British Muslims: How the government lost the plot

Feb 26th 2009
From The Economist print edition

A desperate search for a new policy towards Islam has yet to produce results


A WAR, a riot, a terrorist attack or a row over blasphemy: not long ago, Britain’s government knew exactly what to do when a crisis loomed in relations with the country’s Muslims. As recently as July 2005, after bombs in London killed 56 people, Tony Blair was confident that he could avoid a total breakdown of trust between Muslim Britons and their compatriots.

Using an old formula, the prime minister called in some Islamic worthies and suggested they form a task force on extremism. Then, hours before the worthies were due to reconvene and mull their response, Mr Blair breezily announced that a task-force of top Muslims had just been created. They moaned, but dutifully went to work.

That system of trade-offs, the equivalent of the “beer and sandwiches” once used to woo trade unionists, had some big drawbacks. It gave hardline Muslims—generally male, old and new to Britain—disproportionate sway. It also led to some dubious bargains; for example, Muslim resentment of British foreign policy was parried by, in part, huge generosity towards the cultural demands of some Muslims—such as the right to establish schools where the curriculum bears scant relation to the lessons other young Britons get.

Now that system, and its unspoken compromises, lies in ruins. It was jettisoned in the autumn of 2006, when the government downgraded existing ties with the Muslim Council of Britain (in which movements close to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists of Pakistan were strongly represented) and tried to find different interlocutors.

(HH here: Simply targeting the new, mostly Saudi funded, Mosques and Madrassas would go a long way toward stemming the tide of extremism.)

But attempts to define a new policy towards Islam in Britain have been floundering since then.

The government is under fire from the political centre-right for being too soft on radical or reactionary Muslim groups who stop just short of endorsing violence. (HH again: Just short? What about letting groups that DO endorse violence go about their merry business unmolested?) It is also attacked from the left (Muslim or otherwise) for using the fight against terrorism as an excuse for a general assault on Muslims and their cultural rights.

Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, sought to clarify official thinking in a speech on February 25th, … The government, she said, would reserve the right to deal with people whose ideas were unpleasant through a “spectrum of engagement, carefully calibrated to deal with individual circumstances”. With groups that have “an equivocal attitude to core values such as democracy, freedom of speech or respect towards women” there might be “some scope for limited engagement”, the minister carefully added. But on certain forms of “absolutely unacceptable behaviour”—such as homophobia, forced marriage or female genital mutilation—the government would firmly enforce the law with no regard for a cultural “oversensitivity” that had gone too far.

But the failure of current policies aimed at fostering moderate Islam can hardly be overstated. After spending lavishly on a strategy called Prevent that was supposed to empower moderates—at least £80m ($116m) will have been dished out on such efforts by 2011—the very word “prevent” has become discredited in the strongholds of British Islam, which include east London, Birmingham and a string of northern industrial towns. At the Muslim grass roots, there is a sense that any group or person who enjoys official favour is a stooge.

(HH: Why can’t people see that the first failure here was allowing too many immigrants with too little exposure to Western values. Does it really take genius to see that floods of people with no experience in our culture of laws and equal treatment under the law will be a source of crime and tension? The saddest part is that if immigration is shut down totally in order to correct past abuses in the other direction the people who will suffer most are the ones living in non-Western countries that do NOT accept the values of Islam and want to change. IT is hard for us here to say to them “Stand up for yourself, all you have to lose is your head”.)

Many in the government, meanwhile, think their partners are not delivering value for money. The whole relationship has deteriorated since August 2006. After a foiled plot to blow up transatlantic flights, and amid huge ire over the war in Lebanon, a group of prominent Muslims, including two now in government, signed an open letter arguing that British foreign policy in general, and its softness towards Israel in particular, was an important factor behind a surge in extremist sentiment.

(HH here: this points up the total difference in world-view with these people who did not grow up with our cultures. In the West it does not MATTER if you are “upset” about your government’s foreign policy, you simply do not, in a CIVILISED society RIOT and commit murder and mayhem in response. As the British say; “It just isn’t DONE!” But in their home society’s it IS done all the time. Riot and murder and daily tools of “politics” in tribal cultures. Can anyone explain t me why Europe and America et al. should go BACKWARD into a more tribal future? The bottom line is that it is not the place of an immigrant to try to completely revolutionize their new land. We welcome immigrants because they want to JOIN us in OUR future together. Their kids or grandkids will stand as equals to native born they hope. Are we also required to welcome those who come to our lands in order to make them more like the third-world hellhole from which they came? Are we even required to take their “arguments” for their lack of integration seriously?)

The government says … two problems are related: poor, frustrated and mainly self-segregated groups are more likely to produce terrorists. Muslims as a group lag behind other Britons in qualifications, employment, housing and income (see chart). But in fact the overlap between exclusion and extremism is messy. And attempts to fight terrorism through tougher policing, which can alienate whole communities, make boosting cohesion harder.

(HH: I think that a tough but fair stance that says that the door is wide open for ANY immigrant who integrates and gives realy loyalty to their new nation but anyone who lives as a hostile, alien ghetto-dweller and seeks to remain unintegrated and defiantly ignorant of the local laws should be treated like a hostile alien. Give that policy a few years and I think you would see the ghetto shrinking. Muslims would better understand the issue if posed in terms of a good or bad guest. The host-guest relationship is supposed to be sacred in Islam. Why not use that image? Western society needs to stop apologizing for being more tolerant than any of theses people’s original nations. I have always been taught that if I go into another persons house or country it makes no difference, I am inn THEIR home and should make every effort to fit in by THEIR standards. IF their ways are too different I leave. Is that a bad thing?

Among those who claim to speak for disadvantaged Muslims and articulate their grievances, there has been an outpouring of indignation over the government’s stated aim of “preventing violent extremism” by making Muslim communities more “resilient” and better at dealing with hotheads. The idea seems to stigmatise all Muslims, many complain, while the violent extremism of, for example, the white far right is ignored.

(HH here: Wow! I get this image in my head of a Muslim man standing amongst several bodies, blood everywhere. The cops are about to arrest him and he points to a 12 year old who just beat up a little kid for his lunch money. The little kid has a bloody nose. The man indignantly yells at the police that they must pay as much attention to the 12 year old or they are racist. There is no doubt that there are nut-case neo-nazi types running around. But they commit very little violence because society has no tolerance for their games. They talk a lot and beat up a few people here and there but they know that if they were caught committing any serious violence against society they would be stomped on by virtually everyone without dissent. Now if there are any local towns in Britain where skinhead gangs are running rampant and Muslims are committing violent crimes no more than the average of native British then of course the LOCAL response might need to be adjusted. That is a lot of ifs!!!!)

Probing and pre-empting attacks by Muslim extremists is now understood to occupy about 75% of the energy of the British security services, who claim to have had some success in reducing the number of terrorist plots that are stopped only at the last minute. Another less obvious factor in British thinking is strong American concern over the risk that a British-born Muslim could enter the United States and commit a terrorist spectacular there. A healthy slug of America’s anti-terrorism spending goes to forestall just such a possibility.

But successful British Muslims as well as poor ones resent the fact that the rest of society often sees them mainly as potential extremists. Sarah Joseph, a convert to Islam who edits the glossy monthly Emel, says Muslims are fed up with being asked if they are against violence; they want people to know what they are for, such as social justice. The sad fact, in a country that has come to live in fear of terrorism, is that many Britons are indeed more interested in assessing Muslims’ potential for violence than in anything else about them.

Read it all at The Economist by clicking on the post title