Category Archives: UK Politics

Playing the sectarian card: Britain’s Ministry of Justice is unfairly targeting Muslim prison chaplains

Yesterday, news came of a soon-to-be-released Ministry of Justice (MOJ) report, which will argue that Muslim chaplains are part of the problem of radicalisation in UK prisons. Given that the government has trailed the report in the Sunday Times (“Most jail imams teach anti-western values”, 07/02/2016, p.7) and the Mail on Sunday (“Majority of prison imams are ‘teaching anti-western’ values that promote gender segregation, study claims”, 07/02/2016) and played the sectarian card, it is a highly premeditated political intervention. Pointing fingers at chaplains of the Deobandi Sunni persuasion, who are said to make up 140 of 200 Muslim prison chaplains, a senior Whitehall official is quoted as saying that, “It is of great concern that the majority of Muslim chaplains in prisons propagate a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic scripture which is contrary to British values and human rights. Such imams are unlikely to aid the deradicalisation of Islamists in prisons and could potentially even make them more firm in their beliefs.” And in his major speech on prison reform today, the Prime Minister promised that he was prepared to make major changes if necessary on the basis of the recommendations of the MOJ report. The appointment of Peter Clarke as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons this month, Scotland Yard’s former head of counter-terrorism whom the government has previously deployed as a counter-extremism troubleshooter in the education and the charity sectors, signals the MOJ’s intent to construe prisons in the same light: as a hotbed of “extremist entryism”, with the potential to look at Muslim inmates without terrorism offences and Muslim chaplains in the same light as convicted terrorist offenders.

The Quilliam Foundation has stepped in to support the MOJ in identifying Deobandi prison chaplains as a particular problem. Usama Hasan, a senior researcher there, is reported by the Sunday Times as saying that “[t]he Deobandi movement is generally anti-western and anti-integration in its spirit … Imams in the prison system have to be more progressive and open-minded in terms of being supportive of modern, multicultural and cosmopolitan Britain.” The Foundation has prior form in this regard: its 2009 report on prisons, Unlocking Al-Qaeda, made essentially the same claims about Deobandi prison chaplains (pp. 33, 42, 101) and recommended a reduction in their numbers (p.108).

Reading between the lines, it seems as if Ahtsham Ali, the current Muslim Advisor to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), is being set up as the fall guy for appointing many of these Deobandi chaplains. A damage limitation exercise on behalf of Ali is already under way to argue that he is neither an extremist nor of a particular sectarian persuasion by anonymous sources quoted in the Sunday Times. That is all very well, but what about some damage limitation on behalf of these Muslim chaplains who have rendered a great deal of public service in prisons for many years? Who is going to speak up for them?

It is naïve to expect fair play and even-handedness, or a reliance on evidence or the measured conclusions of academic research, especially where the incumbent minister, Michael Gove, is concerned. The news reporting and, one must surmise, the forthcoming MOJ report rely on the fallacious idea that the Deoband school is stuck in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in the context of its original anti-colonial foundations (ignoring massive transformations since, both in the Subcontinent and the diaspora). It also seems to have discounted the findings of the three-year AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ research study on Muslim chaplaincy in Britain (2008–2011) carried out by the University of Cardiff. That study acknowledged the conservative orientation of Deobandi chaplains but also found that pastoral practice in the challenging prison environment and working within a multi-faith chaplaincy team had a transformative effect:

Muslim chaplains working across most sectors learn new attitudes from their experiences. While they often tend to start with normative, didactic approaches that are directed towards their co-religionists, their experiences of working with all kinds of people in a multi-faith environment seem to inculcate within them attitudes of empathy, person-centredness, equality, broad-mindedness, openness, approachability, supportiveness, tolerance, non-judgementalism, non-directedness, compassion, patience and humility. (Gilliat-Ray, Ali and Pattison,Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy, p.175)

The Cardiff team also found that, when called to do so, Muslim chaplains provided genuine pastoral care for non-Muslim inmates. Furthermore, the study established that Muslim chaplains’ pastoral training and experience was having an impact on the mosque imamate in Britain, giving more profile and credence to the pastoral dimension in serving local communities. It also argued that the preponderance of Deobandi seminarians among Muslim prison chaplains was largely due to the huge investment in imam training that this denomination has made in Britain, more so than any other Sunni or Shia group.

Another factor that the Cardiff research team did not mention was that, after 7/7, the government wanted Muslim prison chaplains to have theological training as part of the professionalization of the sector and for them to possess the wherewithal to tackle the arguments of violent extremists. Again, this policy shift favoured Deobandi applicants who already had the necessary qualifications to hand. That said, the main formal role of Muslim chaplains remains pastoral and aimed at the spiritual welfare of the general Muslim prison population, yet they have made informal efforts to tackle extremist ideas within this primary remit, and have facilitated greater cultural awareness and understanding of prison staff about mainstream Muslim beliefs in the context of radicalisation (Gilliat-Ray et al, p.110). Overall, however, they have not been formally involved in theological deradicalisation efforts aimed at inmates with terrorist offences, for which outside specialists have been brought in with the collaboration of the authorities (HM Prison Service, Muslim Prisoners’ Experiences, 2010, p.35, Para 7.12).

For all those who agree that Muslim prison chaplaincy in Britain has been a growing and largely successful sector over the last two decades with a solid track record of public service and professional development, now is the time to make your voices heard. There is genuine fear that the government is now going to smear this sector as “extremist Muslim entryism”. Is the government going to brush aside all this dedicated public service and experience and start getting rid of people on the basis of lazy and pernicious sectarian labels? Where is the due process? Where is the expectation that professionals should be treated in a meritocratic way on the basis of their individual performances?

From my sources, I am hearing that many Muslim prison chaplains are feeling resigned to losing their jobs, and that, as public servants, they have no right to speak out if Mr Gove — who is ultimately their boss — is going to sack them. How terrible it is that even high-achieving Muslim professionals feel so isolated and demoralised that they cannot defend themselves against such baseless smears? And more importantly where will that leave the pastoral and spiritual care of Muslim inmates who sadly now make up 12% of the prison population? It is hard not to see this as anything other than institutional Islamophobia being sanctioned at the highest level, which could have really damaging and deleterious effects. Now is the time to speak up and set the record straight.

Update One: In mid-March, Middle Eastern Eye reported that Sir Michael Spurr, Head of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS)  wrote a letter to prison governors, responding to the newspaper stories, describing allegations of extremism as ‘disgraceful’. While he would await the recommendations of the MOJ report, he defended the existing vetting and recruitment process for Muslim chaplains and commended their service, and praised the ‘characteristic resilience and dignity’ of Ahtsham Ali in response to the pressure he had been put under.

A month later, some of the MOJ’s report’s findings were leaked in the Times (19 April 2016, pp.1, 6, 29 (£, paywall)), although it had not been cleared for release by Number 10. Apparently the report ‘pulled no punches’ and offers 69 recommendations, stating that NOMS suffered from managerial weaknesses when it comes to tackling extremism.  The headline conclusions leaked to the Times were:

(i) Extremist literature was found in more than ten prisons, and there was ‘little or no assessment of the suitability of Islamic literature before it was distributed to “impressionable minds”.’

(ii) Chaplains at several jails were found to have encouraged prisoners to raise monies for Islamic charities that had links to international terrorism.

(iii) Prison chaplains were judged to be under-prepared for counter-radicalisation responsibilities: ‘sometimes they lacked the capability, but often because they didn’t have the will.’

(iv) The report claims to have found evidence that chaplains from other persuasions felt ‘marginalised, bullied and intimidated’ by the dominant Deobandi viewpoint in prison chaplaincies.

Sir Michael Spurr and Ahtsham Ali as well as the Bury Dar al-Ulum came under renewed criticism in these Times articles.

Whatever the merit of these serious allegations, only minimal details have been leaked, so it is too soon to know how substantive they are. That said, it should be noted that the MOJ has again demonstrated its predilection for politically-motivated leaks, and that the political focus has intensified in the last month with the BBC’s two-part investigation ‘The Deobandis‘ on Radio 4.

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Filed under Civil liberties, Ghuluw, Racism and Islamophobia, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics, war-on-terror

Telling or Censoring Our British Muslim Stories?

Self-Censorship

Can the moral panic about Islam in Britain today affect how we tell our own British Muslim histories? Yahya Birt reflects on his surprise about how much contemporary politics is casting a veil over even this relatively uncontentious area of Muslim cultural life.

In October 2014 I started a doctorate at the University of Leeds. I’m aiming to illuminate an important part of the complex history of post-war Muslim Britain – its political activism. We can understand Muslim community politics today better if we tell important parts of its history that date back to the sixties. I hope to find out more through a combination of archival research and interviews.

In June 2015 I began to contact people and organisations directly whom I had identified as holding important records. So far as British Muslim institutions are concerned, this is necessary because few organisational records have been professionally archived. Notable exceptions include the new East London Mosque archive and the records of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking held at the Surrey History Centre.

One of my goals is to begin a discussion about how best to preserve these unarchived records with a view to finding workable solutions. There is some urgency because records are being lost. For instance, one important post-war Muslim women’s activist organisation neither holds its records nor a complete run of its magazine, which is tragic.

When I’ve approached people, their response has been overwhelmingly positive. One community statesman said he had been waiting to tell the story of his generation and pass on important records responsibly.

It was not surprising that another activist cautioned me about negotiating the contentious elements of this history. Differing accounts reflect the various perspectives of those who lived through those times. This is of course true of history in general and is hardly unique to our community. I can only strive to ensure that I portray each perspective fairly and accurately.

But what has really surprised me is that David Cameron is having an effect on my PhD. I didn’t expect the Prime Minister’s current drive against extremism to be affecting how British Muslims tell their own history quite so sharply. It is apparent in practices of silence and self-censorship.

The silence comes from the reluctance of some to talk about what they perceive as their radical pasts. This is particularly true of Muslim millennials – the generation that came to political prominence after 7/7. They regret what they see as a misspent youth, have no wish to advertise it now and prefer to pass over it in silence. This of course is their right. But it is revealing that the tolerance shown for youthful radicalism in British politics – either on the left or right – seems less likely to be forgiven or forgotten for Britain’s publicly active Muslims.

Self-censorship emerges for a similar reason, namely from the wish to preserve reputations to enable continued and effective public participation. Normally British Muslim organisations with long track records of community service hold commemorative events and may even mark a milestone anniversary with a publication about their history, contribution and achievements.

However, I was told recently that a community organisation dispensed with such a publication for fear that it might foster perceptions that it was “extremist”. This has become a live consideration in recent years for Muslim community organisations, most of which are charities, as the charity sector’s regulatory body, the Charity Commission, has new responsibilities and powers to tackle extremism.

It is shocking that the government’s counter-terrorism policy not only chills political dissent and free expression about contemporary issues but also how Muslim communities might preserve, record and pass on their own histories to future generations. It is very important that we consider the potential effects of silence and self-censorship and how we might find ways as a community to combat and overcome them in order that important aspects of our history are not lost forever.

Yahya Birt is undertaking a doctorate at the University of Leeds. If you have any materials or records relating to political activism in the British Muslim community between the 1960s and 1990s and wish to get involved then please contact him via prjjb AT leeds.ac.uk

This blog was originally published at the Everyday Muslim website here.

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by | August 21, 2015 · 9:55 pm

Channel referrals are shrouded in too much secrecy – we need better figures, and more transparency and accountability

Yesterday Richard Wheatstone of the Daily Mirror offered some new and alarming statistics about referrals under the government’s Channel policy, the government’s main counter-terrorism instrument. It is officially described as a multiagency approach to identify and then support individuals being drawn into terrorism, in which the police play a central role. From April 2012 to April 2015, the article “More than 900 British children identified as potential extremists at risk of radicalisation from ISIS and terror groups” (16 July 2015) revealed that 912 children have been referred to Channel.

An easily missable word in the article’s title is the qualifying adjective “potential”, but it is crucial not to skip over it. The official Channel guidance advises that, if in doubt about the merits of a case of “extremism”, the designated professional in a statutory public body (e.g. a school or a hospital) should refer it to a Channel Panel as a matter of precaution and not refer the case to another agency, e.g. social services, in the first instance. An earlier set of Channel referral figures from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) that covers the early years of the policy (2006-13) shows that four-fifths of referrals were rejected by Channel Panels (analysed here). Assuming that this proportion has not changed radically in the last two years, it is therefore fair to conclude that this article is scaremongering. Of course we all have legitimate concerns about how we could best stop serious cases like those of Talha Asmal (Dewsbury) or Zahra and Salma Halane (Manchester) happening again in future but Wheatstone’s failure to mention that 80% of referrals are rejected because they do not raise any serious concerns means that this piece is grossly misleading.

Secondly, the piece features a regional breakdown for referrals and uses these figures to provide a macabre “extremism” league table of sorts. (Channel Referrals 2012-15 (Under 18s*): North West 191, South East 151, London 126, North East 120, West Midlands 117, East Midlands 106, Wales 41, East of England 53, South West 13.) However, keeping the principles of transparency and public accountability in mind, I think they tell us very little unless these gross figures are accompanied by the referrals rejection rate in each region, or, better still, for each Channel Panel. It is also important to know what kinds of extremism we are looking at in each region: Daesh (ISIS, ISIL, or IS), far right, etc., to put this regional breakdown into a proper context; otherwise, it is erroneous to make a quick assumption about Muslim terror hotspots as Wheatstone does. This alarmist theme of local terror hotspots has been picked up and run in similar terms by regional outlets such as the Birmingham MailWales Online or the Chronicle (Newcastle).

Thirdly, Wheatstone says that “the majority of the cases” relate to what he refers to as “Islamic extremism”. He does not provide a figure. In the most recent figures in the public domain for 2012-13, 57% of those referred were Muslim. Has this figure changed substantially or not? Are we still looking at a simple majority in the average rate for the last three years or not?

Finally, some broad trends can be discerned by comparing the aggregated sets of figures, although they are awkward to work with. The two sets of figures overlap by a year and the age breakdown also differs between them. For the period 2006-13, children aged 13-16 accounted for 645 referrals out of 2653 or 24% of all cases. For the period 2012-15, children aged 12-17* accounted for 834 referrals out of 2335 or 36% of all cases. For the period 2006-13, children aged 12 or under made up 4% of all cases (113 out of 2653); for 2012-15, children under 12 also made up 4% of all cases (84 out of 2335).

Despite the awkwardness in comparing these two sets of figures, perhaps a few tentative observations are in order. In the last few years, the numbers of teenagers being referred has increased somewhat, while the numbers of under-12s being referred has remained roughly the same. Between 2006-13, a fifth of referrals came from schools, so It is reasonable to assume that, with the growing number of teenage cases, the percentage of school referrals is likely to have increased in the last two years. Since the introduction of the statutory Prevent duty in July 2015 it is likely to climb higher still, particularly when our kids go back to school in September after the summer holidays.

To conclude, whatever one’s overall assessment of Channel, I would hope that everyone might agree that it is shrouded in far too much secrecy, something that becomes ever more apparent as it grows in size, reach and impact. It is in the public interest therefore that proper information about referrals, that includes a detailed breakdown of rejction rates, region, age, religious affiliation, gender, and kinds of “extremism”, is regularly released into the public domain in the interests of transparency and public accountability. (Comparing “apples” and “oranges”, as this exercise in analysing sporadic information released under Freedom of Information requests shows, is obviously limited and unsatisfactory.) Clear and comprehensive information would allow for the proper democratic scrutiny of Prevent’s impact and performance from civil society groups, academia, the Home Office Affairs Select Committee or the still-to-be-initiated (according to one appointed member, Lord Carlyle, on the radio the other week) Prevent Oversight Board, the government’s own internal monitoring mechanism. Otherwise, how else are we to know for sure that referrals under Channel are either proportionate, fair, effective, non-prejudicial, or (ultimately) justified? Bland assurances from politicians, the police and Prevent industry insiders will not suffice. In a democracy, one rightfully expects much more.

* Assuming that Wheatstone is referring to the legal definition of a child in England and Wales as being someone under 18 years of age, when he uses terms like “children” and “kids”.

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Safeguarding Little Abdul: Prevent, Muslim Schoolchildren and the Lack of Parental Consent

There are a lot of things that could be said about the new statutory guidance on Channel under Prevent issued in April for local authorities, nurseries, schools, universities, social services, health care services, the criminal justice system and the police. There are many hot-button issues here, but I want to focus on the impact of all this on under-18s. Half of our community is under the age of 25 and, according to Census figures, something in the order of 800,000 Muslims under 18 potentially fall within the remit of these policies. From the official guidance (pp.16-17, Paras 77-79) it seems that informed parental consent for under-18s referred under a counter-radicalisation scheme called Channel comes very late in the process. The mainstay of Prevent after 2010, Channel is a multiagency approach to identify and then support individuals being drawn into terrorism, in which the police play a central role. And Channel is not a low impact policy. The trend line for referrals presently is upwards from seven in Channel’s pilot year (2006-7) to 748 in 2012-13. Under an FOI request to the Association of Chief Police Officers, there have been 2653 referrals under Prevent up to April 2013. For ages 13-16, there were 645 referrals, and for 12 and under there were 113. In one case, a child as young as three was referred as part of a whole family. Where religious affiliation data was collected, from 2007-10, 67% of those referred were Muslim and in 2012-13, 57% were Muslim (their percentage in the population being 5%).

In Britain today, all these things could happen to the child of Muslim parents without their consent. Let’s take a hypothetical situation, elements of which are based on the official Channel guidance and on incidents a lawyer told me about who deals with such cases. There is of course a particular focus on schools (which accounted for a fifth of referrals up to 2013). Since February, schools are obligated under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act to prevent pupils from becoming radicalised.

Imagine your child is named Abdul, aged 12. He is taken out of class and questioned as to his views and behaviour by a member of the school’s senior management team. He might be asked about his beliefs, his political views, his associations, and so on. His case could be referred to the multiagency Channel Panel run by the local authority for assessment on the basis of the school’s investigation, and it would initially be assessed for risk by a police representative, and accepted or rejected at that point. The Panel could assess Abdul’s case and agree a series of interventions under Channel for Abdul. Only after all this referral, assessment and decision-making is completed is the Panel obliged to contact you for your consent in two matters (and only if Abdul’s case is not deemed high risk): (1) that you agree to interventions for Abdul under Channel that the Panel recommends, and (2) that you agree that information about Abdul’s case can be divulged to relevant agencies. It should be noted that the Panel reserves the power not to seek your consent if it deems Abdul’s case serious enough. There is also a further option left to the Panel if you do not agree to Abdul being put into the Channel programme. It can refer Abdul if he is deemed as “high risk” and “in need” to various forms of intervention from social services from financial and pastoral support all the way up to an “emergency protection order” under sections 17 and 47 of the Children Act 1989. This option adds an element of coercion to the informed consent asked of parents very late in the process of referral and assessment under Channel.

There have been instances where parents first realise that their child has been referred under Prevent because the child tells them he or she has been pulled out of class and questioned about his or her views and behaviour. In such cases, it is clear that some schools are assuming an implied consent on the part of parents to have their children questioned and assessed in this way. They have not heard formally from the school or from the Prevent Panel. Cases like these have not yet come to light because these parents are frightened of speaking out. They are worried that they will be labelled as extremists. Of course we have heard of reported cases where parents were completely unaware of the fact that their children had been radicalized without their knowledge. However, notwithstanding this issue, there are many genuine reasons to worry about how fair or proportionate this policy of referral and assessment under Channel is or will be in future. Let me conclude by sketching out a few of them.

The main concern is that we are heading towards intensified policing of regular conservative Islamic religiosity and dissenting politics among Muslims. Recent comments by Mak Chishty, the Metropolitan Police’s Commander for Engagement, that identify Muslim children not celebrating Christmas or supporting the boycotts, sanctions and divestments movement by not shopping at Marks & Spencer as potential indicators of extremism are very alarming. At the time of writing, the Met has not responded to calls for proper clarification of these remarks. Last week, it was found that a pilot survey (later scrapped when it was exposed) in east London primary schools was asking intrusive questions about political and religious issues from children as young as nine, without anonymizing the data.

The new Extremism Bill (pp.62-63) goes further in the direction of policing non-violent “extremism”, which includes measures like banning groups, gagging individuals, closing premises, employment blacklists and censoring broadcasts. Our Home Secretary Theresa May could not define “extremism” when pressed to do so by John Humphreys on Radio 4’s Today programme. Her response hardly seemed a step above an arbitrary rule of thumb that one would know an extremist if one saw one. This loose notion of extremism is predicated on active opposition to a simple checklist of British values, namely as set out in the guidance: “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” While I don’t want to get into an extended discussion of this point here, these values are not parochially British nor are they unsubstantiated in the Islamic interpretive traditions or unpractised throughout the long and rich history of a world religion with 1.6 billion adherents. More importantly such values do not resolve conflicts in themselves. Rather, they define the very ground upon which we agree and disagree as to their meaning, application and commensurability.

To touch upon the point about commensurability further, David Cameron recently opined in promoting the new extremism bill that the British value of tolerance had been too “passive”. To quote him, the notion that “as long as you obey the law, we [the state] will leave you alone” was now to be abandoned. For many British people, including myself, this is in fact a cherished notion that needs to be protected at all costs rather than abandoned. So while tolerance is a value, what it really entails at any particular moment in the life of our nation will be up for debate. Values frame our national discussion but they do not define a monoculture. This contentious and unproductive debate about British values is going on against a background of anti-immigration politics, Tory triumph and UKIP gains in the election, the fragmentation of the left, and indeed the growing appeal of ISIS to some Muslim young people. Around 700 or so are believed to gone over to Syria and Iraq.

In this atmosphere of suspicion and fear, what are Muslim parents going to do to protect their children? They are after all the first “safeguards” of their own offspring, to use the current professional jargon. There are lively discussions on social media among Muslim parents about this. A widespread view seems to be striking a balance between bringing up your children with a positive view of themselves, their faith, their community, their society and country and the world at large while engaging them in an informed way about the very complex issues around terrorism, extremism, ISIS, the war on terror, racism, Islamophobia, grooming, sexism, etc. It is a daunting task. Hardly any Muslim parent I know thinks it is either easy or avoidable. Continually talking things through, listening, and offering support and guidance to our children is clearly essential. Dealing with teenage hormonal changes and challenges like depression and so on are more than enough for parents to deal with, without a kneejerk presumption that Muslim teens are converts on the jihadi “road to Damascus”.

Equally, a lot of Muslim parents I’ve talked to are concerned that the government is really overdoing things. The lack of parental consent is a massive issue. The government has set up an ill-advised process that implicitly excludes and alienates Muslim parents under an ethos of presumed mistrust. As I’ve outlined above, the school and the Prevent Panel can make major judgements and decisions about your child without even talking to you. We all have reasons to doubt how competently these Panels will make decisions about Muslim children. If they exhibit anything like the cultural ignorance of Commander Mak Chishty then we have every reason to fear that a lot of bad calls will be made.

Therefore, I would propose that it is in our collective interest to safeguard our children by pushing for consent and consultation to be at the heart of this policy. Those most affected by this policy – Muslim children and by extension their families – have been pushed to the margins. There is no requirement for Prevent panels to have any form of community representation and as a matter of course parents have no say in the referral or assessment process. I am aware of one case where a representative from a mosque council in a London borough has been offered a place on a separate advisory body, whose remit seems very limited and whose continuance is subject to the review of the Prevent Panel. This is obviously far from satisfactory: it seems tokenistic and is in danger of merely providing some kind of community rubber stamp for a referral and assessment process under Channel largely unaccountable to the community that it most affects. And then there is the fact that four-fifths of referrals are not taken further by Prevent Panels, according to ACPO’s own statistics. The negative conclusion from this low adoption rate is that children are being pushed towards Channel without sufficient cause. As parents we have to ask at what price? What impact will all this scrutiny at school have on Abdul’s sense of well-being and belonging, his confidence, his aspiration, or his happiness?

My personal judgement is that Prevent has gotten to a stage where it is institutionalising a “them and us” mentality that will reap a harvest of suspicion, distrust and doubt on all sides, and will drive the tiny pro-ISIS youth subculture further underground while conflating it with both conservative Islamic piety and Muslim radical politics. In my view it is better that we abandon Prevent in its new statutory guise and go back to the drawing board. In the interim, however, so long as Prevent is on the statute books, it may be wise to seek greater safeguards for our children against a system that has great potential to be stigmatising and discriminatory. There is obviously a lively debate to be had about which mix of tactics will work best to avoid innocent Muslim kids being mislabelled as extremists in schools.

Abdul deserves a better future. One in which he is treated a citizen rather than as a suspect. Where he can disagree, sometimes even be bold and radical in disagreeing if he chooses to do so, without being labelled an extremist. Where he can be proud rather than be ashamed of being a Muslim. He deserves to be inspired at school, opened up to new possibilities, for his autonomy to be nurtured and respected. This is the kind of schooling and the kind of country that we need to fight for.

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Filed under Civil liberties, Ghuluw, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

Islamophobia Studies and Policy Round-Up

Just another quick line about a new book, Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives, edited by S. Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil, which is now out, and which I’ve written about before. There have been a plethora of new titles recently too, and collectively they all should help to bring greater conceptual rigour to a ubiquitous but highly contested term, which should prove very useful for policy and legal casework in this area. In fact, the next item on the to-do list should be to draft a legally watertight definition of Islamophobia in line with varous important national, EU or international legal jurisdictions.

Some of the other new or forthcoming titles include:

C. Allen, Islamophobia (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010).

A. Shyrock (ed.) Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press).

M. Malik (ed.) Anti-Muslim Prejudice (London: Routledge, 2010).

J. Esposito and I. Kalin (eds.) Islamophobia: the challenge of pluralism in the twenty-first century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Some other news is that there is a new report out tomorrow on Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: UK Case Studies by J. Githins-Mazer and B. Lambert from the University of Exeter, which is to form part of a longer ten-year research programme.

Most importantly, the formation of an all-party parliamentary group on Islamophobia has been announced. The group is to be chaired by Kris Hopkins (Cons, Keighley and Ilkley) with vice-chairs Simon Hughes (Lib-Dem, Bermondsey, and Deputy Leader of his party) and Lord Janner of Braunstone QC (the Labour peer); some 20-odd members have signed up so far. This step could prove essential to mainstreaming Islamophobia as a serious policy and political issue.

Update: On 8th December 2010, Kris Hopkins and Lord Janner issued a press statement saying they have dropped Engage as their secretariat to the APPG on Islamophobia, although there is a dissenting view from Simon Hughes, the other Vice-Chair. It has been reported that Paul Goodman’s piece at Conservative Home has been influential in leading members of the APPGI to this decision; Engage has responded directly to Goodman’s article.

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New Book: British Secularism and Religion: Islam, Society and the State

It’s been a long time since I last posted anything here, and I aim to post more frequently. It’s not as if things of importance aren’t happening in the world.

For the time being, however, I wanted to flag up a new collection that I’ve co-edited with Dilwar Hussain and Ataullah Siddiqui. It’s the outcome of a seminar held in January 2009 on ‘British Muslims and the Secular State’, and is the first collection to my knowledge to focus on this issue. At its heart, it is an attempt to test the implications of two questions through a multi-party dialogue (or ‘multilogue’ for short), as we can see little practical utility in us British Muslims discussing this issue in splendid isolation.

The first question is to explore what religious grounds there are within Islam, and within Judaism and Christianity, to affirm secular liberal democracy.  The book as a whole concentrates upon political rather than philosophical secularism, which, in the twentieth century, many Muslim intellectuals directly equated with the promotion of atheism during the colonial and post-colonial periods. Today in twenty-first century Europe they equate it, and not without reason, with a political attack on Muslim communities and their institutions. Political secularism in a liberal democratic context, on the other hand, refers to (or, more realistically, ought to refer to) the relative separation between state and religion, to non-discrimination among religions and to the guarantees made with respect to the human rights of citizens, regardless of their creed, to which the philosopher Charles Taylor importantly adds the principles of political fraternity and the seeking of harmony.

Unsurprisingly all three discussants tackling this first issue — Abdullah Sahin, Nick Spencer and Norman Solomon — make a careful distinction between what they affirm and support as ‘secularity’, an accommodative arrangement that does not exclude religion from public life and that is committed to democratic inclusion, but are critical of a ‘secularism’ that systematically excludes religion from public life.

The second main proposition looks at the whole issue from another perspective: what reasons might the democratic secular state have to affirm a public role for religion in ways that are consonant with its underlying philosophy. Two respondents — Ted Cantle and Sunder Katwala — assess Tariq Modood’s proposition that the democratic secular state has five reasons to affirm a public role for religion: (i) the truth of religious claims made, subject to robust democratic processes, in policymaking, if not as a basis for a secular democratic state; (ii) the judicious control of violent religious fanaticism; (iii) the social and moral benefits of religious lifestyles upon society; (iv) the recognition of religious identity as a basis for participative citizenship at the levels of individual, minority group and national belonging; and (v) respect for religion as a cultural, historical or civilizational public good. Importantly Modood also points out that there is an important alternative to stricter forms of secularism, seen in France or the United States for instance, which is moderate or accommodative secularism, which is historically the hallmark of northwestern Europe, and particularly of Britain. There is an additional argument Modood makes which is that accommodative secularism better respects the mutual autonomy of politics and religion through ‘twin tolerations’, and so it should therefore be seen as central to liberal democracy. Maleiha Malik closes out the collection by looking at future prospects for the debate on secularism and religion in Britain.

Copies can be ordered from Amazon Marketplace or from Kube Publishing.

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Dilemmas of Authenticity and Belonging

Yahya Birt

It is obvious enough that the debate about the place of Islam in Europe has probably never been so important or sharply contested. The numbers of those who think there can be no genuine or settled place for Europe’s second largest religion seem to be growing; and this sentiment now mobilises politics in many European states, the Swiss vote in 2009 against the building of minarets being a recent example of this politics of fear. The outcome of this vote seems to suggest that if Muslims are to retain a presence in Europe, it should be rendered unnoticeable or even invisible, and that the normal religious freedoms others enjoy are to be especially curtailed for Muslims. Populist politicians like Gert Wilders in the Netherlands can now gain sizeable constituencies by promising to end mosque construction or banning the Qur’an. France, having banned the headscarf from French public schools in 2004, is now debating in 2010 whether to ban face veils from the country altogether, as they are, it is argued, deemed to be incompatible with republican values. Similarly the debate over whether Turkey can be part of the European Union touches upon the very political definition of what Europe is. As the former president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, argued in 2002, Turkey was not fit to be the member of a “Christian club” and, if accepted into Europe, Turkish membership would in any case “destroy the EU” if it went ahead.

Similarly Europe now lives with an ongoing terrorist threat from those whom al-Qaeda inspires to strike in the name of Muslims everywhere. Al-Qaeda operates with a cosmic idea of incessant violent struggle; catalytic acts of political violence, it is believed, will somehow galvanise and unite the Muslim world against the West to restore lost honour and power through indiscrimate carnage as seen in New York and Washington (2001), Madrid (2004), London (2005) and Glasgow (2007). And there have been a number of other foiled plots in the last decade, some dating to even before 9/11. Of course some have been radicalised recent migrants from the Muslim world, but others were European born and bred, and it is around trying to understand how these European Muslims became radicalised that some of the most intense debate about the place of Islam in Europe has raged.

However, I would suspect that even more divisive than the violent fringe have been the political and cultural clashes between liberal Europe and its often conservatively-minded Muslim minorities. Muslim identity politics in Europe can only become widely mobilised across different ethnic, sectarian and class divisions and be able to connect Muslim diasporas with political actors, state or non-state, in the Muslim world for two main reasons. The first cause is a military attack on a Muslim people by a non-Muslim power, where the Muslims are clearly not the aggressors, e.g. the conflict in Bosnia, 1992-95. The second cause is a cultural or political attack on a universal Islamic symbol; this attack is deemed to be a collective insult to Muslim dignity that besmirches the honour of their religion, e.g. the Danish Cartoons Crisis, 2005-8. Both causes relate to the victimization of Muslims, whose pain and suffering because of cultural contempt or political marginalisation plays not only into post-colonial angst and racialized politics in Europe today, but into deeply-felt frustration at the contemporary democratic deficit in the Muslim world and its inability to shape its own future and destiny. Yet what is also noticeable is the very fragility, or thinness, of this universal Muslim identity politics. As soon as any complexity is introduced, such as Muslim-on-Muslim conflict or the public ridicule of any non-universal Muslim taboo, then its appeal and scope is quickly curtailed.

 A similar observation might be made of anything that might be held to somehow undermine the idea of Europe: any universal appeal to a European identity politics must be equally thin to garner together such a diverse constituency of Europeans. At the heart of this European identity politics is cultural uncertainty: an aging continent feels threatened by younger non-European migrants, many of whom are Muslim by faith, and whom it is felt do not sufficiently share Europe’s values; and, as Asia rises and develops multiple modernities, the notion central to European identity that it gave birth a universal and singular modernity appears to be increasingly anachronistic.

So it might be surmised that identity politics is partly based on the anxiety created by the inability to engage with the loss of credible universal narratives. In the case of Islam, European colonialism decisively ended its narrative of imperial and religious manifest destiny in the nineteenth century, and, for the post-colonial Muslim diaspora in Europe, this tension is intensified by the fact of being a European minority of low, or at least ambiguous, social status. This status anxiety is more acute and prolonged that in the case of Europe’s, which has only really slowly developed in the latter half of the twentieth century with the challenges of decolonisation, the rise of America, the divisions of the Cold War, and now the slow shifting of the centre of the world economy to East Asia.

Within a context where many are seeking to diffuse mutually-antagonistic identity politics between Islam and Europe, I want to reflect on one small initiative with which I was recently involved. In 2009, the University of Cambridge won a competitive tender to host a series of seminars to reflect upon “Contextualising Islam in Britain” that was funded by the Department of Communities of Local Government. Inevitably a number of ironic ambiguities were involved in such an unusual endeavour. Why, for instance, would a secular government be interested in Muslim theological reflection as such except for more narrow policy imperatives? How much were the sorts of conclusions sought by government ones of a liberal or progressive bent that were desired and anticipated in advance? How much was the official motivation one that was driven to demonstrate an Islam that was compatible with liberalism, or at the very least could be convincingly shown to be fundamentally harmless and innocuous? How could a small panel of 26 Muslim academics, activists and religious scholars hope to avoid the charge from their own community of promoting their own version of an official British Islam without a proper mandate? And, added to that, what authority or relevance would its deliberations have?  Muslim conservatives might think it too liberal, “Islamists” might think it too politically quiescent, it would be ignored or dismissed by the radicals and wouldn’t most Muslims, holding to an informal and iterative notion of religious authority, baulk at the idea of an official national Islam? Wouldn’t theological reflection in and of itself be overly abstract and divorced from concrete policy issues, e.g. high unemployment, racial discrimination or relatively low educational attainment, that affect Muslim communities in Britain? And wasn’t there a stereotypical element in defining Muslims primarily or even solely in religious terms by assuming that the problems of Muslim communities were best addressed in theological terms?

All those involved were acutely aware of these sorts of dilemmas, which might be summarised as dilemmas of authenticity and belonging. Could such an exercise be theologically serious while not been overly presumptive in the claims to authority that it made? How could such an exercise be more creative and interesting than being a political exercise in reassurance or a plea for acceptance? It is for others to decide how far the “Contextualising Islam in Britain” project succeeded in avoiding these pitfalls; however, a few further reflections are in order.

One obvious irony was that there are few if any comparable platforms, due to internal politics or lack of resources or vision, for sustained reflection on pressing theological issues by such a wide theological diversity of British Muslims, except for official ones. The fact that British Muslim institutions, being perceived as biased in one way or another, would have struggled to collect together Sunnis and Shiites, Sufis and Salafis, liberals and conservatives, and Deobandis and Barelwis (the latter being British Islam’s most important sectarian Muslim division) under one roof. Although an atmosphere of distrust, incompatibility and intransigence was a distinct possibility, and many of 26 participants had not met or worked together before, in practice, a robust but healthy dynamic was established.

In my personal view, the overriding reasons as to why co-operation was easier to sustain than originally feared were threefold. Firstly, the politically parlous public reputation of Muslims sets up an overall context in which intra-faith co-operation becomes more desirable. Secondly, the seminar participants focused upon the theological challenges that faced them all, regardless of their denominational background, which were largely matters of public religion, or the role of Islam in public life, which, as a common circumstance, challenge and opportunity, cuts across other sorts of division. And, finally, there was also sufficient maturity and experience within the group to see such moments of sustained reflection in lives that are otherwise busy and overstretched as rare opportunities that were not to be wasted.

On the question of religious authority, the participants were seasoned enough to realise that as there are many points of religious authority within the Islamic tradition, and that restating Islamic norms is fundamentally an iterative exercise that is ongoing because of changing times and circumstances, the whole exercise was properly framed as opening out the debate and about asking some of the right questions. It was certainly not a series of definitive fatwas that were sought, and no-one claimed either the legal expertise or authority to do so.

On the politics around such an exercise, the participants were clear that a mere reiteration of the idea that Islam is harmless, i.e. that the vast majority of Muslims abjure the violent extremists who misuse the name of Islam, could not be a serious starting point of any sustained theological reflection. Instead, even within a secular Europe, significant parts of which are post-Christian, the idea of religion as a public good, and, within that, the role of Islam as Europe’s second religion, should be further explored and strengthened. There was wide support for Britain’s particular form of secularism, as accommodative of religious pluralism, religious freedoms and of religious institutions, and as providing the overall framework to articulate religion as a public good; however, it was recognised that there were more challenges in framing a positive role for the religious voice within Britain’s traditions of secular public reason and political culture.

The report, in my reading, did recognise that sustained Islamic reflection upon the role of religion in public life within the European context was still in its early stages. The reasons for this were recognised as many and complex but the primary need was to shift the emphasis of Muslim theological languages of public engagement from jurisprudence (fiqh) and legal theory (usul al-fiqh) to become more inclusive of mysticism (tasawwuf), theology (kalam) and philosophy (falsifa). In short, an ethical turn in Islamic public discourses is urgently needed not least because of the widespread misunderstanding of Islamic legalese as a tacit call for parallel legal systems within Europe, but also to reflect more easily an aspiration to serve the common or public good, and not just of the “Muslim good” as it were.

It was recognised that too much emphasis had been put by the Islamic legal tradition on the citizenship contract (ahd, i.e. the duties held by the citizen towards the state), rather than upon the fundamental convenant (mithaq) between humanity and God, that underwrites our inate moral responsibility to each other. It is under this sense of higher ethical purpose that the believer seeks to serve the common good of all through a spirit of service (khidma) and moral excellence (ihsan), rather than a thin legal relationship of citizenship rights. There has been an assumption in Islamic legal tradition that Muslim minority status is a passing and temporary circumstance, which is to be endured through various forms of moral protectionism and community survival. This is wholly at odds with the reality that millions of Muslims have voluntarily and happily chosen Europe as their permanent home to which they belong and wish to make a positive contribution to.  Without this as the basic starting point of any serious deliberation then there is little hope that any amount of reflection will move any of us beyond the politics of fear.

Originally published as “Dilemas de authenticidad y pertenencia“, Akfar/Ideas (No.25, April 2010).

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