The BBC has won a libel case against an imam it claimed had “hailed jihad as the greatest of deeds” and spoken at a “venue for a number of extremist speakers” on the Sunday Politics show.
Presenter and journalist Andrew Neil (pictured) made the comments about Shakeel Begg and the East London Mosque during an episode of the current affairs show broadcast on 3 November 2013.
Neil said: “The East London Mosque… it’s also the venue for a number of extremist speakers and speakers who espouse extremist positions. This year Shakeel Begg, he spoke there and hailed jihad as ‘the greatest of deeds’.”
The matter was heard by the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court under Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, who gave his verdict today.
The BBC relied on a justification defence, claiming the comments were substantially true, and referenced a series of speeches and remarks made by Begg between 2006 and 2011 to prove it.
Chief among them was Begg’s speech at Lewisham Islamic Centre, where he is chief Imam, on 31 May 2009 about “deviant groups” within the Muslim community.
The court heard how Begg had encouraged his audience to rise from their seats and take up arms to wage aggressive jihad against the enemies of Islam, including the Jews in Palestine, during the speech.
He also reduced the religious meaning of “jihad” (stuggle) to the single meaning of qital (holy war), and told his audience that “fighting is prescribed upon you”, the court was told.
Begg denied being an extremist speaker and said he had he has always been against extremism. He produced evidence of his inter-faith and Lewisham community work, including a number of testimonials supporting him and other speeches he had given.
The court held that the BBC had succeeded in its defence and that the words complained of were substantially true, saying Begg’s deviant groups’ speech was proof enough.
Haddon-Cave said: “The Claimant also uses his position as an Imam to state definitive (extremist) religious theological positions. In the deviant groups speech (2009), when questioned by a member of the audience to clarify for the religious meaning of jihad, he defines it as ‘Fighting in the path of Allah the enemies of Islam’ (i.e. qital).
“He also paraphrases Sheikh bin Baz and states is a religious duty (wijib) for Muslims ‘to hate’ states which do not rule in accordance with Allah’s Revelations.
“However… the fact that the Claimant uses these various techniques or devices, does not obscure but, rather, enhances and sharpens the power and clarity of his core extremist messages, which would have been quite apparent to significant sections of his informed and engaged audience.”
He added: “Shakeel Begg, is something of a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character. He appears to present one face to the general local and inter-faith community and another to particular Muslim and other receptive audiences.
“The former face is benign, tolerant and ecumenical; the latter face is ideologically extreme and intolerant.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “We were right to stand by the journalism of Sunday Politics. The judge has concluded, based on the evidence, that Imam Begg has preached religious violence and an extremist worldview in his remarks.”