Islam and Islam-related issues were omnipresent in Britain during the month of April 2014, and can be categorized into three broad themes: 1) The British government's growing concern over Islamic extremism and the domestic security implications of British jihadists in Syria; 2) The continuing spread of Islamic Sharia law in all aspects of British daily life; and 3) Ongoing questions of Muslim integration into British society.
1. Islamic Extremism and Syria-Related Threats
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced a "thorough probe" of the Muslim Brotherhood's activities in Britain. At a press conference, he said:
"We want to challenge the extremist narrative that some Islamist organisations have put out. What I think is important about the Muslim Brotherhood is that we understand what this organization is, what it stands for, what its beliefs are in terms of the path of extremism and violent extremism, what its connections are with other groups, what its presence is here in the UK."
The review will be headed by Sir John Jenkins, the British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. This has led some analysts to surmise that the oil-rich nation—which sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to its own stability—is pressuring Cameron to ban the group from British soil. (Cameron's announcement also came just weeks after Britain finalized a deal for the sale of 72 Eurofighter Typhoon strike jets to Saudi Arabia.) Jenkins has been asked to compile a report on the movement's "philosophy and values and alleged connections with extremism and violence."
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned from Egypt and many members expelled following the coup d'état there in July 2013. The group recently opened a new headquarters above an unused kebab shop in Cricklewood, northwest London.
The most senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood living in exile in Britain, Ibrahim Munir, denied claims that the group was moving its British operations from London to the Austrian city of Graz. The Daily Mail, a British newspaper, reported on April 12 that the Muslim Brotherhood was preparing to move its headquarters to Austria in an "apparent attempt to avoid an inquiry into its activities set up by the Prime Minister."
Munir appeared to be issuing a threat when he said that banning the Muslim Brotherhood would increase the risk of terrorist attacks in Britain. "If this [ban] happened, this would make a lot of people in Muslim communities think that [peaceful] Muslim Brotherhood values ... didn't work and now they are designated a terrorist group, which would make the doors open for all options," Munir said in an April 5 interview with The Times.
When asked if he meant an option would be violence, Munir replied: "Any possibility.... If the UK makes this option, you can't predict [what would happen] with Muslims around the globe, especially the big Muslim organizations close to the Muslim Brotherhood and sharing its ideology."
In a related matter, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on April 23 urged the West to put aside its differences with Russia over Ukraine in order to face down what he (and many others) believes is the single biggest threat to global security: Islamic extremism. He said:
"The threat of radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is de-stabilizing communities and even nations. It is undermining the possibility of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalization. And in the face of this threat we seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively … whatever our other differences, we should be prepared to reach out and cooperate with the East, and in particular, Russia and China."
But in what appears to be a classic case of the "right message" being delivered by the "wrong messenger," Blair was accused of hypocrisy after the Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Watch reported that his high-profile multi-faith charity, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, has two senior advisors with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
On April 9, Home Secretary Theresa May published her annual report on the government's strategy for countering terrorism. Battle-hardened British jihadists returning from the war in Syria now pose the most serious threat to British security, according to the report. "The most significant development in connection with terrorism during 2013 has been the growing threat from terrorist groups in Syria," May said in a statement to the British Parliament.
An assessment by the official Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) concurs: "The nature of the conflict in Syria and the emergence of the al-Nusrah Front, which has declared its allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, is leading to the country becoming an increasingly significant potential source of future threats to the UK and UK interests overseas."
Adding to the sense of foreboding, William Shawcross, the chairman of the Charity Commission, which regulates charities in England and Wales, said Islamic extremism is the "most deadly" problem faced by British charities.
In an interview with the Sunday Times on April 20, Shawcross said: "The problem of Islamist extremism and charities ... is not the most widespread problem we face in terms of abuse of charities, but is potentially the most deadly. And it is, alas, growing. I'm sure that in places like Syria and Somalia it is very, very difficult for agencies always to know what the end use of their aid is, but they've got to be particularly vigilant."
Shawcross said that the commission was "taking tough measures" against any charity that was "sending cash to extremist groups in Syria" or "dispatching young Britons for training in Syria by al-Qaida or other extremist groups."
He also said it was "ludicrous" that people with convictions for terrorism or money laundering were not automatically disqualified from setting up charities or becoming trustees, and that he has asked the prime minister to make changes to the law.
On April 24, British counter-terrorism officials launched a nationwide campaign aimed at encouraging Muslim women to contact the police if they were concerned that their family members or close friends might be preparing to travel to Syria to fight.
The UK's counter-terrorism chief, Helen Ball, warned that Britons who fight in Syria are crossing a "red line" and will be investigated by police. She said she was "very concerned" about the growing numbers of British nationals travelling to fight in Syria and warned that would-be fighters are at risk of being "preyed upon" and radicalized by extremist terrorist groups, as well as killed on the battlefield. Ball also said that 40 Syria-related arrests were made in the first three months of 2014, up from 25 in all of last year.
On April 18, it emerged that Abdullah Deghayes, an 18-year-old from the southern English coastal town of Brighton, died while fighting in Syria. One of Abdullah's brothers, Amer, 20, suffered a bullet wound to the stomach in the battle, while another brother, Jafar (at 16, he is believed to be the youngest British jihadist fighting in Syria), was unhurt. Abdullah's father, Abubaker, said his son "died a martyr."
The total number of British jihadists in Syria is estimated to be in the hundreds; as many as 20 are thought to have died in the fighting.
On April 20, a British citizen who is fighting with the rebels in Syria released a video tour of the home he shares with fellow fighters. The man—known by the nom de guerre Abu Abdullah and believed to be a member of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIS]—has appeared in a number of similar videos, in which he calls for British Muslims to join him in Syria.
In the video, entitled "Five-Star Jihad," Abdullah seeks to present a realistic portrayal of the life of a rebel fighter, in contrast to many who have tried to glamorize the jihad in Syria. "Today we wanted to show you the basic living of the brothers in this base," says Abdullah. "There has been a lot of talk of this so-called five-star jihad—and the way the mujahedeen have been living in these villas and these mansions and cupboards full of sweets. But it is far from that."
2. Sharia Law in Britain
On April 3, the British government launched a public consultation on whether or not to introduce student loans that are compliant with Islamic Sharia law, which forbids loans that involve the payment of interest.
The move seeking input from the general public comes amid rising complaints from Muslim students, who argue that the existing interest-based student loan system is unfairly forcing them to choose between getting a university degree and staying true to their religious beliefs.
The government says the establishment of a scheme that would enable Muslim students to finance their degrees in a way that complies with Islamic principles would "ensure that anyone with the ability and desire can go to university."
Critics counter that the dispute over interest-bearing student loans follows stepped-up demands for Sharia-compliant banking and insurance as well as credit cards, mortgages and pension funds, which—taken together—are contributing to the establishment of parallel Islamic financial and legal systems in Britain.
Separately, Lloyds Bank was accused of religious discrimination after dropping overdraft fees for Muslims. The bank sent customers a booklet in April explaining the new policy. While non-Muslims will have to pay up to £80 (€97, $135) a month for an overdraft, Muslims were told they would escape the charges. The document (p.26) says: "We are removing the monthly overdraft management fee of £6 from our Islamic Account, Islamic Student Account and Islamic Graduate Account. So, if you use an unplanned overdraft on these accounts, there won't be any charges."
On its website Lloyds says: "Following the guidance of Islam is an important part of everyday life, so we've made it an important part of everyday banking. Our Sharia committee of two independent scholars has guided us to create an account that's right for you."
The Daily Telegraph quoted one Lloyd's customer as saying: "I can't believe that they're thinking of offering one account for Muslims and making everyone else pay for the same service. Do I have to change my religion to get the best deal?"
Lloyds Bank, one of the UK's largest, was accused of religious discrimination after dropping overdraft fees for Muslims. Non-Muslims will have to pay up to £80 a month for an overdraft. (Image source: Kake)
Also, apparently in an attempt to please its Muslim customers, the fast food giant Subway removed ham and bacon from almost 200 outlets in Britain and switched to halal (Arabic for "permitted" or "lawful") meat alternatives.
On April 24, a group of British lawyers launched a new organization called "Sharia Watch UK" to "highlight and expose those movements in Britain which advocate and support the advancement of Islamic law in British society." The group says it seeks to "explain and describe Sharia law—what the organization calls "Britain's Blind Spot"—in relation to specific issues, primarily the treatment of women, freedom of speech, finance, and the marketplace.
Meanwhile, British authorities said they have widened their investigation into an alleged plot by Muslim fundamentalists to Islamize public schools in England and Wales. The expanded probe now encompasses at least 25 schools in Birmingham, up from initially four. Investigators are also looking into new allegations that Muslim extremists have infiltrated schools in other British cities, including Bradford and Manchester.
The plot—dubbed Operation Trojan Horse—consists of a strategy to wrest control of schools by ousting non-Muslim head teachers and staff at secular state schools and replacing them with individuals who will run the schools according to strict Islamic principles.
An official report leaked to the Daily Telegraph revealed that schools in Birmingham are illegally segregating pupils, discriminating against non-Muslim students and restricting the official syllabus to "comply with conservative Islamic teaching." Girls in some schools were forced to sit at the back of the class, some Christian pupils were left to "teach themselves" and a Muslim hate preacher was invited to speak to children.
An anonymous mother of a pupil at the Park View School in Birmingham said that "older boys are going round in these morality squads telling off girls if they do not wear veils. They bully the girls and stop them mingling with boys in the playground."
She also said Muslims have clamped down on Easter celebrations at the school. "My daughter tried to bring in an Easter egg for a friend and one boy grabbed it and smashed it against a wall," she said. "Another girl of about 11 brought in a little Easter bunny toy that she wanted to show her friends. They grabbed that off her too. All talk of Christmas and other non-Muslim festivals is banned. The teachers just turn a blind eye to it."
At the Madani School, a taxpayer funded "faith school" in Leicester, wall posters warn students that music is a tool of Satan. The poster reads as follows:
"Listening to music is haram [prohibited] and a sin. Stay away from evil acts such as listening to music and encourage others to do the same too! Music is a tool of Shaytan [Satan]. The playing of musical instruments and listening to them is haram. According to the Law of Allah, one who participates in music is regarded as a fasiq [sinful person]. One of the harms of music is that it distracts one from his Creator. The messages of today's music follow a general theme of love, drugs and freedom. Appearance of music and stringed instruments is a cause of Allah's anger. It is a tool of Shaytan by which he attracts people to commit wrongful acts. Music is Haram."
3. Muslim Integration
On April 17, the Sheffield Crown Court found Aras Hussein, 21, guilty of beheading his girlfriend, Reema Ramzan, 18, with kitchen knife in her apartment in Sheffield in June 2013. He was sentenced to life, with a minimum of 20 years in prison.
Hussein said he was suffering from schizophrenia at the time of the attack, but jurors rejected his claim that his condition diminished his responsibility for the killing, the motive for which remains unclear.
Justice Laura Cox said Hussein, who was born in Iraq, had used "severe and sustained" force to decapitate Reema in a "chilling and brutal" attack. She said:
"The pathological evidence indicated that she was likely to be alive while decapitation was taking place although at some stage, mercifully, she would have lost consciousness. The pain, terror, anguish and desperation she would therefore have suffered, as you inflicted these appalling injuries upon her and ended her life, is truly horrifying to contemplate. Why you did this to a young woman who was your girlfriend is unclear and may never be known."
Also at the Sheffield Crown Court, five Muslim men are facing charges of sexual offenses and trafficking against 13-year-old Erika Kacicova. The charges relate to the week-long disappearance of the girl from her home in Sheffield in August 2013. A major police operation ensued and the teenager was eventually found in nearby Bradford and returned to her family.
On April 23, municipal officials in Rochdale—home to a Muslim child-rape gang—said that six taxi drivers had lost their licenses after they were judged to pose a potential risk to the public, either because they had an existing criminal conviction or because the council believed there was a reasonable cause to question their suitability to be a cabbie.
Britain has been in the throes of a wave of sex crimes involving predatory Muslim taxi drivers raping female passengers. The number of so-called taxi rapes has snowballed to such an extent that a British judge recently issued a warning that no woman can expect to be safe while traveling in a cab.
On April 4, the radical Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary and many of his followers gathered in front of the Lebanese Embassy in London to protest the attempted arrest of the Tripoli-based Islamist Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad. Lebanese authorities are cracking down on hardline Sunni Islamist movements across the country. Bakri was instrumental in developing the London branch of the hardline Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is committed to establish an Islamic caliphate. He was banned from the UK in July 2006.
Choudary's group—shouting slogans such as "Death to the UK" and "Death to America"—was confronted (photos and video) by Britain First Defense Force, an organization established to protest Muslim gangs that are seeking to enforce Sharia law on British streets.
Meanwhile, a British Muslim grassroots movement called The Honesty Policy is trying to debunk some of the "negative stereotypes" surrounding Muslims in the UK. On April 15, the group released a four-minute video, Happy British Muslims, which shows Muslims—young and old, male and female, with or without headscarves, Arabs, Asians, Persians and Turks—laughing, singing, smiling and dancing to a pop-music hit called "Happy." Since its debut, the video has been viewed more than 1.5 million times.
The Honesty Policy describes itself as a "group of young and curious Muslims saying what you're thinking. Honestly." It says it made the video to show that British Muslims are just as happy, eclectic, cosmopolitan, diverse, creative, fun and outgoing as anyone else.
Muslim hardliners were quick to attack the video, calling it "misguided," "Satanic" and "haram" (Arabic for "forbidden" or "unlawful"). Some said that it violates Sharia law because it shows women dancing and singing in public.
A YouTube video entitled, "Response to the Honesty Policy" accuses the makers of "Happy British Muslims" of being "sell-outs." A young Muslim woman moderates:
"If you look beyond the dancing, the music and the downright ridiculous attempt to look cool, all you have is a bad PR stunt to promote integration and for us to embrace the British culture. … This video is simply a response to the media and authorities, that after much pressure of trying to create your 'British Muslims,' you've got us. How exactly? Exhibit A: You have Muslims free-mixing. Exhibit B: You've got the music. Exhibit C: the sell-out Muslims, aka the wannabe non-Muslims. Need I say more?"
"So what's the big deal? It's like the Honesty Policy said: 'This video is to show the world that despite the negative press, stereotypes and discrimination we are burdened with, we should respond with smiles and joy, not anger.'
"Are you seriously trying to tell me that while the UK government has essentially banned Islam, and attacked every part of the Sharia law, we should be smiles and joy? While Muslims are being massacred globally, our women are being raped, our children are orphaned, we should be just smiles and joy?
"In essence this pathetic video is diverting the Muslim from fulfilling his obligations towards the ummah [global Muslim community] and working for Islam. … This is a serious matter. … Our sisters have felt the need to compromise Islam and their modesty all for the sake of acceptance. Acceptance should not come at the cost of your honor.
"This video, rather than showing Islam, actually promotes the haram as acceptable and fun. What exactly are you telling the non-Muslims, that you can dance your way to heaven? Let's be honest. If the prophet [Mohammed] were here today, he would never be preaching like this. As a matter of fact, he would be doing the complete opposite. He would be condemning these actions and speaking out against this evil."
Finally, the long-running debate over multiculturalism and the erosion of free speech in Britain was reignited after a candidate in the European elections was arrested on suspicion of religious or racial harassment after quoting a passage—written by Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill—about Islam during a campaign speech.
Paul Weston, chairman of the party Liberty GB, made the address on the steps of Winchester Guildhall, in Hampshire on April 26. Less the a minute after he began speaking, a member of the public took offense at the quote—from Churchill's 1899 book, The River War—and called police. The first interview Weston gave after being released from jail can be viewed on YouTube here.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.