Over the last two weeks, a flurry of amateur YouTube videos have emerged, chronicling the activities of self-appointed ‘moral vigilantes.’
Storming the streets of Tower Hamlets, they took it upon themselves to ‘confiscate’ bottles of alcohol in the clutches of public drinkers, and harassed women whose dress codes fell short of their own particular definition of modesty (which, I’m guessing, is around 99% of the UK female population, including the Muslims).
On top of this, they hurled verbal abuse at a stranger who they perceived to be homosexual. The victim has now come forward and made himself known to the police, while there have been arrests of his suspected tormentors.
The juxtaposition between the thuggish attitudes of these youths and their hyper-puritanical preaching is a deeply uncomfortable one.
It has, perhaps, been stoked by the banned group Al-Muhajiroun.
Fortunately, we have nothing to fear in terms of this particular group gaining influence in the UK; they are loathed by liberal and conservative Muslims alike.
Consequently, it was heartening to see public condemnation of the ‘Muslim Patrols’ by various groups and individuals.
While anyone who knows me realises that I have no truck with the orthodox Tablighi Jamaat movement, I was pleased to come across Sheikh Shams Ad Duha’s clever YouTube riposte.
An imam at the Ebrahim College in Whitechapel, Ad Duha slammed the men for behaving like ‘complete bigots’ and explained how Muslims are not permitted to damage ‘the wine and pork stocks’ of non-Muslims, even in majority-Muslim countries. This was all done with recourse to Islamic law.
Leicester-based imam and Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) Assistant Secretary General Ibrahim Mogra also came in for praise for his YouTube response to the patrols, from none other than veteran activist Peter Tatchell.
However, Tatchell was less impressed with the Muslim Council of Britain overall, for their attitude towards gay marriage.
Having launched a petition to oppose this (in common with organisations representing other religious traditions), they are now lobbying for the same legal exemptions as the Church of England in terms of holding same-sex weddings.
It is worth pointing out that this is completely unnecessary.
As Culture Secretary Maria Miller explained to the House of Commons in December 2012, she is already putting in place a ‘quadruple lock’ of measures to guarantee that religious organisations will not be forced to marry same-sex couples.
This strikes a sensible balance between the sometimes conflicting rights of LGBT people and religious minorities (I used to grapple with these conflicts on a regular basis, alongside my former colleagues at the Equality and Human Rights Commission).
Baroness Warsi seems to think so as well; she recently announced she would be voting in favor of the gay marriage legislation, as long as religious institutions were not forced to hold these ceremonies.
In my current role as Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, what bothers me most is not the blatant extremist messaging of fringe groups like Al-Muhajiroun (worrisome though it is), but the kind of low-level intimidation and bullying that is often perpetrated against dissenters within faith communities.
I know many Muslims who agree with my liberal views on the rights of women and LGBT people, but are too afraid to speak out, lest they fall prey to some twisted blogger or vile Tweeter.
I have lost count of the number of homosexuality discussions I’ve witnessed on Facebook that have descended into mud-slinging and declarations of ‘kuffar’ - IE denouncing one’s opponents as being outside the fold of Islam.
Most people don’t realize how challenging my kind of work is, and how it takes an even greater toll on employees than regular charity work, which is largely comprised of uncontroversial concepts like cleaner drinking water in third-world countries.
Fortunately, all is not lost and these dissident groups of Muslims are starting to form organized blocs.
The newly-launched Inclusive Mosque Initiative is all about providing a safe space for Muslims to pray, regardless of their sexuality or sectarian affiliations.
The Phoenix Initiative’s ‘Nothing Holy About Hatred’ campaign aims to unite members of different faith communities in denouncing homophobia, and making clear that there is no room for bigotry – supposedly religiously-sanctioned or otherwise – in our fair country.
Long live these initiatives, and the brave people behind them.
Tehmina Kazi is director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, an organization which aims to raise awareness within British Muslims and the wider public, of democracy particularly ‘secular democracy’ helping to contribute to a shared vision of citizenship (the separation of faith and state, so faiths exert no undue influence on policies and there is a shared public space).
It also aims to encourage religious understanding and harmony, respect for different systems of beliefs, and an understanding and celebration of the variety of Muslim cultures, values and traditions which are present in British society.