WHEN some horrible incident threatens to poison a country’s social atmosphere, a single, well-judged sound-bite can make a huge difference; and the biter as well as the sound will be remembered for a long time afterwards.
Imagine the situation in the Netherlands, back in 2004. Tension between Muslims, Christians and others was on the verge of boiling over after a popular, rambunctious film-maker, Theo van Gogh, was horribly murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by an Islamist. One of the things that helped calm the situation was a remarkable speech, in a mosque, by a Labour politician of Moroccan origin, Ahmed Aboutaleb. As the religiously observant son of an imam, he had impeccable Muslim credentials. But he sensed that this was not the moment to strike a defensively Islamic note.
The most important values in the Netherlands, he declared, were religious freedom, freedom of expression, and non-discrimination. “For people who do not share these common core values, there is no place in an open society like that of the Netherlands. Everyone who does not share these values would be well-advised to draw the [obvious] conclusion and leave.”
At the time, some people predicted that Mr Aboutaleb would lose out on both sides; he was still too Islamic for “white” Dutch voters, while Muslim citizens would regard him as an Uncle Tom. But his career has not suffered. Back then he held a senior post in the municipality of Amsterdam. In 2009 he took over as mayor of Rotterdam, birthplace of the original Erasmus, after the port’s Labour council invited him to move cities. (Dutch mayors are appointed, not directly elected.)
Now Britain has had its Aboutaleb moment, in the wake of the ghastly killing of a soldier on the streets of London. This time, the bonne parole came from Ajmal Masroor (pictured), a telegenic imam-cum-broadcaster-cum-budding politician of Bangladeshi origin. “If you dislike Britain so much…why don’t you just hand your passport over and leave? And if you dislike the policies of the government…participate in the electoral process, stand for election,” he rhetorically told the soldier’s attacker, in an interview with Sky TV which won big approval ratings on social media. At a time when ugly and vindictive threats were starting to hurtle through cyber-space, this was just the sort of message that many citizens wanted to hear…from a Muslim.
Who is Mr Masroor? Like many of London’s Muslims, he has family roots in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh. For somebody who grew up in a roughish part of London, he is strikingly articulate and well-spoken. Now aged 42, he has a story that many second-generation Muslims can relate to; when he was 19, his father took him to Bangladesh and tried to marry him off to a selected bride; he refused, causing a family rift. His personal experiences have made him into an articulate opponent of forced marriage. He and his (freely chosen) wife Henrietta, a Hungarian-born convert to Islam, offer their services as relationship counsellors.
In the 2010 parliamentary elections, he came a respectable second as a Liberal Democratic contender in the Bethnal Green district of east London, a place where all the major parties fielded Muslim candidates. As director of a voluntary social-affairs agency called “Communities in Action”, he lives at the interface between local politics, religion and the NGO sector, and is a skilful operator in that territory, which requires strong nerves because of the keen competition for funding. As with Mr Aboutaleb (who started professional life in radio and television), Mr Masroor’s work in broadcasting has enhanced a natural flair for communication. He has presented a television programme entitled “Make Me a Muslim” in which non-Muslims or lapsed Muslims were invited to follow the faith for three weeks: a new sort of game show.
And assuming he can keep a cool head in these tense and tricky times, we may be hearing and seeing more of Mr Masroor.