Muslim Groups Accuse UK Government of 'Criminalising' Islam

British Muslims
Muslim demonstrators pray during a protest against the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad in French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, near Downing Street in central London February 8, 2015. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

A joint statement signed by a number of prominent Muslim groups and leaders from all over the UK have condemned the British government for its perceived "criminalisation" of Islam, and accuses it of creating a "Mccarthyite witch-hunt" against the Muslim community.

The statement, signed by over 70 imams, sheikhs, advocates, activists, community leaders, community organisations and student bodies, rejects the "ongoing demonisation of Muslims in Britain" and accuses the government of scapegoating Muslims in order to deflect attention away from crises in the economy and the national health service and "disastrous foreign policies".

"We reject the exploitation of Muslim issues and the 'terror threat' for political capital, in particular in the run up to a general election," it reads. "Exploiting public fears about security is as dishonourable as exploiting public fears about immigration."

Among the signatories is former Guantanamo inmate Moazzam Begg, who is the director of outreach for controversial advocacy group CAGE, sheikh Omer Hamdoon, the director of the Muslim Association of Britain, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, members of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and former journalist Yvonne Ridley.

"We reject the portrayal of Muslims and the Muslim community as a security threat," the statement continues, also taking issue with the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act.

"The latest Act of Parliament, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, threatens to create a 'McCarthyite' witch-hunt against Muslims, with nursery workers, schoolteachers and universities expected to look out for signs of increased Islamic practice as signs of 'radicalisation'."

"Such a narrative will only further damage social cohesion as it incites suspicion and ill feeling in the broader community," the letter warns.

Theresa May's Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill received royal assent at the beginning of February. The act bolsters existing powers for passport removal from those suspected of being involved in terrorist activities and allows the police to "disrupt" individuals who are suspected of leaving the country to join terrorist organisations overseas.

More controversially, the new act puts the responsibility on "specified authorities" to "prevent people from being drawn into terrorism", imposing a duty upon pubic bodies such as schools and universities to address individuals they believe to be at risk of radicalisation.

The letter also condemns "the expedient use of undefined and politically charged words like 'radicalisation' and 'extremism'", which the signatories believe "criminalises legitimate political discourse and criticism of the stance of successive governments towards Muslims domestically and abroad. We strongly oppose political proposals to further 'tackle' and 'crack down' on such dissenting voices in the Muslim community despite their disavowal of violence and never having supported terrorist acts."

There are notable absences from the list of signatories, such as any representative from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the umbrella body that represents Muslims in the UK. No one from the MCB was available for comment.

One of the signatories to the letter, imam Shakeel Begg of the Lewisham Islamic Centre, explains that he signed the letter because he feels Muslims are being unfairly targeted by the government. "The main reason I signed is because of how the Muslim community feels about the government agenda, particularly about the new counter-terrorism act. They feel criminalised."

"The act will hamper the work imams do, and the act is making community members feel worried," he continues. "The government hasn't been addressing Muslim issues. But even prior to the act the situation was worrying, with Muslims being unfairly targeted and scapegoated."

Another signatory, Arzu Merali, director of research at the Islamic Human Rights Commission, points out that the diverse range of signatories shows that this is a problem that resonates with many Muslims, including many women.

"The Muslim card is being used as a political tool," she says, adding that the new legal duty imposed on Muslims to report extremists is "terrifying" and "sends out the message that Muslims must be spied upon".