Why the extremism taskforce will fail

Blair is naive to imagine that moderate Muslim institutions can soothe the breasts of disgruntled youth.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

A meeting of British Muslim leaders at Number 10 has agreed to establish a taskforce to confront extremism. Prime minister Tony Blair explained his reasoning: ‘They will be people who are going to be supported by the rest of us but from the community, able to talk to the Muslim community and confront this evil ideology.’ (1)

That is rather like telling the local vicar (or local MP, for that matter) to go and win over the angry young white boys in his community. Muslim leaders have no more connection with troubled Muslim youth than Blair and his ilk do with white tearaways. In the words of Zaki Badawi, head of the Muslim College: ‘we do not have access to them.’ The head of the Muslim Parliament, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, judges that ‘most mosques are not equipped to deal with young people…. Our mosques are largely tribal and controlled by old men-on-the-dole with no understanding of the changing world around them’ (2).

Blair’s notion that moderate Muslims could defeat fundamentalism by ‘[taking] it on and [defeating] it by the force of reason’ is naïve in the extreme. As if this were a matter of theological argument, and moderate Imams just had to pick out the peace-loving quotes from the Koran for the young to fall in line. Inayat Bunglawala from the Muslim Council of Britain tells me that: ‘It must not be thought that the Muslim community has a magic wand that can eradicate terrorism.’ He notes that extremism is largely disconnected from the mosque-family network: ‘It’s all underground, in people’s homes. There are some radical preachers in mosques, but I’m not aware that they [terrorists] learnt their trade in mosques.’

Moderate Muslim organisations have been condemning terrorism and preaching about the virtues of peace and tolerance for the past few years, but it hasn’t made the blindest bit of difference. In September 2004, the Muslim Council of Britain sent a pocket handbook to every Muslim household in Britain called ‘Know Your Rights and Responsibilities’, informing them that it was an ‘Islamic imperative’ to avert a terrorist attack (3). Would this really have made any would-be bombers think twice?

After the London bombs, moderate Muslim organisations lined up to criticise terrorism – which is likely to have been similarly ineffective. A meeting of over 40 Islamic scholars and leaders organised by the Muslim Council of Britain produced a statement condemning the attacks as ‘absolutely un-Islamic’, and saying that it was ‘an obligation under the faith of Islam’ to ‘help the authorities with any information that may lead to the planners of last week’s atrocity being brought to justice’ (4). Representatives from the 500-strong British Muslim Forum stood outside Parliament and issued a fatwa in response to the bombs, saying that suicide attacks were ‘vehemently prohibited’ (5). The organisation’s secretary general read out that much-quoted bit of the Koran: ‘Whoever kills a human being…then it is as though he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a human life it is as though he had saved all mankind.’

These organisations can’t deal with the fundamentalist problem, no matter how many fatwas they issue or relevant quotes they find in the Koran. This isn’t because of Muslim leaders’ unique failings, or because they have wantonly discarded their youth. Instead, it has more to do with the fact that these groups are products of Blairite times. Theirs is a ‘third way’ brand of Islam, intimately tied to officialdom – which is likely to prove about as attractive for young Muslim hotheads as New Labour’s third way is for young white Britons.

British Muslim organisations have always been coloured by their times, and their ties with the British state. In the early twentieth century, nascent Muslim groups allied with the values of empire and Britishness. The Churchill war cabinet bequeathed the site for a central London mosque in 1940, at a cost of £100,000; and the Islamic Cultural Centre was formed in a similar spirit in 1944. The London Central Mosque was eventually opened by King George VI, and was ‘intended as a tribute to the thousands of Indian Muslim soldiers who died defending the British empire’ (6). Another generation of organisations were founded in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and tended to be based on the values of the welfare state – improving educational and health facilities, for example – as well as connections with the traditional Labour Party machine.

Many of today’s mainstream Muslim organisations have their origins in the late 1990s, and grew up under the New Labour regime. Both the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) were formed in 1997, the year that Blair came to power. The MAB had a more tempestuous relationship with government over the Iraq war – the organisation was left out of Blair’s meeting this week, while MCB head Iqbal Sacranie was awarded a knighthood in June. But both have a similar approach towards influencing central authority. The MAB aims to build ‘cooperation and coordination’ with other institutions, and broaden the ‘scope of dialogue between the different cultures and faiths’. The MCB is an ‘inclusive body’ that emphasises ‘cooperation, consensus and unity’, and seeks to foster ‘better community relations and work for the good of society as a whole’.

These organisations’ take on Islam is recognisably New Labour – it is non-confrontational, promoting social inclusion and the respect of difference. The MCB’s statement after the attacks seemed to come close to a definition of third way Islam: ‘Islam is the middle path and the [Koran] designates Muslims as the ummatan wasata – the middle community. Any form of extremism is to be utterly and completely rejected. What we need, therefore, in our troubled world, more than ever before is to stick to the middle and balanced way of Islam.’ (7)

Subsidiary Muslim institutions tend to take a similar tack. The Muslim Welfare House in Finsbury Park, London, aims ‘to combat problems of anti-social behaviour and unhealthy lifestyles’ among the area’s young Muslims. The Muslim College makes an ‘explicit acknowledgement that international society is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-faith’, and seeks to teach students as ‘active contributors as well as learners’. The trajectory of the Muslim Parliament is significant here: it started out in 1992 pledging to build ‘separately and distinctly Islamic institutions’, but switched its tack in 1996, to a ‘more consensual, pragmatic modus operandi’, which included campaigning around environmental issues (8).

Some Muslim groups work closely with government, and even receive government project funding. The MCB tells me that it received £140,000 to publicise the impact of the government’s religious discrimination legislation; the Islamic Human Rights Commission is currently advertising positions in its ‘British Muslims’ Expectations of the Government Project’, due to start in September 2005. The Muslim Safety Forum, an alliance of groups including the MAB and the Muslim Parliament, meets regularly with police and government representatives. They have no government funding at present – but their chair Azad Ali says that they are ‘raising this with the Home Office. We don’t want to be funded by them, but infrastructure is needed’.

The more pressure the government puts on these groups, the more hotheaded youths are likely to go their own way. Promoting a bland, consensual model of Islam can only leave Muslim Britons feeling more dissatisfied and dislocated. This is a brand of religion that shies away from firm beliefs and shoves disagreements under the carpet – and indeed, has been partly responsible for the current alienation of Muslim youth. The director of the Muslim Parliament noted that: ‘Young people have drifted away either because they were banned to discuss controversial issues in the mosque or found nothing inspiring on offer there.’ (9) All this talk of cooperation and peace could make harebrained fundamentalist ideas seem substantial in comparison.

These groups’ government ties will also serve to discredit them. Moderate Muslim leaders are seen rubbing shoulders with Blair, and preaching that Allah wants young Muslims to call the anti-terrorist hotline if they suspect any of their mates. Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of the radical Muslim group al-Muhajiroun, observes that this is a big turn-off. ‘I believe co-operation with the British police would never ever prevent any action like this. The youth will leave us. The youth will see us, at that time, the voice, the eyes and the ears of the British government. The way to earn the heart of the British youth is by the divine text, to say God say it and … Mohammed say it, “Do not attack the people you live among.” Not to tell them, “Tony Blair say it, the law say it, don’t do so.”’ (10)

Blair’s order for Muslim organisations to keep their youth in line is a prime example of the British elite’s gutlessness. It just won’t face up to the source of the problem: that young Muslims feel alienated from mainstream British institutions. Instead, the issue is written off as a theological confusion, which only mosques can sort out. ‘Go on – tell them that Mohammed didn’t say that!’, is Blair’s message to the Imams. Passing the buck from the government of Britain to the Muslim Council of Britain is likely to increase young Muslims’ sense of grievance. Outside Finsbury Park mosque last night, one young man complained: ‘Everything is blamed on Muslims. But you can’t just point the finger; you have to try and understand.’

Inayat Bunglawala from the MCB notes that ‘the government calls on the Muslim community to engage in introspection, but it itself doesn’t engage in introspection’. Rather than twist Sir Iqbal Sacranie’s arm, it might be better for the government to look closer to home.

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Topics Politics


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