Muslims are trying to integrate, despite New Labour's best efforts
The latest Government proposals to resolve the problems of extremism by encouraging integration into British society are flawed and disingenuous. Not only are they predicated on a wrong understanding on the sources of extremism, repeating Blair's view that Muslims have no legitimate grievances against the West, they also are not ultimately geared towards the promotion and enhancement of civic-mindedness amongst Muslims.
Citizenship is an important institution that forms the basis of community and occupies a place at the heart of democracy. New Labour has claimed that large sections of the Muslim community have failed to embrace this normative ideal of rights, responsibilities, social values and a stake in society. Muslims, say Ruth Kelly and others, have willingly isolated themselves from the rest of British society and thus created an atmosphere ripe for disaffection. Out of this segregation, the Government says that complaints against the West have been forged, and preachers of hate have instilled in impressionable young minds a deep-seated hostility for Britain, occasionally seizing on what the Government euphemistically calls "tensions in the Middle East" to bolster their scripturally-based arguments on the inevitability and appeal of conflict between peoples.
Apart from the obvious assumption here that Muslim youth are little short of imbeciles, with no independent capability of reasoning, ripe for exploitation by preachers to whom we are expected to believe they stand in servile relationship to, there is a lot else which is erroneous in this analysis.
Firstly, and most importantly, it is not true that Britain's Muslims have eschewed participation in the political process in favour of hermetical insularity and apathy. This certainly was the case with much of the first generation of Muslim immigrants into Britain, where taking part in public affairs was difficult with painful memories of how often political involvement in their countries of origin led to sudden tragedy, and compounded by settling into a new country where racism was legally sanctioned, and possessing a lack of fluency in English. For the elders, citizenship meant little more than the mere possession of a prized passport and the paying of taxes.
Younger Muslims do not posses this baggage, however, and many have become energetic players in the political process. They have begun to see the normative, rather than merely bureaucratic, conception of what it means to be a good British citizen. The extent of this interest was revealed by the recent Pew survey of global attitudes.
In spite of the actions of New Labour, whose participation in foreign crusades and targeting of the domestic Muslim community has led to the dissatisfaction that we have heard and seen so much of, Muslims have taken a lead role in civil society groups and institutions. Muslims have helped establish and participated in voluntary organisations, anti imperialist associations such as the Stop the War coalition, media monitoring and pressure groups like the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, and charitable bodies which help the needy at home and abroad.
A salient manifestation of the growing influence of Muslims was the removal of Jack Straw from Foreign Secretary. It has been said that Blair's decision to replace him was the result of pressure from American policymakers who were concerned that Straw was increasingly susceptible to Muslim opinion in his constituency, which was demonstrated by a successful campaign from local Muslims to stop Straw from enjoying a photo opportunity with Condoleeza Rice in a Blackburn Mosque.
As a consequence of involving themselves in such popular groupings, which often involve close interaction and collaboration with non-Muslims, including such diverse souls as anarchists, Trade Unionists and liberals, the Muslim youth have demonstrated a willing desire for cohesion with our society. Muslims have learnt a great deal from these associations, and in many cases have attempted to incorporate aspects of the obvious wisdom of other cultures and ideologies into their own values. This they have understood to be consistent with Islam's being an all-embracing religion.
New Labour's response to the development of such extensive and progressive anti-imperialist fronts in which Muslims play a lead role has, however, been categorically contemptuous and subversive. Rather than nurture the involvement of British Muslims in political life, the Government has systematically sought to undercut and destabilise nascent associations and movements by driving a wedge between them and Muslims.
George Galloway, who has defended the rights and interests of the Muslim community and has succeeded in mobilising Muslim support against the Government's policies within the anti war movement and within his own political party, is a particular target. He He has had to suffer the worst molestations of the New Labour machine. Muslims have been warned to stay away from this 'maverick'. Government apparatchiks have even informed us that his televised feline behaviour earlier this year is in contravention of all Islamic standards of decency. Precisely why Galloway should be subject to the precise Islamic Laws which apparently proscribe the wearing of animalesque attire is unknown, but New Labour's paternalistic version of 'Islam' is not a tolerant creed: all who dissent must obey it, whether or not they like it.
With the all talk of the dangers of being influenced by extremism, one should take stock of the moral compass of a Government keen to impose its own normative conception of what a good British citizen ought to be: one that calumniates a decent politician for innocuously joking around on television, invoking doctrinaire religious laws concerning suitable attire that the Taleban may once have been proud of, yet positively advocates the exploitation of countries not as powerful as our own.
Legislation ostensibly passed to end terrorism is actually being used to silence and criminalise actual and possible Muslim political dissent. There is a precedent here: during the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, Governments enacted laws which ensured that the Irish community stayed out of politics, since its attitudes to British dominion in the Six Counties were at variance with official policy. These too were peddled as being part of a battle between terror and democracy.
Some commentators have expressed disappointment that the latest proposals have avoided Muslim schools, claiming that they are a further source of alienation. Yet, the attacks on 'faith schools' fail to appreciate that they represent symptom of the problem, rather than any cause. With hatred of Islam making life intolerable for Muslims, with children harassed at school and Muslims in higher education being subjected to increased suspicion and placed under surveillance, is it any wonder that more and more Muslim parents are favouring Muslim-only educational institutional establishments for their children?
Last month, before the latest proposals, Kelly praised Britain's Hindu population as a model of integration. The major reason for this is that, fortunately, Hindus in Britain do not face the same level of hostility endured by Muslims on a daily basis, nor are their co-religionists subjected to the same ruinous costs of Western foreign policy that the Muslim world has had to endure.
Nor is it correct to consider, as many commentators have, that the organisation of some Muslims or any other minority in their own clique-groups is necessarily a sign of an anti-democratic tendency or of distaste for mainstream society. The foundations of this style of organisation often stem from a perceived need to preserve a minority community from disintegration, and the fear of persecution. Under onerous conditions, a community, like a biological organism, can begin to see 'the outside' as a source of dissolution and a threat to its existence. Consequently, its assessesments are devised in terms of the contribution to the life-value of the corporate whole, rather than in any normative way. The key is to the remove such conditions, rather than curse their products.
A functioning democracy requires of necessity the enthusiastic participation and involvement of all communities in the political process, whatever views they hold on the policies of the party currently in power. By contrast, the Government wishes Muslim to integrate into British society only if they are to hold viewpoints considered acceptable. Otherwise, New Labour would seem to prefer apolitical and humble Muslims, who behave with all the colonial subservience of our parents who never considered this country their home. The 'shall we risk leaving them as they are or shall we risk bringing them into the fold' represents the ongoing and tormenting dilemma for New Labour's 'Muslim policy'.
But the younger Muslim generation, unseduced by the trinkets of tokenistic and false power, is busy working to ensure that a time is coming when Blair's successors approach our community with the respect due to us as equal members of British society, rather than as minions to be condescendingly spoken on behalf of.
For the time being, however, who can blame some sections of the Muslim community if they, lacking in the means or knowledge to become full citizens, opt for isolation over integration on the Government's terms?
Nasser Amin is 25 years old and a writer and broadcaster on Muslim affairs. He is a postgraduate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Britain. Comment may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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