Bari is hope for British Muslims 

By Dr Anthony McRoy 

Church Newspaper Number: 5824 Date: June 16 

The Evangelical Alliance last week welcomed the election of Dr Abdul Bari as Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in succession to Sir Iqbal Sacranie. The Evangelical Alliance noted Bari’s “particular interest in the family and youth issues” and looked forward to working with Dr Bari on these challenging matters facing Britain today. 

Bari is the first person of Bangladeshi origins to become MCB leader. More significantly, Bari is known for his intellectual prowess. Released details of his biography tell us that he is ‘an educationalist with a PhD and PGCE from King’s College, London, and has a management degree from the Open University. He has worked as an Air Force Officer, Researcher in Physics, Science Teacher and as SEN Specialist in London.’ Bari has a winsome personality, and is impressive in face-to-face meetings, able to give a polished performance in interviews. This suggests that Bari will be an effective force in negotiating the welfare of his community. Of particular interest to Christians is his commitment to inter-faith community relations. The MCB statement on his election revealed that: “He is a member of the Inner Cities Religious Council and Pan-London Advisory Group on Faith.” 

Two years ago, at my invitation, he met a group of visiting American evangelical seminary students, and they were impressed by his intelligent, cordial manner, and honest responses to difficult questions. Ironically, his open attitude to good relations between the faith communities led Omar Bakri Muhammad’s supporters, the ‘Saved Sect’, to denounce him. A release entitled ‘Blair’s New Poodle’ observed that in a BBC interview Bari refused to condemn Hindus, after he declared that ‘denouncing any faith is not acceptable in Islam’, leading the Sect to imply that Bari was a hell-bound apostate, and jeered that he would be enjoying ‘ham sandwiches’ at Downing Street! His election comes at a tense time for British Muslims. The occupation of Iraq remains a running sore for the community, and there is considerable anger about the imposition of EU sanctions on the newly-elected HAMAS government in Palestine, as well as the prospect of war with Iran. However, the most pressing issue for the community is the recent raid on a Muslim house in Newham, where a young Muslim was shot. A local Muslim leader told me that the community is ‘seething’ about the whole incident. Bari responded quickly, visiting the family, and expressing the community’s concern about the raid.

This demonstrates another aspect of Bari’s character: he is no ivory-tower academic, but someone who rushes to the front-line to engage with issues. He has expressed concern about the ‘alienation’ of Muslim youth (which results largely from foreign policy issues, Islamophobia and terrorism legislation) which is driving some to ‘extremism’. Muslim youth are increasingly alienated from their leadership, and Bari has acknowledged that the MCB cannot claim to speak for all UK Muslims. Much of this alienation has resulted from the perception that the MCB has been too close to New Labour, urging a vote for them despite Iraq; the 7/7 leader, Mohammed Siddique Khan, denounced British Muslim leaders in his video. 

Bari’s election may lead to a new direction in this area. Bari was the founding Central President of Islamic Forum Europe (IFE), formed in 1988. IFE is ideologically linked to the views of the Pakistani Islamist Abu’l A’la Mawdudi and his party, the Jama’at i-Islami – although, and this must be stressed, its ideology has been contextualised for the UK. Although Bari represents the whole MCB and not just IFE his ideological background may influence his approach to various issues. Mawdudi presented a vision of the Islamic State as a ‘democratic caliphate’. Hence, participation in British democratic structures, considered sinful by some Muslims, poses no problems for IFE. Rather, IFE is determinedly activist and seeks to influence British domestic and foreign policy. 

Bari is also Chair of the East London Mosque in Whitechapel, where in the 2005 General Election, Labour MP Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow was replaced by George Galloway of RESPECT. It is well known that the Iraq war was a major cause of Muslim support for RESPECT, and the group secured 12 councillors in Tower Hamlets in 2006. IFE emphasised the contribution of foreign policy issues to the 2005 result in its May, 6, 2005 release: The Islamic Forum Europe (IFE) ran a successful campaign to encourage Muslims to use their vote and participate in the political process, pointing out that Islam expects Muslims to do whatever they can to establish justice and to better society. 

IFE strongly opposed the war in Iraq, along with the majority of British people. The election results, particularly in constituencies like Bethnal Green and Bow, show that the Labour party cannot take the Muslim vote for granted… IFE condemns those politicians and commentators who dismissed the importance of the Iraq issue… These combined factors may indicate that under Bari the MCB may not be as close to New Labour as previously. If Bari is to regain the confidence of Muslim youth in their leaders and motivate them away from extremism, he may have to demonstrate that contrary to the ‘Saved Sect’ jeer, he not Blair’s ‘poodle’. He has already expressed restrained disquiet about the Newham raid.

Addressing the public image of British Muslims after 7/7, dealing with issues of Islamophobia – including the election success of the militantly Islamophobic British National Party in east London – and supremely, directing the anger of the Muslim community about Iraq and anti-terrorist legislation, particularly among Muslim youth, are the most pressing issues facing Bari. To divert young Muslims from violent extremism, Bari will have to present a peaceful, democratic but effective strategy on foreign policy and terrorism legislation. Bari may have the tools for the job. His intellect, charm, concern and even his ideological background – since it marks him out as anything but a ‘poodle’ — may just be what is needed. He deserves our prayers in this, since his performance may well help to prevent another 7/7. 

Dr. Anthony McRoy is an expert in Islam 

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