On 5th April 2007, the Minister responsible for the Department of Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly MP delivered a speech setting out proposals affecting Muslims and their institutions. The Whitehall Court is replete with courtier-Muslims, but is there a Sir Thomas More ready to put up resistance to our new Henry VIIIs?
The speech was entitled ‘Winning hearts and minds: working together to defeat extremism’ – harking on a well-hackneyed phrase of Viet Nam War provenance – used by the US in its propaganda messages. This time it is the rallying call for the emergence of a ‘British Islam’.
In her speech the Minister declared, “there is an emerging sense of what it is to be a British Muslim. A more inclusive sense of identity which allows people to retain a deep personal faith, but at the same time recognises the benefits, and stresses the duties of British citizenship.”
In the next issue of the New Statesman, Ruth Kelly elaborated:”These proposals come out of many discussions I have had in recent months with members of our Muslim communities. I’ve spoken with scholars and thinkers about where we go from here. I’ve listened to those behind the inspiration of community projects up and down Britain. And I have heard the views of women and younger people who have too often felt ignored. There were, of course, concerns about aspects of the government’s policies. But I was also struck by the unanimous and resolute rejection of any notion that Islam justifies terrorism and agreement, too, that being a devout Muslim is entirely consistent with accepting the laws and values that come with being a British citizen. Many are proud to be British, proud to be Muslim, and want to help all young people understand this too. The likes of Tariq Ramadan have written about these issues. And an interim report of work I have commissioned from an impressive young academic – Tufyal Choudhury – makes a powerful argument for why the ultimate response to extremism in the name of Islam is an emerging European or British Islam.”
New Statesman, 9th April 2007, http://www.newstatesman.com/200704090013
The proposals included a new cross-government committee that will ensure ‘that winning hearts and minds will be at the core of the government’s approach of going forward’; a plan for ‘supporting madrassahs everywhere to put citizenship on the agenda’; a unit with a £600,000 fund within the Charity Commission to work with mosques and madrassahs; a development programme that will be part of ‘a framework of standards required for all imams engaged by the state in hospitals, colleges and prisons’; and finally a reminder of the £6 million fund [which was £5 million in Ruth Kelly’s article in the Observer, 18th March 2007) to support work via local authorities.
On cue, on the same day as the speech, about 60 Muslim organizations proffered their signatures in a pledge of fealty. Signatories including the Sufi Muslim Council, the British Muslim Forum – but not the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). The letter started “As British Muslims we share in the nation’s concern for the future of our country.In schools, in universities, in the workplace, on the street and at home, Muslims need to promote the message that being a Muslim and British is about shared values, principles and ideals.As British Muslims, we welcome the initiatives to empower and support communities in order to win ‘hearts and minds’. We recognise this is the most effective way to build resilient communities that condemn and resist extremist messages”.
So what is this British Islam or being a good British Muslim about?
1. Accept that violent extremism is an expression of a ‘deviant tendency within Islam’ (even though expert commentators note that the decision to join violent groups is not because young people read Sayyid Qutb or his presumed medieval inspiration,Ibn Taymiyyah. It is usually the other way round: militants usually begin reading Qutb as a consequence of choosing the militant path. A closer examination of the discourse of violent Islamic groups indicates, in fact, many attempts to reinterpret religious teachings on political grounds (see the writings of Abdulwahab El-Effendi)
2. Accept the Government narrative that our foreign policy has not caused terrorism (even though the link has been established by numerous experts including the Joint Intelligence Committee see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article701127.ece)
3. Accept the argument that something has to be done about ‘winning the loyalty of Muslims’ and that Muslims should make public declarations of their fealty to British values (even though studies have consistently shown that Muslims in Britain are more likely to participate in civic activities – the Home Office Survey 253 – or the recent Gallup finding that Muslims in London have twice as much confidence in the government as the wider public)
4. Accept that religion should only operate at the personal- theological- moral register and not outside it in terms of holding on to a normative vision of a just society (where does this leave Gordon Brownís statement last year encouraging London to become a hub of shariah compliant finance?)
5. Accept that there is a problem of mosques that ‘preach hate’ and the Muslim community should be alert to ‘radicals taking over mosques’ (even though community mosques are arch-conservative and the only problem case has been the Finsbury Park Mosque, where Abu Hamza was allowed to operate by the security agencies even though the trustees called for action)
6. Accept the argument that Muslims radical Islam is growing in prisons and chaplains now need a ‘development programme’ (even though after a four year study, Dr Marranci at the University of Aberdeen notes, ‘I have found no evidence to suggest that the Muslim chaplains are behaving or preaching in a way that facilitates radicalization’, 13th April 2007, The Guardian)
7. Don’t rock the boat on HMD – don’t press to make it an inclusive day commemorating all genocides and tragedies and accept that participation is the litmus test of a commitment to British values. (Apropro Martin Bright: “The influence of Ruth Kelly has been hugely significant in this respect. I was initially skeptical that her new department would have the clout to take over responsibility for community cohesion and integration or that she would have the political will to take on the established Muslim organisations. But, from the outset, she made it plain that it was important to frame a set of values before embarking on the process of engagement. She refused to engage with the Muslim Council of Britain, for example, while its leaders continued to boycott Holocaust Memorial Day. She has since said that no organisation will rec eive money from her department until they make explicit their opposition to extremism. Engagement is now contingent on signing up to a shared set of British values ,9th April 2007); also rubbish the survey finding that 31% of Britons want the Holocaust Memorial Day to be renamed Genocide Day’ – YouGov poll reported in the Jewish Chronicle, 19 January 2007
8. Accept the climate of fear is justified and that the threat of violent extremism is so severe that Britain is in a state of public emergency (declared after 9/11 http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2001/20013644.htm)
In receiving praise from his paymaster, the researcher Tufyal Choudhury has accepted a poisoned chalice. She attributes to him the view that ‘the ultimate response to extremism in the name of Islam is an emerging European or British Islam’. What Tufyal actually told the Minister is far more nuanced, as is fitting a well-honed legal mind:’whilst it is clear that religious discourse and identity can play an important role in an effective de-radicalisation programme, further research is needed to look at how Muslim identity and Islamic discourses are used in de-radicalisation programmes in other countries. Furthermore, there is no clear picture on the weight or significance that can be given to issues of identity in relation to other identifiable causes of radicalization and its relationship to those other causes’ . (www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1509391)
Will he be the Sir Thomas More or the Thomas Cranmer of the Whitehall Court?