It looks like the Muslim issue is set to remain the subject of political polarisation for years to come: every time in a new guise and under a new title, from terrorism to integration, and from faith schools to the veil. This politically lucrative subject is now favoured by politicians of all colours and hues, from far right BNP extremists to centre left Blairites, and centre right Tories.
The latest to join this frenzied exploitation contest is the Conservative leader David Cameron. Bar the fake smiles and warm words, his speech last Monday looked like it could have been delivered by a Howard or a Duncan Smith, betraying the same commitment to a rigid notion of national identity, the same contempt for cultural pluralism and the same hostility to immigration. The Conservatives’ transformation it seems has only been skin-deep.
After vowing to break the ghettoes, Cameron now promises us to tear down the barriers. Like other politicians of the right and the left, he speaks as though it was the minorities who had created these high fenced rings of marginalisation and wretchedness, not the socio-economic system where they had found themselves as cheap oil for the wheels of British industry. For decades, they had been left to rot amidst the poverty and deprivation. And when they are finally remembered today, it is only as extremists and potential extremists. It might come as a surprise to Cameron and his Westminster colleagues, but Muslims, like other blacks and Asians, are not particularly fond of their ghettoes. They would certainly jump at the chance to abandon their housing estates and move next door to the aristocratic Tory leader.
On the same day that Cameron delivered his speech, the right wing organisation Policy Exchange published a report on extremism among British Muslim youth. The survey mixed a host of wildly unrelated questions together: faith schools, the Hijab, Sharia law, with support for violent anti-Western organisations. It is as though a girl’s wish to cover her hair, or family’s desire to send their child to a religious school were no less sinister than support for al-Qaeda. The underlying assumption is that Islamic religious expressions themselves are a danger and a problem.
Of the youngsters polled, 37% expressed a desire to live under Sharia law, a result reported by the Daily Express as “more than one third [of young Muslims] want Islamic law imposed in the UK”. The implication is that if you want to eat Halal food, marry according to Islamic law, or buy an interest free mortgage -which is what most Muslims understand by “Sharia”-, then you are a threat to the existing social order, legal system and cultural identity of the land no less. The truth is that the survey’s authors, like those who warmly greeted their words in the media and political class, have exploited the ambiguity and controversy surrounding the notion of Sharia in the minds of most Britons – which crudely simplifies this wide term and equates it with amputations and beheadings – to spread fear, suspicion and prejudice. Far from tearing down barriers, these are raising the “Berlin walls” ever higher, building, not breaking ghettoes.
The report concludes that multiculturalism is largely responsible for the emergence of a strong religious identity within Britain’s Muslim community. If this is the case, then the authors need to answer the following question: If cultural segregation, which is what they take multiculturalism to mean, is at the root of the surge in Muslim religiosity, then why are Muslim youngsters more, not less religious than their parents? After all, the elders are hardly more proficient in English, or more familiar with British culture and norms than their offspring. If multiculturalism were really to blame, then it is these culturally isolated Urdu or Bengali-speaking elders who should be the object of the political elite’s concerns and the target of its integration projects.
Reading the report, one would be excused for thinking that religious resurgence was peculiar to Britain, or to societies where multicultural policies are implemented. The reality, however, is that the world is witnessing an awakening of religious identities, in the US as in Russia, in Egypt as in Indonesia. Britain is no exception. In Muslim lands, the process is detectable in societies ruled by radically secular governments, such as Turkey, Tunisia, and the former central Asian Soviet republics like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as in ones whose governments are more conservative like the Gulf countries and Pakistan, among ethnically and religiously homogenous populations as in diverse ones like Malaysia and Nigeria. This is true of countries where Muslims are a minority as in ones where they form the majority. Across all these, the phenomenon tends to be more common to modernised sectors of society than to those where traditional social patterns prevail. To understand complex socio-political phenomena, it is wise to avoid ready-made answers and easy scapegoats.
The bitter truth most seem unable to face is that the young Muslims endlessly scrutinised and analysed are British by birth, language and culture. They neither need to be coerced nor to be “inspired” into being British. If they have failed, then they are a living testimony to the failure of the system where they were born and brought up, with its class-ridden society, structural inequalities and discriminatory practices, and of the policies our government is pursuing abroad. For the reality is that these catastrophic policies are not just damaging our social fabric, they are destroying faraway societies, turning them into abysses of internecine killing, sectarianism and civil war.
Now the Conservatives want the government to add to its list of failed policies by targeting the Muslim minority’s leadership. Full of simplifications and generalisations, their policy report issued last Tuesday betrayed little understanding of the Muslim political and intellectual scene in the UK. The document lumps scores of vastly divergent positions together, democrats with theocrats, reactionaries with quietists, defenders of women’s rights with those opposed to them, all under the vague and misleading title of “Political Islam”. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a highly respected figure celebrated by millions around the world as the voice of moderate mainstream Islam is thrust in the same category as extreme groups whose ideology he vehemently opposes. And where the reasoning is flawed, the same is expected of the conclusion. Having listed most active Muslim organisations in the country, the report recommends dispensing with these altogether and treating Muslims as “individual equal citizens” instead.
So the Muslim will, under the Tories, have to face the state as a naked individual, without the protection of any community organisations, or lobbying groups to defend his/her interests. What other communities take for granted is thus deemed unacceptable and declared forbidden for Muslims. The truth is that, beautiful as it is, the notion of equal abstract citizenship is meaningless to the resident of a housing estate in Tower Hamlets, who is five times more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation than his “equal” fellow white citizens, four times more likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to have no qualifications, live in social rented accommodation, and suffer from ill health. In the real world, the equal citizen is little more than a sweet myth.
The report speaks of increased alienation and politicisation within the Muslim minority, as though these were the creation of the community organisations, not of objective conditions on the ground and of the surrounding global climate. The current government is demanding that these bodies act as its arms, eyes and ears in the community, much like the colonial intermediaries of old, whose job was to regulate the local populations’ movement and communicate orders issued by the metropolis.
The Tories propose to go further, to eliminate these structures and operate in the vacuum, under the deceptive slogan of equal citizenship. This is a dangerous game to play, which would only benefit the extreme militant groups mainstream organisations are doing their utmost to marginalise. The question is: in the absence of such institutions, who would offer guidance and rationalisation to angry Muslim youth lacking in religious understanding and sound political experience, frustrated by lack of opportunities at home and provoked by scenes of occupation and destruction in a world growing tighter by the day? Our politicians would do well to pause and reflect. They should know better than to play with fire.
First Published in The Guardian, Wednesday 7 February 2007