In Depth

Was Eric Pickles right to ask imams to root out extremism?

Muslim Council of Britain unhappy with letter, but Cameron suggests it is council that has the problem

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has come under fire for urging Muslim leaders to root out extremism and "demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity".

In a letter sent to more than 1,000 imams and Islamic leaders, Pickles and communities minister Lord Ahmad praised British Muslims for their reaction to last week's Paris attacks but said there was "more work to do".

They wrote: "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."

However, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has taken umbrage with the letter and says it wants clarification from Pickles about his request to explain how the Islam faith fits into British identity.

"Is Mr Pickles seriously suggesting, as do members of the far right, that Muslims and Islam are inherently apart from British society?" asked Harun Khan, deputy secretary general of the MCB.

Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that he could understand why Muslim leaders were upset.

Sacks said he was sure the ministers were "incredibly well-intentioned", but added: "I can kind of see that Muslim communities said 'Why are you pointing the finger of blame at us?'"

Meanwhile, Sajjad Karim, a Conservative MEP, told the World at One that the letter was badly phrased and implied the government held Muslim leaders responsible for matters that are "well beyond their control".

But Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested it is the Muslim Council of Britain that has the problem. "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," he said.

Cameron insisted it was "absolutely right to write this letter, to say that we all have a responsibility to fight extremism".

James Forsyth at The Spectator thinks the letter is "pretty anodyne", pointing out that Pickles explicitly says that "British values are Muslim values" and that Britain would be "diminished" without its strong Muslim communities.

"The MCB's response, with its gratuitous reference to the far right, suggests a desire to shut down discussion rather than to join in a constructive conversation," says Forsyth. "It is a response that does the organisation little credit and is a disservice to the people that it claims to represent."

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