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British Muslims: ends and beginnings

Language, George Orwell wrote in his famous 1949 essay "Politics and the English Language", has the capacity to corrupt thought. But then thoughts can also corrupt language.

Take the word angrez. It is from Urdu, but with Persian, possibly even French roots and it means "Englishman". Today, for British users of this word it might mean your neighbour next door. For Indian Muslims two generations ago, angrez meant colonial power. Urdu literature is full of accounts of how angrez had stopped the teaching of Persian in schools, or how angrez liked to play off different communities against one another to get what they wanted.

For any Muslim living in Britain, the events of the past four weeks, indeed if not before this period, have more than faint echoes of that historical past. After a decade of constructive and largely positive engagement with its Muslim citizens, the building of trust and the cementing of many relationships, senior figures in the Labour government - in a series of speeches, articles and comments - seem to have decided to undo much of the good from their administration's decade in office.

In recent weeks - since an article in local newspaper by Jack Straw on 5 October 2006 opened the floodgates - it has been impossible to avoid the impression that the British government clearly wishes to put on the agenda the belief that Britain has a "Muslim problem".

Straw's article was followed by interventions from prime minister Tony Blair, cabinet colleagues and other party officials raising various aspects of the "problem", including women who wear face-veils (seen as separating themselves from society), friends and families who might want to live close-by (ghettoes) and of course that old chestnut: faith schools (more separation).

It doesn't stop there. The home secretary John Reid and communities secretary Ruth Kelly have respectively scolded parents of young children and community groups for not doing enough to tackle extremism. The government, moreover, has set up yet another commission to look into community cohesion.

From rhetoric to policy

It is early days yet, but what is happening must rate as one of the more significant turnarounds in recent British political history. Cast your mind back to 1997. Among those who cheered and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the then newly-elected Tony Blair were Britain's minorities. Ministers beamed as state funding for Muslim faith schools was celebrated. In 2000, a smiling Blair proudly told the Muslim News that he had two copies of the Qur'an and that he was inspired by its message of love and fellowship. The chancellor Gordon Brown, Blair's likely successor as prime minister, has made a number of speeches to bankers and financiers on the relationship between Islam, equity and justice.

If the political rhetoric has become harsher and colder, there are signs of a shift in policy too. The government has, for example, parted company - suddenly and very publicly - with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), ending a partnership of more than ten years. Ruth Kelly said in a speech that the government would be "rebalancing" its relationships with community groups, and in future would work with those that can more explicitly demonstrate a commitment to anti-extremism. The implication is that the MCB hasn't done enough.

The MCB's fall from favour will not be as bad as it might have first looked, however. The council was seen to be too close to government - even though this was not the case in practice. Moreover, it can at last get out of the public eye and get on with its own community-building work.

Could the MCB have done more to combat extremism? In truth the council has done as much as it could. It has published booklets on the rights and responsibilities of citizens. It regularly asks Muslims to be vigilant and to cooperate with the police. And it meets regularly with ministers, civil servants and Scotland Yard.

But the MCB is neither the police, nor is it MI5. It cannot be expected to catch criminals. Yet this is what the government seems to want it to do. Quite how the MCB managed to convey the impression that it can deal with counter-terrorism I don't know. Only the most inept civil servant could ever expect James Bond to emerge out of an organisation of (sometimes elderly) volunteers who manage mosques, run after-school classes, and organise Eid fêtes.

More to the point, however, the council has been increasingly critical of the British government's foreign policy. It has pointed out time and again that this is a factor in violent extremism, and it has led calls for a full public inquiry into the London bombs of 7 July 2005. This is clearly not what the government wants to hear. The result is that - rather like a losing prime minister on the morning after election night - the MCB has had to leave abruptly (except by the back rather than the front entrance).

At the same time the front door has been opened to a new group. The government's new Muslim partner is the Sufi Muslim Council, an organisation linked to the large Naqshbandi Sufi community and headed by Hisham Kabbani. The council was launched in July 2006 at the House of Commons at a meeting where Kelly was the keynote speaker.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network


Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief"
(November 2005)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The light of education: blind children's best buys'" (May 2006)

"Israel and the bomb: don't ask, don't tell" (June 2006)

"Muslim Britain: the end of identity politics?" (July 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Millennium Development Goals: back to school"
(August 2006)

"Big media, small world" (August 2006)

"The global politics of cricket"
(September 2006)

"Pope Benedict XVI:science is the real target"
(September 2006)

"The cost of freedom in the digital age"
(October 2006)

"Physics in revolution"
(October 2006)

The politics of a shift

The fall of the MCB is only half the story. What is happening has to be seen in the wider context of the shifts taking place in British politics, almost on a daily basis.

Two things are clear. First, with the prime minister having announced his departure, cabinet and party discipline has broken down as ministers line up for possible leadership positions. Almost every day, a serving or former government or party official fires off an opinion that does not represent government policy.

Two former stalwarts of this government, one-time environment minister Michael Meacher and Clare Short (who ran the department for international development) are now on the outer fringes. Short is so hostile to Blair that she is unlikely to survive as a member of the Labour Party. Tellingly, on the question of Muslims, those who have rebuked their colleagues, health minister Patricia Hewitt and deputy prime minister John Prescott, are not candidates for top jobs.

Second, Labour strategists are well aware of an important law in politics. This is that come election time, a government at the end of its third consecutive term will not be popular. After three Labour terms, Conservative voters who switched to Labour and the Liberal Democrats will want to switch back.

In addition, Labour also knows that its foreign policies will have estranged it from many in its domestic Muslim voter-bank. One group, however, may hold the key to its fortunes. These are the poorest white working-class voters. With David Cameron's Conservatives having moved to the left, it will not have escaped the notice of Labour number-crunchers that a few shrill words aimed at Muslims will play nicely to a marginalised constituency that needs help with adapting to multi-ethnic Britain.

This at least is the view of the journalist Peter Oborne, writing in the Daily Mail. He thinks that the government is engaging in a cynical attempt by an unpopular party to cling to power. If true, then this certainly can be seen as an abuse of democratic privilege. If true, it could also be seen as an example that deep down this government sees Muslims as subjects rather than citizens. You can tell a subject where he should live, how he should dress, or which schools he should send his children to. Yet one of the benefits of being a citizen in a mature democracy is that each of these is a matter of free choice.

But there is one difference, and it is an important one. For all the ministerial lectures about dress and integration, Britain in 2006 is not Britain in 1976 and certainly not British-India in 1946. As they contemplate their futures, ministers should be satisfied that their period in government has seen more young people from minority communities enter further and higher education. United Kingdom-based charities set up by British Muslims are global players. London today is among the hubs for an Islamic finance industry estimated to be close to £300 billion. With their diverse populations, cities such as Birmingham and London regularly host study-tours for civil servants and elected officials from other large urban centres.

None of this would have been possible without trust, without friendship, collaboration and the resulting innovation between Britons of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, between Britons of faith and of no faith, between NGOs and industry, between a state and its citizens.

Both Gordon Brown and his transition team, and the Conservatives, will no doubt have learned much from these and other experiences. If they are smart, they will build on this legacy of innovation. If they are foolish, ministers will continue to discard the hard-won achievements of the past decade and more, along with the trust that is so important for representative political institutions to remain relevant and credible to present and future generations.


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