Juveriah Alam says if a hand-picked “good” imam like Qari Asim can be so easily dismissed by the government, we should shudder to think how the general Muslim population is viewed by the Tories.
A few days ago Imam Qari Asim found out that he was sacked from his role as a government adviser on “anti-Muslim hatred” via a letter in the media. The letter stated that he was dismissed for supporting “a campaign to limit free expression,” referring to a Facebook post in which he backed the cancellation of the controversial film “Lady of Heaven” by British cinemas.
The circumstances surrounding his dismissal should be alarming to every British Muslim.
Asim made his reasons clear for supporting the film’s cancellation in his Facebook post. He stated that he was concerned that the film uses “sectarian and racist narratives” and could “fuel hatred, sectarianism and extremism.” Indeed, the writer of the film, Yasser Al-Habib, has a reputation for seeking to sow discord amongst Muslims and was banned from Kuwait and criticised by several Shi’ite Ayatollahs on this basis.
While blasphemy is in itself not considered valid grounds to limit free expression in Britain, the risk of seriously undermining community cohesion can be and this film does exactly that.
With no historical basis, the film depicts A’isha (RA) poisoning the Prophet (SAW), and Umar (RA) burning down the house of Fatima (RA). In the film these narratives are told in the form of a story to parallel the crimes of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The underlying purpose is unmistakable: to equate Sunni Islam with ISIS.
It is clear that Asim had valid grounds for supporting the cancellation of the film yet his relatively mild and peaceful Facebook post resulted in his sacking.
It must be said that there is a distinct prejudice when it comes to Muslims organising themselves and protesting. No matter how peaceful it is, Muslim protests are often accused of being mob-like and intimidating.
Although Muslims are not a single entity with a single voice, we are always lumped together with others in the past who may have been violent and threatening. Our genuine concerns about community cohesion are seen by Islamophobes as a “ruse” to undermine free speech. These accusations have again been levelled against Muslims who dare to express fears about the stoking of division and sectarian hatred.
Why was Qari Asim appointed?
After rejecting the APPG definition of Islamophobia three years ago, Theresa May appointed Qari Asim to advise the government on anti-Muslim hatred. But his role was merely performative – for the government to be seen to be doing something about Islamophobia.
In a letter addressed to the Secretary of State Michael Gove, the imam details the government’s failure to engage with him and facilitate him to fulfil the role he was appointed to undertake.
Since he took on the role, he was promised that he would be joined by a second advisor, yet this did not materialise and the government made no progress on establishing a new definition of Islamophobia. This was despite repeated attempts by Asim to engage the government, all of which were ignored.
Imam Qari Asim is himself an unfavoured figure amongst many politically-aware Muslims who accuse him of sharing platforms with supporters of Israel, and cite his involvement in Prevent strategy-related initiatives and his general stances such as his opposition to tearing down statues of slave-owners.
He has long been viewed by many Muslims as the “moderate” soft imam – someone in line with Tory party sensibilities. He recently praised the Queen, calling her a “beacon of hope and stability” – certainly not a position imams are known for taking.
Asim is also known for publicly condemning crimes perpetrated by Muslims – a practice that many Muslims believe perpetuates the harmful notion that Muslims have a duty to condemn crimes committed by other Muslims.
Yet his mere expression of concern about a sectarian film was all it took to dismiss him from his role.
The letter informing him of his dismissal states that he “failed to condemn” alleged displays of anti-Shia hatred at the protests against the film. It is eminently clear that Asim’s previous condemnations served him no benefit – he was in end castigated for failing to condemn something which he had never voiced support for in the first place.
The manner in which Qari Asim was dismissed is also disturbing. A letter which was clearly written in haste was sent to the media rather than to Asim directly. It was an instant dismissal and the imam was not informed by the government about any concerns beforehand.
This is undoubtedly a deeply disrespectful way to treat any religious leader and betrays the low regard the government has for Muslims in general. Indeed, if the hand-picked “good” imam is so easily treated with such contempt, one shudders to imagine how the general Muslim population is viewed by the Conservative government.
It is becoming increasingly evident that the Conservative government does not regard Islamophobia as an issue to be tackled.
A single, wrong move from Asim was the perfect excuse for the government to do away with a person they had no intention to seriously engage with. In Asim’s case, that wrong move was merely his vocal defence of the Prophet (SAW) and his companions. Muslims who seek to engage with the current government must ask themselves: to what extent are they willing to sacrifice their religion to keep their positions?
We await with much interest to see who will replace Imam Qari Asim as the government advisor on a definition for anti-Muslim hatred. No doubt it will be an individual with little support from mainstream British Muslims.