" Many people in this country who have no interest in listening to any Muslim
unless they can chorus their own loathing and suspicion of Islam "
As government efforts to 'tackle' extremism flounder, it should beware the advice of armchair warriors and fantasists
Madeleine Bunting Wednesday August 16, 2006 The Guardian
One could almost feel sorry for them. A minister like Ruth Kelly is wrenched from her bucket-and spade holiday on a rainy British beach with the kids to launch yet another push to "engage" with Muslims and to step up efforts to "tackle" extremism. A ministerial tour of nine cities to meet Muslims is announced.
It's all designed to sound energetic and purposeful. We pay fat cabinet salaries and we want our politicians to sound like they are earning them. But in truth, beneath the rhetoric - an odd verbal combination of rugby tackles and romantic engagement - is a profound confusion in government policy as to what to do about British-grown Islamist terrorism, apart from large amounts of surveillance and frequent use of detention. Beyond that, the hearts-and-minds strategy is running on empty.
I've seen government ministers do "engagement": Paul Murphy, when he had the community-cohesion brief, listened carefully, answered questions patiently and got precisely nowhere. His young, angry Muslim audience heard him out but were profoundly cynical; their views didn't change a jot.
Events of the last few days will have immeasurably increased that cynicism: Muslim MPs and peers have been roundly ticked off by a succession of government ministers as if they were imperial vassals who should know their place. Yet they were simply stating the obvious - that British foreign policy is incubating (we can argue whether it's the root cause another time) Muslim extremism. Given that kind of opening salvo from her colleagues, perhaps Kelly should save herself the trouble and return to the
beach for some more sandcastles and rock pools.
While she's there, the best thing she can do is to get a bit of perspective on a worn-out policy. Even more importantly, she would do well to take stock of a pernicious media onslaught in danger of spiralling out of control. The ministerial tours, the meetings with selected Muslims - most of whom are as baffled by Islamic extremism as ministers - were the responses to last summer's London bombings. The danger is that as the government's "community cohesion" policy flounders, there is no shortage of media commentators pouring out a flood of venomous advice on exactly why no Muslim is worth talking to anyway.
If, reader, you're short of time and need the summary, it runs thus: the government can't talk to extremists because they endorse violence and/or are nutty and irrational, and can't talk to "moderates" (warning: the word is on the point of becoming a term of abuse in the Muslim community) because they're not representative. These methods of dismissal are so frequently used by journalists that the only possible conclusion is that there are many people in this country who have no interest in listening to any Muslim unless they can chorus their own loathing and suspicion of Islam - the former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the case par excellence.
Some of this armchair advice to government can be pretty briskly dismissed, such as the paranoid fantasies of the rightwing Daily Mail commentator Melanie Phillips in her book Londonistan or those of the Conservative MP Michael Gove in his book Celsius 7/7. Both authors haven't troubled themselves to get much beyond revived imperial delusions of demented, violent Muslims (check out Britain's history in India, Sudan or Egypt).
More insidious is the comprehensive attack on Whitehall's policy towards the Muslim community over the last decade by the New Statesman's political editor, Martin Bright. He argues that the government should have no truck with any Muslim organisation in the UK that has had any involvement with any person who has ever been influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, the political Islamist organisation. That rules out the Muslim Council of Britain, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and other
mainstays of the government's "engagement" policy of the last 10 years. It would even include intellectuals such as Professor Tariq Ramadan (grandson, no less, of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), who was a member of the government taskforce set up to tackle Islamist extremism last year, and a star turn on its travelling roadshow for young Muslims. We are talking sweeping here. In fact, implement Bright's advice and you've got a pretty small tea party for your next round of engagement.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a global phenomenon that has taken many different guises in different places. It has been very successful at the ballot box in a host of countries, particularly Egypt. In some countries it has developed an armed wing, in many others it has not. Many of those in this country influenced by this strand of anti-colonial political Islamism have subsequently developed their thinking in entirely different directions. Almost every thoughtful, educated Muslim in this country has been exposed to - and to varying degrees influenced by - the Muslim Brotherhood, the 20th century's most influential political Islamic movement. The obvious historical analogy to Bright is those US cold war warriors in the 50s who smeared anyone who had ever read Marx.
For a story to really work you have to have good guys as well as bad, so the critics conjure up another absurdity - the "silent Sufi majority" of British Muslims. These are the gentle, peace-loving Muslims at the grassroots who have been betrayed, so the argument runs, by those who claim to represent them, such as the Muslim Council of Britain. One can argue for hours about how to define a Sufi in this country; and, leaving that aside, the characterisation of Sufism is wide of the mark: some of the most violent anti-colonial struggles have been led by Sufis, for example Chechnya and Algeria, even the Mahdi who did for General Gordon in Khartoum. Furthermore, some argue that Sufi-inclined traditions such as the Kashmiri Barelwi have failed to travel well to urban Britain and that it is precisely their youngsters who are most disorientated and likely to fail prey to extremism - as was the case of the July 7 bombers from Leeds.
The main target for Bright is the Muslim Council of Britain; he loathes it with a contempt that is hard to explain. Given that the MCB is in effect a small volunteer parish council scrabbling to represent a hugely diverse - both ethnically and theologically - community, it's not surprising that it has scored own goals in its time. It's a young, underconfident institution and falls short in many ways, but the fact remains that of all the Muslim organisations to emerge in recent decades it has proved the most successful in winning affiliates. There is no comparable substitute waiting in the wings. The Sufi Muslim Council of Britain has been in existence all of a month; I wish it well, but unlike the MCB it cannot claim to represent anything like the 40% of British mosques affiliated to the MCB.
Kelly has an urgent task ahead to assuage anxiety as the possibility looms of a second-class status for Muslims in this country - profiled, suspected, searched, endlessly quizzed and found wanting. As for the armchair warriors so keen to proffer advice, one has to question the motives of those intent on undermining the meagre organisational capacity the Muslim community has managed to weld together to combat just such a threat.
Madeleine Bunting will become director of the thinktank Demos next month
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