Value-free Britain

Why the contemporary virtues of multiculturalism and respect fail to claim the allegiance of Muslim youth.

Josie Appleton

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The alleged deaths of three British Muslim men on the wrong side of the lines in Afghanistan sparked a flood of anxiety about the alienation of Muslim youth. We have heard the stories of angry young men from Luton, Dagenham and Leicester – who say that their first loyalty is to Islam, not Britain. Their religion is apparently the only allegiance they are prepared to die for.

Add this to the fact that evidence suggests that the 11 September hijackers were radicalised, not in Afghanistan or Gaza but in the West, and there are the ingredients for a full-scale self-examination of Western society. How is it that we are creating fundamentalists?

The launch of Islam Awareness Week in the UK on 5 November aimed to defuse these questions. Islamic activist Sarah Joseph said that: ‘I have never felt there is a conflict between me as a Briton and me as a Muslim.’ Secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain Yousuf Bhailok reminded us that Islam means ‘peace’, and that ‘Islam always promotes the middle path’. The Pledge to British Muslims at the launch stated that ‘the unity with which all communities in Britain have responded [to 11 September] shows we have a strength in our diversity’. Many speakers attacked the misrepresentation of Islamic opinion in the press. But such PR exercises fail to engage with the underlying issues.

No doubt the traitorous exodus of Britons has been exaggerated, more likely to comprise a trickle than the ‘thousands’ claimed by the Islamic group Al-Muhajiroun. Three British men allegedly died in action, two more reported ‘missing in action’, and there have been published interviews with a handful more in Afghanistan or Pakistan – but some of these interviews were provided by the hardly impartial source of Al-Muhajiroun itself.

No doubt, too, the extreme opinions expressed by young men in Luton are not representative of a majority. A young British Muslim I spoke to in Brick Lane, east London, mocked one of the Luton radicals he had seen on TV: ‘just making a fool of himself – jihad, jihad, blah, blah, blah.’ When I asked a young Algerian refugee outside Finsbury Park mosque in north London if he would fight for the Taliban, he looked at me as if I was crazy: ‘No!’ These are not the kind of interviews that usually get published.

The extent of militant Muslim protest against the war against terrorism has been consistently exaggerated – from the inflation of the significance of riots in the East and Middle East, to the paranoia about the effect of Osama bin Laden’s propaganda (1). As Mick Hume has argued before on spiked, this is the consequence of Western anxiety and defeatism about the war, a war that Western elites seem unable to justify or to feel confident of winning (2).

But there certainly is lot of Muslim opposition – which is only encouraged by the incoherence of the Western campaign. Papers have published interviews with young men in Britain saying they were ‘jealous’ of the dead martyrs, or that they were willing to fight British soldiers to defend their religion. The Asian radio station Sunrise ran a much-publicised survey of 500 Muslims in Greater London, which was reported on 30 October. While 98 percent would not fight for Britain, 48 percent said they would fight for bin Laden or for Islam. Despite UK prime ministers Tony Blair’s entreaties about the war ‘not being against Islam’, it seems that only nine percent believed him: 91 percent said that they believed the war was between the Christian West and Islam.

Many British Muslims do see the war in Afghanistan as an attack against Islam, and would be more willing to commit to defend their religion than their country.

Yet this says less about the power of Islam than it does about the inability of contemporary Western values to inspire or engage people. When in Oman, Blair made a speech to British soldiers about the strength of his values – but almost the only one he could name was tolerance. Many people responded to the attacks of 11 September by saying that we need to be more tolerant, more understanding of Islam. They said that 11 September happened because the Americans were too arrogant and ignored other countries and other religions. Tony Blair and President George W Bush have subsequently quoted the Koran and bent over backwards to show how much they respect Islam. Why hasn’t this won Muslims over?

Tolerance essentially means leaving other people alone, not imposing your beliefs on them. It is not the kind of value people unite behind – rather, it is a recognition of difference. Institutionalised in the form of multiculturalism, tolerance has fomented fragmentation in Western societies – and made immigrants into communities of exiles.

The multicultural policies implemented by many local councils in the UK since the 1980s are a case in point. Behind many of these policies lies the idea that there are various different cultural groups, each of with its own, distinctive way of life. The report by the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain in October 2000, written by 23 individuals and presented to then home secretary Jack Straw, found that the idea of Britishness had ‘systematic largely unspoken, racial connotations’, using instead the phrase ‘community of communities’ (3). The present government is proposing the creation of more religious schools, each with its own ‘distinctive ethos’ – the first voluntary aided Islamic secondary school for girls was opened in Bradford in September 2001 (4).

No doubt these policies were brought through with the best of anti-racist intentions. But, as illustrated by the recent candid report on race relations in Bradford by ex-head of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), Sir Herman Ouseley, the consequences have been dire (5). The Bradford report found a ‘virtual apartheid’ in secondary schools and ‘limited or non-existent interaction’ between different cultural groups.

Director of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation Ozdem Sanberk, writing in the UK Financial Times, criticised the ‘Bantustan’ attitude to Muslims – ‘the habit of seeing them as fundamentally different people who long for mutual agreement outside the mainstream of Western life’. The result, Sanberk argues, is that ‘Asian Muslims in Britain are too often locked outside the mainstream of society’ (6).

We have read many quotes from young men saying, ‘I am not a British Muslim. I am a Muslim who lives in Britain’. It is their religion that provides their identity – their country of residence, the place where they have been brought up, is seen simply as a fact of life. Their country demands nothing from them and they wouldn’t give anything to it.

Another (allegedly suppressed) report by Bradford council’s race relations chief from the 1980s, Graham Mahony, accused the council of being an ‘ostrich’ burying its head in the sand in the face of racial divides, and being afraid to stand up to the unreasonable demands of the Asian community (7).

The principle of tolerant multiculturalism leaves little basis for social sanction. Even with the evidence of Muslim men going to fight in Afghanistan, the Home Office drew back from confronting the issue, saying that treason ‘is probably not the most appropriate charge’. Writing in the Daily Mail, chairman of the Federation of Muslim Organisations of Leicester Manzoor Moghal is contemptuous of a Home Office that, ‘in the midst of war’, is ‘still frightened to act’ – ‘treason is exactly the right charge for those who join the enemies of Britain’ (8).

The main attempt to draw a line against Muslim extremism has been in arguments about the interpretation of the Koran. One BBC Radio 4 interviewer reprimanded a young Briton waiting to go into Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, saying that his willingness to fight was wrong in the eyes of Islam, which was peace loving. He understandably exploded. ‘I hate it when Westerners tell me what Islam means!’, he said, pointing out that he had been learning about the Muslim faith since he was a child.

While Tony Blair is unable to give his own justification for why Muslims should not fight the West, he instead engages in arguments about the correct interpretation of their sacred text. He sent a message to the launch of Islam Awareness Week on 5 November calling for ‘ignorance about that great faith’ to be ‘tackled’. Prince Charles made a vapid appeal at the London offices of Islamic Relief on 1 November, calling for a move away from the ‘ignorant certainties of bigotry’ and ‘towards a genuine attempt at mutual understanding and respect’.

Given that we live in a culture that self-consciously nurtures identity politics, is it any wonder that many Muslims are unenthusiastic about fighting the West’s war? Or that some British Muslims have even gone so far as to take up arms with the opposite side? A young Muslim in Brick Lane asked me: ‘What is terrorism? They never say what terrorism is. Terrorism is fighting for your beliefs. Fundamentalism is sticking to your principles.’ He poured scorn on the ‘stupid propaganda trick’ of dropping ‘lunchboxes’ on Afghanistan, laughed at the constant deliberations of the USA, and asked why the USA did not have the nerve to shoot down the hijacked planes, when ‘in Pakistan, a third world country, they can get a plane down in 10 minutes’. The equivocation of the West appears not virtuous but spineless – other sources of belief seem more substantial.

Talking to the young Muslim’s father, I was struck by the difference between the generations of Muslims. One of his father’s main concerns was the effect of the war on terrorism on the British economy – ‘the economy is going okay at the moment – this country cannot afford a war’. He was also worried about Tony Blair running around after Bush all the time: ‘Is Blair the subordinate to Bush?’, he asked. ‘Blair is degrading the dignity of this country.’

Dignity of this country? It seems that, for an earlier generation of Muslim immigrants, their religion was not so strong that it prevented them from identifying with Britain. If young British Muslims identify more with Islam than with their country, it is primarily because there is no longer much that is compelling about being British.

It is the failure of the West to defend its own core values or stand for anything much that makes UK Spectator editor Boris Johnson admire the young men from Luton who died in Afghanistan – ‘we should accept that there was something remarkable about their conviction’. He points out that Afghanistan in November is not a very nice place to be, and that these young men seemed at least prepared to put their lives on the line (9). By contrast, few of the US or British armed forces seem ready to commit to action.

Of course, this is not to say that all people who cannot fight for Britain should take their leave – I for one would be out on my ear. It is merely to point out the problems of a society without values that can hold it together.

Without any notion of the common good that demands something of young people, that calls them to commit to particular ideals, that gives them a stake in society, is it such a shock that some will seek their values in religious fundamentalism?

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

The fundamentalist question, by Josie Appleton

The bomber from Bromley, by Josie Appleton

Made in the USA?, by Josie Appleton

The trouble with multiculturalism, by Kenan Malik

Blair’s gospel of despair, by Michael Fitzpatrick

spiked-issue: After 11 September

spiked-issue: Race

(1) Worlds apart?, by Josie Appleton

(2) Oh, what a ‘wobbly’ war, by Mick Hume

(3) British tag is ‘coded racism’, Guardian, October 11 2000; See a summary of the Report on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain

(4) Alone and together, Guardian, 18 September 2001

(5) Community Pride Not Prejudice: Making diversity work in Bradford, presented to Bradford Vision by Sir Herman Ouseley, July 2001

(6) ‘A dangerous myth that distorts Islam’, FT, 19 September 2001

(7) Bradford ‘hid truth about racism’, Observer, 16 September 2001

(8) Daily Mail, 31 October 2001

(9) ‘They may be traitors, but it’s not their fault’, Daily Telegraph, 1 November 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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