The next article in our series was to be about Best Practice, which I will now publish tomorrow. Instead today, I would like to reclarify a few points and also address some of the critical feedback I have received from the articles so far.
I just want to reiterate that it has not been an easy, or quick decision to write these articles, This has been done after all other avenues were exhausted and after much deep reflection, conversation, advise-seeking and guidance with political and Islamic experts and mentors and the necessary thorough checks and balances. I want to reiterate that all the correct Islamic due diligence has been done and continues to be done on a daily basis.
On Mustafa Field. I want to make quite clear that he was sent, multiple times, a lengthy email that was transparent that articles were being published, the nature of the articles, and key criticisms, with time to give a response and a promise to publish that response in full. He did not respond. Some feedback has questioned where the evidence is to my claims about Mustsfa Field’s prevent funding. The evidence of funding is evidenced via hyperlinks throughout the article. This evidence is official government documentation that is in the public record. Journalism law and standards do not allow for such claims to be made without being provable. All my facts and evidence are from the public record and I have sourced them throughout. Despite this clear evidence, still some groups, especially in the Iraqi community, have been quick to come and defend Mustafa Field and call this a personal smear attack. I would only say to them, you are doing a disservice to the entire Muslim community by not making it clear that Prevent is wrong and that we should not be cooperating with it, just as hundreds of academics, activists and experts fighting for the rights of Muslims in Britain have done so.
There is more sensitivity and feedback in regards to my mention of Sheikh Shomali. At the moment, the key critical feedback that I am receiving is a concern and criticism that this is disrespect to Sheikh Shomali, or more broadly that this is disrespect to the station of a cleric, or even more broadly that this is an attack on the Office of Ayatollah Khamenei. On this last point, I want to make clear in no uncertain terms, and categorically say that this is not an attack on the Office of Ayatollah Khamenei. Nor is it seen by Iran to be. This is a critique of Sheikh Shomali’s stances whilst he has had tenure in the U.K.
I understand that this goes to the heart of a division amongst followers of Ayatollah Khamenei about the rights and position his representative has and the permissibility to question and critique him. And more broadly the concept of critiquing clerics in general and the fiqh issues surrounding criticism and disrespect. These are not debates that I have opened up in these pages, or wish to partake in during these articles, that are focused on making very serious socio-political points.
That does not mean it is a question I have not personally and rigorously sought an answer for or that these answers have not been verified right down to the smallest detail, by the teachers of our clerics where needed, and when, as was the case in one instance, a secondary rulings needed to be established. The broader issues and the fine details continue to be looked at daily, or more frequently, as circumstances develop.
I want to reiterate again, I have worked in Iran for many years, and at Press TV for many more. I continue to have a good relationship with Iran built on mutual trust and respect. I know that this is not seen as an attack on the Office of Ayatollah Khamenei.
This is a permissible critique of Sheikh Shomali. That does not mean everyone will be happy to see it, but that is different thing entirely that we should not conflate with impermissibility.
Neither can we conflate every occurrence in Iran or associated with Iran, or every official that exists, or his or her actions, as reflective of Ayatollah Khamenei’s personal or official position or endorsement simply because it is still ongoing. It seems to imply that mistakes never get made, officials never get reprimanded, that bureaucracy doesn’t exist, delays are impossible and that everything is always simple and clear-cut in a complex and functioning country with over 70 million people and its related infrastructure.
It’s a deductive argument that does a disservice to the vibrancy of debate in the country and the encouragement by the infrastructure of Iran for this to take place. Neither has it been my experience of working as a journalist inside Iran or for Iran. I believe this conflation is a disservice to the vibrancy and openness of Iranian society that vigorously and productively critiques in the media and civil society. I also believe this assertion plays in to the hands of a perception that this cannot take place when it comes to Iran, which is untrue. This perception is used by Iran’s critics and enemies to demonize it and it is not always productive to partake in that.
In fact, I would go further and say that the British Shia community has a lot to learn from Iranians who have a vigorous and Islamic infrastructure of critique and who have learned and continue to refine how to do this robustly whilst maintaining the strength and respect of Islam and the Ulema. Despite the difficult times we are in, I believe our community is capable of moving in that direction.
By and large, where I have received this feedback, it is from people who I know to be well intentioned and sincere, some who know me personally but have made no attempt at reach-out as others have done. I have not taken offence to their public and private remarks despite the nature of them. I know it is coming from a passionate and over-protective space to quickly defend something that they believe to be attacked in an unwarranted way.
I can only reiterate, again, this is not unwarranted, nor an attack, nor a disrespect and it is not seen to be so in the spaces that these same individuals are trying to protect.
Let us not reduce the maturity and resilience of the Iranian system or of our Islam. Whether you are a supporter of Iran or a passionate follower of the Office of Imam Khamenei, you should work to reflect that maturity, resilience, vibrancy and encouragement for debate and progress that exists in those spaces.
Beyond the Iranian sphere, the same applies to the broader issue for us as a Shia community, what is permissible in these specific circumstances, and what is the framework of debate and progress. Again, all these answers have been sought before publication.
I am making this clarification because, in some quarters, this criticism has already tried to detract the conversation to that space - that I am attacking Iran, the Ulema or a specific cleric - simply because I am making a crucial and urgently needed political critique of a damaging policy in the U.K. that has seeped in to every corner of our community and that this critique involves our centres and clerics. This is not unexpected, but it is a distraction from an urgently important issue.
Having said all that, this is not about Iran. This is about the British Muslim community, this is about Islamophobia, this is about Prevent, this is about Prevent funding and our response to this climate. I think all parties across the board are aware of that, and that is where I believe the conversation should be based.
I have had dozens and dozens of hours of conversation with every single person that has been mentioned, or sourced in these articles – except for Mustafa Field who refused my request. Since they have been released I have had dozens more hours of conversations, especially with those who have been giving me constructive and critical feedback, or wanting to have honest and personal conversation. One thing that I can say from this process, is that with every single person or group that this has taken place, when I have explained the full reasons why I decided to publish these articles, there is hurt, but there is understanding, and from that understanding comes healing. Every conversation has ended in the spirit of the love and care we have for each other as brother and sister. This has led to outreach and an attempt to mend relationships, with all sides knowing all the facts. That does not mean some people who have talked to me and understood the seriousness of what I am saying, still don’t think it is better that the rest of the articles, going to the core of the reason I decided to publish, don’t come out.
Personally, I disagree. This is not an easy circumstance. There has been continued outreach to Sheikh Shomali by numerous third parties in the last few days that are still being rejected. I think we need that healing through community clarifications, however difficult that process may be.
However, I have promised them, as I have promised myself and I now publicly promise to the community; if and when my daily checks and balances make it clear that no further articles should be published, that is what will happen.
To the point made as to why I’ve only focused on Sheikh Shomali. To a large extent it is because of the influx of information I have received over 3 years. I did not “chase a story” here. The first time I felt there was no choice left but to write was weeks after my meeting with Sheikh Shomali in Ramadan of this year, as I reflected on what to do about that conversation. I do also believe that ICEL should be a leading example in our community, and in that regard its stance is important. The other reason is very frankly, that our mosque establishment in this country fares very badly. Prevent is not just being promoted by Mustafa Field, nor its language and policy just taken up by Sheikh Shomali. It is so heavily infiltrated in to our community that there is a political significance to the last domino falling. However, this is happening elsewhere. If people have a similar body of evidence of this occurring I believe they should also be rigorously reflecting on what to do with it and seeking all the correct recourse to tackle this. We must remove this toxic policy from our community.
However, let me make it very clear; writing articles and bringing this issue in to the public is not the first port of call – it is the absolute last – and even if you got to that last stage as I have done, it must be done with political and Islamic certainty. Furthermore, I am a journalist and my last port of call was my area of expertise both in the content of the critique and the platform.
Another very specific feedback I received was the time between the summary – which was vague - and clarifications on the broad points made there about Sheikh Shomali, which have not yet been made. My summary made an overall argument about 60+ pages of writing in two pages. If I had received any response from Sheikh Shomali I would have reflected that position there but one was not forthcoming. There is an article on Sheikh Shomali. I am devastated that it may have to be published.
I would also like to clarify that I have had to juggle public criticism about a delay between the summary and this article and several private requests for independent parties and those with Sheikh Shomali’s ear to reach out and encourage him to make public a rejection of Prevent and radicalisation. I wanted to take every opportunity to avoid having to write this, despite that delay being used simultaneously against me in public. All that is being asked is a simple rejection of Prevent Policy and the narrative of radicalisation, a rejection that there is any radicalisation in our community, and a clarification that receiving Prevent funding to operate this policy in to our community is wrong and should not be engaged with. In fact, what our community really needs, is a coordinated public statement to those points from all our leading centres.
And just finally I want to make clear that I have worked independently on these articles. I reject entirely the claims that this is an organised campaign. I am a freelance journalist who works regularly with several different media clients, as well as other organisations that I do freelance media work for. One of those clients is IHRC, who I am very happy to be working with on a UK political show for Press TV. I am not a staff member of IHRC and they have not played any part of this process. They were interviewed just like anyone else and are reading these articles as they are published just like everyone else.
I have watched unfolding events and I have decided to take a stance. That stance has included a defence of organisations or individuals who, I don’t always agree with, but who have been unnecessarily and unfairly put at risk. Very specifically, this includes AIM. I have my differences with this organisation and over the years I have made that very clear to them. However, it seems unreasonable to claim that independent parties cannot take a view unless they are a part of some sort of conspiracy, or have somehow been influenced. I have trained in journalism for 4 years and have worked in the media for over a decade, I think I can hear from an organisation like AIM and IHRC without being somehow unduly influenced by their position.
What has unfolded here is the using of dangerous Islamophobic state policy to resolve local disagreements. This is a fact I am stating based on conversations I have had personally and things that have been said to me directly. These specific conversations are the reason these articles are being written. Nothing to do with AIM, IHRC or others. But I will defend AIM, IHRC and others from what I was told. There has been no misunderstanding, there has been no factual inaccuracy. This is me laying the proper political framework of understanding to explain why this is wrong, despite the continued insistence to defend this policy, even until today, when asked to make a simple public clarification.
It seems that this idea that I am somehow unduly influenced is particularly centred around the Muharram article. I just want to make clear that I spent dozens of hours talking to every person sourced or quoted in that article. Bar one request to change one word, which I did, I have not had any request or feedback by the parties involved that it is factually incorrect. In fact, after publication, parties across the board have told me the opposite. That every fine detail is not included, does not make it inaccurate. I want to make it clear; I have spoken to everyone involved, including those who spoke to me on background and asked not to be sourced or quoted, there is no detail missing that changes the two key premises; that Mustafa Field tried to get involved and was involved, or that Sheikh Shomali did not show collective leadership.
By any means, if the consequence of my stance is that I will be smeared simply by association, that is just a part of the job that I do. As someone who worked with Press TV through many storms, with Iran through many worse, I have had to be resilient to the smears of association that come with doing what I believe is the right thing. I have spent many years being called an Iranian-stooge when it is not true. That my stooge-status has been internally refined, makes it no truer than it has ever been.
I cannot control or stop these accusations, nor were they unexpected. I take no pleasure in having had to write this article, in fact it has been a personally difficult and at times painful experience. It has been 5 months since the specific meeting I have alluded to. That is in part because of my cautious approach and the constant advice seeking and reflection this process has entailed. In that sense I am at peace with myself, though very uncomfortable about our situation.
So, though I cannot control or stop these accusations, I can continue to try my best to bring these topics, questions and issues to the public domain, which at this juncture, is their rightful place.
I would just like to end by saying, there is support for the publication of these articles. But, I have also taken on board the feedback by those who I have talked who are concerned or come from different perspective, and who I have relayed the full circumstances to. Every single one of those conversations has agreed with the principle of what I am saying, agreed to my right to write this, and even agreed (once they know the circumstances) that this is Islamically permissible critique. However, some of them, are still worried that the damage of letting the public know is worse than the good. That is a serious point of reflection
The argument I have put forward is that my area of expertise is to understand the political and legal climate of this country and where it is heading. I know where this is heading, as do other journalists, experts, academics and anti-racism campaigners. Whenever I would have published this I would have been told “not now”. But if I had never published it, in 5 years…no maybe even in 5 months…the same people would say to me “why didn’t you say anything”.
Having said that, I take the balance of overall good and overall harm to the community very seriously, and at the moment that is being engaged with by many parties, who have the fuller details and I will not do something that is concluded not to be for the good of the community. That you are not privy to those details or discussions does not mean they are not taking place.
I will end with a quote that I have been reflecting on since I saw it posted online several days ago; every time I read it, I think about what has taken hold of our community and what compromises we have made. I think about the use and influence of Prevent policy, even if by using its language, like the word radicalisation, publicly or privately. I think about how endemic it is amongst us, that we no longer recognise it because it has become the norm
“The best victory for evil is to convince the good people to use evil no matter how small to defend the truth. But as you make compromises in your methods you have already lost the battle. You can't defend the truth with anything less than the truth. Be careful.”