Mohammed Shafiq, 31, is chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a leading British Muslim youth organization based in Manchester, which was created in the wake of the July 7, 2005 suicide bomb attacks on London's public transport system. The foundation promotes coexistence and dialogue between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities and actively campaigns to provide a more positive image of Islam and Muslims.
This week, Shafiq joined with other Muslim leaders in Britain in condemning Prime Minister David Cameron's statements to the effect that multiculturalism has failed in Britain, and that the government must now confront - and not consort with - those Muslim groups that may be ambiguous about what he termed "Britain's liberal values."
What was your immediate reaction to the prime minister's statement Saturday?
"I was deeply disappointed in the prime minister, who made allegations that tar a whole community. Who is he talking about? Muslims in Britain by and large are integrated and oppose terrorism in the U.K. and anywhere else in the world just like any other Brits. Terror is an evil and the killing of innocent people is forbidden in Islam. Those people engaged in terrorism do not represent our community, and the prime minister is deeply irresponsible to try and link extremism, terrorism and our successful multiculturalist society."
What do you think "being British" or "being European" really means? Is there such a thing? Do you consider yourself Muslim? Or British? Or comfortably both?
"I am proud to be a British citizen and proud of my faith and I think they compliment each other. Islam is about obeying the law of land, it's about tolerance and peace. When the prime minister talks about European values - well, with all due respect, the values he is describing do not belong to one community or another.
"Every faith - including Muslim and including Jewish - teaches tolerance, respect and peace. To suggest that such things - that justice and democracy and rule of law - are solely European values is deeply patronizing."
Are there any values the prime minister mentioned in the speech - equality between the sexes, for example - that some in the Muslim community might not subscribe to?
"If the prime minister is trying to say that we give up our culture and the particular way in which we do things, we are not signing up for that - that is an objectionable request. But if he wants to ask us about rule of law and democracy and the like, we already hold those values dear without anyone needing to tell us to do so."
Do you think there is any truth at all in the argument that a stronger, collective national identity would root out political extremism in Britain?
"But political extremism is already shunned within our community! Those who advocate violence are stopped from being in the community. We do that already, so his argument does not make sense. I am truly baffled as to why he is saying these things."
Were his statements aimed only at Muslims? Or can they be seen as more general comments pertaining to other minority groups as well?
"No, there was no mention of any other group in the speech. It was all about Muslims and terrorism.
"And what about others indeed? And what about the host community? Look at what is happening in Bradford, West Yorkshire. When Muslim families move into the neighborhoods there, the locals move out. Where is the 'British' value of tolerance there? The prime minister made no mention of that in his speech. We are being targeted. Not a week goes by lately without a negative story about Muslims."
Okay, let's go back. Do you think it's fair to say there is a problem of Muslim extremism in Britain?
"Yes it is. There is no doubt about that. There are those in the Muslim community who, sadly, think that using violence and terror is valid. We need to combat that."
And do you think Muslim groups, like your own, are doing enough to fight that extremism?
"Well, we are trying. Our organization, for example, works with the government intelligence agencies and the metropolitan police to try and identify these groups of extremists. Just recently, we had an event where we invited members of the police to come talk to our young people. We try to increase understanding. It's a long process and we need to engage the community - not put them on the defensive as these recent statements manage to do."
Why do you think Cameron brought up these delicate matters of multiculturalism right now? Does it have anything to do with the winds of change in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East? Or do you think it was more political and internal?
"I think it has everything to do with political maneuvering and the politics of Britain. He wanted to appeal to his right wing. We are now writing formally to the prime minister and to the daily newspapers to register our deep disappointment with using us as scapegoats in this political game."
Did you expect such statements from Cameron and the Tories, or was this a surprise? Do you think the current government is less tolerant of, or representative of, the various groups of people in this country?
"At first we were worried about the Conservatives coming into power, but we were promised by the new government that things would be different - that we would not be demonized. That has not happened.
"We are particularly disappointed with the Liberal Democrats, who we felt understood our community. No one from the Lib Dems came out to condemn these statements. And we are now asking for a meeting with [Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader] Nick Clegg to explain to us what is going on."
It is hard to generalize, of course, but can you give a stab at characterizing the British attitude toward its Muslim citizens over time? Is it tolerant? Is there a sense that everyone is equal in this country? Cameron's statements were made a day before the anti-Islamist English Defense League (EDL ) marched in Luton, timing that no one has failed to note.
"The EDL is a fascist organization that promotes hatred between communities. They are anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic. So you would think Cameron would say a few words about that. But nothing. He was totally focused on the Muslim community.
"And yes, there have long been problems with tolerance in this country and there is a lot of work to be done. There is an obsession with Muslims. A negative obsession and a tendency to tar everyone from the diverse community with the same brush.
"The same thing happened to the Jews after the Gaza flotilla event, by the way. Right after that, we saw attacks on the Jewish community in Britain - lots of verbal and even physical abuse - and that is wrong, too. We are all equal citizens and should be treated with respect."
Conversely, how would you characterize the attitude of British Muslims toward their fellow non-Muslim citizens? And toward the state?
"When I was younger I went to an English school, and I had many non-Muslim white friends. To suggest that the Muslims don't want to integrate is absurd. I was born in this country and have lived here my whole life. I feel British and I am British.
"But I feel less optimistic about the future now than I did when I was growing up. The environment is being created in which it is legitimate to attack people based on their religion, and we feel less comfortable here."
Finally, how about the question of Israel and Britain's close relations with Israel? Is this an issue that British Muslims generally agree upon or feel strongly about? Is there a gap between the government's Middle East policies and what the British Muslim community would like those policies to be?
"I think the continued oppression of the Palestinian people is an issue close to the hearts of many Muslims. We believe they should have their own land.
"In relation to Britain and Israel, clearly they are allies, which is fine, but since this new government has come in, we have seen change which is to our liking. Cameron's government is more critical of Israel and more balanced. We have always said that during the years of [former Labour prime ministers Tony] Blair and [Gordon] Brown, the government was too pro-Israeli. Now there is a better balance, which we feel is right."
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