The political involvement of Imams and Scholars, in their capacity as thought leaders and pillars of the Muslim community, is something that can be seen throughout history. As Imams and Scholars, there has always been a responsibility on them to provide advice and give opinions on matters of public importance.
The historical role of an Imam imbibed an active role and engagement in the political landscape and they were frequently courted for advice and opinions by decision makers. It was important for the development of the Muslim community to see faith leaders in prominent political roles and many times, we can see how Imams and Scholars have requested decision makers to provide their understanding on an issue in order to facilitate a cohesive conversation.
Today, the need for Imams to be at the forefront of social and political discussions is even more pertinent. No doubt, when faith leaders engage in this way they will be involved in political dogfights and accept that their words and actions will be critiqued and questioned. The very nature of political life is one that requires resilience and patience because of the challenges it brings.
One way to highlight the unpredictability of political life is to juxtapose two examples of Muslim faith leaders that have engaged with the wider community and have yielded different results.
Firstly, if we look at the example of Imam Khalid Latif, the first Muslim chaplain of New York University and the youngest chaplain of the New York Police Department, we see an individual who has continued to build strong relations with various institutions (of faith and no faith), been invited to meet senior public officials and dignitaries (including the Mayor of New York and the Pope) and frequently invited onto media platforms to discuss issues affecting American Muslims.
His political involvement has seen him rewarded with honours from different organisations and he continues to lend his voice for the benefit of the Muslim community whilst commanding a positive reputation.
The second example is of Shaykh Suliman Gani, a prominent Imam from South London who has engaged in noteworthy political campaigns, standing for justice and with the oppressed, that have been supported by different political parties.
He became the focus of a political tussle yesterday in the House of Commons that saw the Prime Minister label him as a someone who ‘supports IS’ despite his vociferous opposition to their barbarity and what they stand for as a group.
Shaykh Suliman has since come on record and publicly reiterated his opposition to IS and said,
“In actual fact I have never and will never support IS/Daesh, in fact I have consistently like all mainstream Islamic scholars not only spoken out but condemned IS/Daesh for the monstrosity they are”.
There is evidence of Shaykh Suliman attending anti IS conferences with other Muslim speakers in the recent past and evidence to show that Shaykh Suliman has been courted and endorsed by members of both the Labour and Conservative parties in his role as a leader of the South London Muslim community.
Both these examples show how unpredictable political engagement is. The reality of entering the public discourse and becoming involved with decision makers and political discussions will not always proceed in the way we may think. Despite standing for justice and promoting community cohesion, political tensions can result in individuals or organisations becoming political litmus tests. However, what is important is that such instances do not deter other Muslim faith leaders from entering into the public frame to debate and comment on important issues. With the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and increased scrutiny on the Muslim community, it is important that active, positive role models from within the community, that work hard on a daily basis to strengthen inter-community relations, have the confidence and are empowered with the skills to represent the Muslim community on public platforms, in the media and online.
Prime Minister and Defence Secretary Offer Apology to Shaykh Gani
As an update to the story above referencing Shaykh Suliman Gani, Prime Minister David Cameron has officially apologised for his remarks towards Shaykh Gani.
In a statement from a Downing Street spokesman, he said: “In reference to the Prime Minister’s comments on Sulaiman Gani, the Prime Minister was referring to reports that he supports an Islamic state. The Prime Minister is clear this does not mean Mr Gani supports the organisation Daesh and he apologises to him for any misunderstanding.”
This apology comes after the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon was forced to apologise for repeating the Prime Minister’s claims on a radio interview.
Defence Secretary Pays Damages to Shaykh Gani
In addition to offering a public apology, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon has agreed to pay damages to Shaykh Suliman Gani after repeating false claims that he is an ‘ISIS’ supporter. The final payout is thought to have been in the thousands of pounds.
In a statement published on his website, Micahel Fallon said: “I accept that you are entirely opposed to Daesh/Islamic State, that you regard it as incompatible with your religious and moral beliefs, and that you have spoken out publicly against it.
“I repeat my apology for the error that I made and for the distress that it caused to you and your family. In recognition of that distress I have agreed to make a payment of compensation and to meet your reasonable legal costs.”