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Last Updated: Friday, 30 September 2005, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
Panorama rejects Muslim complaint
Muslims at prayer

Panorama has sent a robust defence of its programme about Britain's Muslim leadership following complaints from the Muslim Council of Britain.

The MCB, an umbrella organisation for around 400 mosques and other Islamic groups, claimed that A Question of Leadership was "dishonestly presented, mischievously edited and clearly aimed at maligning the Muslim Council of Britain and its major affiliates... without regard for the facts".

In his response, Panorama editor Mike Robinson described the allegations as "about as grave a complaint as it is possible to make."

The programme examined questions raised by senior members of the Muslim community about the leadership of the MCB, widely regarded as the foremost mainstream Muslim lobby group in the UK.

It explored the extent to which the MCB condones ideas promoted by some of its affiliates which can feed the kind of extremism that led to the July bombs in London.

"In denial"

Mehboob Kantharia, a former member of the MCB's policy making committee, expressed the view that the MCB was "in denial" about the scale of the problem.

"A lot of them still live in a state of denial. They cannot become real, you know, sort of like, forthright, really forthright about wanting to do something about the kind of extremism that prevails", he said.

Among the MCB affiliate members singled out in A Question of Leadership was the Leicester based Islamic Foundation. It was set up by members of Pakistan's Jamaat-i-Islami opposition party, which wants Pakistan to become an Islamic state governed by Sharia holy law.
Iqbal Sacranie
The Muslim Council of Britain, headed by Sir Iqbal Sacranie, posted its complaints on its website

Panorama claimed that the Islamic Foundation promoted fundamentalist commentaries written by the Jamaat-i-Islami founder and political philosopher Mawlana Mawdudi.

MCB opposition to the Panorama programme was made public even before it was broadcast on August 21. The MCB accused the BBC of "pro-Israeli bias" in the conduct of the interview with its Secretary General, Sir Iqbal Sacranie.

In the interview, John Ware quizzed Sir Iqbal about his stance on Palestinian suicide bombers, his decision to boycott Holocaust Memorial Day last January and his attendance at a memorial service for Sheikh Yassin, spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group, Hamas.

Panorama has sent a detailed and strongly worded letter to the MCB in response to several complaints made since the broadcast.

Editor Mike Robinson wrote: "I have found there to be no truth in your claims that this programme was dishonestly presented, maliciously motivated or Islamophobic.

John Ware
Reporter John Ware did intensive research before and after the London bombs
"The programme's purpose was to reflect, inform and generate debate in the Muslim community and the wider population about the nature and direction of the leadership of British Muslims.

"In the light of the London bombings this is a debate which many Muslims to whom we spoke believe is long overdue.

"As this debate goes forward I very much hope that you will desist from unwarranted and wildly inaccurate attacks on the honesty of our journalism."


Key allegations

Below are extracts from the complaint made by Inayat Bunglawala, on behalf of the Muslim Council of Britain, and from the reply sent by Mike Robinson, editor of Panorama.

MCB "in denial"

MCB complaint

The programme portrayed the MCB as being 'in denial' about extremism. The MCB makes no claims about perfection and we do have many shortcomings. However, it was deeply unfair of the Panorama team not to make mention of the MCB's efforts to help promote the common good by sending a letter following the Madrid bombings to every Islamic organisation and mosque in the country urging vigilance against the terror threat and cooperation with the police. In addition, in September 2004, the MCB printed 500,000 copies of a Pocket Guide on Rights and Responsibilities. This contained a section on 'Vigilance and the Terror Threat' in which we prominently printed the Anti-Terror Hotline Number. Why was this not mentioned, is it because it would have undermined the 'denial' case that John Ware was trying to build?

Panorama response

The programme was about sectarianism and other attitudes which can fuel extremism. Two key questions which the Panorama team's extensive research generated were: whether the leaders of the MCB acknowledge the extent to which these ideas are present inside the Muslim communities in Britain, and the degree to which the MCB feels it should discharge a leadership function in addressing these issues. The relevant passage in the script is:

"Extremism feeds off a conviction that Islam is a superior faith and culture which Christians and Jews in the West are conspiring to undermine. My journey through Muslim communities since the London bombings suggests their leaders have not acknowledged the extent to which these views are held in Britain."

I trust you are not suggesting that the programme portrayed the MCB as denying the existence of extremism. One of the first clips showed Sir Iqbal Sacranie stating outside 10 Downing Street that it was now important for the Muslim community to deal with extremism. He said: "The Muslim community is determined to deal with this issue head-on".

The programme team was well aware of the leaflets and letter you mention. Neither addresses the issues and questions which we raised in the programme. They address the possibility of a terrorist attack in Britain. Our programme at no point suggested that the MCB was not aware of such a threat. Therefore, to suggest that by not mentioning the leaflets the programme was "dishonest" is without foundation.

I note that your letter to mosques and organisations after the Madrid bombs gave some direction to Imams concerning the content of their sermons - although Sir Iqbal Sacranie didn't accept that was part of the MCB's leadership responsibility when asked by John Ware about some of the sermons given in the Leeds Grand Mosque. These sermons alleged there was a "deliberate" conspiracy between Christians and Jews to undermine Islam: "...the treatment of Muslim prisoners on Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Zionist prisons in Palestine. All this is the result of a poisoned culture and is deliberate."; they spoke of a "vicious Zionist-Crusader attack, godless and full of hatred on this Ummah"; and: "We know the reason behind the United States attack on the Muslim World - we have come to see only their plotting to decrease the faith.."

As John Ware said, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war, there is no evidence to show that what was driving the Prime Minister was a determination to "decrease" the Islamic faith.

You have claimed that the programme maligned certain organisations affiliated to the MCB, even though the programme highlighted their sermons, documents and conduct which were sectarian or which demonised other faiths and races, and which were likely to foment division. Such views were either advocated by these affiliates or appeared to be tolerated by them.

You have also publicly accused us of being engaged in a "witch-hunt against British Muslims." I simply cannot accept that highlighting sectarian and racist language amounts to persecution.

You have expressed scepticism that Sheikh Al Sudais, who was an honoured guest at the East London Mosque where the MCB's Deputy General Secretary is Chairman, had previously said in Mecca that Jews were "monkeys and pigs", "rats of the world" and the "offspring of apes and pigs"; that Christians were "cross worshippers... those influenced by the rottenness of their ideas and the poison of their cultures the followers of secularism", and that Hindus were "idol worshippers."

I can assure you that he did. His sermons are available from a Saudi website covering mosques in the holy cities of Medina and Mecca and the translation we used was verified by BBC Monitoring, a fluent Arab speaker on our production team, and a translator outside the BBC.

Bias and Israel

MCB complaint

John Ware's programme made a pretence of being impartial and nowhere was this more clearly exposed than in the section about the Israel/Palestine conflict. It is worth quoting Ware in full:

"The Israel Palestine conflict is over land and holy sites. It's a rallying cry for young martyrs in the global ummah. Islamist groups like Hamas have used terrorist tactics against Israel because they want to destroy it. Israeli military operations targeting the Islamists have also caused many civilian deaths."

Ware tried to sound balanced to the unsuspecting viewer. Yet we would not have known from listening to Ware that it is the Israelis who for decades now have been illegally occupying Palestinian lands in defiance of numerous UN resolutions. We were told by Ware that Hamas use "terrorist tactics" against Israel but were not told about terrorist methods used by Israel against Palestinians.

Panorama response

This film was not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was not the place to explore in detail its complexity, and in any event it is extensively reported on the BBC. As I have made clear to you before, I reject the slur that the programme was driven by a "pro-Israeli agenda".

The MCB says the targeting of civilians is unacceptable. I understand that you yourself have recently stated: "There should be 'universal' acceptance that to use violence against innocent people to change the policies of the UK government, or any other for that matter, is completely unacceptable and a perversion of Islamic teachings." [IslamOnline, Live Dialogue Sept 12 2005]. I assume that by "any other" you also include the government of Israel? There is no dispute at all that Hamas has targeted hundreds of Israeli civilians in buses and bars and the like.

Yet, you yourself have referred to Hamas as "an authentic Islamic movement - a source of comfort for Muslims all over the world"; and when in 2001 the Home Secretary added Hamas to a list of banned Islamist groups you complained that he was "making no distinction between legitimate resistance and terrorist groups."

Also, in his interview with John Ware, Sir Iqbal Sacranie suggested that Hamas were freedom fighters, comparing Shaykh Yasin - who supported and instigated suicide bombings against civilians - with Gandhi, even though Ghandi was totally opposed to such tactics.

Therefore, by questioning Sir Iqbal on inconsistencies like these in the MCB's position on suicide bombings, John Ware was pursuing a wholly legitimate issue. That is journalistic inquiry. It is not holding an agenda.

To underline the absence of an agenda, in his interviews with both Sir Iqbal Sacranie and Dr Azzam Tamimi, John made it quite clear that the issue of targeting civilians in Israel was separate from the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shabina Begum/Jilbab

MCB complaint

Dr Taj Hargey was quoted as saying that the jilbab has: "no validity in Islam whatsoever. There is no religious verse, there is no Qur'anic ayah, there is nothing in the Qur'an that says you must wear the jilbab." Dr Hargey's assertion that there is nothing in the Qur'an about the jilbab is quite simply wrong. We would refer Dr Hargey to Surat al Ahzab (al Qur'an 33:59) where the Arabic word 'jalabib' (plural of jilbab) clearly occurs in connection with the recommended dress for the Prophet's wives and 'nisaa al mu'mineen' (believing women). It was unacceptable of John Ware's Panorama team to have let Dr Hargey's assertion once again go unchallenged.

Panorama response

Not for the first time you criticise the film for something that it did not say. Dr Hargey did not state that "there is nothing in the Qur'an about the jilbab". He stated that the Qur'an did not require women to wear the jilbab. In the programme he said:

"Jilbab is a cultural phenomenon. It is not a religious thing. There is no religious verse, there is no Qur'anic ayah, there is nothing in the Qur'an that says you must wear the jilbab."

Dr Hargey did not say in the film that the jilbab has "no validity is Islam whatsoever". It may have been there in the version of the script available at the press screening three days before transmission, but as that copy of the script made clear at the top - "Please check against transmission". These words were not included in the film at his request, on the grounds that, though in his view accurate, it was contentious and could possibly distract from the point he wished to make, namely that nothing in the Qur'an requires the wearing of the clothing today known as the jilbab.

You complain that Dr Hargey's views were not challenged in the programme. This misses the point. The issue of the jilbab was presented in the script as a debate within Muslim communities:

"The case has provoked much heated debate, especially within Muslim communities."

The programme carried footage of Shabina Begum herself, in which she stated her case. The commentary says:

"This is Shabina Begum. She took her school to court demanding the right to wear this robe that flows down to the ankles. It's called a Jilbab. Shabina claimed it was her religious right to wear this loose fitting robe."

Then Shabina Begum is shown saying: "As a young woman growing up in then post 9/11 Britain I have witnessed a great deal of bigotry from the media, politicians, legal officials; this bigotry resulted from my choice to wear a piece of cloth, not out of force but out of my faith and belief in Islam."

Once again your actual complaint does not withstand scrutiny. Moreover, your own position appears inconsistent.

Dr Hargey was making it clear there is no Qur'anic imperative to wear the jilbab, which is consistent with the MCB's formal advice to schools in similar cases, as has been pointed out to us by viewers since the programme was broadcast. Viewers have pointed us to advice given to Denbigh High School prior to the Begum case (see para 29 Begum v Denbigh High School [2005] EWHC 1389 (Admin)). It appears that the MCB has supported uniform not dissimilar to standards laid down by Denbigh High School until Shabina Begum brought her case.

This information is as follows:

"On 30 September Mr Shahid Akmal, Chairman of the Comparative Religion Centre in Harrow wrote to Mr Moore [assistant headmaster of Denbigh High], enclosing advice from the Muslim Council of Britain (my emphasis) setting out the dress code for women in Islam. This included:-

(i) there is no recommended style

(ii) modesty needs to be observed at all times

(iii) trousers with long tops/shirts for school wear are absolutely fine

(iv) a Muslim school girl's uniform does not have to be flowing or of such length that there will be a risk of tripping over and causing an accident.

Mr Akmal wrote:- "In summary, the dress code prescribed by your school for Muslim females as per your 'School Uniform Requirements' leaflet is in accordance with the tenets of Islam."

It seems that the MCB has considered the uniform requirements at Denbigh High School to be sufficient to meet the requirements of modesty mentioned in the Qur'an.

Mawlana Mawdudi

MCB complaint

The Panorama programme presented a quotation of Mawlana Mawdudi as saying that an Islamic state - which his party Jamaat-i-Islami continues to campaign for - bears: "a kind of resemblance to the fascist and communist states." The purpose of Panorama quoting this line seems to us clearly to try and create a certain negative impression in the minds of its viewers about the MCB affiliate, the Islamic Foundation, whose Chairman, Professor Khurshid Ahmad, is a prominent member of the Jamaat-i-Islami party.

It is well known that it is possible through mischievous editing to choose carefully selected lines from the writings of just about any author which will then make it appear to suggest he is saying the polar opposite of his actual words. This task is made all the more easier if viewers are shown the writings of a foreign author who was writing in a rather different time and place. What is less well known is that programmes such as the BBC's Panorama would indulge in this kind of manifestly dishonest practice. Compare the above quotation that Ware provided his viewers with the actual full quotation from Mawdudi's book, Islamic Law and Constitution:

"Considered from this aspect the Islamic State bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states. But you will find later on that, despite its all-inclusiveness, it is something vastly and basically different from the totalitarian and authoritarian states. Individual liberty is not suppressed under it nor is there any trace of dictatorship in it. It presents the middle course and embodies the best that the human society has ever evolved."

In the full quotation, it is evident that Mawdudi was actually saying something quite different from what the carefully selected quote that Panorama used, said.

Panorama response

As the programme script makes clear, the Islamic Foundation considers Mawdudi's work to be "fully relevant to the concerns of our day".

I have looked carefully at this matter and in challenging the Foundation's claim, I do not believe the programme misrepresented Mawdudi's position. You claim to have provided the "the full quotation". You have not. The complete paragraph in which this quote appears reads thus:

"A state of this sort cannot evidently restrict the scope of its activities. Its approach is universal and all-embracing. Its sphere of activity is coextensive with the whole of human life. It seeks to mould every aspect of life and activity in consonance with its moral norms and programmes of social reform. In such a state, no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this perspective the Islamic State bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states. But you will find later on that, despite its all inclusiveness it is something vastly and basically different from the totalitarian and authoritarian states. Individual liberty is not suppressed under it nor is there any trace of dictatorship in it. It presents the middle course and embodies the best that the human society has ever evolved. The excellent balance and moderation that characterise the Islamic system of government and the precise distinctions made in it between right and wrong elicit from all men of honesty and intelligence the admiration and the admission that such a balanced system could not have been framed by anyone but the Omniscient and All-Wise God."

What the programme script actually said was this: "In Mawdudi's Islamic state, private and public life would be inseparable. In this respect (my emphasis) it would bear ....a kind of resemblance to the fascist and communist states..."

Given that Mawdudi writes that the Islamic state "seeks to mould every aspect of life and activity in consonance with its moral norms and programmes of social reform", the applicability of the reference to "a kind of resemblance to Fascist and Communist states" is clear.

The commentary in the film limited the application of this Mawdudi quote to precisely the same limits as he did in writing the above paragraph, namely: in respect of making private and public life inseparable.

We did this because the Panorama team adjudged the first part of Mawdudi's commentary to be a description of how he wanted his Islamic state to appear and reported it as such:

"[An Islamic State] seeks to mould every aspect of life and activity in consonance with its moral norms and programmes of social reform. In such a state, no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this perspective the Islamic State bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states".

The next few lines we considered to be a claim about the nature of his Islamic state: "...something vastly and basically different from the totalitarian and authoritarian states. Individual liberty is not suppressed under it nor is there any trace of dictatorship in it. It presents the middle course and embodies the best that the human society has ever evolved."

This claim was one that the production team and I considered as flying in the face of known facts about Mawdudi's own values. The team's further reading of Mawdudi in research for the programme, revealed that whilst in theory he would have allowed non-Muslims to practise their faith, in practice he was, as an expert on Mawdudi, Richard Bonney Professor of Modern History at University of Leicester, has noted, "no pluralist, rejecting the idea that two or more systems of belief and government could co-exist harmoniously within the same state."

Mawdudi himself explained that there would be two types of citizenship in his Utopian Islamic state: Muslims and "Zimmis" [Non Muslims.] Provided "Zimmis" were "loyal and obedient to the Islamic state" their property, lives and freedom to worship would be protected. However they would not be "eligible for ... employment ... for key posts." Only Muslims could have that privilege "so that the basic policy of this ideological state remains in conformity with the fundamentals of Islam."

Of course no such discrimination in respect of faiths applies in Britain. Many commentators have concurred that in Mawdudi's Islamic state non-Muslims would have second class status.

Moreover, apart from the right to life itself, as Bonney also notes, perhaps the most important human right is the right to freedom of belief, which itself implies the freedom to change one's religion. "Not so for Mawdudi" says Bonney. It seems that in Mawdudi's eyes, Muslims who did wish to change their belief would be guilty of apostasy and executed. As the programme team's research showed, Mawdudi's views on apostasy appear to have been sanitised for Western consumption.

As Bonney reports, Mawdudi has been accused of "dishonesty on the question of freedom of belief. In his pamphlet Human Rights in Islam, which was first published in the UK in 1976, Mawdudi directed his arguments towards a western audience and made no mention of the doctrine of apostasy. Instead he concentrated on the Qur'anic injunction that there should be no coercion in matters of faith (Q.2:56)." Mawdudi is reported to have declared in Pakistan that apostasy was punishable by death, whereas here he has made no mention of this. Bonney also quotes Ishtiaq Ahmed [Associate Professor Department of Political Science, Stockholm University] as concluding that Mawdudi emerges as "an ideologue of state might and an opponent of human freedom and equality."



SEE ALSO
A Question of Leadership
21 Aug 05 |  Panorama
Programme transcript
16 Sep 05 |  Panorama

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