Page last updated at 12:53 GMT, Friday, 18 July 2008 13:53 UK

Analysis: Islam body for the UK

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs reporter

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"Guarding the self against committing adultery and fornication is achieved by avoiding its causes and there can be no doubt that leaving eyes free to gaze and the mixing of men and women at work… are some of its major causes."

So says the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia in a booklet about women in the workplace available in Islamic bookshops around the UK.

And it is this clash of ideas between a particular religious take on the world and the reality of modern Britain that is at the heart of what could become an extremely controversial government move.

The Department for Communities is responsible for driving the "Prevent" package of measures in the government's counter-terrorism strategy.

It has been placing bets on projects and initiatives which it hopes will strengthen the hand of mainstream Muslims and marginalise militants.

Its plan to fund an Islamic theology board at Cambridge and Oxford universities is an exceptionally high-risk move that is fraught with dangers for both communities and government.

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The thinking behind this body is relatively simple. Many scholars agree that they have long needed a helping hand in collating and disseminating their views on what it is to be a Muslim in the West.

Let us look at a practical issue. A young Muslim asks for a ruling on whether he or she can go to the pub as part of a leaving do for a much-admired colleague.

Scholar A says it's "haram" - totally forbidden to be in the presence of drink.

Scholar B says there is a greater good in strengthening society by being a good friend - and you can set a fine example by being convivial while sipping orange juice. Scholar C says the answer lies in the heart of the believer who has studied the Koran.

The pub question may appear trivial - but there are some raging debates among the grassroots. Should a Muslim fight in the British forces?

Parviz Khan was so enraged by that idea he plotted to kidnap a Muslim soldier in Birmingham and behead him on camera. He's now got a life sentence to rethink that plan.

But the reality is that for every question there are a multitude of answers - and a thousand websites offering different opinions.

The Islamic theocracy in the UK has been forever divided - and some thinkers say it needs unity and strength to counter ideologues who tell youngsters it's impossible to be both British and a Muslim.

This proposed theology board may help answer questions about citizenship (although it may struggle along with the rest of us to easily define what it is to be British) by bringing together a range of thinkers to push the debate.

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But in this battle for hearts and minds, there are huge challenges for government.

There are already accusations that ministers are repeating what some communities see as the mistakes in the past - picking and choosing who they work with from a faith that is not organised.

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears says the theology board will be representative of Muslim communities.

But to date her department has very publicly shunned not just the hard-line fringe but also many core Muslim leaders whose views ministers find unpalatable.

Where the Foreign Office and elements of the Metropolitan Police have worked with hard-liners in the name of enlightened self-interest, they have come under sustained political and media attack.

Senior voices within Britain's Muslim communities say this board will need to include voices that will make government feel very uncomfortable - otherwise it will get nowhere at all.

FROM THE TODAY PROGRAMME

"There are people who support Hamas and their use of suicide bombings in Israel as a weapon of last resort," said one senior Muslim figure.

"There are people like me who support Hamas as freedom fighters but abhor their methods. And there are people who don't care at all about the plight of Palestinians.

"If this body is stuffed full of people from the third group, pretending the other two don't exist, it's doomed to fail. It will have no credibility at all."

Historic challenge

But there are bigger issues at stake than the niceties of political relations with small but vocal groups of activists.

For decades Islam has been slowly shifting into an ever more conservative mould, influenced by the huge amounts of cash thrown by the Saudi religious establishment at mosques around Europe.

There are many ordinary Muslims who want to shift the terms of debate back again.

And there are many Muslim thinkers in Europe who believe that the future of Islam lies in working out its relationship with the West.

This intellectual battle is emerging in Britain and France, the twin centres of Islam's exposure to a secular continent.

And if some of these ideas of how Islam sits with modernity can be exported back eastwards, there are many British-born Muslims and thinkers who would think that a rather good idea.




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