Interview with Muslim Council of Britain leader sparks backlash at BBC

Fresh anger at new Woman’s Hour host Emma Barnett as her ‘strikingly hostile’ interview with Muslim Council of Britain’s first female leader about female imams sparks backlash against BBC

  • Zara Mohammed appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on February 4
  • She was grilled on number of female imams in Britain, but did not give a figure 
  • More than 100 public figures have written to criticise the ‘hostile’ interview

A Woman’s Hour interview with the Muslim Council of Britain’s first female leader has sparked a fierce backlash at the BBC.

Labour MPs Diane Abbott and Naz Shah are among more than 100 public figures who have signed an open letter to the broadcaster criticising the ‘strikingly hostile’ Radio 4 discussion with the council’s Secretary General Zara Mohammed.

Writers Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Mariam Khan, who organised the letter, are calling for the BBC to bring more diversity into its editorial and production teams following the interview, which has come under fire for reinforcing ‘prejudicial tropes’ about Muslim women, the Guardian reports.

The February 4 interview saw Ms Mohammed, from Glasgow, questioned about the number of female imams in Britain, to which she replied: ‘I mean, I think again I don’t have a clue on these numbers.’

When asked by host Emma Barnett if there were any women imams in Britain at all, Ms Mohammed, 29, responded: ‘Again it’s not – are you referring to chaplains, are you referring to women that lead the prayer?’

She added: ‘I think my role isn’t really to adjudicate or exam that part of spirituality.’

Ms Mohammed was asked if she found it ‘striking’ that she could not answer the question, and she replied: ‘I don’t think that’s within the parameters of my role.’

It is the latest controversial interview by newly-appointed Ms Barnett, after a guest last month stormed off the show in her first three days at the helm.

The UK’s largest Islamic group has chosen 29-year-old human rights law graduate Zara Mohammed (pictured) as its first ever female leader

When asked by host Emma Barnett if there were any women imams in Britain at all, Ms Mohammed, 29, responded: ‘Again it’s not – are you referring to chaplains, are you referring to women that lead the prayer?’

Ms Mohammed, from Glasgow, has become the first woman Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) after a week of voting. Pictured: Ms Mohammed and Sadiq Khan

The letter criticising the interview, signed by Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi and comedian Deborah Frances-White, says the BBC took down the original tweet with a clip of the interview following online and private complaints.

It says: ‘Despite Mohammed’s repeated claims that religious adjudication was not within the parameters of her role leading a civil society organisation, [host Emma] Barnett asked the question about female imams four times, each time interrupting Mohammed’s answer.

‘The framing of the interview and clipping up of the ‘female imam’ segment for social media mirrored the style and tone of an accountability interview with a politician, rather than authentically recognising and engaging in what this represented for British Muslim women.

‘Moreover, the false equivalence between imams with rabbis and priests in a religion that has no clergy reflected a basic lack of religious literacy needed for authentic engagement with British Muslim communities.’ 

Those who have signed the letter – which has 200 signatures in total – include Labour MPs Zarah Sultana and Apsana Begum; author and editor of the Good Immigrant, Nikesh Shukla; Rizzle Kicks’ Jordan Stephens, and theologian Dr Amina Wadud.

Ms Abdel-Magied said: ‘This cannot be the way that media organisations, especially the BBC – which is meant to represent Britain and British people – engage with Muslim women and Muslim people.’

A BBC spokesperson told MailOnline: ‘This is a topic we’ve been responding to already and now that we’ve received this letter we will reply to it in due course.’

Ms Barnett has had a turbulent start as the host of Woman’s Hour, having been in the role since the start of January.

She was accused of humiliating a guest who pulled out of an interview on just her third day as host of the programme.

Ms Barnett claimed she had been discussing off-air past allegedly anti-Semitic comments by actress Kelechi Okafor.

Miss Okafor, who was due to talk about the MeToo movement, overheard the discussion and posted on social media she was ‘coming off’ the programme ‘because what I’ve just had to witness is absolutely degrading and vile’.

She claimed Miss Barnett, not realising her microphone was on and guests could hear, was ‘talking s*** about me to the producers’.

It was revealed earlier this month Britain’s largest Islamic group had chosen human rights law graduate Ms Mohammed, from Glasgow, as its first ever female leader.

Ms Mohammed became the first woman Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) after a week of voting.  

The training and development consultant said she hoped her election would ‘inspire more women and young people’ to take on leadership positions as they are ‘the future of this organisation’.

Following her election, Sadiq Khan took to Twitter to congratulate her, writing: ‘Terrific to see Zara Mohammed elected as the first woman Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain’

Ms Mohammed – who has worked with several Scottish charities – has shared pictures of her posing with Sadiq Khan and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (pictured)

Ms Mohammed – who has worked with several Scottish charities – has shared pictures of her posing with Sadiq Khan and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. 

In a photo taken during a dinner in June 2019, she said getting a selfie with the London Mayor was her ‘favourite’ part of the evening.  

Following her election, Mr Khan took to Twitter to congratulate her, writing: ‘Terrific to see Zara Mohammed elected as the first woman Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain.’ 

In 2016, she became the first female president of the Federation of Student Islamic Organisations (FOSIS). 

Ms Mohammed has been critical of the Government’s Prevent counter-terror legislation – which aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.  

Speaking about it in 2016, she said: ‘Prevent is a perfect example where something was made without any kind of context and we’re always willing and open for a conversation and discussion and it’s our job to make sure that voice is heard.

‘There’s so much negative press now, at university people should be able to be themselves and not under a microscope of Government legislation, and for me my whole vision and aim this year is to help develop confident Muslim students.’

Several people convicted for terror offences attended British universities. Further-education centres are now required to look out for signs of radicalization.

Ms Mohammed added in her interview with Buzzfeed: ‘I think the government needs to understand what Muslim students need, and how they’re being affected by this legislation and if we want good citizens and good British Muslims, UK-wide Muslims, then we have to make sure that we celebrate the good and the achievements.’ 

In a photo taken during a dinner in June 2019, she said getting a selfie with the London Mayor (pictured) was her ‘favourite’ part of the evening 

She previously served as an assistant secretary general for the MCB – the UK’s largest umbrella body of mosques, Islamic schools and Muslim associations.

Ms Mohammed is also the first Scottish leader of the organisation in its history. 

She has a master’s degree in Human Rights Law from the University of Strathclyde and was the head of media and communications at the Muslim Council of Scotland prior to taking on her latest role. 

Following her election, Ms Mohammed said: ‘My vision is to continue to build a truly inclusive, diverse and representative body; one which is driven by the needs of British Muslims for the common good. 

‘Being elected as the first female secretary general is quite an honour and I hope it will inspire more women and young people to come forward to take on leadership roles. 

‘They are the future of this organisation and our society.’

The MCB – which elects a new secretary general every two years – was previously headed by Harun Khan, who has completed his maximum four-year term.

Mr Khan said: ‘It has been a privilege and honour to serve our communities over the past four and a half years as Secretary-General of this great national institution. 

‘There have been some amazing achievements during my tenure which stand testament to the dedication of volunteers, staff and our members. 

‘I wish the very best of success to Ms Zara Mohammed – may she continue to lead this organisation to greater heights for the betterment of our communities across the country.’ 

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