It revises powers, amends legislation… it is weaker, but it is still part of the legislature. However, if you don’t have an opinion, it is fine…

No, no… I do have an opinion about this. In Islam we have what we call Mufti, who are essentially judges and historically and traditionally you wouldn’t be given this position until you were 50 plus, the reason being… when you have to give judgments on issues, is not just the judgment based on the black letter of the law, there is a substantial element of that judgment which is based on your judgment and that can only be valid if you have a vast experience of life.  My point is that these lords are very experienced, senior, elderly… they have lived life, and I think there is a value in that, certainly from a religious Islamic perspective – take heed from the wisdom of the years.

How do you feel about the presence of bishops of the CofE?

I think the role of faith and the voice of scripture is very much valued and important in this system.  They bring to the debate the language of religious literacy, the moral position and the voice of God in what is essentially a secular system.

Do you feel represented by the CofE bishops?

We had the bishop of Manchester here at our mosque recently, and this is a question which we raised with him. If he goes to the House of Lords as a representation of faith in the community, then he needs to listen and understand all points of views, but if he is going there just to speak on behalf of Christianity, of course we are not represented.  The last discussion with him here is that he is very proud of being the bishop of Manchester because of the diversity of faiths. The separate question is whether he speaks on behalf of all faiths.

Having said that, if the dichotomy is having bishops or not having them?

Definitely, let’s keep them in the House of Lords.

Do you think that public authorities (e.g. local authorities) try to respect legislation, or do you have any examples of public authorities ignoring the law?

That would be scandalous, wouldn’t it? I think public authorities in general are very respectful of law. I know, obviously, that when political colours change, sometimes people get annoyed, but I think public authorities are generally respectful and law-abiding.

What does Islam teach about people with power and the ways in which they should be held accountable?  Should they be held accountable by human beings or that primarily a matter for God?  What do you think that the understanding of Islam in this respect can contribute to society?

There are so many examples, in a nutshell caliphate of Omar in particular and of course the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that show the frugality and accountability and the importance of state money that the leader is responsible for.  That is one thing, and the other thing is the people holding their leader to account.  The Rule of Law is incredibly important in Islam.  We have two forms of rights, rights of God and rights of people.  We are told by God that if you override the boundaries of God’s laws then he can forgive you for that, and you can pray for that forgiveness.  But if you deny, override and step over the rights and obligations of a fellow human being, then God will never forgive you until that human being forgives you.  So the spirit of accountability in Islam is incredibly important, and human relationships, and the rights and obligations that people have within those relationships are very important to uphold.  I preach a lot about this in my sermons here and I think sometimes, it does begin to annoy people, but hey….when I am speaking about these things I am effectively shaking the status quo, and that is something which people are not used to….I’ll have to find some examples that are will illustrate this point well, in terms of the frugal nature of our leaders of the past, and they have taken that approach because they hold responsibility as a trust from God and that is something that our politicians can learn from, politicians generally and the scandalous nature of some of the things that have come out.  Just recently we had that scandal with Mr Warsi, I used to look up to him as an Asian MP, but after everything that has come out I wonder what is going on, it is disappointing.  He was always putting himself as upright and honest and trustworthy, those are the qualities which leadership requires from a faith perspective, certainly from an Islamic perspective.  In terms of the conquest of Palestine, we hear a lot about the swords, but what conquered people was their moral upstanding and beautiful character, and I pray to God and try to be of that calibre of leader that doesn’t just speak but shows in actions and contribution to society that I am sincere for God’s sake.

Do you think that Muslims are appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?

My view is that we are not fully represented in public life but it is brilliant that we have a Muslim Mayor of London, who is a great inspiration.  But I want going to give you a much more worrying statistic.  A a Muslim populace we are overrepresented in one area and under-represented in all other key areas of life – I think we are something like 2.4% of the population but we make up 12.3% of the prison population.  I am sure you have seen the stats.  It makes me so annoyed, my dad used to teach us as children, education, education education.  Through that education we can get into positions of responsibility and help hopefully the wider society and community.  We have not taken up those opportunities ourselves in many ways.  And yes, there is institutional racism, there are glass ceilings, nepotism.  I remember one prisoner said to me actually that we talk about the corrupt east, but this country is the most corrupt ever but we do it in a very English and nice manner!  And I remember being a sociology student many, many years ago and never, ever came across the idea of white collar crime, I didn’t know what it meant.  I thought that if you were going to wear a tie and go to work, you were going to earn lots of money and have status.  And to hear it for the first time as a young teenager, what white collar crime was, it is pure corruption isn’t it?  There is that side of life.  But generally speaking, and I know this from my educational background, the highest achievers are Indian girls and the lowest, contrary to what many people think, are white working class boys.  Pakistani and Bangladeshi boys are in the bottom five.  After saying that, there is always a cream of the same communities doing really well, and you will see that in most of the inner city schools.  They are the high-flyers but the general community are under achievers.   So, yes there is under representation, but who is to blame for that?  To me there are several factors, the main one as I say is the underachievement and this obviously therefore prohibits the progression to the positions which would enable them to fill the gap.  Also I don’t want to underestimate the issue of ‘connections’, and that oft used but never really acknowledged phrase  – “It’s not what you know but who you know”, I’ve heard that from so many people in so many different fields, we simply smile and laugh it off but the issue of corporate nepotism is very real.

Do you think that there is enough distance between the judiciary and politicians in this country?

I think that if I am going to answer that in a comparative manner I would say yes, in comparison to my homeland of Pakistan, I would say yes.  I think that there is sufficient distance here. 

And how do Muslims challenge decisions which they perceive as problematic, either for themselves or society as a whole?

That’s where I think we really need to learn from other communities, in terms of lobbying, we don’t really know how to do that.  There are very effective means of lobbying Parliament and Parliamentarians that active civil groups have done for their own causes, there was an addition to the Equalities Act made after a case, I think from Manchester.  There was a lady who dressed in a particular manner, you know the Goths, basically she was murdered because of the way she dressed.  Her mother lobbied her Parliamentarian, and it has become a new part of the Equalities Act.  And that is an example of how someone who feels passionately about an issue can make a solid change if they go about it in the appropriate manner.

Do you think that public bodies understand the needs of Muslims?

The bodies that have got senior level representation from minorities, then it is logical and clear that they will then put the cause in the right field.  Where there aren’t….I know the police for example are doing a recruitment drive because there is under representation and they are trying to recruit from our community, that is a very proactive step.  They recognise that where there is senior representation there is more chance of getting appropriate decisions for the needs of the community.

Is it important for you to always act within secular law?  What circumstances justify or necessitate breaking human law?

There is absolutely no justification for taking the law into your own hands.  We have recent a fatwa signed by over 60 British Islamic scholars, both of first and second generation, stating clearly that it is never allowed for Muslims to take the law into their own hands and that they should always be abiding by the law of the land.

Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties, especially the weak and vulnerable?

Oppression is totally disliked by God Almighty.  There is a beautiful statement where the Prophet (peace be upon him) instructed us to “help both the oppressed and the perpetrator”  The companions were all very confused, they understood how they could help the oppressed but not the perpetrator.  “You help the perpetrator by helping him to move away from his transgression.”

Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally to everyone in British society, or do some groups experience preferential or prejudicial treatment?

You know earlier we were talking about black people in the 80s who would be stopped and searched because of the colour of their skins, well many Muslims feel that.  I get it, if I walk into an airport after coming back from an international trip, I will get stopped as soon as I land.  As you will have seen and I hope you appreciate, that I am a normal, palatable, gentle kind of guy and I take things in my stride.  But some people are not like that, and ask ‘And you are stopping me… why?  Because I have got a beard?  This on my head?’ People get very agitated with this kind of profiling.   Place upon this the sentiment within the community that feels that the legislation around Counter Terrorism is unduly targeting Muslims.  We do need to look at that.   I have always said that it is an intelligence based initiative.  Where is that intelligence going to come from?  From people within the community…..if you get that same community frustrated, they are not going to want to come forward and help.

Do you think that the same rules which apply to the police should apply to private citizens? Have the police been empowered to too great an extent?

You’re talking about Prevent?  My position on Prevent is that if it does what it says on the tin, a preventative measure and a framework to allow people who have got the knowledge and experience to have conversations and engage in debate with the vulnerable people who could potentially go down a path toward radicalisation…….it is about early stage conversations, the protective factors, the resilience building.  That is how it should be.  I have engaged with it because of the conceptual idea of prevention in advance of longer term harm.  However I am not naive and recognise that there is a anti-Prevent lobby, what I like to call Preventing Prevent.  In my view a lot of those that are campaigning against it do not actually understand the important safeguarding work that Prevent is doing.  People talk about Prevent curbs the conversation – in my opinion and the stated Prevent aims  – its all about creating the conversation.

Can you think of any legal rules which you find restrictive and you would like to see changed?

Until we get legislation which says that I HAVE to go down to the pub with my mates after work  I am happy to stay in this country and abide by the law of the land.

Is there anything which you feel you would like to add on this topic?

The thorny one, which I don’t think that we have bottomed out as a Muslim community, would be the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and the blasphemy laws.  I don’t know where Parliament stands.  We had recently a Muslim, well I say Muslim but he was Ahmadi so not Muslim in our view, he has every right to be Ahmadi but is not a Muslim in mainstream Islamic opinion.  He was killed because he apparently he was offensive towards the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and the murderer was rightfully taken to trial and was convicted. The person who did the murder was doing it in his view from an Islamic perspective.  This is why I was very firm about taking the law into your own hands, we don’t do that.  But he in his own mind was doing something in honour of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), if we don’t resolve this issue around protection of the dignity of the Prophet’s then I am worried that things will escalate.  My view is that we need blasphemy laws which protect the dignity and honour of all religious leaders – a campaign for global civility.  If we don’t get this special privilege then    We are going to get cases of people saying that you are offending my dear, dear Prophet who is dearer to me than my own parents and children.  So I can see how a young person, without the strong theological resilience could be effectively radicalised into causing harm and murder because someone has offended the Prophet Muhammad.

Do you think that a blasphemy law could help with this situation?

Yeah, I think that is one area which needs to be really looked at.

Imam Irfan Chishti MBE, started his educational path as a budding lawyer graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University in 1995.  He hails from a religious family background and was always passionate about understanding his faith and thus embarked upon a 7 year Arabic and Islamic studies pathway.  After completing his studies abroad in Egypt he then completed an MA from Manchester University and then a PGCE in Secondary Education.  This variant academic background is also reflected in his variant work pathways – from administration, Prison Chaplaincy, teaching and leadership Imam Irfan has worked in various fields of life , something that helps in his ‘real’ work of preaching and teaching the religion of Islam.