No section of British society should be treated with suspicion

Many Muslims living in the UK today feel like 'conditional Britons'. As the Coalition reinvigorate the flawed counter-terrorism strategy 'Prevent', the former secretary general of Muslim Council of Britain discusses the demonisation of his community
Muhammad Abdul Bari
24 June 2011

This article is part of a series on the government's 'Prevent' counter-terrorism strategy.

No-one possessing common sense in a civilised society would – or should – publicly demonise a whole community for the faults of a few. Yet here in Britain in 2011 many in the Muslim community feel they are being subjected to just such an assault. Comment after comment from powerful politicians, columnists and other opinion formers have for years given a contradictory impression: that Muslims are indeed a problem. This 'community' is diverse and evolving from its otherwise disadvantaged socio-economic roots and it is at a loss to understand why it is scapegoated for the abhorrent actions of a few.

But this is not how many in the British political class have perceived the Muslim ‘community’, especially since the summer disturbances of 2001 in several of our northern cities. Whilst Islamophobia posed a challenge for Britain well before the riots (see the 1997 Runnymede Trust report Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All), the negative depiction of Muslims increased manifold after the 2001 disturbances. Report after report (Cantle, Ousley and Ritchie) broadly suggested that the violence in Oldham, Leeds and Bradford was essentially about ethnic and racial tensions, not about Islam or ‘Islamist extremism’. But, as Robert Lambert and Jonathan Githens-Mazer set out, these disturbances by Asian Muslim youth profoundly affected the way that the New Labour government thought about terrorism and Muslim communities.

Modern Britain had witnessed 'race' riots before. But arguably none of them was as conflated with a community’s faith or culture as the outbreaks of violence in 2001. The Blair government’s response gave the British National Party (BNP) an electoral opportunity, which it soon began to exploit. In the general election held during this ‘Summer of Discontent’ the BNP leader Nick Griffin ran for the Oldham West and Royton seat and, though he lost, won an unprecedented (for the time) 16 per cent of the popular vote. The party also polled 11 per cent in Oldham East & Saddleworth. 

Then came the terrible atrocity of 9/11 in America, followed by 7/7 in London in 2005. In the aftermath of those bombings, the Prevent initiative was formulated under Blair's watchful eye. It was highly flawed from the start. Millions of pounds were distributed to selected Muslim groups –many of them controversial – by central government, or via often unwilling local councils. There were complaints that this policy conflated security with the ideals of 'community cohesion', and that it created internal discord within the Muslim communities as well as inviting envy from other faith groups. The debate polarised society and is continuing to do so today.

Towards the end of the last Labour government, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown initiated a review of Prevent under a parliamentary committee led by Dr Phyllis Starkey MP. After months of hearings, the committee found that Prevent was stigmatising and alienating a whole community. According to Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller, there is a strong case for Prevent to be 'scaled back considerably' and more resources invested instead into "dealing with the social and economic difficulties that many Muslim communities face, which have nothing to do with terrorism or extremism at all." 

When the Tory-led coalition took power, I had hopes that they would find an 'out of the box' way of addressing the issue of violent extremism without alienating the Muslim community. But, alas, the current government decided to follow the divisive rhetoric of attacking 'Islamism' and discrediting 'multiculturalism'. The coalition government felt it necessary to initiate another review of Prevent before the ink of the previous one had dried out. 'Islamism' itself is an ill-defined term championed and favoured by neo-conservatives. Moreover, who has the current government consulted with over these measures? I am not aware of any meaningful civil society or Muslim group that was consulted; Britain’s largest and most representative Muslim body, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which I led from 2006 to 2010, was definitely not. All we heard was the political in-fighting between the hawkish and dovish members of the Cabinet, and the barrage of recommendations proffered by right-wing columnists and their aligned think tanks. 

And then from the top comes a reinvigorated Prevent, based on the same old discredited ‘conveyor belt theory’, which contends that individuals start off angry and disaffected, become more religious and politicised, and then finally turn to terror. The government has distanced itself from Muslim groups that are not seen as sufficiently 'moderate', as if they are now the new pariahs in British society. Is this how Britain wants to deal with its own citizens in the 21st century – citizens who are law abiding but who may otherwise disagree with some aspects of government policy? 

No sane member of society, including those in the Muslim community, has any second thought that violent extremism is a criminal act. Such extremism should be rooted out. The issue is: how? Do we undermine a whole community; or do we take a selective and surgical approach and isolate individuals from whichever community they might come? 

The impression that some politicians, journalists and think tanks give regarding the Muslim community is worrying. They claim their words are not about Islam or the community itself – but often in the next breath they accuse Muslims of the most damnable things. Some columnists in particular seem almost hell-bent on proving that there is an inherent problem with the religion of Islam itself – a recipe for stoking far-right hatred and violence.

Tension is already rising; groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) are increasingly emboldened to march. Since 2009 the EDL has orchestrated a number of violent demonstrations against mosques in major British cities. They threatened a massive demonstration in front of one of our largest mosques, the East London Mosque in Tower Hamlets, last year. In response, Tower Hamlets civil society groups formed an alliance, United East End, and organised a counter-demonstration with 5,000 local people that forced the EDL to cancel their demonstration. On the very same day that the EDL organised a highly confrontational march in Luton last February, our Prime Minister was giving his "muscular liberalism" speech at the Munich Security Conference. Now the EDL are calling for a new demonstration in east London this August, whipped up by the pages of certain newspapers and blogs that print page after page of attacks on the Muslim community in the area. 

From my own and colleagues' observations, confidence inside the Muslim community, particularly its youth, seems at an all-time low. Many Muslims we meet and speak to feel like 'conditional Britons'. This point was made years ago, in a 2008 Daily Mail piece by columnist Peter Oborne, who said that "we should all feel a little bit ashamed about the way we treat Muslims in the media, in our politics, and on our streets", a view he backed up with James Jones in a report for the Democratic Audit (see also Stuart Weir).

Like other Britons, the vast majority of Muslims are opposed to terrorism. But unlike other Britons, many are affected disproportionately by the curtailment of their liberties in the name of counter-terrorism, and by the constant diminution of their reputation. The sooner the Muslim community is seen as part of the solution, the better.

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