Are We 'Eding in the Right Direction?

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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Filed under UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

8 responses to “Are We 'Eding in the Right Direction?

  1. Jamal Ali

    Dear Yahya,

    I have read Ed Husain’s book, articles, and heard him speak. He certainly advances a more credible Muslim approach than several others.

    How do you judge ‘influence’ and why do you see ‘British Muslims’ as separate from rest of society? If Ed’s voice is amplified in the media, then the old chap will influence Muslims, and more importantly, others.

    Finally, what is your new formula for engagement? At least Ramadan and Husain have a vision – do you?


    Jamal Ali, UK

  2. Yahya Birt

    As-salamu alaykum,

    Dear Jamal,

    On issues around multiculturalism and integration I’ve written a number of pieces on this, if you click “multiculturalism” on the sidebar a half-dozen or so articles come up that look at the question of engagement. I don’t know if it is terribly new — but rather it is just that whatever normal standards apply to everyone else apply to Muslims. Are they really so “separate” as commonly portrayed in the media?

    The point about the search for an ideal interlocutor is that, in its most extreme form, it is based on the unrealistic premise that any difference, no matter how minor, from a rather idealised liberal norm is seen as dangerous, even subversive. Any anointed new Muslim hero or heroine is thus likely to be seen to fail or to disappoint — Ramadan, Hirsi Ali or indeed Ed Husain. It is the perennial search for the new Muslim Luther.

    The question of “influence” is an interesting one. It seems to me that the grooming of interlocutors is quite often based on political expediency and a bare tolerance, not respect or understanding. One Guardian commentator recently called for the need to put up with Muslim liberals and their “gobbledegook”, as they might be useful enough in tackling extremism, even if they did perversely insist on justifying their liberalism with reference to their faith. Others can barely be bothered to hide their cultural contempt for any sort of Muslim, they either condescend to the liberal variety or scaremonger about the rest. The reference I have in mind is Nick Cohen’s “How condescension benefits terrorism“, Observer, 25 November 2007.

    It also seems to me that this doesn’t have much to do with the extent of “integration” per se but how a dominant and universalising liberal narrative struggles to deal with religious difference, particularly that manifested by minorities. Very similar concerns about liberalism and difference come across very clearly in a brilliant study of questions of identity in British, Dutch and Italian Jewish thinking by Nick Lambert, Jews and Europe in the Twenty First Century: Thinking Jewish (Valentine Mitchell, 2008).

    And Allah knows best.

    wa s-salam, Yahya

  3. Salam

    Ed Hussain doesnt really care about us, in fact he is not addressing me with his book. The groomers are boring. Lets have more Aki Nawaz types please.

    Basically i’m waiting for you(or someone) to write a book about how cool we are, containing categories that correspond to the fragrances we actually wear!

    Mind that you dont publish it though. photocopy it and hand it out at Jumma.


  4. Razwan Arshad

    Too many of these “interlocutors” concentrate on the ‘religious’ angle. The class and ethnic dimension of these problems seem to be neglected and everyone (liberals and conservatives) end up talking about ijtihad, rajm, and ridda.

    I am certain this concentration on the religious angle (a perfectly fair one in some circumstances), in part, helps feed views like those expressed by Nazir-Ali and his supporters.

  5. Musab Younis

    “The fundamentalist wave is perceived as an unacceptable form of “ultranationalism”, appealing to popular forces and perhaps responding to their interests in some manner, hence analogous to secular nationalism, capitalist democracy with an independent flair, democratic socialism, liberation theology etc.: all enemies, irrespective of their internal features, for reasons already discussed.”
    (Noam Chomsky, ‘World Orders, Old and New’, 1997 p.227).

    Your analysis notes a “dangerously polarised climate” almost with surprise. In fact, ‘radical Islam’ is seen as a threat only when its independence and identification with popular forces makes it so. Hence, it is not a threat in Saudi Arabia, to whom Britain continues to sell copious amounts of arms. The ranking of Muslim organisations by the British government is not due to an objective perception of which is more objectively ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ – but which the government thinks it can exert control over. In this sense, it is no different to how any foreign groups or governments are seen.

    Indeed, any brief review of the varying treatment of Muslim organisations under both French and British colonial rule shows that neither imperial power really cared about the extreme/liberal nature of the groups themselves. Invariably, support or suppression depended on whether the group was willing to co-opt with the colonial regime and cut off links to popular support. Hence, independent nationalist movements, whether secular or religious, were all treated exactly the same.

    Your writing is interesting, Yahya, and has strong notes of truth to it, but there is a striking absence of awareness of strategic aims and realpolitik in politics. The idea that there is a genuine “search for the liberal Muslim interlocutor” is ludicrous, and exists only in thinly-veiled propaganda with no reference to reality. The search is for passive over active, and controllable over independent. That much seems to me to be obvious.

    Musab Younis, UK

  6. Yahya Birt

    As-salamu alaykum,

    Razwan: The question would then be: why are these interlocuters construed in religious and not political or other terms by those who have a professional role in setting the terms of this debate?

    Musab: I disagree. Both are true and not contradictory: there is both realpolitik and a search for the reformer. The later is more likely but not exclusively the provenance of cultural rather than political elites. This, I think, is quite clear from a number of case studies that could be made. The interlocutor is not championed purely as a rhetorical after-effect of realpolitik (although that function is obviously seen as desirable) but there is also the desire that they will be effective enacters of reform within their communities. There is often genuine and sometimes bitter disappointment expressed when interlocutors are felt to fall short of the mark in one way or the other. Either they have an insufficient pull amongst those Muslims deemed problematic in the first place or they are too much in bed with those very same distrusted Muslims to be trusted themselves. In brief, they are deemed either ineffectual or untrustworthy.

    wa s-salam Yahya

  7. Musab Younis

    If we accept your definition here of an ‘interlocutor’, as someone which will pacify ‘dangerous’ elements of the community whilst posing no similar ‘danger’ themselves, then we must also accept that such a search always takes place when any authoritarian structure wishes to pacify its subjects. There are countless examples (see Iraq, today), but I think the colonial system is particularly illuminating. Ruth First, in ‘Power in Africa’, notes that in the colonial administration: “there was no place for representatives, only for intermediaries of the system”, and where representatives (your ‘interlocuters’) were permitted, they “were not to represent the people in government, but to represent the administration to the people.” (1971, p31).

    If there is a genuine search for an ‘Islam/West’ medium on a cultural scale, then it is an entirely different thing to the common search of state power to supress troublesome people. This, I think, is an important distinction.

  8. Khalid Said

    …his echoing of the liberal dislike of Muslim conservatism and support for sterner measures reflects a dangerously polarised climate…………….

    yahya one thing i liked about ed was his forceful ness to voice his opinion without fear,one thing somehow comes out is this man doesnt have an agenda which requires him to act or speak contrarian,i would not relegate him to the status of uncle tom for his aversion to prevalent religio-political dogma.He has his right to speak.
    clubbing him in Ayaan hirsi ali spectrum is unfair.
    she and taslima nasrin being victims in patriarchal societies,tend to blame religion because its convenient and a source of empowerment for them in these turbulent times.
    what power has ed stood to gain?

    Khalid Said, UK

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