Imams have a duty to raise issues on extremism but fears of falling foul of the UK's anti-terrorism laws are stopping them, say terrorism experts.
UK terror laws leave imams afraid to tackle ISIL
LONDON // British imams are “terrified” of addressing the threat posed by ISIL, the country’s largest Muslim association has warned, amid growing calls for mosques to do more to tackle extremism.
Many mosque leaders are reluctant to publicly raise issues like British militants fighting in Iraq and Syria, because of fears that they may fall foul of the UK’s antiterrorism laws, according to the Muslim Council of Britain.
But UK terrorism experts say imams have a duty to raise such issues to help discourage extremism, and need not fear the law so long as they are not inciting violence.
Talha Ahmad, chair of the membership committee at the MCB, said there is a widespread hesitation among mosque leaders to talk about issues like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant because of a lack of clarity regarding UK laws.
“At the moment, the mosque leadership are not prepared to speak openly on these issues because they are terrified of the antiterrorism legislation,” he said.
“There’s a fear that you may be seen as sympathetic to a terrorist group… There is a lot of unease, discomfort and perhaps even a lack of clarity on how the antiterrorism legislation applies.”
Other sensitive topics — including Hamas, Palestine and Kashmir — are also generally avoided by UK mosque leaders, Mr Ahmad added. “I have not come across one imam who is comfortable to talk about jihad,” he said.
Fears over the radicalisation of UK Muslims have been heightened after a video emerged showing the killing of James Foley, an American journalist, apparently at the hands of a British Islamist militant.
The UK government is currently examining ways to boost its fight against extremism. Home secretary Theresa May is considering legislation to target those who spread incendiary views, but not classed as terrorists because they do not engage in violence.
Mr Ahmad urged the UK government to provide clarity on such issues, to encourage open debate in mosques and help imams provide a counterbalance to those who may have been “brainwashed” by extremists elsewhere.
Dr Sheikh Ramzy, an imam and director of the Oxford Islamic Information Centre, agreed that mosque leaders are reluctant to address political issues.
“They are not talking at all about terrorism, ISIL or any other radical groups,” he said. “Maybe they don’t want to be branded pro-this or pro-that, or get in trouble with the police.”
Terror experts insisted that UK imams have nothing to fear so long as they do not encourage violence.
“If you encourage people to violent jihad, that may be a breach of law,” said Lord Carlile of Berriew, who served as the British government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation from 2001 to 2011.
“But almost all imams have absolutely nothing to fear if they discourage that activity. The law is absolutely clear about that,” he added.
Yet Lord Carlile did acknowledge that there was a reluctance in mosques to speak on subjects that might arouse suspicion, such as ISIL.
“Imams are somewhat afraid to get involved in that issue at all because they believe that the elders of the mosque don’t want them to get involved in political issues,” he said. He cited evidence of this observed while performing his government work.
The UK has ramped up its antiterror laws since September 11 and the attacks in London on July 7, 2005. But some Muslims have said they feel stigmatised by such legislation.
Lord Carlile added that mosques — like churches — should have a role in moral and ethical leadership, as well as the spiritual.
Earlier this week, he called on young professional Muslim leaders to take on key roles in mosques to boost the fight against radicalisation.
Muslim leaders and imams are often “old, male and rather conservative in their approach”, Lord Carlile told The Times newspaper. He claimed that younger people are more likely to have stronger leadership skills and hence should be in charge of mosques. Mr Ahmad of the MCB said a sweeping reform of mosques was not required, but acknowledged that mosques needed to become more inclusive to encourage greater participation of young Muslims.
“There are obviously some mosques that do not cater well for young people. And in some mosques there is clearly an issue of the older generation not being willing to make way,” he said.
“But generally speaking, mosques are willing to have young people on board. The problem is that young professionals often do not have the time.”
And until they find the time, Ahmad called on the government to provide clear guidance on the legislation, so imams are less terrified of addressing terror.