Following is a brief summary of some of the main stories involving Islam and Islam-related issues in Britain during January 2015, categorized into three broad themes: 1) Islamic extremism; 2) British multiculturalism; and 3) Muslim integration into British society.
1. Islamic Extremism
On January 7, the British-born Islamist Anjem Choudary defended the jihadist attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In an opinion article published by USA Today, Choudary wrote:
"Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires.
"In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. So why in this case did the French government allow the magazine Charlie Hebdo to continue to provoke Muslims, thereby placing the sanctity of its citizens at risk?"
In a January 13 interview with the Lebanese Murr Television channel, Choudary said that according to Islamic Sharia law, anyone who insults the Prophet Mohammed should be punished by death. He added: "May Allah accept [the attackers] in Paradise."
On January 9, Muslim cleric Mizanur Rahman of Palmers Green, north London, also defended the jihadist attacks in Paris and declared that "Britain is the enemy of Islam." Speaking to an audience in London — his speech was also streamed online to thousands of his followers — Rahman said the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were guilty of "insulting Islam" and therefore "they can't expect a different result." He added:
"Clearly what happened in France is a war. These cartoons is [sic] part of their own war, is part of the psychological warfare. You can't have that attitude. You know what happens when you insult Muhammad."
Rahman (who also goes by the name of Abu Baraa) was on police bail after he and Anjem Choudary were arrested in September 2014 on suspicion of terror offenses. Both men deny any wrongdoing and have not been charged.
On January 17, The Guardian reported that a hardcore group of around 30 British women who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State have been encouraging other women in the UK to carry out terror attacks back home. The report said that the women have been openly praising the Charlie Hebdo shootings and actively calling for more bloodshed, including the beheadings of Westerners.
The report cited a 16-year-old girl from Manchester who celebrated the killings on Twitter, and another British woman who greeted the Charlie Hebdo shootings by writing:
"May Allah give the two mujahideen in France the highest of Jannah [Paradise] and may Allah help them kill as many kafirs [derogatory term for non-Muslims] they can #ParisShooting Ameen."
On January 16, an Islamist from Luton was pictured in Syria brandishing an AK-47 rifle. Abu Rahin Aziz, 32, skipped bail before he was handed a 36-week jail sentence for stabbing a football fan in London's West End. Aziz has been using Twitter to urge other people to join him and to emulate the recent attacks in Paris. In a tweet, Aziz, who also calls himself Abu Abdullah al-Britani, wrote:
"Still deciding to what to do with my #british passport, could burn it, flush it down the toilet, I mean realistically its not worth spitting on."
Meanwhile, The Telegraph reported that a convicted al-Qaeda terrorist with close links to the massacre in Paris cannot be deported from Britain because it would breach his right to a family life. Baghdad Meziane, a 49-year-old British-Algerian who was jailed for eleven years in 2003 for running a terror network recruiting jihadists and fund-raising for al-Qaeda, was released from prison five years early and allowed to return to his family home in Leicester.
Since then, Meziane has successfully thwarted attempts by the Home Office to deport him, despite the government's repeated insistence that he constitutes "a danger to the United Kingdom." According to The Telegraph, the Meziane case has cost British taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds in court costs to date.
Meziane was a close associate of Djamel Beghal, a former London-based lieutenant of the Islamic hate preacher Abu Hamza, whose teachings are thought to have inspired the Paris attacks. Beghal mentored at least two of the suspected gunmen responsible for the killings — Amedy Coulibaly and Chérif Kouachi — while they were in prison together. Meziane and Beghal lived close to each other in Leicester and Meziane once supplied Beghal with a false passport, allowing him to travel to an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
On January 9, The Telegraph reported that Beghal's wife is living on social welfare benefits in Britain. Sylvie Beghal, a French citizen, lives rent-free in a four-bedroom house in Leicester after she came to Britain with her children in search of a more "Islamic environment," after deciding that France was too anti-Muslim.
On January 22, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond warned that Britain is at "very significant" risk of attack by the Islamic State.
On January 25, Green party leader Natalie Bennett told the BBC1's Sunday Politics show that it should not be illegal for people living in Britain to join the Islamic State. She was commenting on the British government's move in June 2014 to make membership of the Islamic State a crime. Bennett said:
"This is a part of our policy that I think dates back to the age of the ANC [African National Congress] and apartheid South Africa… What we want to do is make sure we are not punishing people for what they think or what they believe."
On January 20, the former chief of MI6, Sir John Sawers, warned Britons not to insult Islam if they want to avoid Islamic terrorists from striking inside the country. He said:
"If you show disrespect for others' core values then you are going to provoke an angry response... There is a requirement for restraint from those of us in the West."
"If I was to sit here and say will the goalkeepers of the security services and the police keep every single attempt to get the ball into the net, out? No. At some point these threats will get through and there will be another terrorist attack in this country."
On January 16, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles sent a letter to more than 1,000 imams across Britain asking for their help in fighting extremism and rooting out those who are preaching hatred. He also asked them to explain to Muslims how Islam is compatible with being British. The letter said:
"We must show our young people, who may be targeted, that extremists have nothing to offer them. We must show them that there are other ways to express disagreement: that their right to do so is dependent on the very freedoms that extremists seek to destroy. We must show them the multitude of statements of condemnation from British Muslims; show them these men of hate have no place in our mosques or any place of worship, and that they do not speak for Muslims in Britain or anywhere in the world.
"You, as faith leaders, are in a unique position in our society. You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity. We believe together we have an opportunity to demonstrate the true nature of British Islam today. There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country. We know that acts of extremism are not representative of Islam; but we need to show what is."
Muslim groups responded by accusing the British government of stoking "Islamophobia."
In an angry response to Pickles, the Chief Executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, Mohammed Shafiq, wrote:
"I wish to express my dismay at the letter sent by the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles MP, this letter is patronising and factually incorrect and typical of the Government only looking at Muslims through the prism of terrorism and security.
"We do not need to be patronised by a Government that claims it wants to give young Muslims an alternative to the extremist narrative and then refuse to discuss foreign policy.
"In terms of British values, is Mr Pickles really suggesting as the far right do that Muslims are detached from mainstream society? I hope the Minister clarifies his comments."
In an interview with Sky News, Talha Ahmad of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said:
"The letter has all the hallmarks of very poor judgment which feeds into an Islamophobic narrative, which feeds into a narrative of us and them."
In a response to Pickles, the MCB wrote:
"We do take issue with the implication that extremism takes place at mosques, and that Muslims have not done enough to challenge the terrorism that took place in our name.
"This is why we responded to the media, and an assertion in some quarters, that you were somehow endorsing the idea that Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society. We reject such notions.
"We also reject suggestions that Muslims must go out of their way to prove their loyalty to this country of ours."
The president of the Bradford Council for Mosques, Mohammed Rafiq Sehgal, said the letter was "highly objectionable on several grounds" and that it "blames and targets the Muslim community." He added:
"We ask Mr Pickles to publicly apologize to the Muslim community for bringing this peaceful section of the British society into disrepute. Blaming Muslims may win Mr Pickles and his party some support from the right wing voters but it does not help good community relations."
Prime Minister David Cameron defended the letter. He said:
"Anyone, frankly, reading this letter, who has a problem with it, I think really has a problem. I think it is the most reasonable, sensible, moderate letter that Eric could possibly have written.
"Frankly, all of us have a responsibility to try to confront this radicalization and make sure that we stop young people being drawn into this poisonous fanatical death cult that a very small minority of people have created."
2. British Multiculturalism
On January 29, a Sky News investigation into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, a large town in South Yorkshire, found that hundreds of new cases continue to emerge. In August 2014, the so-called Alexis Jay report revealed that between 1997 and 2013, at least 1,400 children were sexually exploited, mostly by Muslim gangs, and that municipal officials in Rotherham and police in South Yorkshire failed to tackle the problem because of politically correct concerns over being branded as "racist" or "Islamophobic."
Sky News reported that it found that hundreds of additional cases were known to authorities but were not included in the Jay report, and that in recent months it had uncovered hundreds of other cases. One victim told Sky News: "It's still going on if not worse, because now they're having to hide it more."
On January 26, it emerged that hospitals across Britain are dealing with at least 15 new cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) every day, and that the problem is especially acute in Birmingham. Doctors at the city's Heartlands Hospital revealed that staff see six patients who have been subjected to the procedure every week, and that they have dealt with at least 1,500 cases during the past five years. Although FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1984, there has not been a single conviction in the UK.
On January 25, Tarik Kafala, the head of BBC Arabic, the largest of the BBC's non-English language news services, said that the term "terrorist" was too "loaded" to describe the actions of the men who killed 12 people in the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
In an interview with The Independent, Kafala said:
"We try to avoid describing anyone as a terrorist or an act as being terrorist. What we try to do is to say that 'two men killed 12 people in an attack on the office of a satirical magazine.' That's enough, we know what that means and what it is.
"Terrorism is such a loaded word. The UN has been struggling for more than a decade to define the word and they can't. It is very difficult to. We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are and we describe them. That's much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like terrorist which people will see as value-laden."
Kafala's comments are in line with the BBC's editorial guidelines on reporting terrorism. The guidelines state:
"[The BBC] does not ban the use of the word. However, we do ask that careful thought is given to its use by a BBC voice. There are ways of conveying the full horror and human consequences of acts of terror without using the word 'terrorist' to describe the perpetrators.
"The value judgments frequently implicit in the use of the words 'terrorist' or 'terrorist group' can create inconsistency in their use or, to audiences, raise doubts about our impartiality. It may be better to talk about an apparent act of terror or terrorism than label individuals or a group."
On January 20, a Christian nurse who was suspended from work after praying for a Muslim co-worker initiated a legal challenge against her employer. Victoria Wasteney, 37, an occupational health therapist at the John Howard Center, a mental hospital in Homerton, east London, said she wanted to help a fellow nurse who was in distress about her ongoing health problems and personal issues at home. Wasteney put her hand on colleague Enya Nawaz and said the following prayer for her: "God, I trust You will bring peace and You will bring healing." The hospital suspended Wasteney for "harassment and bullying."
"I'm not a hardline evangelical. I'm not anti-Muslim. I believe in freedom of speech, but I've always believed we should be sensitive to one another's beliefs and feelings.
"It's ridiculous that people now feel they cannot openly discuss religion or their own spirituality. Do we want to reach the point where people are scared to invite colleagues and work friends to events like their children's Christening or a wedding for fear of offending?"
On January 19, it emerged that the Durham Free School, a Christian school, will be forced to close after government inspectors found that the school was failing to help students understand "British values" or "prepare them for life in modern Britain." The report said: "Some students hold discriminatory views of other people who have different faiths, values or beliefs from themselves."
Teachers said the verdict was grossly unfair and based on a comment made by a single pupil, who gave the wrong answer when inspectors asked him what a Muslim was. His answer to the question apparently included a reference to terrorism. The teachers said the school's Christian ethos made it an easy target for officials who wanted to show they were promoting the government's diversity agenda.
The British government has decided to close the Christian Durham Free School, after a student gave the wrong answer when inspectors asked him what a Muslim was. (Image source: Durham Free School)
Meanwhile, Oxford University Press (OUP) warned its authors not to mention pigs or sausages in their books, to avoid causing offense to Muslims. The move was revealed during a panel discussion about free speech during BBC Radio 4's Today program, following the jihadist attacks in Paris.
Presenter Jim Naughtie said:
"I've got a letter here that was sent out by OUP to an author doing something for young people. Among the things prohibited in the text that was commissioned by OUP was the following: Pigs plus sausages, or anything else which could be perceived as pork."
An OUP spokesperson said:
"Our materials are sold in nearly 200 countries, and as such, and without compromising our commitment in any way, we encourage some authors of educational materials respectfully to consider cultural differences and sensitivities."
3. Muslim Integration
On January 14, Zack Davies, 25, attacked a 24-year-old Sikh named Sarandev Bhambra with a machete at a Tesco supermarket in Mold, north Wales. Bhambra was seriously injured. British newspapers initially portrayed the attack as a "racially-motivated attempt" by a right-wing extremist promoting "white power."
It later emerged that Zack Davies is actually a Muslim convert who goes by the name Zack Ali. On the morning of the attack, Davies warned on his Facebook page of his impending attack, posting four verses from the Koran that call for violence against non-Muslims.
On January 23, a jury found 24-year-old Fhaim Bhayat of Thornhill Lees, Dewsbury, guilty of sexually assaulting an eleven-year-old boy on multiple occasions in a woods and then later in a mosque. Judge Neil Clark, who sentenced Bhayat to two years in prison, said: "You took advantage of this boy after threatening him not to say anything and the offenses only came to light because his father found you alone with him in darkness at the mosque. What you did has had a significant effect on an innocent young boy."
On January 27, a judge at the Newcastle Crown Court sent four Muslim teenagers to a juvenile detention center after they admitted to attacking a 41-year-old Jewish man in nearby Gateshead. Balawal Sultan, 18, Kesa Malik, 19, Hassnain Aliamin, 18, all from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and a 17-year-old boy pleaded guilty to racially-aggravated common assault for the attack, which they said was motivated by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The night before the attack, Sultan sent a text message saying he was "going to go Jew bashing" and asked a friend: "Do you want to go to Gateshead to smash some Jews up." He later lay in wait with the other three behind a van before pouncing on the victim as he walked home. Prosecutor Bridie Smurthwaite said:
"The defendants had deliberately travelled to the area in Gateshead where there were members of the Jewish community with the particular intention of targeting someone from that community... the victim was targeted because he was wearing traditional Jewish attire, a black suit and white shirt and a black hat."
Judge Brian Forster said:
"I hope this case sends out a clear message to anyone tempted to behave in a similar way. The courts will not in any circumstances tolerate a situation where one person is tempted to attack another by reason of their race or religion."
Also in January, a hardline imam at a mosque where the killers of soldier Lee Rigby worshipped said he was suing the BBC because it described him as an "extremist who encourages religious violence." The head of the Lewisham Islamic Center in South-East London, Shakeel Begg, said he would take legal action after presenter Andrew Neil said on the Sunday Politics Show in November 2013 that the imam had praised jihad as "the greatest of deeds."
On January 11, a Muslim trainee lawyer at the London-based law firm Clifford Chance produced a 21-minute YouTube video, in which he blamed non-Muslims for the jihadist attacks in Paris. Aysh Chaudhry, 22, said:
"Brothers and sisters, we would not be here had it not been for the fact that the kafir [non-Muslims] had gone to our lands and killed our people and raped and pillaged our resources. This, brothers and sisters, is what we need to understand. We need to move away from this apologetic tone and have confidence in Islam because we are enslaved otherwise.
"We need to remove this Western cultural lens with which we are viewing and responding to attacks on Islam from our eyes. Stop putting freedom on this pedestal. This is a value stemming from secular, liberal beliefs. We don't need a value which stems from a bankrupt ideology.
"We are becoming infatuated with the civilization of the kafir and their beliefs and their values and indeed we have latched on to these. Now you know who you are if you are of those who state 'I will die to protect your freedom and I believe in freedom of speech.'"
A spokesperson for Clifford Chance, one of the most prestigious law firms in the world, said:
"The firm is committed to establishing an inclusive culture where people with diverse backgrounds and views work effectively together and feel confident to develop their potential."
Finally, police in Bradford on January 29 launched a manhunt for an unidentified white male who allegedly muttered derogatory comments about Islam on a bus. The incident, described by police as a public order offense, allegedly happened on the 576 Halifax to Bradford bus, between 10:00 pm and 10:20pm on January 8. The suspect is described as white, aged 40 to 50, about five feet 8 inches tall. He was wearing a black woolly hat and black jacket that may have had a bit of red on it.
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.