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Bring Muslim reformists together to tackle extremism, says head of Islamic think tank

Dr Taj Hargey is demanding a new approach towards Muslim radicalism
Dr Taj Hargey is demanding a new approach towards Muslim radicalism

The founder of a progressive Islamic think tank is urging ministers to establish a group of Muslim bodies, scholars and activists that promote “co-existence” and “harmony”.

Taj Hargey, a historian and imam, said that the Oxford Institute for British Islam (OIBI), which he leads, is seen as a “fringe group” because of its focus on “inclusivity and tolerance”.

Dr Hargey has urged “progressive” groups and leaders to “seize the agenda” to displace the central role currently played by bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).

The MCB, which describes itself as “the largest and most diverse representative body for the British Muslim community in the UK”, has been subject to a “non-engagement” policy in Whitehall which was first ordered by Gordon Brown in 2009 when one of its then leaders allegedly supported violence against Israel.

Dr Hargey launched the OIBI to tackle Islamist extremism by challenging fundamentalist doctrines.

Speaking at the publication of a new book, British Islam: A Vision for the Future, he said the Gaza conflict had resulted in “fascists, fundamentalists, fruitcakes, fanatics coming out of the woodwork, and all they want to do is have violence as the response”.

Dr Hargey criticised people who brandished banners referring to “Muslim Armies”
Dr Hargey criticised people who brandished banners referring to 'Muslim Armies' - MATTHEW CHATTLE/ALAMY LIVE NEWS

He said the only way to tackle Islamist extremism is to challenge its intellectual basis.

“You can toughen anti-terror laws as much as you like, it’s not going to stop Islamist fanatics because you haven’t killed the idea,” he said.

“We have to cut the intellectual legs and the theological foundations off these perspectives.

“The only way to do that is by having Muslims exposing extremism and militancy. If a non-Muslim does it, then no one will take it seriously. If Muslims do it, then other Muslims can’t just ignore it.”

Dr Hargey accused the Government of “putting the cart in front of the horse” with its response to extremism.

“They are not seeking out these groups that are talking about inclusivity, co-existence, harmony,” he said.

Palestinian activists spray paint and occupy the roof of an arms firm in London
Palestinian activists spray paint and occupy the roof of an arms firm in London - GUY SMALLMAN/GETTY IMAGES EUROPE

“They see us as a fringe group. Now even if we are a fringe group, isn’t it in the interests of the British state to promote a group in the religion that talks about inclusivity and tolerance?”

Steven Greer, a professor of human rights at Bristol University, said the state should seek to empower progressive Muslim groups.

Speaking at the same event, Prof Greer, who is a visiting research fellow at OIBI, said: “The state has a legitimate right to encourage those interpretations of faiths which are life-affirming and peaceful and to discourage those which are not.

“And that will take you necessarily in the direction of supporting certain interpretations over others. I would argue there are legitimate grounds for doing that. You are not doing it in order to contribute to an internal debate about the faith, you’re doing it to promote social harmony and peace”.

In his book, Dr Hargey said that the OIBI’s goal is to “articulate and defend a vision of progressive, liberal Islam more relevant to the lives of Muslims in the UK than any of the alternatives which dominate and distort national and global debates”.

“It is hoped that this will have a particular resonance with younger educated Muslims struggling to reconcile the insights of their advanced secular education with the myths and fairy tales they hear from the mullahs in the mosques and in the madrassahs.”

Protest banners

At the book launch, he criticised people who brandished banners at protest marches urging “Muslim Armies” to “rescue” the people of Gaza. “Isis has thoroughly discredited that brand of Islam,” he said.

“Even those who supported them in the beginning, after the atrocities and egregious inhumanities they were inflicting on Muslims and others, many of them have abandoned that.”

He argued that British Muslims should forge an identity tied to the UK. “Though it originated in the Arabian desert, Islam is a global phenomenon and a worldwide way of life and so Islam everywhere should be becoming rooted in and relevant to that particular society it finds itself in,” he said.

“Since we have come together in this society voluntarily – no one was forced to come here – Muslims now need to forge an identity that links us to Britain and not to our cultural homelands”.

The MCB criticised Dr Hargey for past comments he had made about Pizza Express serving halal meat without informing customers and for defending Boris Johnson after he said Muslim women wearing burkas “look like letter boxes”.

An MCB spokesman said: “We understand that some choose to take seriously individuals who propagate far-Right ideas such as the risk of an ‘Islamic Republic of Britain’, who claim that Pizza Express having Halal chicken is ‘covert religious extremism and creeping Islamic fundamentalism’ and who say that Boris Johnson’s letterbox comments ‘did not go far enough’.

“We do not. And we seriously question the motives of those who do.

“Others are free to speak for themselves. We speak on behalf of the mosques, charities and Muslim organisations affiliated to us. As such, the Muslim Council of Britain democratically represents a large cross-section of British Muslim communities.”

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