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Joan Smith: These preachers of hate must be exposed

The decision to investigate the Wahhabi influence in British mosques cannot be faulted

Published: 14 August 2007

In January last year, the Government suffered two shock defeats when MPs refused to overturn amendments made in the Lords to one of its flagship bills. The second division was lost by a single vote: the slenderest of majorities, but sufficient, it now turns out, to save Channel 4 from a prosecution for incitement to religious hatred.

At the time, those of us who campaigned against aspects of the Racial and Religious Hatred bill were accused of being alarmist when we argued that the law would be used to prevent legitimate criticism of religion. But events of the past few days, farcical and outrageous in equal measure, have shown how right peers were to insist that an offence of incitement to religious hatred has to be intentional.

Had ministers got their way, I am in little doubt that Channel 4's executives would now be facing a court appearance, accused of stirring up religious hatred by transmitting an undercover documentary in which Islamic extremists from this country and Saudi Arabia railed against non-Muslims and indulged in misogynist, homophobic and anti-Semitic rants. (Yes, I know it doesn't make sense, but this is one of the rare occasions when the over-used adjective "Orwellian" is fully justified.)

Instead, after the Crown Prosecution Service reluctantly concluded that Channel 4 had not committed a criminal offence, its executives face an inquiry by the TV regulator Ofcom, prompted by a complaint from the CPS and an assistant chief constable at West Midlands police.

At one level, it is hard to think of a more preposterous series of events - if a senior policeman wants to try his hand at TV criticism, he could set up a blog and do it in his own time - but it also proves how right we were to suspect that the weight of the law might one day, in a climate where the mildest criticism of religion prompts hysterical over-reactions, be employed to transform culprits into victims.

On any sensible reading of events, that is what has happened here and you might be forgiven for not realising, amid heated accusations linking the documentary Undercover Mosque to allegations of fakery at the BBC, that the programme set out not to slander Islam as such but to investigate the extent of Wahhabi influence in British mosques.

There has been concern for some time that this puritanical branch of Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia and is responsible for such delightful public entertainments as stonings, beheadings and cross-amputations, has been exported to British mosques. Channel 4 sent an undercover reporter to several Islamic centres - not just the Green Lane Mosque in Birmingham which has dominated discussion of the documentary's supposed shortcomings - but the bookshop of the London Central Mosque, usually known as Regent's Park Mosque, which is widely regarded as a centre of moderate, mainstream Islam.

There he was able to buy a video of Saudi-trained preacher Sheikh Feiz, who describes Jews as "pigs" and says that "kaffir" - an extremely pejorative name for non-believers - is "the worst word that can ever be written, a sign of infidelity, disbelief, filth, a sign of dirt".

Another DVD on sale in the bookshop featured a British-based convert called Sheikh Khalid Yasin, who studied Arabic in Saudi Arabia. In an excerpt from the DVD shown in the documentary, he says: "We don't need to go to the Christians or the Jews debating with them about the filth which they believe. We Muslims have been ordered to do brainwashing because the kuffaar they are doing brain defiling". He talks about Muslim children being "polluted" and "infected", claiming that "your children and you go out as Muslims and come back to the house as kaffirs".

The chief accusation against Undercover Mosque is that it has taken such remarks out of context. Unless the preachers in British mosques and on the videos and DVDs sold in their bookshops can be shown to have performed a dramatic volte-face on each occasion, denouncing what they have just said as the teaching of false imams, it is hard to see how this charge can be made to stick.

More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that the views expressed in the film are absolutely consistent with everything we know about Wahhabi Islam, which is described in the film by a Muslim academic, Dr Irfan al-Alawi, in the following terms: "Its principle is totalitarian, it's highly judgmental, it has no track record of dealing with other sorts of Islam or with unbelievers with any kind of respect."

People who seem to be considerably more familiar with the recent history of Islam than either the CPS or the West Midlands police believe that the problem of Islamic extremism in this country and elsewhere can be traced directly back to a deal between Wahhabi clerics and the Saudi royal family, who were happy to pour money into Saudi mosques and madrassas on condition that it would not be used to cause trouble at home.

Dismayed by the establishment of a Shia regime in Iran in 1979, the Saudi rulers were keen to see their own brand of Sunni Islam exported. King Faisal donated £2m towards the building of the Regent's Park Mosque, and King Fahd paid for the construction of a new educational and administrative wing in the 1990s. Few people realise that its director general is a Saudi diplomat.

This pattern has been repeated in many Western countries. A friend of mine, a British expert on Islam who was invited to teach at an American university a few years ago, was so alarmed by the extent of Wahhabi influence on the college and local mosques that he felt it necessary to alert the university authorities. But it was not just Saudi-trained imams who went abroad to spread the Wahhabi message. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, Saudi intelligence admitted that 25,000 young Saudi men had received military training abroad since 1979, the best-known being one Osama bin Laden.

Against this background, Channel 4's decision to investigate Wahhabi influence in British mosques cannot be faulted. The Channel's real offence, I suspect, lies in drawing attention to the idiocy of government ministers who have a history of accepting self-appointed "community leaders" as representatives of millions of law-abiding Muslims who do not go to mosques; even worse, they have failed to inquire closely enough into the kind of Islam which is being preached and promoted there.

It is hard to think of a more blatant example of shooting the messenger, but it is also worth bearing in mind that the situation could have been even worse. If the Government had got its way last year, Channel 4's executives might be facing not just an Ofcom inquiry but up to seven years in the slammer.

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