Talking 'Bout A Revolution
Issue 73 October 2010
The Global Peace and Unity event is the largest gathering of Muslims in the UK. Islam Channel is the UK’s most watched Muslim TV station. Sarah Joseph meets Mohammed Ali, the man behind both.
Some queried why it was the Security minister who was used by the government to make the first out-reach to the Muslim community; others questioned the choice of the Islam Channel as the platform for that appearance, citing the channel’s Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) presenters, as well as the credentials of its chief executive, Mohammed Ali. Critics claim Ali is an “Islamist”, and the subject of an Interpol Red Notice for terrorist offences. Considering that in December 2008 Neville-Jones had demanded Ali be sacked from his role as a Met Police adviser, it did indeed seem a surprising forum of choice. However, the government probably felt it could not ignore its own research, which says that 59% of Britain’s Muslims tune into the channel.
Meeting Mohammed Ali at the Islam Channel’s London offices, he tells me that my pre-presented questions resemble those of The Times. Given that he told The Times that their questions were like the Tunisian authority’s which had tortured him, I don’t feel he’s complimenting me. However, he begins in good humour. He describes his early life in Tunisia as “traditional and conservative.” The 11th of 12 children, he does not have fond memories of his French-boarding style education. Whilst at school he had some engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood, but it was Tunisia’s Communists who seem to have had the biggest influence on him. He recalls the 1978 general strike that had escalated into widespread anti-government protests, and around 40 protesters were killed by the army. “I started opening my eyes to politics. I was 15. I started to think there was another dimension to Islam besides praying and good rituals. The men of religion, the traditional ones, took a back seat and were never important in politics; the intellectual elites were the Communists.” His other big influence was the BBC’s World Service. “For at least 20 years of my life, I didn’t miss two things: prayers and the news.”
Ali began to go on demonstrations from the late 70s. He embraced, “anything and everything, as long as it was against the government.” Then, in 1984, with wheat tripling in price overnight, Tunisia experienced The Bread Revolution. This time around 80 protesters were killed. He wanted to leave Tunisia for Canada to study but couldn’t as “they confiscated my passport,” so instead he started to teach in a primary school. A year later he was arrested for insulting the personality of the president because “the president was, according to the constitution, a sacred property of the nation; I spent a few months in jail.”
He then went to France, and from there – fascinated by the politics of its 1979 revolution – he went to Iran. However, with still a year of his degree to go he returned to Tunisia and was arrested at the airport. He found himself in detention with the Prime Minister and his entourage.
For Ali, this was a turning point. When he left prison without charge in 1986 he was resolute to “do something.” And part of doing something meant “combining what I learnt from the Communists, from Iran and my own experiences, we set up an organisation and we started working to set up a proper political party, with clear Islamic views.”
This was probably not the best time to set up a political party in Tunisia, for in 1987 there was a crackdown on activists. Ali says he was one of the first to go behind bars but amongst the last to be released. According to Amnesty International, 30 people died from torture during this period. Ali says he too was tortured. “I wished for death because it got to a level where I couldn’t even go to the toilet unaided. My dignity had been stripped. I hated the regime we had and I saw the hypocrisy of the West - they talk about human rights when it suits them and they turn a blind eye when it suits them.” Seemingly traumatised, Ali continued his activism after release in 1988, but when the government started to arrest people again in 1990 he decided to leave. “They came to my house to arrest me. When I heard, I just ran.” He got to Algeria, then to Pakistan, Bosnia and other places until in 1994 he was granted asylum in Britain.
Whilst Ali does not seem overly enthusiastic about the word democracy, “call it whatever you want to call it,” he is committed to “the idea of the power of the people to govern. You have to ensure that the will of people is reflected in actual government.” And he is prepared to support revolution for that to happen. “If you see the Republic of France, which is a democracy, every year they celebrate their Revolution when they had deposed their regime - the nobles and the priests who used to rule France. They celebrate that annually and think it’s civilised. The Russian Revolution, the English and American as well. What we enjoy here today, speaking freely and enjoying our faith, it goes back to the brave men and women who changed the regimes in these countries. I think a revolution can be something good and is one of the rights of the people.”
As for Muslims who may use democracy for, ‘one person, one vote, one time’ Ali says “that is another tyranny, this time in the name of God. I am opposed to them and that’s why I’m on the side of the people who protested in Tehran against the tyranny of Ahmadinejad. Of course, if you have a soft means to change, then don’t resort to harsher means. That’s the saying of the Prophet. He always opted for the easier way as long as it was not sinful.”
Such views, however, meant that in his native Tunisia, Ali had an Interpol Red Notice placed on him. “It was never an arrest warrant. The Notice has been removed now, but the media don’t want to report that. Benazir Bhutto was on a Red Notice; many of the Iranian opposition are on a Red Notice.” For Ali, the reason he is the subject of such media controversy is because he doesn’t tow the line. “I don’t say Islam is bad, that shari’ah is backward, etc. There are a few key words – if you use them you get into the good books of the neo-cons, and Islam Channel would get a lot of advertising!” But Ali is adamant he is not going to do that. “My parents passed away but I could not see them. For 20 years I didn’t see any of my relatives. When I left Tunisia most of my family and neighbours were put behind bars, their businesses were affected; I’m still paying the price, but I think it’s worth it. We need to change and move towards being just societies. To me, an Islamic society, if it’s not just, then I don’t care much for it. An Islamic state which doesn’t give power to the people is a dictatorship.” Shari’ah, for Ali, is something very positive and he believes it “exists in the UK more than any other Muslim country,” serving the interest of the people as a whole.
His passion is palpable and he is a self-confessed workaholic. Yet passion and a strong work ethic don’t pay the bills, which amounts to £3.5million per year for Islam Channel. “It is very difficult financially. If I’m prepared to be in the pocket of someone, I would get money from many places but I’m not prepared to do that.” Funding, according to Ali, comes from “community support, advertising and sponsorship, which is mainly from businesses in the Muslim community.” He also says that friends have donated and loaned him money.
Ali is keen to point out the channel is far from perfect. Ofcom fined it £30,000 for allowing prospective parliamentary candidates to present programmes. Ali acknowledges “they were absolutely right, and we put that on our website. We broke the code.” But he is not so accepting of other criticisms, like the Quilliam Foundation’s “Reprogramming British Muslims - A Study of the Islam Channel”. The report, whilst praising some programmes it considers “vital for English speaking Muslims looking to regain their spiritual heritage,” was highly critical of the channel, accusing it of sectarian bias and promoting extremist organisations by allowing presenters from groups such as HT. Ali is contemptuous of the report, describing Quilliam (along with Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion) as part of an “axis of evil who are trying to poison the atmosphere.”
Ali maintains that the channel will continue to give HT a platform, “The BBC has them on,” but he does not seem to see a distinction between having HT members as panelists on a show subject to the questions and scrutiny of a presenter, and actually having them as presenters themselves, using the platform of Islam Channel to espouse a perspective without availing viewers the opportunity to know their background. This was the case with the Muslimah Dilemma show which got the US Presidential advisor Dalia Mogahed into hot water. The HT presenters used the show to suggest Mogahed supported HT rhetoric, and it even appeared on their website. Ali counters that this show was from a long time ago and those presenters no longer appear. Regarding HT, Ali says that he “doesn’t agree with much of its methodology or ideology” but he believes “HT, like anyone else, is entitled to be heard and entitled to freedom of expression.” The channel, he says, is also open to Sufis, the Muslim Brotherhood, indeed any Muslim; but according to the Quilliam report the channel does not go far enough to reflect the broad spectrum of Muslim opinions in the community.
When probed on some of the other specific points raised by the report he was more conciliatory. On a point raised by Quilliam that one of its presenters, Shaykh Abdul Majeed, had said, “if a woman goes out smelling of perfume she is declared a prostitute,” Ali responds, “I think that was out of order from Abdul Majeed and out of context from Quilliam.” He holds firm that scholars on the channel should be given free reign. “I don’t want a TV executive to tell a learned scholar what the answer should be.” But the community can be very touchy about who appears on TV. “If a Sufi comes in, we have the Salafis complaining; if a Salafi comes in, the Sufis complain, and so on.” But he says he is open to broader contributions from scholars, and would welcome the likes of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad, and he cites Dr Tahir al-Qadri as a previous presenter on the channel. Qadri is supported by Quilliam, who describe him as, “a widely recognised and respected authority on Islamic jurisprudence.”
He concedes however that the scholars expressing their opinions on the channel are not always aware of the indigenous culture in the UK and this leads to problems. He wants this to change, he wants to go mainstream, “appealing to the ordinary human being on the street. British society has accepted the curry, but we have more than curry to offer.” On this subject Ali becomes very animated. “Muslims in the UK come from over 50 countries and everyone comes with his own culture. We are asking them to leave aside those cultures because they’ve been developed in a different society in a different context. Apart from the Qur’an and Sunnah, everything else should be left outside.” This could be interpreted as code for a rigid interpretation that seeks to purge Islam of any cultural expressions, however Ali seems to have a broader vision for Muslims in Britain, and if actually manifested on the Islam Channel would go a long way to answering his critics. “If we want Islam to remain in this country, it should be indigenous. We cannot be importing solutions from abroad. We need to look at our society and devise solutions based on our understanding of this society. We cannot have someone sitting in a foreign country giving answers to us here.”
For Islam Channel to implement this vision fully it needs to reassess its tag line “Voice for the Voiceless, Voice of the Oppressed” which perpetuates a victim mentality. Such a mentality disempowers Muslims and is not conducive to the creation of a confident indigenous identity fully able to contribute to society.
Despite all the criticisms, Ali is convinced Islam Channel is a permanent feature of Britain’s TV screens. “The channel is here to stay. I may not stay, but Islam Channel will.” Apparently he is leaving, as he wants to set up a trust to protect the venture and slowly bow out, perhaps to reflect more on the dramatic events in his life that have brought him to where he is today, and to cause a new revolution.