By Andrew Osborn
A prominent British Muslim has accused the government of copying the language of the far right after ministers wrote to imams urging them to explain to fellow Muslims how Islam is compatible with being British.
In a letter to over 1,000 imams last Friday, Eric Pickles, the minister for local government and communities, urged them to explain to Muslims how Islam can be “part of British identity”, saying they had a responsibility to root out anyone preaching hatred.
The letter comes at a time of heightened tension in Britain with security forces warning an attack by Islamist militants is highly likely and Jews and Muslims saying they are fearful, for different reasons, after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris.
“We will be writing to Mr Eric Pickles to ask that he clarifies his request to Muslims to ‘explain and demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity’,” Harun Khan, deputy secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said.
“Is Mr Pickles seriously suggesting, as do members of the far right, that Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society?”
Britain’s 2.8 million Muslims have been mostly praised by politicians for peacefully condemning the Paris shootings, though Sajid Javid, a Cabinet minister and the most senior Muslim in government, has said Muslims have “a special burden” to track down extremists.
In the letter, Pickles said imams needed to help the government do something it couldn’t achieve on its own.
“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,” the letter read.
“We must show our young people, who may be targeted, that extremists have nothing to offer them … show them these men of hate have no place in our mosques or any place of worship.”
Prime Minister David Cameron defended the letter, saying he had read it and agreed with its message.
“Anyone frankly reading this letter who has a problem with it, I think really has a problem,” he said. “I think it’s the most reasonable, sensible, moderate letter that Eric could possibly have written.”
Ahmad told BBC radio 4 that the letter was in part meant to reassure Muslims that authorities were working to prevent reprisals against them after the Paris shootings.
The Muslim Council of Britain’s reaction was disappointing, he said. “Within the letter there’s an explicit paragraph saying Muslim values are British values. You can’t be more explicit than that,” he said.