The largest Muslim body in the UK today condemned the communities secretary in an open letter, accusing him of saying that "Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society".
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an umbrella body that represents more than 500 various organisations around the country, was responding to a letter sent by Eric Pickles last night.
In the letter, sent to imams across the country and co-signed by fellow minister Lord Ahmed, the communities secretary said Muslims had "more work to do" to root out extremism in British mosques.
You, as faith leaders, are in a unique position in our society. You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility, in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity.
We believe together we have an opportunity to demonstrate the true nature of British Islam today. There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country. We know that acts of extremism are not representative of Islam, but we need to show what is.
In reply, Dr Shuja Shafi, the secretary general of the MCB, wrote: "We also reject suggestions that Muslims must go out of their way to prove their loyalty to this country of ours."
Shafi's letter began by condemning the terror attacks in France two weeks ago and said that Pickles should speak to the organisation, noting that he had "not engaged with the MCB at all since" coming into office.
The letter praised Pickles and home secretary Theresa May for condemning Nigel Farage when, following the terror attacks in France, he condemned multiculturalism as a failed policy.
Shafi, whose position was supported by the former chief rabbi, said it was wrong to say Muslims had not done enough: "We do take issue with the implication that extremism takes place at mosques, and that Muslims have not done enough to challenge the terrorism that took place in our name.
"This is why we responded to the media, and an assertion in some quarters, that you were somehow endorsing the idea that Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society. We reject such notions."
Following a speech this morning, the prime minister responded to a question about Pickles' letter.
He said: "Anyone, frankly, reading this letter who has a problem with it, I think really has a problem. Because I think it's the most reasonable, sensible, moderate letter that Eric could possibly have written."
Another group, the Council of Mosques, asked Pickles to "publicly apologise to the Muslim community for bringing this peaceful section of the British society into disrepute".
Mohammed Rafiq-Seghal, president of the group, said: "Eric Pickles' letter to the Islamic leadership is highly objectionable on several grounds. Inadvertently, it blames and targets the Muslim community.
"The statement incorrectly implies that Muslims are not part of the British society and are at unease with it, hence they need to do more to be inclusive."
The full letter from the MCB is below:
Dear Mr Pickles,
I hope this letter finds you well.
I am writing to you concerning our common objective to seek unity and cohesion between communities following the terrible attacks in France between 7 and 9 January.
It is critically important that all of us; politicians, civil society, and faith leaders stand together in unity and defy the terrorists who wish to divide us. These last ten days have been one of sorrow and heightened tensions following the attacks in Paris. It is one where Muslims from all backgrounds have stood united in condemnation at these horrific crimes.
Last night, we were asked by the BBC to comment on a letter you had sent to Imams and leaders around the country. Indeed, as one of the largest Muslim umbrella bodies in this country, we did not receive this letter.
We take the point that your letter was written in good faith, and we agree with your assertion that British values are indeed Islamic values. However, we do take issue with the implication that extremism takes place at mosques, and that Muslims have not done enough to challenge the terrorism that took place in our name.
This is why we responded to the media, and an assertion in some quarters, that you were somehow endorsing the idea that Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society. We reject such notions.
We also reject suggestions that Muslims must go out of their way to prove their loyalty to this country of ours.
That is why we applaud your response, and that of our Home Secretary, when Mr Nigel Farage suggested that multiculturalism was to blame for terrorism and that there was a fifth column in this country.
The Muslim Council of Britain and Muslim communities around the country have redoubled their efforts to bring communities together and defy extremists of all kinds who want to divide societies. A few days ago, we took the responsible step of bringing together a diverse set of British imams to call for peace and calm ahead of the publication of the English version of Charlie Hebdo.
And on Friday we hosted a solidarity meeting with Jewish and Christian faith leaders and leaders from Civil society in Manchester and London. We have done this not out of apology, but because it was the right thing to do. These are positive acts that bring harmony between our communities. We have spoken out strongly against Islamophobia and anti-semitism on numerous occasions.
This week Muslims have experienced heightened tension when Mosques and Muslim institutions have been attacked and sent hate mail. Faith communities – Muslim, Jewish, Christian and others, are all playing their part in pushing back on this and fostering unity and hope across communities.
As evidenced by the media reporting in the last 24 hours, what you have to say matters too. That is why we feel your letter to Muslims, at this critical time, could have been worded differently.
While welcoming your desire to communicate with the leadership of the Muslim community, we are puzzled as to why this has not been received by the largest democratically-elected and representative Muslim organisation. Even though we have not had an opportunity to engage, I am extending our hand of friendship, dialogue and unity in the hope we can work together for the national interest.
As a Muslim body, our members expect us to remain independent and be critical friends while seeking the common good for all. We would welcome a meeting to discuss how we can work together to combat the threat of radicalisation.
Dr Shuja Shafi
Siraj Datoo is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Siraj Datoo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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