Richard Ford, Times (London), December 20. 2005
Plans to force foreign-born imams to take a “Britishness test” were scrapped yesterday in the second climbdown in less than a week on proposals to tighten scrutiny of mosques.
The Home Office dropped the idea after opposition from Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Five days ago Tony Blair’s plan to give police the power to close mosques suspected of having extremist links was ditched after opposition from Muslim leaders and the police.
The latest retreat came after protests from Muslim leaders and other faiths who objected to a Britishness test being made part of immigration laws. An estimated 85 per cent of the 2,000 imams working in the UK are foreign-born.
The climbdown comes despite longstanding concern from senior ministers and the security services that radical imams entering the country from Pakistan and the Middle East are driving young British Muslims to extremists.
Under the proposal all foreign-born ministers of religion would have had to sit a test on Britishness after being in the country for two years.
The aim was to ensure that they understood the multicultural society in which they preached and provided pastoral care to their communities. It was also intended to answer concern within the Muslim community that some foreign-born imams had little concept of the world in which young British-born Muslims had grown up or the problems they faced.
But yesterday Tony McNulty, the Immigration Minister, announced that the idea first put forward by David Blunkett when he was Home Secretary had been ditched.
Mr McNulty told a press conference at the Home Office that he had bowed to fears from all faith communities over the proposed test on life in Britain.
He said they had all expressed concern that foreign-born preachers would face tougher immigration requirements than other migrants if they were tested on life in Britain after living in the UK for two years.
“There was concern that somehow ministers of religion were being treated differently,” he said. “We have listened to that.”
He said there was no compelling reason to treat foreign-born ministers of religion differently from others seeking to stay in the UK.
Instead foreign-born ministers of religion will only take a test on life in Britain, including its constitution, legal system, customs and religious life, if they apply to settle after four years or seek citizenship after being in the country for five years.
The original proposals were put forward before the July 7 terror attacks but amid concern in the Government that some imams could speak little English and had hardly any knowledge of Western societies.
A Home Office consultation document put forward the testing regime because of the “potential influence which ministers of religion can — because of the respected position which they occupy and through the preaching and pastoral functions they may fulfil — exert among their congregation”.
Government ministers wanted imams to show an understanding of the religious needs of those from their own faith who have been brought up in the UK. It was also proposed that foreign-born preachers would have to produce evidence that they had taken part in the civic life of the commun-ity including mixing with other faiths as part of a drive to improve community cohesion and end ghettoisation.
The Home Office said it hoped that a tougher English language test for foreign-born religious leaders would automatically mean they had a knowledge of British life.
An official said: “If someone has to take a test showing showing they are a confident user of English, both written and spoken, they will have inevitably learnt about life in Britain. They will have read newspapers and listened to the BBC.”
Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said last night: “I do not understand why the Government has dropped this plan.
“We welcomed the idea. We thought it made sense that people coming here to preach should have a good grasp of our country’s history.”