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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
From election launch to PR panic
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Angry scenes: Protesters stormed MCB launch
When a well-organised group of hecklers from a fringe, Islamist group stormed a general election event organised by the Muslim Council of Britain, it was a PR disaster the organisation could have done without.

In chaotic scenes, the young and angry demonstrators stormed into one of London's most prestigious mosques, denounced the MCB leadership, damned the prime minister as a devil and decreed that Muslims who voted committed crimes against their very being.

Iqbal Sacranie, the MCB chief well known for his easygoing manner, found himself slapped in the face.

Some of the great and the good of British Islam looked on with utter dejection as what was meant to be a reasoned gathering descended into a familiar scene of turmoil and embarrassment.

Disorder reigns: MCB chiefs tried to calm things down
The Muslim Council of Britain had organised the event at Regent's Park Mosque to talk about what Muslims want from the general election.

With simmering anger over Iraq, protests over anti-terrorism laws and fears of an anti-Islamic backlash, they said they had good cause to probe what the parties were doing for them.

Speakers said it was the civic duty of Muslims to vote and make their voice heard. The organisation announced a series of regional hustings to hopefully culminate with the prime minister himself appearing before Muslim voters.

But that's about as far as things got.

Regent's Park Mosque often has police on hand to protect worshippers from racial harassment. Today, a lone and slightly nervous security guard stood little chance against the dozen very angry young men who descended on the gathering.

Chairs were scattered as the group forced their way through to the press conference.

Hit: Iqbal Sacranie shoved on stairwell
Fists punched the air to an Islamic chant and cameras shifted their focus from the suit-wearing MCB to the slightly scruffy bunch of men, some of whom were masked.

"We are here to condemn you for apostasy!" shouted the lead figure with a self-possessed, absolute certainty. "Those Muslims who vote are Kafir [unbelievers]. Vote today and become Kafir tomorrow!"

Mild-mannered Sher Khan, the MCB's chair of public affairs, tried to speak up, to no avail. The demonstrators screamed: "You are the mouthpiece of the British government! You are Kafir - go to hell fire!"

The election document handed out to the media before the launch talked of 10 key concerns for British Muslims - poverty, education, Iraq, terrorism, discrimination and so on. This was replaced by a tirade denouncing the policy of western governments on everything from Chechnya to Abu Ghraib.

Leaflet: Denounced voting
On the stairwell, a demonstrator slapped a leaflet on to the forehead of Mr Sacranie. His colleague followed that up with an open-handed and aggressive shove in the MCB chief's face. The blow forced Mr Sacranie's head onto the wall as he absorbed the blow.

Mr Sacranie tried his best to make light of the incident. It was democracy in action, he mused, a good example of some of the anger felt among younger generations.

"In every community you have these fringe elements. It does not reflect the Muslim community.

"I asked these people one question: Is it part of Islam to behave in such a way? They did not answer."

Sadly for the MCB, the invasion should perhaps not have been entirely unexpected. Some of those behind it have turned up at previous high-profile Muslim gatherings and prompted chaos.

The leaflets given to journalists were in the name of "The Saviour Sect", but many senior Muslims said they believed the group included faces they had seen at stunts organised by Al Muhajiroun, a fringe group (whose members say has disbanded) best known for praising the 9/11 hijackers.

In any case, both organisations oppose participation in British political life.

Image problem?

The MCB may be quietly criticised by many Muslims (particularly the young and women) who feel it gets the access but not the influence, but it is undeniably supported in one way or another by many communities throughout the UK.

Let's face it, Muslims are not the flavour of the month right now and we have a massive PR job to do
Ali Miraj, Conservative candidate, Watford
That view was reinforced by presence of representatives from each of the main parties - the Liberal Democrat's Fiyaz Mughal (standing in Leicester East), Labour's Sadiq Khan (Tooting) and the Conservative's Ali Miraj (Watford).

The problem for the MCB leadership, however, is that it clearly does not represent all Muslim voices - and its efforts to face down fringe groups are like watching Labour's struggle with Militant in the 1980s - a fringe group that had a knack of stealing the headlines.

"Muslims in this country have to recognise that there is a growing cancer among young, vocal and disenchanted Muslims who do not want to engage," said Ali Miraj.

"We can't take an ostrich mentality, we have to tackle this issue head-on.

"Let's face it, Muslims are not the flavour of the month right now and we have a massive PR job to do."



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