Ahmadiyya Muslim Community

Yesterday on the floor of the House, Mark gave a speech in response to a debate tabled by Siobhain McDonagh MP regarding the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslim Communities in countries around the world. You can read the debate in full on Hansard here.

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Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)

I beg to move,

That this House notes with concern the rising tide of persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, Algeria and other countries around the world; further notes the effect that hate preachers have on radicalising people internationally and in the UK, through the media, social media and otherwise; notes with concern the past activities of hate preacher, Syed Muzaffar Shah Qadri, who radicalised Tanveer Ahmed, who in turn murdered Mr Asad Shah in Glasgow in March 2016; calls on the Government to make representations to the Governments of Pakistan and Algeria on the persecution of Ahmadis; and further calls on the Government to make more stringent the entry clearance procedures to the UK for hate preachers by ensuring that entry clearance hubs and the Home Office have adequate numbers of Urdu speakers to monitor visa applications and online radicalisation.

Let me begin by wishing all Muslims Ramadan Mubarak. Let me also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for today’s debate, and all the Members who are present to take part in it.

On the border of my constituency is one of the largest mosques in western Europe, which can accommodate 10,000 worshippers. It is little wonder, therefore, that my constituency and the wider south-west London region are home to a thriving Ahmadi community, who help to make up a global community numbering millions. Let me explain to those who are watching or listening to the debate, and who may be unclear about this, that an Ahmadi identifies as a Muslim, but does not believe that Mohammed was the final prophet sent to guide mankind. That causes the Ahmadi Muslim community to be widely denounced as “non-Muslim”, and to be persecuted around the world—and, I am sad to say, often persecuted here in the United Kingdom.

To introduce the debate, I shall take Members on a global tour, from Africa to Asia and from Greater London to Glasgow. I shall then focus particularly on the persecution faced by the Ahmadi community in Pakistan, before turning to the shocking overspill of hate into the UK that the House has a duty and a responsibility to address.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for securing this important debate. I pay a heartfelt tribute to her work as chair of the all-party group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and for all she has done to support the community in the UK and overseas. That gratitude extends to the contributions of other hon. Members, and I shall try to respond to the points raised. I notice that there is a bit of a south-London mafia in the House this afternoon, but I appreciate the good reason why that is the case. I have the misfortune of living just the other side of the river in my constituency, but in a previous life as shadow Minister for London before the 2005 election, I went out and saw the mosque, and was able to meet many leading members of the London Ahmadiyya community.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, only two days ago I addressed the House in another debate about the persecution of Christians. On that occasion, Members from across the House gave horrifying accounts of the suffering of Christians in the middle east and in north and west Africa. Today, we have heard similarly appalling descriptions of the discrimination suffered by Ahmadi Muslims.

This has been a very heartfelt but calm debate. I hope that the world outside, in particular the countries mentioned today that clearly discriminate against Ahmadi populations, do not think that that calm does not underpin a certain amount of anger and our real sense of mission. The plight of the most peaceable of communities should be in all of our hearts. I hope we continue to work consistently and persistently on it.

Hon. Members have focused their concerns on events in Pakistan and Algeria in particular, but lest there is any complacency we must accept, as has been pointed out, that the UK is not immune from the scourge of religious intolerance. I take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to extend my personal condolences to the family of Asad Shah from Glasgow and to members of the Ahmadi Muslim community. When the Prime Minister was Home Secretary, I know that she wrote to representatives of that community to express the Government’s condolences and solidarity. We took the opportunity to meet representatives of the community to hear at first hand about the issues they face in their day-to-day lives.

I understand what the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) says. There is a great worry that in the world at large minorities are becoming increasingly undermined. We need to recognise that and stand up to it. The Government will continue to challenge extremism in our own community. We all know that our country is built on the values of democracy, respect and tolerance, but we were rightly reminded by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that we had our own blasphemy laws on the statute book. They were perhaps never going to be pursued, but none the less the fact that they were on the statute book until barely a decade ago reflects the significant change in our own society in the decades and centuries gone by.

I know I speak for everyone in the House when I say that we do not believe it is acceptable for any organisation or individual in this country to promote hatred or to ​condone violence, particularly on social media. I will come on to that in a moment or two. Where messages are posted in this country that incite hatred and murder, they should be reported to the police. Such activity is criminal and will not be tolerated.

The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton made a point about legislation. This is under active review. He will know and appreciate, as we all do, that the balance between freedom of speech and ensuring safety is very delicate. We need to recognise that many global internet service providers are precisely that: global organisations. The internet itself, in a very positive way, is a global resource. We therefore need to ensure that we are able to work with other countries to try to secure global protocols. That will be a major challenge in the decades to come.

As I said on Tuesday, all religious persecution, in whatever form it manifests itself, is abhorrent and deplorable. Governments, religious groups and right-minded people must condemn such incidents wherever they occur and do everything they can to bring them to an end. That is why we will continue to work tirelessly to promote and defend the rights of people of all faiths and none all around the world, so they can practise their faith or belief without fear or discrimination. I tried to explain our approach to defending freedom of religion or belief internationally in some detail on Tuesday, so I will not rehearse the same points today.

I would like to address specific issues raised in the motion, which, if I may say, was extremely comprehensive, about the prosecution of Ahmadi Muslims overseas and on UK policy on counter-extremism. I will be travelling to Indonesia in August and I am very happy to ensure that the very specific points raised by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden are brought up in the context of that visit. I have visited, and will visit in the future, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Thailand. Specific concerns raised here will be brought up. The hon. Lady raised an issue about the Department for International Development and textbooks. I do not believe it is correct to say that we fund biased textbooks, but I will look into that and, if she will forgive me, will write to her in due course.

The hon. Lady also talked about entry clearance and the processes that we focus on, and I know that a number of Members had concerns about that. Ministers of religion and religious workers can come to the UK through one of two routes: either tier 2 as a minister of religion, for longer-term postings, or tier 5 as a religious worker, for temporary positions of up to two years. Those routes cover coming to preach, to carry out pastoral duties, to work as a missionary or to be part of a religious order, and other religious duties. Both visa routes sit under the points-based system and require a certificate of sponsorship from a licensed sponsor.

It is important that we look at context in this debate. In October 2013, in a relatively recent change—as recent as four and a half years ago, although we have to keep the situation under constant review, given the matters raised in this debate—the Government introduced a genuineness test to better identify those who may be trying to abuse either of those routes. The test applies to applications under the points-based system and is part of a wider policy of assessing the credibility of visa applicants.​

That is ultimately a Home Office—rather than a Foreign Office—matter, but we will try as far as possible to have as joined-up an approach as we can. However, I am concerned that the system is being played to a certain extent, and that there are people who may be on dark lists in their home countries—as people who would incite religious hatred—but who are able to come to this country through the rules that we have in place and utilise being based in the UK to preach against Ahmadis in particular. We will do all that we can, and the fact that we have had this debate is useful. This is perhaps something that my Home Office colleagues need to work on more closely, but I give my pledge to the hon. Lady, and indeed, to all Members here, that between us and the Home Office, we will try to ensure that these abuses do not continue.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) spoke about a number of issues that I will come on to in my speech. She mentioned having a special envoy on freedom of religion or belief. I think this matter is almost literally sitting on the desk at No. 10 Downing Street at the moment. This is something on which we have work in progress, and I think we would want to emulate the US model to which the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) is a very close and long-standing friend, and I fear that it is in fact 19 years, rather than 18, since his selection as a candidate—I only know that because we are such good friends that we had a celebratory dinner with our wives, within a few days of that event. I will speak to the Home Office about issues related to domestic persecution—he is not here at the moment because he had another pressing meeting to go to, but I am sure that he will read Hansard avidly.

My hon. Friend touched on the issue of hate preachers, a subject that a number of others mentioned. The official line is that the Government take a robust stance against individuals whose presence in this country might not be conducive to the public good, but I recognise that there is now a much more deep-seated concern among the public that that test—rather a vague test as it is—is not necessarily capturing some people who really should not be in this country. I fear that part of the difficulty with such a test is that if there is a big hue and cry in the media, or on social media, we highlight particular individuals, and I suspect it is probably the case that the Ahmadi community, by its nature, is not organised on social media so is not able to start a big campaign to stop individuals coming into this country. We will need to look at cases on an individual basis—particularly those that are brought to our attention—but like many hon. Members, I am not convinced that we have got this absolutely right. We will need to tighten up and to try to have a more robust test to ensure that those who would do harm, who would wish to incite religious and other division, are not allowed into this country. Again, this is ultimately a Home Office-related matter and it would be wrong of me to be overly prescriptive at this stage.

The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton referred to GSP Plus. He will know that the EU issues reports on this matter. The most recent report was produced in January this year, and made a number of recommendations to Pakistan, among other countries. Along with our European Union partners, we will continue to press Pakistan in this regard.​

The right hon. Gentleman made some thoughtful comments. I think he recognised that this was not necessarily the place for immediate action. One of the difficulties of putting countries on to a blacklist, or taking them off a blacklist, is that it becomes difficult to move away from inertia and to have a list of priorities. There can be dangers in going down that route. I think it is important for us to work with international partners, whether in the EU or, in the time to come, in the broader international community. However, the right hon. Gentleman has made a fair point, and I will take this opportunity to revisit precisely where we were with GSP Plus.

When he was a Minister, the right hon. Gentleman rightly spoke up at a time when the Sri Lankan Government were making international commitments, too many of which had not been fully and properly adhered to. He will recognise that there is also a need and desire at all times to bring countries within the international community so that we can try to work together. Trade and commerce constitute one aspect of that. It must not be an overriding aspect, but it has a part to play in bringing countries back into the international community. These are complex issues, and I shall be happy to take them up with the right hon. Gentleman directly. I should be interested to learn more about his own experience in this regard, especially given that—as he is well aware—Sri Lanka is another country for which I have responsibility in the Foreign Office.

We are aware of a number of reports of Ahmadi Muslims being arrested in Algeria. The Government in Algiers have said that the arrests relate to breaches of law applicable to all religions. However, it is also the case that, while the Algerian constitution provides for freedom of religion, it is not always compatible with domestic law. We will continue to raise our concerns with the Government of Algeria, and urge them to rectify the anomaly and to respect the right of freedom of religion or belief. Last October my colleague the human rights Minister, Lord Ahmad—himself an Ahmadi Muslim, and a man of deep faith —discussed the plight of the Ahmadiyya with the Algerian Minister for Religious Affairs, and our ambassador also raised the issue with him at the beginning of this year.

I should point out that we also have grave concerns about the treatment of the Christian Protestant community in Algeria. We know that, for example, a number of churches have been closed. We have raised that at various levels with the Algerian Government, and our embassy keeps in close contact with the Protestant Church there. Our ambassador met representatives of the Church as recently as last month.

Many Members rightly raised the issue of Pakistan. The debate is particularly timely, in that—as has already been pointed out—it has taken place the day after a brutal mob attack on an historic 100-year-old mosque in the Punjab. We strongly condemn the continuing attacks on a peaceful community. The mob attack serves as an unwelcome reminder of the seriousness of the issue, and I tweeted my condemnation of it earlier today.

Let me say a little about our relationship with Pakistan. We have a tremendous high commissioner there, Tom Drew. He and his team do a great deal of challenging ​work in relation to counter-terrorism and a huge number of consular issues. The Department for International Development has its biggest single programme there, and efforts are being made to work with British Pakistanis to develop trade connections for the future. It all involves a huge amount of work, but that is not in any way to downgrade the work that we do in standing up for the Ahmadi community. I will take the opportunity to ensure that we raise that issue more extensively. I have been to Pakistan once in my present post, and I shall be going again later in the year.

I feel, to an extent, that we are not doing enough, but I hope the House will recognise that we are not ignoring the plight of people who are deprived of freedom of religious belief. There is a huge agenda, not least given the importance of Pakistan as a neighbour of Afghanistan, its relationship with China, and the sense in which the United Kingdom is a trusted partner at a time of uncertainty in that part of the globe. I accept that we may need to do a little more, and that we may do more publicly. That was raised by a number of Members today. I did not wish to suggest that because we tend to deal with these issues privately and quietly—and we do, very persistently, with all of our counterparts—there is no opportunity to go a little more public on them, and I will do my level best to achieve that.

Jim Shannon

Sometimes in Pakistan and across the world we speak to people at high levels of Government responsibility, but the problem is getting that down to the lower levels from where it branches out. How do we do that, because if we get that done, we can address many of the issues?

Mark Field

The hon. Gentleman is right. We do get the highest levels of access to political leaders, and Pakistan is now in a pre-election period which is a time of particular vulnerability for many minorities, and we have touched on that. It is entirely unacceptable that the Ahmadi, for example, are electorally disenfranchised. However we also work at state level, and in my visits going out to Mardan, for instance—I will be heading out to Karachi and Lahore in due course—I try to speak to senior state officials. Pakistan is a large country with over 210 million citizens and many of the states are as populous as parts of the United Kingdom.

We have raised, and will continue to raise, with the Pakistan Ministry of Human Rights the issue of the protection of minority religious communities. I have also done so in writing to the Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, and my ministerial colleague Lord Ahmad raised this issue as recently as February with the Pakistan Minister of Interior.

The Ahmadi community are prevented by the terms of the Pakistan constitution and penal code not just from practising their religion freely, but from being electorally franchised or indeed, dare I say it, from really being full members of the Pakistani community. That is unacceptable; we state that here and now and will continue to state it in our conversations with our Pakistani counterparts.

Followers of other religions, including Christians and Shi’a Muslims, also suffer persecution, and at the UN last November the UK pressed Pakistan to strengthen the protection of minorities. We also urged it to explain the steps being taken to tackle the abuse of blasphemy ​and anti-terror laws, which leads to attacks against members of religious minorities. Algeria and Pakistan are not the only countries where this persecution takes place. In Bangladesh, regrettably, the authorities have often failed to protect minority religious groups. [Interruption.]

I am being told by the Whips that my time is almost upon me. I have tried to address many of the issues raised in the debate and, if I may, I will say a few brief words about some of the issues raised on our counter-extremism work. Ultimately, that is a Home Office responsibility, but it is also an important aspect that we deal with. The Government remain committed to tackling extremism in all its forms, violent and non-violent, Islamist and extreme far-right and extreme far-left. The threat from extremist influences continues to grow, and we are responding with a joined-up, cross-Government approach.

We have also established a new Commission for Countering Extremism, with Sara Khan as the first lead commissioner. She will provide support and advice to UK civil society, to help it identify and challenge all forms of extremism. While this currently has a domestic focus, it also recognises that extremism needs to be tackled at source, which on many occasions can be traced to what happens overseas. Incidents of religious persecution in Pakistan have a tangible impact on community relations in the UK, and we are working hard to reduce the risk of extremist influences being projected into our own communities.

There is so much more that I would like to say, but I recognise that we need to move on to other business. I have touched on social media and on what needs to happen and on entry clearance, but let me conclude by saying the following. The Foreign Office will continue to promote freedom of religion or belief right across the globe. We also intend to protect our communities here in the UK from the scourge of extremism by working with partners at home and abroad to counter extremist propaganda, by working with global internet service providers and other social media to close down ​the space from which some of this terrible divisive material can be disseminated, and by using every other means at our disposal to exclude from this country those who would do us harm.

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all Members of the House for what has been a very worthwhile debate today.