Ahmadiyya Community — [Annette Brooke in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 20th October 2010.

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Photo of Jane Ellison Jane Ellison Conservative, Battersea 3:00 pm, 20th October 2010

I congratulate Siobhain McDonagh on securing an important and timely debate. In my constituency of Battersea, like so many London seats, there are communities of people who have come to the UK from all over the world-some many decades ago and some more recently. During the four years that I was a candidate and in the five months that I have been an MP, I have met and visited a number of different faith communities to get to know them and understand their concerns. The Ahmadi are one of those communities.

Although I was previously unfamiliar with the beliefs and traditions of the Ahmadiyyan faith, from my first introduction to the community I have been made very welcome and kept well informed. I am grateful to the Ahmadiyyan national president Mr Rafiq Hayat, my local Battersea president Mr Tariq Uppal and my friend Tariq Ahmed for the efforts they and others have made to keep me briefed about issues of interest and concern. I am also grateful to them for ensuring that I know more about the Ahmadi and the important role that they play in the life of this country and my local community.

The London mosque, a very long established place of worship and the site of the head office of the Ahmadiyyan Muslim Community UK, is in my neighbouring constituency of Putney. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend Justine Greening, is currently in the main Chamber, but she has a long-standing and positive relationship with the Ahmadi community and is taking a close interest in this afternoon's debate.

I was aware of the long-standing tension that exists between some other Muslim faith groups and the Ahmadi Muslim community, especially in Pakistan where-as has been mentioned-persecution of the Ahmadis is, sadly, written into the constitution. However, it was still a huge shock and very distressing to hear of the Lahore massacres in May. They have been described already. Those worshippers were murdered with grenades, suicide vests and automatic weapons. As we heard, many people were killed and injured. Tragically, a local Putney resident-a much-loved husband and father, Mr Muhammad Bilal-was one of those people murdered.

Although one of our fellow citizens was caught up in the dreadful events in Lahore, it is always tempting to look at bad things happening in a foreign land and hope that we might somehow be insulated from them. We might be tempted to think that such events spring from a tradition very different from our own and that it could not happen here. However, this country has long-standing and very close political and diplomatic ties with Pakistan, which have been reinforced through the bonds of friendship and family over many decades. That has been manifested in many positive ways. Most recently, there has been a hugely generous response from the British people to the devastating floods that affected millions of people in Pakistan.

However, there have also been some less welcome developments that have resulted in part from the ongoing close ties of culture and religion between Pakistan and its diaspora. The Ahmadi Muslim community in the UK has noticed that disturbing trend in the months since the Lahore massacres. As has been alluded to, the persecution of Ahmadis has intensified in tone and frequency around our country, particularly in south-west London. There have been the incidents described today of intimidation during the general election, and posters and leaflets with aggressive and derogatory messages have appeared around the area. I have been shown images of posters put up in Scotland that denounce Ahmadis as infidels and publish their place of worship. That leaves those observing the poster to read between the lines.

As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden has said, many local newspapers, including the Wandsworth Guardian, have reported on organised boycotts of Ahmadi- owned businesses. Much of the written material that has appeared treads a conscious line between what is illegal and what is merely very unpleasant. A recent Ofcom investigation into provocative broadcasts by faith-based satellite TV channels was hampered by uncertainty about where some programmes had been shown. Translation has also sometimes proved a problem, with the exact nuances of some terms often disputed, even though the intent is obvious. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to keep a close liaison with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport with regard to broadcasting guidelines to ensure that loopholes are not exploited in such a way. I am certainly confident that we are not talking about restricting the right of free speech; we are talking about ensuring that people do not exploit loopholes to do the very opposite of the notion of free speech.

Whatever the details of individual events, we do not have to read too far between the lines to see that a deeply worrying trend is developing. Throughout history, we have seen where such trends have led. Indeed, we are reminded by the origins of the word "boycott" of the sectarian divisions that have scarred Ireland for many centuries. We must speak out now against persecution at home and abroad. Rather than keep our silence or let things be too low key, we must speak out before it is too late and further tragedies take place abroad or here.

I do not know, and actually I do not care, about the doctrinal differences that underpin so much of this unpleasant activity. I care about this country's tradition of religious tolerance, which we were rightly reminded earlier is still evolving and is not perfect. Nevertheless, we can take some pride in it. That tradition must embrace and protect the Ahmadi community, as it has protected other religious groups before. It is a tradition of religious tolerance that we urge Governments around the world to adopt and that our own Government should encourage at all times. I am sure the Minister will touch on that.

In the UK, I welcome the measures already taken by the borough commander of Wandsworth police to investigate what is happening in my local community. That investigation was urged by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney and others, and is supported by Wandsworth council, as well as many councillors and community leaders. There is more that can and should be done by all Members of Parliament to give leadership to attempts to combat rising intolerance. I will certainly be playing my part, and I am glad that this debate has offered us all the opportunity to draw attention to this very grave matter.