Imam Shakeel Begg sues BBC for libel after being called an “extremist”

Imam Shakeel Begg of Lewisham Islamic Centre

A popular south London imam has sued the BBC for libel after a live television broadcast branded him an “extremist”.

Imam Shakeel Begg of Lewisham Islamic Centre has complained about a short segment of an interview on the Sunday Politics show from November 2013 featuring presenter Andrew Neil and Farooq Murad, the former head of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Mr Neil wrongly accused the East London Mosque for hosting a number of “extremist speakers”, and speakers who espoused extremist positions, and said that Imam Begg had spoken there that year and hailed jihad as “the greatest of deeds”.

Imam Begg said the Mr Neil’s words meant that he was part of a “rogue’s gallery of extremists” who actively encouraged the hatred and violence towards non-Muslims.

BBC journalist Andrew Neil
BBC journalist Andrew Neil

He also added that the BBC journalist’s claims meant he promoted and encouraged religious violence by encouraging Muslims that violence in support of Islam would constitute a man’s greatest deed.

Mr Begg’s counsel, William Bennett, told London’s High Court last Monday that it was very damaging for such an allegation to be broadcast by an authoritative broadcaster like the BBC.

Mr Begg was committed to tackling extremism and actively worked for the Muslim community to engage with non-Muslims, as well as consistently speaking out against terrorist groups and ideologies. 

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“If he really did support these positions, then he would be out there making his position clear as he speaks in public frequently.”

Andrew Caldecott QC, for the BBC, which denies libel and pleads justification, said it was accepted that Mr Begg did not preach jihad as the greatest of deeds at the East London Mosque and did not do so in 2013.

But, he told Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, this did not affect the substance of the charge and the allegation was true.

“The basis for calling the claimant an extremist is short and simple. He has preached jihad as the greatest of deeds which in this context clearly means violence in the name of Islam.”

He added: “We say the meaning is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that Mr Begg has taken the extremist position in preaching that jihad in the sense of violence in the name of Islam is the greatest of deeds. 

“That’s what it says. That’s what it means. Either he has preached that or he has not.”

The BBC is also being sued by Shaykh Sulaiman Ghani, after Mr Neil accused him of being an “ISIS supporter” during the televised London mayoral debate in May.

Dr Haitham al-Haddad is also suing the BBC for defamatory statements allegedly made by Mr Neil during an interview with CAGE’s research director Asim Qureshi last year.

The court hearing was concluded last Friday, and the judgement has been reserved and will be sent to both parties in due course, which may take up to several months.

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