Controversial South London imam rejects ‘extremist’ label

The Lewisham imam is one of the few Muslim public figures that the media can explicitly label as “extremist” without fear of incurring a defamation suit.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Under the spotlight. Shakeel Begg, the chief imam of the Lewisham Islamic Centre at his office.  (Mahmud el-Shafey)
Under the spotlight. Shakeel Begg, the chief imam of the Lewisham Islamic Centre at his office. (Mahmud el-Shafey)

LONDON - Walking around Lewisham in South London with Imam Shakeel Begg is like accompanying a minor celebrity. People stop him in the street to shake his hand and exchange a few words. However, an internet search of his name reveals that the chief imam of the Lewisham Islamic Centre is most well-known in the media for being an “extremist,” a label he vehemently denies.

While Begg remains a controversial figure, it seems that Lewisham’s vibrant Muslim community has few qualms about the man who has been their imam for more than 20 years. The Lewisham Islamic Centre website carries testimonials from churches and synagogues to local politicians praising the mosque’s work. So how did Begg come to be labelled an extremist?

Begg sued the BBC for libel over a 2013 television segment that called him an “extremist who encourages religious violence.” The High Court of Justice ruled against him in 2016 and Justice Charles Haddon-Cave posited a ten-point definition of extremism that remains the legal one in the United Kingdom.

The Lewisham imam is one of the few Muslim public figures that the media can explicitly label as “extremist” without fear of incurring a defamation suit. There are several articles in the media explicitly labelling Begg an extremist, including recent criticisms of a visit by schoolchildren to the mosque, as well as the mosque’s role in seeking to encourage Muslims to volunteer as foster care parents.

“Instead of looking at it as something positive, that a mosque is engaging with something which there is a need in society… it is being spun in a way to make the mosque look negative,” Begg said.

“How many mosques actually do that? How many mosques actually engage in this way? It’s quite unique and amazing and should be praised rather than criticised.”

Despite the negative media attention, Begg said the 2016 court ruling has not ultimately affected the mosque’s work. “To tell you the truth, in terms of local community groups, it’s been business as usual,” he said.

“I’ve been here [at the Lewisham Islamic Centre] for 20 years. The local community knows me. The relationship that we have with the local community has not changed at all.”

Lewisham is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in England: Two out of five residents are of black and minority ethnic origin, the local authority said. Nearly 18,000 Muslims live in the borough, as of a 2011 census. Begg estimates that about 10,000 converts — or “reverts” as he calls them — have embraced Islam through the Lewisham mosque.

On average 400-500 people pass through the mosque daily and its labyrinthine rooms are filled with approximately 3,000 worshippers during Friday prayers. There are plans to expand the mosque as attendance at Friday prayers now spill out onto the street.

Begg is extremely proud of the mosque’s position in the community. The mosque has a nursery, primary school, after-school classes, a youth centre and gym — even its own football team.

“We have always had a vision that the mosque should be modelled on the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, which was not just a place for prayers. It was a community centre and a hub for all activities. That is our vision,” Begg said.

For Begg, who was brought up in Lewisham and returned after studying at the Islamic University of Madinah, the controversy surrounding “extremism” is a distraction.

Despite the High Court decision, Begg denies the label, saying he has been outspoken against terrorism and that the misunderstanding is perhaps owed to his obligation to address controversial issues.

“If we don’t address these issues, then that creates an issue,” Begg said. “Now with online information and radicalisation, what are these youngsters going to get from unknown people behind a screen who maybe haven’t studied anything or don’t have knowledge of Islamic sciences and who can give them a wrong interpretation?

“What will happen is people are silenced; issues aren’t addressed. We need to make sure that their concerns are being addressed in terms of Prevent or foreign policy,” he added, referring to Britain’s counter-radicalisation policy.

While there can be no doubt that Begg is a conservative Muslim — he said he views the general push to “reform” Islam as a threat to the religion — he denies this makes him an extremist.

“They’ve defined me as being extreme for speaking about issues that affect Muslims. So I’ve spoken about Palestine. I’ve been critical of Prevent,” Begg said.

“In a 45-minute or hour lecture, somebody has taken a clip of 30 seconds… You have to hear it in context,” he adds, referring to a clip in which he is seemingly encouraging a student to fight in the Palestinian territories.

The one way that the furore surrounding the High Court’s decision has affected him, Begg said, was the assertion that he was “something of a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure.”

“That statement was the most damaging. The idea that I have one face to the Muslim community and another to the non-Muslim,” he said.

While Begg remains a controversial figure, it seems that Lewisham’s vibrant Muslim community has few qualms about the man.

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