The debates about multiculturalism, security, extremism, and Islamophobia seem inextricably linked. Indeed, in the aftermath of the publication of the review of the government’s security strategy, known as ‘Prevent’, there was significant comment about the rise of Islamophobia in the UK over the past few years.
When British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed a security conference in Munich in February 2011, he criticised multiculturalism and called for a more ‘muscular liberalism’. Cameron has not been alone in attacking multiculturalism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to make negative comments on the policy by rising tensions and political debate within Germany. Critics pointed out that Cameron failed to criticise the English Defence League, a militant anti-Muslim group, who held a huge rally the same weekend as his Munich speech.
Multiculturalism was a policy adopted in Britain in response to rising racial tensions in the 1960s and 1970s. Many informed commentators fear that, whatever the motivation, abandoning this policy – which was supposed to lead to greater social cohesion – will open the door to more racism; a concern reinforced by the approval by Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front party, for Mr Cameron’s comments.
But, as many critics of Islam point out Islam is not a race. It is a set of beliefs and values that cross the boundaries of race. So, it is argued, it cannot be racism that drives a dislike of Islam.
This is not wholly true. Islam is, indeed, not a race. But whilst Islamophobia is not a monolithic phenomenon, a significant part is without doubt nothing less than the base tribalism of the kind we see most commonly amongst racists.
Islamophobia needs to be understood if concerned individuals hope to formulate an appropriate response. In my view there are three distinct faces of Islamophobia, and I define Islamophobia here as those who are critical of normative Islamic laws and values rather than in a purely pejorative “racism” term which I believe is not productive. With that definition, the first form of Islamophobia is what might be labelled as old-fashioned European xenophobia, which is what the term Islamophobia has come to commonly represent. The second is the Islamophobia of liberal evangelicals, who wish to express (as they see it) the superiority of liberal values and their criticism of Islam through comment, dialogue and debate. The third type wishes to express their criticism of Islam and assertion of liberalism using policy tools to do this. This last group includes ‘muscular liberals’ like Cameron and Blair; which is the most destructive face of Islamophobia, because it is built on fallacious arguments and can cause huge damage in terms of community relations, the stability of the Muslim world, and damage in terms of loss of life and liberty.
Old-fashion European Xenophobia
Europe, sadly, has a poor history on its treatment of minorities. Much of the current commentary about Muslims is reminiscent of the way Black people, Jews, Gypsies or the Irish were treated in generations gone by – and in some cases even today.
The themes of the criticism about Muslims usually centre on changing the character of Britain, imposing non-British values, refusing to integrate, taking resources from the state etc. This is the language of the BNP or EDL who camouflage their attacks on Islam with the language of defending the English or British people.
This narrative is reinforced by the tabloid media who have, in some cases, actually manufactured negative stories about Muslims; or at other times report upon every negative facet of the behaviour of Muslims in a manner that links to their Islamic identity, which reinforces popular prejudice.
There is an obvious double standard here. The character of Britain and Europe has undoubtedly changed significantly since the Second World War, but this has more to do with the forces of globalisation encouraging the rise of American popular culture – as much as it does with immigration encouraging the rise in Asian, African and Caribbean culture. Yet, there is an absolute lack of commentary upon this superseding of traditional British identity from critics of multiculturalism.
Similarly, the traditional Anglican and conservative character of Britain has been significantly eroded in favour of a secular and more liberal character, following the social liberalisation of the 1960s, which has little to do with Muslim immigrants, who may have more in common with social conservatives than social liberals.
The criticism that Muslims refuse to integrate looks sinister when one remembers similar past criticisms of Jews in Europe; and looks a little ridiculous when one considers that multiple fault lines relating to identity exist within Britain that go beyond religion and race – something we have addressed previously on this site.
Moreover, it is simply unreasonable to expect those people who migrated to Britain from the Muslim world to simply abandon their traditions. Muslim immigration into Europe has, to a large extent, its origins in exploiting a cheap source of labour from ex-colonies. Yet, listening to the xenophobes can leave the impression that it was an act of charity that allowed Muslims to come and settle in the UK in large numbers. It wasn’t. It was economic benefits and the blowback from imperial excess.
This form of Islamophobia generates the most rigorous opposition. There is, in part, protection in law from discrimination and incitement to hatred. Moreover, anti-racist groups, the left and those with a strong moral conscience balk at the rise in xenophobic hatred. Consequently, opportunities for political cooperation and a united front exist to some extent.
However, the danger in concentrating on this face of Islamophobia alone is to miss the altogether more sinister state-led and policy driven Islamophobia.
If evangelism is asserting the superiority of one’s beliefs, then it is not restricted to religion.
There are critics of Islam who are not xenophobes, but who wish to criticise the ideas of Islam that they disagree with, and label illiberal. They have no specific desire to criticise or to demonising the (often ethnic minority) Muslims who carry these ideas.
These people are often fiercely and unashamedly critical of Islam, because of their own liberal world view. Their commentary can be perceived as Islamophobic because it is set against a backdrop of politically driven propaganda. Yet their criticisms are part of a debate of ideas rather than ignorant xenophobia or part of a wider political agenda.
Liberal evangelicals, who dominate the columns of the liberal broadsheets and the corridors of the BBC, can be extremely consistent in challenging illiberal ideas from any source – whether Christian or (politically) Conservative.
They are small in number, since many of their fellow liberals have allied with political opponents, united in their desire to see action taken to assert liberal superiority and curb the rise of the ‘Islamic threat’.
They can be in a difficult position because their commentary, often intended as part of an intellectual debate, feeds into the background of anti-immigrant/xenophobic sentiments, often exaggerated by politicians in the most shameful populist manner – which makes having an objective debate very difficult. They can easily get caught up into the political agenda.
This group, small though it is, is distinct from others insofar as they do not subscribe to state implemented policies to secure the dominance of their ideas. They will uphold their creed to defend the right of people to say what they want to say, even though they might disagree with them.
Ironically, this means that this group of people would be willing for Muslims to express illiberal ideas, but challenge and criticise them, which some Muslims welcome; but they would also be the first to champion the rights of Salman Rushdie, Theo van Gogh and others who use free expression to insult the sanctities of Islam.
Hence, political alliances with this group – who might abhor racism, xenophobia and the illiberal policies of the ‘war on terror’ – are awkward to say the least, since they also abhor Islam’s laws on blasphemy and the silencing of artistic expression.
This group – which includes the likes of Polly Toynbee, Rod Liddle and Johann Hari – warrants engaging in a debate of ideas. Their weakness is their reluctance to acknowledge the deep societal consequences of liberalism’s social and economic ideas, which undermine the fabric of life in the West.
The ‘Cold War’ Warriors
The third group of people are those wish to see the dominance of secular liberal ideas over Islam – within Britain and across the world. What distinguishes them from the ‘liberal evangelicals’ is that they do not trust liberalism to win the debate on intellectual grounds. Instead, they use the institutions of the State, as well as their influence with the media, to pursue policies that secure the dominance of liberalism and the suppression of Islam. They are willing to play dirty, and pursue policies that fundamentally contradict the values they purport to uphold, which founded upon deeply flawed – even false – premises. They have played to the basest instincts of the common man to create an environment that is hostile to Islam. They have mimicked the McCarthyist policies of the Cold War era in order to create fear, and so hope to keep the Muslim community in check through this climate of fear.
These ‘Cold War’ warriors against Islam include the current Conservative leadership, as well as many from the Blairite wing of New Labour – and a host of media commentators.
In a recent column in the Evening Standard newspaper following the publication of the Prevent review, the right-wing columnist Matthew d’Ancona wrote: “the review of the Prevent counter-terrorist strategy unveiled yesterday by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is intended to strengthen and debug the firewall that stands between our society and the Islamist virus”. This does not sound like a strategy to produce cohesion and mutual respect. Instead it sounds like nationalism and Islamophobia in the name of ‘National Security’.
He goes on to say that “this struggle more closely resembles the Cold War than the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The most important argument advanced by the rebooted Prevent strategy is that the struggle against terrorism is, at root, a battle of ideologies”.
Mr d’Ancona recognises that there is a real struggle of ideas here. If it were simply about ‘terrorism’ the strategy would have focussed solely on those who endorse violence against civilians, and supported those who eschew violence. Policing would relate exclusively to preventing criminal violence and not strayed into the realm of policing beliefs and values.
Mr d’Ancona rightly identifies a small group of people linked to the think-tank, Policy Exchange, who have dominated the debate – much in the same way as the US think-tank Project for the New American century did prior to the start of the administration of George W Bush.
However, when one sees the breadth of media and political opinion that shares this polarised worldview, whether as signatories to the Henry Jackson Society or Euston Manifesto, one sees the extent to which this extreme ideological opinion has centred itself within the British establishment.
This group of Islamophobes believes in an ideological attack using the full force of the State – including the use of military force if it means containing the rise of Islam as a political force in the Muslim world – and some elements of civil society as well, in order to secure victory.
But what a pyrrhic victory it will turn out to be if they have their way, destroying the very ideas and values they claim they seek to uphold.
This British government, like its predecessor, has decided they wish to police ideas and political views. That is something that is supposed to be anathema to liberal societies. Such contradictions leave Mr d’Ancona asking “When does vigilance become a witch-hunt? When does responsible citizenship descend into McCarthyism?” The answer is: When a state adopts policies like Prevent!
This government has made an Orwellian call for prisons, schools, universities and even NHS Family GPs to police people’s ideas and beliefs – under the label of looking out for signs of ‘Islamist’ indoctrination.
It leaves the idea of a society “confident in our own values” as mentioned in the review document an illusion – or perhaps a delusion.
They have decided to sideline, even demonise, those who eschew violence but who hold firm to core Islamic beliefs – so contradicting the pluralism they claim to champion.
“Extremism” says the government’s Prevent review document “is vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
This definition is magnificent in its hypocrisy. The advocates of such policies have undermined the rule of law in their approach to Muslims within the UK and abroad, in pursuit of their ‘War on Terror’. They have removed the individual liberty of many with the imposition of detention without trial. They have shown little respect or tolerance for those who have perfectly reasonable and rational beliefs and values that conflict with the current dominant view [though not necessarily majority view] in Britain or Europe. Where is the respect and tolerance for women wearing hijab and niqab? Or for mosques bearing minarets in Switzerland? Or for the religious sensibilities of millions of people when desecrating the Quran, or vilifying their beloved Prophet?
By sidelining some Muslims – who would say they endorse some of these ‘fundamental British values’ – but who also simultaneously hold some core Islamic values – they have set a uniquely different standard for criteria and engagement for Muslims than for any other community – so removing the idea that every citizen is equal under the law.
Mr d’Ancona identifies these. Some were mentioned in the Prevent review document and some were leaked from confidential sources under the previous administration. They include “the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate, the destruction of Israel and the global imposition of Sharia law”. These are caricatures of the beliefs of many Muslims, exaggerated for full fear effect.
The restoration of the Caliphate is a widely held general aspiration amongst huge numbers of Muslims – although the numbers who actively promote this as an immediate political programme are fewer. The Caliphate holds a central position in orthodox and traditional Islamic theology and jurisprudence. Indeed, in relatively recent history, the Caliphate became the anti-colonial rallying cry in occupied India, Indonesia and elsewhere.
It could be argued that the destruction of the Caliphate after World War One, as the head and centre of the Islamic political order, heralded the subsequent disintegration of the Muslim world: things fell apart, and mere anarchy was loosed upon the world – or at least in that part of the world.
What is labelled the ‘destruction’ of Israel is what Muslims refer to as the liberation of occupied Palestine. When Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands or Hitler occupied France, people wanted liberation – and not the ‘destruction’ of the pro-Argentine regime or the ‘destruction’ of the Vichy regime – only liberation. Muslims do not wish to see a “Jewish-free” Palestine; just one where the oppressive and racist Zionist regime is abolished, and justice established in the region. Yet, it is government policy to silence this valid political opinion.
What is referred to as the ‘global imposition of Sharia law’ is the adoption of a legal code, described by Edmund Burke as “a law interwoven with a system of the wisest, the most learned, and most enlightened jurisprudence that perhaps ever existed in the world”.
How is there such a gap between the Muslims’ understanding of Sharia law, and indeed that of the likes Noah Feldman, who spend time and effort trying to understand what Sharia actually is – and the likes of Cameron, Gove et al who caricature and misrepresent it? How is it that Western foreign policy towards the Muslim world is consistently ignored as a cause for violent radicalisation, when even the former head of MI5 conceded as much?
The answer lies in the political agenda of those who wish to silence Muslims and diminish the role of Islam in the world. For they realise that the restoration of the Caliphate, the implementation of Sharia in terms of governance and economics, would mean a loss of control over the Muslim world and its resources. Two centuries and several dozen kings, emirs, colonels and presidents later, they would have nothing to show for it. It is not about terrorism, or the safety of their citizens. It is about suppressing the aspirations of hundreds of millions for the sake of corporate security.
Addressing the three faces of Islamophobia
Xenophobic Islamophobia, ugly though it is, will have limited traction in society. It creates hatred and division – like all nationalism does, but there is, as mentioned before, a certain amount of protection in law, and many political groupings who oppose it.
Liberal evangelical Islamophobia requires engaging in a debate of ideas – and for the best idea to win. But this requires the Muslim community to adhere to the values that are under attack in a public manner, and to defend them intellectually.
This is difficult in a McCarthyite climate, where to declare belief in these values that are attacked and criticised, sees people labelled by the ‘Cold War warriors’ as ‘extremists’ and a mere stone’s throw away from being a ‘terrorist’. Nonetheless, upholding these values – if you believe in them – is essential. A practicing Muslim would believe abandoning these values would bring humiliation in this world and the next. But a secular advocate of pluralism would also believe that shedding or concealing one’s principles in the face of bullying is humiliating, and might reasonably question why they should bother defending values they disagree with, when Muslims don’t stand up for them themselves!
The final group – those who use lies, smear, fear and propaganda, as well as the institutions of state to achieve their ends – have to be exposed for what they are. Their arguments need to be challenged and undermined. The destructive capacity for their policies needs to be made clear for all. Their double standards, trampling and soiling the very values they claim to support, needs to be seen by all.
At present, they are the overwhelmingly dominant force in the Conservative party, and they have been the most influential faction in the Labour party for over a decade.
It would be counter-productive if Muslim groups sidelined by the government because they are considered ‘extreme’ tried to conceal their beliefs, reform their values, so conceding to the intimidation of the government and its media allies. This would be victory for the ‘extremists’ – the likes of Cameron, Gove and Osborne, who are strong advocates for this plan.
The Muslim community needs to be confident in its own identity – then engage with others on this basis. The days of looking to government for handouts, and saying anything to please anyone are over. In truth, that is the only way to subvert the scaremongering that is such a prominent feature in the propaganda war.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain.