The biggest political problem British Muslims have faced since 9/11 has been the division of their glorious multiplicity into the simplistic binary code of “moderates” and “extremists”. This has led to a conflation of the agendas around integration and terrorism. The millions now flowing into what will basically be ‘mainstreaming” Muslim communities only becomes politically palatable if it is also seen to tackle extremism too. Of course the last census in 2001 showed that many British Muslims, on all the major measures of social and economic exclusion, are part of an underclass. Muslim organisations expected to deal with these in the more usual manner now have to find post-9/11 reasons for doing so.
The government, at least according a civil servant I heard last year at a conference in Berlin, also categorises Muslim organisations as either extremist, anti-integrationist or pro-integrationist.
Leaving those that operate outside the law, those dubbed “extremist” but legal organisations are not liaised with by government to avoid lending them credibility, although interaction with other agencies like the police is likely. They are seen to undermine the project of “winning hearts and minds against extremism”, even if they are not directly part of the terrorist problem. They are seen as subversive, rejecting democratic values, and not just as anti-integrationist.
Those organisations judged “anti-integrationist” may represent mainstream community views, but are seen to be too socially conservative. They are the proper subject of participatory and robust dialogue with government, but not of public funding, or of government endorsement or promotion. Finally, integrationist organisations judged to represent mainstream community views and to promote integration are conversely the proper subject of government liaison, funding, endorsement and promotion.
This blending of integration and counter-terrorism has vitiated the political dividends that should have flowed from splitting the communities strand from the Home Office with the creation of the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2006. If one considers the social conservatism to be found in the constituencies that the British Muslim Forum and the Muslim Council of Britain both serve, a range of attitudes to integration can be found. While the boycotting of the MCB in Ruth Kelly’s time at the DCLG may have ended, the rationale that would label a big umbrella body as either pro- or anti-integrationist seems rather ham-fisted. It is the tone and stance on hot-button political issues that has been more salient in ultimately deciding the government’s mode of interaction.
In public debate, a similar confusion can be observed in the twin uses of “extremist” that obscures rather than explains the phenomenon at hand. “Extremist” is used both in a cultural sense to mean “non-liberal” and in a political register to mean “violent”. The ongoing fashion in much journalese, policy jargon or political rhetoric in establishing a binary category: “extremist”/”moderate”, or its analogues, “Islamist”/”non-Islamist”, “jihadist”/”non-jihadist” and so on is depressingly common, rather than attending to the more complex task of understanding the internal dynamics and evolution within British Islam. A rigid ideological or cultural stereotype is preferred to a decent historical and political analysis. This isn’t accidental as “culture talk” not only obviates the need for a more serious multi-causal dissection of extremism and violent radicalisation but effectively sidelines most democratic forms of Muslim political mobilisation. The argument that Muslim identity politics has roots in marginalisation and exclusion is therefore lost from the very beginning.
In the search for the liberal Muslim interlocutor, the most important constituency affected is the large bulk of socially conservative British Muslim opinion. The latest candidate is rejected as too compromised in liberal terms or as too uninfluential among Muslims to have utility. Ayaan Hirsi Ali may endorse Enlightenment anti-clericalism in comforting ways but her rejection of Islam leaves her without influence while Tariq Ramadan, despite a clearly integrationist stance, is rejected too for keeping a dialogue open with conservative Muslim opinion.
Ed Husain has recently attempted to avoid the fate of either Hirsi Ali or Ramadan by promoting liberal Islam. However this has left him with very little influence among British Muslims for two reasons. Firstly his lumping together of conservative Muslims, Islamists, jihadists and terrorists as “extremist” in one way or another, while gaining approval in Westminster, Whitehall and Fleet Street, is merely symptomatic of the current political isolation of British Muslims. Secondly his echoing of the liberal dislike of Muslim conservatism and support for sterner measures reflects a dangerously polarised climate.
Endorsing the new Kulturkampf between Islam and the West instead of more serious politics is not going to do much to tackle either exclusion or extremism in Muslim communities. A new formula for engagement on all sides is the need of the hour.
This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, January 2008, Issue no. 40.
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