Government demonises Muslims as extremists
'Extremist' is being redefined to mean any Muslim who opposes British foreign policy. Eddie Ford looks at the revamped 'Prevent' strategy and the left's knee-jerk response
Last year, the government launched a review into the so-called ‘Prevent’ strategy, to be overseen by Lord Carlile of Berriew. Initiated by the New Labour government, the idea of Prevent in 2007 was to draw in respectable, non-violent Muslim organisations back into the fold. Muslims, and their many and varied organisations, had been by tradition prone to support the Labour Party in elections. But they had been deeply alienated by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the so-called ‘war on terror’. Many turned to the Liberal Democrats. Not a few turned to the left and George Galloway’s Respect party.
Over the four years that Prevent has been in operation, more than 1,000 projects have received Prevent funding. That includes Muslim umbrella groups, think tanks, sports associations, conferences, etc. The notion being that not only would the government make friends and influence people. Respectable Muslims would be empowered, as against Muslims who excused or advocated terrorism (and once again, though it was never made explicit, support Labour).
Lord Carlile, a Liberal Democrat peer, was never going to look kindly on this agenda. No surprise then, his review of Prevent found that the strategy was “flawed”. It “confused” the delivery of government policy to “promote integration” with government policy to “prevent terrorism”. He concluded that Prevent therefore “failed to tackle the extremist ideology” at “the heart of the threat we face,” and in trying to reach those at “risk of radicalisation, funding sometimes even reached the very extremist organisations that Prevent should have been confronting”.
A gift for home secretary Theresa May. On June 7 she announced an overhaul of the Prevent strategy to parliament. Not only is the budget going to be slashed - from £63 a year to £46 million. Her “radically different strategy” is designed to “challenge extremist ideology” head on in order to “protect” institutions and vulnerable people. And, of course, what commentators have noted in particular is May’s redefinition of ‘extremist’. It turns out to be any Muslim who does not support “mainstream British values”. Or, to put it another way, the government will cast into the wilderness those Muslim organisations and groups that conform to the new definition of ‘extremism’ - which is now regarded as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”, and also “calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas”.
The origins of this turn can be found in David Cameron’s speech at an international security conference in Munich back in February. It marked a sea-change in the governmental approach to domestic “Islamist extremism” and multiculturalism in general. From now on, he asserted, the government must “confront” those groups that do not subscribe to British or “western values” - which he defined as “freedom of speech”, “democracy”, the “rule of law”, “equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality”, and so on.
In particular, he ventured, this meant challenging those “young dynamic leaders” who “promote separatism”, as opposed to “integration” - which they do so by “encouraging” Muslims to “define themselves solely in terms of their religion”. Indeed, Cameron argued, some organisations “seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community” and hence get “showered with public money” - yet do “little to combat extremism”. Cameron announced that the government “will no longer fund or share platforms with organisations that, while non-violent, are certainly in some cases part of the problem”.
Yes, just as one puff of cannabis inevitably escalates into heroin, so these “non-violent” groups “move along the spectrum” inhabited by the other, more violently-inclined groups - accepting “various parts of the extremist worldview”, such as a “real hostility towards western democracy” or the goal of an “entire Islamist realm governed by an interpretation of sharia”: here are the real roots of terrorism.
But if we are to “defeat this threat” of Islamist extremism, he declared, then “it’s time to turn the page on the failed policies of the past”. We need to confront “indiscriminate” Islamist terrorism and “the issues of identity that sustain it”. To this end, he bluntly declared that the “doctrine of state multiculturalism” had failed - it “encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream”. In other words, multiculturalism has acted to weaken and subvert a clear, collective, British cultural and national identity.
This redefinition of ‘extremist’ is now edging very close to anyone who strongly opposes British military aggression, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. Let alone anyone who suggests, whether a Muslim or not, that oppressed peoples have the right to resist imperialist occupation. However, it goes without saying that “calls for the death” of those doing the resisting - or actually killing them - is not extremist in the slightest. On the other hand, according to the new Prevent redefinition and strategy (and the sentiments expressed by Cameron), to even debate with any group or individual labelled an ‘extremist’ can now mean that you too get stigmatised in the same way - after all, are you not giving them the oxygen of publicity?
No wonder that, by all accounts, there was a fierce battle within the cabinet - it being argued, not without reason, that the new policy was short-sighted and self-defeating. In the words of Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat energy secretary, the revamped Prevent programme “alienates and marginalises Muslim communities” and “exacerbates racist bias and ignorant views” - not to mention that it has “just prevented a practical solution to tackling violent extremism”. But the Michael Gove-Theresa May ‘tendency’ won the day and hence it is full steam ahead.
Meanwhile, ministers are waiting for a report from a universities working group, which has been in preparation for a year, on how to “prevent the radicalisation of students” on campuses. The working group panel includes eight vice-chancellors and was established in response to the arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (ie, the ‘underwear bomber’) in the United States for attempting to detonate plastic explosives hidden while on board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25 2009. Abdulmutallab, of course, studied at University College London between 2005 and 2008. The report is expected to call for “greater rigour” in the selection of speakers and stronger “monitoring” of religious societies. When the government receives this report, they will use it to decide which student Muslim societies should be banned.
At a stroke, ‘respectable’ Muslim groups have become ‘extremist’ almost overnight - including the Muslim Council of Britain, which is by far the largest umbrella Muslim organisation in Britain (receiving £550,985 over a period of three years by the department of communities and local government). The MCB’s secretary general from 1997 to 2006 was Iqbal Sacranie, who in 2005 was awarded a knighthood for his “longstanding service to the community” and “inter-faith dialogue”. Farooq Murad, the current secretary general, is a former management and training consultant, who was chair of the charity Muslim Aid from 2004 to 2008. Despite all that though, we can only presume that they are both beyond the pale now.
Naturally, the rightwing tabloid press is cock-a-hoop about the recent developments. So the Daily Mail ran the headline, ‘Islamist hatemongers funded by the taxpayer’. Melanie ‘Mad Mel’ Phillips, needless to say, could not resist crowing about the new government line on multiculturalism and Islamic extremism - triumphantly writing that ministers have “finally admitted what I revealed in my book, Londonistan, back in 2006 and have written many times since then”: which is, “incredible as it may seem”, that “hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money that was supposed to be spent on countering Islamic extremism has gone to groups or individuals actually promoting Islamic extremism”. Why? Because the previous Labour government, the intelligence agencies, police, universities, etc were all “paralysed by political correctness” and hence fixated on the notion that “promoting ‘moderate’ Muslims” would undermine ‘extremist’ Muslims - the liberal fools. If only they had listened to Phillips earlier.
With relish, Phillips lists those Muslim groups that she says are ‘extremist’. There is the MCB, of course; the Cordoba Foundation, which was founded by Anas Altikriti, former president of the Muslim Association of Britain; the Islamic Foundation, set up by members of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami opposition party; iEngage, the all-party parliamentary group on Islamophobia; the Street Project, run by Abdul Haqq Baker, the chairman of the Brixton Mosque and Islamic Cultural Centre; Birmingham’s Green Lane and Central mosques; Global Peace and Unity, an annual Muslim gathering which the Metropolitan Police had sponsored to the tune of £26,500, and doubtlessly there are numerous other Muslim organisations which could be added to Phillips’ ‘hate list’.
Predictably, the Pavlovian response of many on the left is to issue militant calls for the defence of multiculturalism - the automatic assumption being that anti-racism and multiculturalism are synonymous. The most notable, or notorious, example being the Socialist Workers Party, which in the latest issue of Socialist Worker not only urges us to “defend multiculturalism”, but also informs us that the SWP is “producing a book, Defending multiculturalism, to help in the fight to defend Muslims and our multicultural way of life”. Though we can, of course, understand such a gut reaction from the comrades, even sympathise with it up to a certain point, we think it is profoundly mistaken.
Unfortunately, the SWP - typically of most on the left - like to portray multiculturalism in an almost entirely positive light. In this narrative, multiculturalism is a straightforwardly progressive manifestation of anti-racism - a progressive gain wrested from an institutionally racist British establishment. This ignores the concrete political origins of state multiculturalism, and the fundamental role it played in the construction of a rearticulated national chauvinism that appropriated, or mimicked, the language and ideology of anti-racism.
In reality, state multiculturalism - in the shape of ‘support’ for ethnic minorities on a ‘community by community’ basis - only came to fruition as a coherent and systematic, state-sponsored programme under the Thatcher government, as a response to the ‘race riots’ of the early 1980s, when there was near insurrection on the streets of Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, Handsworth, etc. In that sense, ‘full’ multiculturalism was an emergency measure undertaken by a visibly panicked ruling class - a rather ironic twist of fate, you could argue, given that Thatcher virtually annihilated the National Front’s political/electoral basis by essentially coopting large elements of its anti-immigration rhetoric.
So we saw her government hand out relatively substantial amounts of cash via local authorities to assorted ‘cultural projects’, which had a recognisable and officially identifiable ‘racial’ or ethnic-minority origin (please tick the appropriate box). This emergent ‘equal opportunities’ policy amounted to support for - or bribery of - various religious/faith groups and other petty-patriarchal power structures specific to a ‘community’. By incentivising what later became known as ‘identity politics’, the power of the church and mosque duly expanded - the result being that the often highly politicised street gangs and Asian youth movements of the time, which had a distinctly working class orientation, eventually withered and died. Instead of class politics, the ethnic/religious projects came to dominate.
From this perspective, as opposed to the self-serving and opportunist fantasies of the SWP et al, multiculturalism had a profoundly anti-democratic and disempowering effect - heading off nascent political movements that could pose a genuine challenge to the state, at least potentially, and turning us all into state supplicants; all competing for whatever hand-outs that seemed to be going. Even more to the point, bourgeois or institutionalised anti-racism stressed an imaginary commonality - whether it was the Smiths, Singhs or Patels, we were all British now. And fed a mythologised history, where World War II represented a noble democratic crusade against the unBritish values of fascism and Nazism.
Of course, having said that, communists recognise that multiculturalism was an advance over the naked, unrestrained racism that preceded it - the fictional Alf Garnett being the embodiment of old, imperial, bigoted Britain. Yet it was a contradictory advance, as ultimately multiculturalism was a bourgeois phenomenon - an ‘anti-racism’ cut to measure for capitalist rule and which, though it made nods in the direction of unity, served primarily to divide us sectionally: forcing black, Asian, Muslim, etc workers deep into the arms of their ‘own’ exploiters. However, the establishment majority consensus around multiculturalism has long since broken down. But the answer to this is not to look back to yesterday’s ‘solution’ - which in the last analysis leaves us tailing the bourgeoisie and their ideological agenda.
No, rather than “defending multiculturalism”, as the SWP comrades exhort us to do, we need to go onto the attack - pushing our own revolutionary, independent, working class politics. One that is not afraid to point the finger at the Tory Party when it comes to the charge of ‘extremism’. Is this not a party that cheerfully went into the 2001 general election still committed to the odious section 28 - a piece of legislation that existed purely to discriminate against gays? Or what about the Tory Party’s allies in the European parliament, who are not the Christian Democrats, but rather the far right? When viewed in this light, the Tory Party is no collection of ‘moderates’, but more akin to the Front National in France - a rightwing, bigoted party.
- Daily Mail June 8.
- Socialist Worker June 18.