Interview with the Islamic Human Rights Commission

Arzu MeraliMassoud Shadjareh is the chair and Arzu Merali the director of research of the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London, which was established in 1997. They talked with FPIF in December about Islamophobia in the United Kingdom, the rise of the far right, and the Prevent Terrorism initiative of the British government.

John Feffer: Can you give some background to the formation of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC?

Massoud Shadjareh: We set up the organization 13 years ago, in 1997. A number of us were involved in human rights projects. We felt we should come together, even at that time, because we recognized that 80 percent of the oppressed around the world were Muslim, but the perception in the international community is that Muslims are perpetrators not victims. Of course, many of the oppressors of Muslims are also Muslims, but 80 percent of the victims are Muslims. We felt that this was an irregularity in facts and perceptions that had to be addressed or it would lead to greater Islamophobia. Many of us experienced this in former Yugoslavia, in Bosnia, so that experience was fresh in our mind. All of us are committed to the principle “never again,” and it seemed that this principle was being compromised. This was a radical thing to say at the time, and some said it was extremist. But a couple years later, government ministers were saying the same thing.

There was a debate at the time. Should it be just the Human Rights Commission or should the word “Islam” be embedded in the name of the organization? All of us were committed to the idea that we should support everyone on the basis of need rather than on religion or ethnicity. But eventually those who wanted the word “Islam” included won the argument. Although personally I wasn’t one of those, now I believe it was the right choice. The purpose of the organization was not just to provide support but to destroy the perception that Muslim is a negative thing, a word always associated with forced marriage and that sort of thing. So, if you have an organization committed to “justice for all” with the name Islam connected to it, that’s a positive thing.

An overwhelming majority of Muslim organizations had a theological basis or an ethnic base, sometimes mixture of two. But because of the reason we came together, we were very diverse. We were Malay, Bosnian, Iranian, Indian, not just Pakistani or Arab. Even now, our members identify themselves as Salafi, Sufi, Shi’a, converts. What bonds us together, rather than an ethnic or theological reason, is that we are promoting a universal concept of justice.

Bosnia had a tremendous impact on Muslims in Europe. Here was a culturally Muslim community that was not a very practicing community. It was very European in appearance. And then comes ethnic cleansing and onslaught, and there was no response from the rest of Europe to stop it. As Bill Clinton wrote in his book, the United States held back because Europe didn’t want a Muslim state. The fact that “never again” could happen again had a tremendous impact on the Muslim community. When one of the intellectual writers, Shabbir Aktar, wrote that if there would be new gas chambers in Europe, we know who would be in them – this was in 1989 at the time of the Rushdie affair – he was attacked as being extremist. None of us expected things to get this bad in such a short time. Although we were identified as alarmists at the beginning, even we alarmists weren’t really imagining that things would get this bad.

Arzu Merali: When we came together, we were quite middle class. Those of us from the working class didn’t realize how bad things were until people started reporting to us. During the anti-racism struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, we were aware of the anti-Islam discourse in the media. But the lived reality of most Muslims wasn’t accessible to us. So we did some basic research. In 1999, 35 percent of respondents reported that they experienced anti-Islamic sentiment. In 2000, the number was 45 percent. It was higher for younger people and for women. Four years later, after 9/11 but before 7/7, we were receiving a lot of reports of police harassment and indefinite detentions (which was subsequently ruled illegal in 2005). We did a more sophisticated survey in 2004 and Islamophobia went up to 80 percent. Also, all the variables disappeared. Men experienced the same level of anti-Islamic sentiment as women. There were no differences because of age or ethnicity. The only difference was for English converts, who reported a slightly more significant number, at 88%. That was a disaster. And nothing has really gotten better since then.

John Feffer: Can you talk about anti-Islamic sentiment after 9/11?

Massoud ShadjarehMassoud Shadjareh: When 9/11 happened, we saw a huge number of attacks in Britain even though 9/11 didn’t happen in Britain. When 7/7 happened, there was a huge number of attacks against Muslims in Britain, and the demonization and attacks were as far afield as New Zealand, where six mosques burned down, Compare that to Bosnia, where Muslims were attacked in name of Christianity, where some of the rape camps were in churches and were run by clergy and even some parts of the Orthodox Church announced that it was a religious duty to help Serbs implement those policies. And yet not a single church burned down in the Muslim world. Why could people in the Muslim world differentiate between those who misused a concept and the rest of the faith while well-educated Westernized societies were not able to do that? That opened up our eyes about how what happened in the 1920s and 1930s happened. That culture is still rife in the West.

It was around that time that we really felt that the word Islamophobia is not appropriate (even though I was involved in promoting that concept). A phobia is a very natural thing. Hatred and hate crimes are not natural things. What is always needed before ethnic cleansing takes place is a level of demonization to make the process easier.

Arzu Merali: According to some of the rhetoric by the right-wing groups like the English Defense League and the British National Party, which have become popular in the last ten years, Islamophobia is a mask for “Paki-bashing.” But it isn’t as simple as that. A lot of right-wing groups have said that they have no problem with black or brown skin, that it’s all about British-ness or Christian-ness. “We’re not even against Muslims,” they say, “but against Islam.” They are even setting up a Jewish division, a Sikh division, a Hindu division.

Massoud Shadjareh: It’s surreal to see people giving the Nazi salute next to Jewish members holding Israeli flags or shoulder to shoulder with Iranian anti-government protestors.

Arzu Merali: This has happened in the last two years. These groups have moved away from the concept of immigrant-bashing to something of a distinctly anti-Muslim nature.

Massoud Shadjareh: We can define anti-Islamic sentiment or Islamophobia in three ways. One group consists of racists who ride the wave of Islamophobia because it is convenient. There is also a group of people who are anti-religion. These extreme fanatical secularists are against all religion but they find it suitable to engage in Muslim-bashing because it is legitimized by media and the government. And then there is a group with a political aim. The pro-Zionist lobby falls in that category. If they can show the Muslims and Arabs in a demonizing way, it legitimates their policies in the Middle East. The pro-India lobby falls in that category as well. The Mumbai bombing gave them the opportunity to play those games.

This has had an impact on democratic politics. In the 1970s, British politicians would play what we used to call the “race card” because there were more racists than black people. Now there are more Islamophobes than Muslims, so politicians are playing the anti-Muslim card. You can increase your popularity by being anti-Muslim.

John Feffer: Can you describe the service component of the IHRC work?

Massoud Shadjareh: As an organization we concentrate on Islamophobic discrimination as a whole. We are the only Muslim organization with caseworkers. There are 2 million Muslims in this country, and we have only one full-time and one part-time staff. So, we have to be selective about the cases we take on.

Arzu Merali: There’s no legal aid available in Britain for religious discrimination, which is explicitly outlawed under laws relating to employment. This anomaly occurred because the government had to implement a European directive banning various forms of discrimination in the workplace. While on paper this is a great measure, in practice, no legal aid means few cases taken up. And pro bono work rarely happens. If a lawyer takes on a case, they can become liable for the costs, so I can see why they don’t want to take on these cases. As a result, very few cases of discrimination go through the system.

Massoud Shadjareh: The unions are not equipped to handle cases of employment discrimination. We try to help, but it’s a huge problem. In terms of police, we do have a police complaint system that is internal to the police as well as an independent complaint system and a judicial review process. But our experience has been that the police process doesn’t work. In one case, someone was picked up by the police under the anti-terror laws. He suffered 50 injuries, several of them life-threatening, from a police beating. The case, went through the complaint process, which identified two officers to be investigated. The police investigated these officers and decided that they should be commended for bravery! So, the family took the issue to the civil courts. On the second day of the trial, the police said that they accept all the charges except one and that they would pay 60,000 pounds in damages. But they would not apologize. One of the charges they accepted was that their officer forced the young man into a prostrate position, kicked him, and then said, “Where is your god now?” They admitted this, but they refuse to apologize. So, what do we have to do?

Arzu Merali: This case only went forward because the family pushed it and pushed it and pushed it.

Massoud Shadjareh: Who else is willing to fight for six years? We are trying to find another way to resolve these complaints through conflict resolution. These cases cost a huge amount of money and they don’t go anywhere. They are fighting for years, but this case could have been resolved much earlier. Also, if you look at the charges brought against the police, 80% of the complaints are by Muslim police officers.

Massoud Shadjareh: Our cases are only the tip of iceberg. We can’t even advertise that we do this work or else we’d be overwhelmed.

Arzu Merali: The police are not trained to catalog incidents according to religious hatred. There is no standard format from borough to borough. I was on a panel with a police representative once and he said that they only had six cases of Islamophobia to report the previous year. I started laughing because we had that number in our office just in that week.

There are a few foundations around to support this kind of third-party reporting of Islamophobia. The Rowntree Trust, which supports our work, was attacked by the British National Party, and the issue was taken to the Charities Commission. To their credit, Rowntree resisted that harassment. Under the Labor government, a lot of the government money went to community organizations, but the rules were changed regarding funding, so that prevented funding to ‘single issue organizations.’ So for instance, you could no longer get funding as a Muslim organization addressing women in a Muslim community — you had to deal with everyone. But that brings us back to the situation of being an alienated community with no access to services. So the money dried up. Later, money was available under the Prevent Terrorism agenda, which was supposed to deal with radicalization. All the organizations that lost funding had to retarget to address radicalization.

John Feffer: Can you talk about the British government’s Preventing Violent Extremism (Prevent) program, which began in 2006?

Arzu Merali: We were concerned about the Prevent agenda. It promoted a generalized notion of radicalization. All discussion of Muslims was subsumed under a securitized agenda. It was no longer about social problems. It was all about not wanting Muslims to be poor so that they don’t strap bombs around themselves and blow themselves up. They would give money to a youth club to buy a pool table to get young people off the streets so they don’t blow themselves up – it was that crude. Yes, there are people who have unsavory ideas. But that should not be confused with all the other complex issues connected to Muslims and other minorities.

A lot of young people who are active on these issues consider the Muslim organizations that cooperate with the Prevent Terrorism agenda to be complicit with the government. It was not seen as a badge of honor. They felt that they were being spied on.

Massoud Shadjareh: The basic assumption of the Prevent program was that the whole community is criminal or potentially criminal. Unless you change that assumption, you can’t make any change. If you mix up issue of security with cohesion, you get neither. The new government here in Britain wants to create a new Islam. In order to do that, the government has to recruit members and give them the resources to create this new Islam. It’s a very colonial mentality . It didn’t work in colonial days and it won’t work in London or Paris or New York today.

Arzu Merali: This approach depoliticizes people. So that they drop out of the system and possibly become violent.

Massoud Shadjareh: The British government doesn’t want people to have grievances. But people always have grievances.

Arzu Merali: Tony Blair once said that Muslims have a false “sense of grievance.”

Massoud Shadjareh: Once you go down that route, you’re saying that people have to change before we even talk with them. Rather than giving them avenues to address their grievances, right or wrong, you push them toward other things. I’m not saying that they become terrorists, but other problems begin to emerge. When it comes to policies on cohesion and so on, is it better here than in Europe and the United States? I would say yes. But we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re going in the direction of France.

Arzu Merali: You would never hear British politicians talking about European policy favorably. But now you hear politicians talk favorably about the hijab ban in France, and so on.

There was an article recently, in The Guardian, that British security found recordings in Afghanistan of fighters with British accents. Now they have AVACs flying over Britain picking up voices to match those voices. That’s absurd, to have all our voices recorded and checked!

Arzu Merali: There was a protest here in London in front of the Israeli embassy to protest the Gaza blockade. The legacy is frightening. The police did profiling of demonstrators. There were arrests. One 15-year old, who threw a plastic bottle at the Israeli embassy, received a two-year sentence. They broke down the door of his place at 5 a.m. to arrest him.

Massoud Shadjareh: The police are not using the same tactics against the students in the current demonstrations here even though there is much more violence. I was at a meeting with a police officer and I said there was some violence at the Gaza protest. But the police officer turned to me and said it wasn’t that bad. Someone somewhere decided that those protestors should be taught a lesson.

Some of the things happening here are similar to what happened in the former Soviet Union. We were outraged then and rightly so. But now? I would prefer to see people given an opportunity to write letters of complaint and get a response. I would prefer to see people organizing meetings and officials coming to talk with young people. Unfortunately, that is not happening. We are seeing a process of dealing with the Muslim community in Britain the way Irish republicans were dealt with in Ireland. These comparisons are made all the time by British officials. Yes, there is a comparison in the way people are being dealt with. But there is a difference in the grievance. The Muslim community here doesn’t believe it is occupied. There is no collective support of al-Qaeda as there was support in Ireland of the IRA. It wasn’t right in Ireland either. And it didn’t work.

John Feffer: There’s been a resurgence of the far right in England. What’s been its connection to anti-Islamic sentiment?

Arzu Merali: The British National Party is led by Nick Griffin, a Cambridge graduate. He’s much slicker than his predecessors. He’s widely understood to be a fascist, but he has managed to avoid that classification even though members of that group and offshoots have allegedly been involved in violent actions on streets. They’re doing aggressive outreach – as reported in The Independent – to women’s groups, people with disabilities. They’re targeting other minorities to gang up against Muslims.

Massoud Shadjareh: They’re well-organize and well-financed. The English Defense League has business backers. The rise of fascism is not a myth any more in Europe. Here’s an example. Pro-Palestinian groups, 90 percent of which are white British, are boycotting a shop that’s bringing in Israeli goods. The EDL comes out in support of the shop. There’s a photo of a representative of a Zionist organization standing next to the EDL representative. When it went public, the head of the Zionist federation said it had been photo-shopped. The photographer stood by his photo, so the Zionist federation had to retract. If that kind of connection is taking place in public, you have to worry about what’s taking place in private.

John Feffer: Can you talk about how Muslims in Britain have engaged in politics?

Arzu Merali: In this country, Muslims have always had a high voter turnout, higher than the rest of the population. Muslims also tended to vote for Labor, particularly in the north of England. The younger generation tries to be savvier. Some vote conservative, and they’re happy their time has come.

Massoud Shadjareh: Muslim politicians are going into political parties. But they are the ones to benefit from this scenario rather than the community. They are representative of the party in the community rather than representative of the community in the political system. Look at their voting pattern. Muslim politicians voted for all the anti-terror law, for the law on detaining people for 42 days without charges, for the “terror glorification” bill. Sadiq Khan chaired the legal section of the Muslim Council of Britain and even he votes that way. He benefited because he became a minister in a very short time. I don’t believe in tokenism. Even if we have the number of representatives in parliament in proportion to our numbers in the population, it won’t resolve anything.

Arzu Merali: Some Muslim orgs argue that Muslims have to be more involved in politics. If you vote your problems will be solved – like if you pray, your problems will be answered. They look at the Zionist lobby and say, “we want that.” But we think that’s kind of scary. We don’t want to promote a chauvinist agenda.

Massoud Shadjareh: As Muslims and as citizens, we have to be concerned with the whole society, not just Muslims. We want a fairer and more just society for all.

Arzu Merali: We’ve had an Islamic Party of Britain for several decades. But it hasn’t really been able to make any gains. We don’t have a religious party tradition here in England. There’s no Christian Democratic party. The head of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is criticized for sticking his nose into politics.

John Feffer: The IHRC has gotten a lot of attention for the Islamophobia Awards. Can you talk a little about that?

Massoud Shadjareh: With our Islamophobia Awards we are using satire to address a serious issue. It also gives the Muslim community a chance to be funny. It‘s a way to show people we’re not just an angry mob. We haven’t done it in a couple years. For the coming year, we’ll hold a virtual one. Nationally and internationally, everyone loves it. Even Nick Griffin genuinely accepted his award. We also give out a Best Practice award.

Arzu Merali: For instance, a football player was slurred Islamophobically. The referee didn’t do anything. In fact, he gave a yellow card to the player who was slurred. The club manager, Gareth Southgate, came out in support of his player. It was unusual because football managers are usually not expected to act this way. So we gave the manager an award. We also gave one to a coach of a taekwondo team. They were taking part in a game in France and one of the kids on the team was wearing a head scarf. The competition insisted that she take off her head scarf. So the coach pulled the entire team out of the contest in protest. And the whole team agreed.

Massoud Shadjareh is the chair and Arzu Merali the director of research of the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London. John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.