Saturday, April 25, 2009

Police policy of criminalising dissent

"That's what the police do", commented former Flying Squad chief John O'Connor to the BBC who picked up a report by the Guardian that Strathclyde police were paying informers considerable sums to act as moles within protest movements. Similar contacts were often made with individuals in protest groups and in the criminal world, he observed.

That last remark is the crucial part of the statement. It betrays the mindset of the police forces in the UK which produced such shocking results as the killing of an innocent news vendor and the beating of a demonstrating lady: the police place protesters within the criminal world. The transgressions by the police, recently looked at by a select committee in parliament, are not the excesses of rogue individuals, they are a matter of policy.

Notwithstanding the oft-repeated mantra of freedom of speech and the democratic right of protest, managing protest in today's subtle police state is about ensuring by all means, fair or foul, that it remains at the periphery, invisible and inaudible, incapable of interrupting business as usual. The justification is usual the need to maintain public order. However, in reality the ends appear to justify the means, and the ends are not merely public safety. Ultimately, it is about power and remaining in charge.

The revelations that have come to light with secret tape recordings of Strathclyde police officers trying to recruit new informers raise serious questions about the nature of policing and the already frail trust between the police and the public. The blunder of police chief Bob Quick aside, where the arrests of eleven Pakistani Muslims under terror legislation merely an attempt to shift the focus of public scrutiny away from the methods the police used against protesters during the G20 summit and the question of whether their tactics were governed by a desire to protect the powerful from the voice of the people rather than to protect the people from harm? Those arrested were subsequently released without charge, as is usually the case with most people held for prolonged periods of time under terrorism legislation. On the assumption of "innocent unless proven Muslim" it was, however, suggested, that they should be deported anyway.

This is also the fate destined for Barbar Ahmed who is imprisoned in the UK on the basis of a US extradition request. He was brutally assaulted by police in his own home, sustaining multiple severe injuries, and mocked about his religion, then released without charge. When he complained to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC - which might as well stand for Indemnify the Police against Criminal Conduct), the carried out a whitewash investigation and found that there was no case to answer for the police. However, during the private proceedings his lawyers initiated, the police eventually admitted culpability.

Even more damning than the revelation that the police are actively recruiting activitsts to spy for them on legitimate protesters is the admission by a police officer on one of the tapes that "we work with lots of people from terrorist organisations right through to whatever". Maybe the "conspiracy theory" that there was police collusion during the 7/7 bombings are not so far-fetched after all. Some of the alleged suspects were well known to the police and the alleged mastermind, Haroon Aswat, was previously an informer for British intelligence. Was he also paid tens of thousands of pounds, the sums available according to the Guardian tape, in order to organise a few naive Muslims with rucksacks to travel down to London whilst intelligence experts did the rest, including letting him ecape and covering his tracks?

At the same time as these revelations about police tactics a report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary finds that police are failing to tackle the rising thread of criminal gangs in England and Wales. This report was kept secret until it was forced out by a Freedom of Information request by the Times. So whilst the police focus on those exercising their right to protest and on Pakistani students hyped up as terrorists for political convenience, the public are at the mercy of an increasing number of organised crime networks unchecked by police interference. Likewise, motorists are increasingly criminalised through revenue-generating speed enforcement action, whilst officers shy away from confronting the violence of drug and people traffickers and armed gangs.

If the Home Office Select Committee is serious about restoring public confidence in the police, their enquiries need to go a lot deeper than simple asking why officers were allowed to cover up their identity numbers, a practice commonly found in those police states our self-righteous government frequently moralises about. They would need to address the whole can of worms of the illicit relationship between policing and power politics. And it goes without saying that they need to scrap the farcical "Independent" Police Complaints Commission and replace it with a body representing the interest of the people, equipped with powers of enforcing policy changes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Scottish Islam - does it exist?

A few months ago I took a new Scottish Muslim convert to the mosque in Dumfries for Friday prayers. The address before prayer was entirely in Urdu, except for a few incoherent English words thrown in whilst glancing at the unexpected white faces in the small crowd, never as much as even half a sentence though, making the content completely incomprehensible for the non-Urdu speaker. Having said that, understanding Urdu did not help much either, since the subject matter was almost completely irrelevant to living in Britain. This was followed by a brief sermon in "Arabic", made up only of standard phrases commonly used as a framework for this purpose over the centuries and fleshed out with nothing else. The experience felt very foreign and, except for the compulsory nature of attendance at Friday prayers, a complete waste of time.

Having visited again over Easter I suggested we try Glasgow Central Mosque instead who could not possibly be as backwards as this. We were in for a major surprise. The experience was not only foreign, but completely outlandish. Sure enough, the purpose-built mosque has all the modern fittings and is kept meticulously clean. Nonetheless, we wished afterwards we hadn't made the journey. The service started with an address in Urdu, as if that was the lingua franca of Scotland. Part of this was then translated into English, none of which contained any references to the lives the attending worshippers live in Britain. Then followed a run-of-the-mill Arabic sermon read from a script which, whilst coined in flowery poetic language, made no reference whatsoever to current affairs or the situation of Muslims locally or anywhere else in the world. It was what followed after the prayer, however, that made the event memorable.

During prayer a couple of babies could be heard crying from the sisters' gallery at the back. Of course, nobody likes to hear children cry, but they do. I find it infinitely more bearable than the various musical tunes emanating from mobile phones during prayer at most mosques around the world. But for the Imam it was just too much. After completing the prayers he made an announcement that it was an outrage for women to bring children to the mosque and let them cry in order to disturb the brothers' prayers. I am told this wasn't the first time such an announcement was made. But for the first time there was an unexpected response: instead of bashfully dropping their heads and feeling guilty for having come to the mosque, one of the sisters made her way right through the crowd of male worshippers leaving the mosque in order to question the Imam on his wisdom. Imported Imams, even the younger ones, do not like their perceived authority undermined, and she was eventually persuaded to leave the men's prayer hall. Together with an entourage of other women and their male relatives, who had since caught up with them, she made her way to the Imam's office, demanding to speak to him and challenge him on having so publicly insulted the mothers of the crying children without first bothering to establish what might have happened to cause the little ones to cry. After all, mothers don't delight in their children's tears. Nor would they mind if the mosque's concern for their children extended to providing creche facilities, which would immediately solve the problem.

Outside the Imam's office the mosque administration sprang into action. It would not be possible to speak to the Imam. He was too important to be summoned, you would have to go to him. She tried, she said. No, not her, a man would have to speak to him on her behalf, it was not acceptable for a woman to speak to him. Just like in Pakistan, said another young woman, and hastily added for not wanting to be perceived as racist that she was of Pakistani origin herself. Then why don't you go back to Pakistan retorted a bouncer guarding the Imam's office, looking not much over twenty in age. I suggested he join the BNP, they love young Asians arguing their case.

Much of what was said during the continuing discussions made me wonder whether time had stood still for this insular mosque over the past few decades. Islam may have made progress in Britain and Muslims may have come of age with regard to facing up to the modern world, but all this must have happened outside the mosque. The saddest thing was that the mosque did not try to preserve some pristine version of ancient Islam but a distorted form of Pakistani male chauvinism dressed up as religion. In spite of being turban-clad they did not follow the example of the prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, in any respect. Numerous authentic reports about his actions and words (Ahadith) indicate that he displayed a caring attitude towards both children and women, which was betrayed by those who thought to take his place in defining Islam in Glasgow. He prolonged his prostration because one of his grandsons had climbed onto his back. At his mosque in Madinah men formed the first row and women the back row, with children placed in the middle, so they did attend. It was reported that any slave girl of Madinah could take him by his hand to ask him about any concern of hers and he would not move on until her request was fulfilled. And what about the old woman who got up in the middle of a public meeting to challenge the caliph Umar for wanting to restrict the amount of dowry given for marriage. She did not send her husband or brother to have a quiet word with the ruler of the Muslims, she confronted him in public with her understanding of the Qur'an, and he immediately conceded at having made an error of judgment. No such humility in the Glasgow Imam - his staff eventually suggested a later appointment could be made, one woman only, accompanied by a man through whom she would speak.

In his admonition to the attending mothers he had also misinterpreted the Hadith that the prophet had shortened congregational prayer on account of a child crying. According to the Imam and a Pakistani scholar he quoted the child had not been at the mosque but at a nearby home and the prophet had shortened the prayer to allow the mother to return home early. Should I suppose it was customary in those barbaric days to leave little children alone at home whilst going to the mosque to pray? And what about the prophet's advice to bear in mind when leading prayer that there are weak, ill and old people in the congregation, how should we twist this message to get rid of the nuisance of children?

Maybe we should bar women altogether from attending mosques, although there is a Hadith forbidding this. And also bar the ill and the disabled. And young people. And anybody with their own opinion. And non-Urdu speakers. To leave only old first-generation Pakistani men. That way Islam will have a bright future undisturbed by dissenting voices or crying children. And it will grow firm roots in Scotland and last forever. Or maybe we should give up on the mosques and take our Islam elsewhere. Both, of course, would negatively affect the size of the mosque donations after Friday prayers, a problem the Imam and his protective team still need to resolve somehow before they can pray in peace.