ANALYSIS: Islamic groups face PR challenge - Muslim groups faced a major challenge in the wake of the 11 September terror attacks and this week's US-led response. They take the positioning issue very seriously, says Joe Lepper

The Arab-American Anti Discrimination Committee was just one of the

groups that, in a PRWeek US report last month, said they were struggling

to cope with the magnitude of the media interest in their issues. But in

the UK, Muslim groups have for years been tackling issues that have now

hit the headlines in the wake of the attacks.



Most prominent among these groups is the Muslim Council of Britain,

comprising a host of local, regional and national organisations. Shortly

after it was formed in 1996, a specialist media committee was set up,

headed by secretary-general Yousuf Bhailok - a sign of the importance it

gave to PR.



Since then the committee has held talks with newspaper editors and staff

at Number 10, including director of communications Alastair

Campbell.



Issues discussed include media bias against mainstream Islamic groups,

religious and racial attacks on Muslims and mosques, a lack of

legislation outlawing discrimination and the need for the groups to

condemn terrorism.



Media committee secretary Inayat Bunglawala says a strong PR and PA

strategy was already in place, and that the period after the 11

September was all about building on this.



MCB spokesmen, Bhailok and media committee vice-chair Iqbal Sacranie

were increased to five with Bunglawala, the council's deputy secretary

Mahmud Al Rashid and media committee member Shir Khan all promoted to

take on spokesman duties. Bunglawala says: 'We have been talking to

editors and those at Number 10. They know us and this has helped.'



Margaret Thatcher provoked fresh controversy last week by criticising

Muslim groups for not doing enough to condemn the attack. Bunglawala

says the former PM cannot be more wrong: 'By 5.30pm on 11 September we

had sent out releases condemning what happened. It was important we made

it clear that terrorism is despised by Muslims.'



A key concern was perceived bias. Many articles focusing on extremists

based in the UK, such as muslim cleric Bakri Mohammed, followed the

attacks.



Editors were immediately contacted and the council is now satisfied this

has led to a reduction of column inches devoted to extremists.



Following a conversation between the council's media committee and

Campbell, journalists attending a Downing Street briefing last month

were warned against gratuitous coverage of Muslim extremists.



The council even secured meetings with Blair and his Tory counterpart

Iain Duncan Smith to discuss the need for laws to stamp out religious

hatred and discrimination. Within a week of these meetings, home

secretary David Blunkett had announced plans to extend race laws to

include religion.



During the coming weeks the MCB's work will concentrate on liaising with

regulators, including the Independent Television Commission and the PCC,

to ensure fair reporting of Muslims in the UK. Lord Wakeham, PCC

chairman, has already been approached.



The work of the council has attracted the interest of PR agency Weber

Shandwick Worldwide. Head of international government affairs Marcus

Courage gave a presentation to the council last week in a bid to assist

with its PR. But Bungalawa says: 'We found a lot of what they suggested

we were already doing so, outsourcing PR is not something we want. We

feel it is important that this is being handled from within the Muslim

community.'



Other Muslim groups involved in PR after 11 September include the Muslim

Institute and sister body the Muslim Parliament. As with the MCB, this

group already has a solid background in media relations and PA, handled

by Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, secretary of the institute and leader of the

Muslim parliament.



Siddiqui echoes the view of the MCB, that the priorities were to

distance the Muslim faith from terrorism and ensure fair and accurate

media coverage of Muslims. The institute is leaving government relations

to the MCB but has been in talks with civil rights group Liberty over

the implications of legislation to outlaw discrimination. 'We support

legislation and setting up a statutory body to regulate it but, at the

same time, are aware of the civil liberty issues,' Siddiqui says.



In June a number of Muslim groups joined to form the Forum Against

Islamophobia and Racism. Siddiqui says that because of the events in the

US and the increase in attention the forum is now looking to recruit PR

professionals: 'With this subject they are better equipped to handle the

media.'



Since 11 September there is evidence of a backlash against Muslims with

attacks taking place on Muslims and mosques across Britain. Last month

an Afghan minicab driver was left paralysed after an attack in London, a

Muslim woman was the victim of a baseball bat attack in Swindon and a

Southend mosque was vandalised.



With such public safety and community relations implications, the task

of promoting Muslim condemnation of terrorism also falls to local

authorities with high Muslim populations. Oldham, for example, is

already involved in race relations work following the summer riots -

since 11 September this has been increased. Muslim leaders' messages of

condemnation of terrorism have been published on council press releases

and the council also set up the area's first multi-faith forum.



Incidents such as the riots in Bradford and Oldham and the lack of a

constitution to enshrine religious freedom and equality has meant that

Britain's Muslim community has had a significant head start as effective

campaigners over Muslim groups in the US.



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