Muslim Parliament Divides Britons
RADICAL British Muslims, claiming to speak for 2 million co-religionists, have set up what they call their own parliament and are threatening to defy laws with which they disagree.
Kalim Siddiqui, a militant Muslim leader who convened the assembly in London Jan. 4-5, denounced what he called "the dictatorship of the majority dressed up as democracy."
His fiery inaugural speech to 155 members of the parliament at Kensington Town Hall, London, drew sharp rebukes from government ministers. Reactions by other British Muslims revealed a community sharply divided on claims of a need for their own parliamentary body.
Home Office Minister John Patten called Dr. Siddiqui's address "nonsense" and warned British Muslims that it came perilously close to being an incitement to racial hatred.
Siddiqui responded to Mr. Patten's criticism by accusing the minister of having a "condescending attitude" toward Muslims.
Moderate Muslim groups responded by saying that the so-called parliament's members did not represent their views.
But Mohammed Faridi, general secretary of the Association of Muslims in Britain, a moderate grouping, warned that the so-called parliament was well funded, well organized, and "unlikely to listen to the government or to the voice of reason, Muslim or otherwise."
He pointed out that Siddiqui, who was born in Pakistan and heads London's pro-Iranian Muslim Institute, came to prominence nearly three years ago when he endorsed the late Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa (death sentence) on novelist Salman Rushdie. On that occasion he narrowly escaped prosecution for advocating murder.
A high proportion of British Muslims are Pakistani by origin. Their community is plainly divided in its reaction to Siddiqui's call for civil disobedience, but government ministers are taking the formation of the parliament seriously. Some of the group's declared aims flatly contradict official policies commanding widespread acceptance by non-Muslims, the ministers say.
A Muslim manifesto, endorsed by the parliament this weekend, specifically rejects government-backed policies on racial integration and the equality of women. The manifesto's approach to religious education is also a major source of worry to the government.
Organizers of the parliament say they hope to exploit the fact that Britain's Muslim schools are denied financial support available to schools of other religious denominations.
Parves Sattar, a lecturer at a London polytechnic, told the parliament that the government paid for Roman Catholic and Anglican schools, but refused to do the same for those teaching the Islamic faith.
"As a result, thousands of British Muslims attending state schools are growing up with little or no knowledge of Islam," he said.
But Angela Rumbold, a government minister specializing in interracial relations, said Britain's 19 privately funded Muslim schools were denied state support because they refused to accept all aspects of Britain's government-approved national curriculum. The curriculum includes sex education, which many British Muslims say should not be made available to their daughters.
Told of Mrs. Rumbold's explanation, Siddiqui said that to make their point on Muslim education, about 200 activists, including himself, were prepared to withhold taxes and go to jail if government policy did not change.
Siddiqui did not mince his words, either in his public address or in private comments afterward. He told the parliament that its establishment "transformed the disparaged Muslim minority in Britain into a political community with a will and a purpose of its own."
"This parliament has its origins in an attempt by the British authorities to treat us like dirt and shut us up," he said following the meeting. "By creating this new body we have given ourselves our own voice. We have changed the political landscape."
Siddiqui denied claims that the parliament was unrepresentative of British Muslim opinion. His critics say only 1,000 or so chose the 155 members of the parliament. "There was very little opposition to it being established. Its members are nominated now, but we intend to hold elections in due course. We will show that our support is widespread," he said.
Ezzat Tamimi, a journalist and member of the moderate British Muslim Forum who observed the first sessions, attacked the establishment of a separate Muslim parliament: "The people involved in organizing it have inflicted permanent damage on the standing of the Muslim community in this country. They have projected it as a kind of fifth column in British society."
Home Office sources say they hope adverse reactions to the parliament by moderate Muslims can become more sharply focused and that Siddiqui and his supporters will come to realize that they are an isolated minority.
It may not be easy, however, to mobilize moderate Muslim opinion into a solid front of opposition to Siddiqui's radical message. The best hope may lie with the Union of Muslim Organizations, an umbrella group of 160 Muslim bodies led by Sayad Pasha, an Indian-born jurist.
"The vast majority of Muslims are not interested in radical formulations," says Keith Vaz, an Asian-born Labour member of the Westminster Parliament. They see the House of Commons as "the appropriate forum" for expressing their opinions and, where necessary, their grievances, he says.
One of the undesirable things about the Muslim parliament, Mr. Vaz says, is that it sees its role as an alternative to Britain's Parliament.