Stop pandering to Muslims
UK government initiatives to 'deal with' younger Muslims only leave them feeling more alienated from political life.
Ruth Kelly, the UK secretary of state for communities and local government, has announced yet another scheme to help tackle extremism in Britain’s Muslim communities – a £600,000 faith unit within the Charity Commission to help ‘moderate Muslims’ strengthen governance and leadership in mosques. Mandarins at her department seem to generate a new project to tackle extremism every few months, each one looking strikingly similar to the last. In July 2005 we had the ‘Preventing Extremism Together Taskforce’; then in October 2005, the government called for a new imam national advisory council to train religious leaders to engage with younger Muslims. In February this year, it was announced that £5million will be spent on funding projects in areas around the UK, to…well, engage with young Muslims.
Although these schemes are announced with great fanfare, they seem to vanish soon afterwards, only to be followed by yet another one. Part of the problem is impatience – the government wants quick results and is disappointed when its favoured religious allies are not delivering overnight success in the battle for hearts and minds. There is clearly frustration that mosques are not living up to their promise to deal with their young.
Of course, they are deluding themselves if they believe that ‘moderate’ imams, with their old-fashioned, largely apolitical sermons, will have any greater success just because they speak English. It is precisely the promise of an otherworldly ‘radical’ (albeit nihilistic) vision that attracts young people to Islamic extremism, rather than a strong adherence to Islam itself. The leader of the London bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan, did not go to his local mosque but to another – the Tablighi Jamaat mosque in West Dewsbury – where he could get his extremist fix. Whilst a lukewarm, anglicised version of Islam, sponsored by the government, might pull in some young people, it may well compound the cynicism of those who see traditional mosque elders as tools for colonial rule.
Even less convincing is the aim of this new unit to get more women into mosques in the hope that they will diffuse radical views. Surveys show that of the regular six to seven per cent of Muslims who express support for acts of terrorism, over half of these are usually women. If the government looked at the website of MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Committee), the most vocal advocates of female prayer space in mosques, they will see that their views are not exactly simpatico. Some forms of contemporary Islamic feminism are perfectly compatible with radical views. That is certainly not an excuse to hold women back from mosques, just a caution to Ruth Kelly that Muslim girls are not necessarily the meek, mild-mannered types that will do her work for her.
Ultimately, the reliance on ‘the Muslim community’ to manage the identity crisis amongst young Muslims is part of the problem. As long as mainstream political leaders view young Muslims as a troubled group outside of British society – to be outsourced to somebody else – the more they will find young people feel alienated from them. Like most people of their generation, young Muslims are confused about their identity and looking for a political vision to adhere to. Political parties need not fear this if they believe they have a political vision of their own to sell. But lacking confidence in their own ideas (if they have any at all), politicians have come to regard young Muslims as immovable; a group that is ‘at risk’ and needs to be managed by carrots and sticks – give them jobs, give them youth centres, give them Arabic lessons. The message seems to be: ‘Let’s send some nicer ones in to sort out the rotten few.’
Not only does this strategy usually backfire (the ‘nicer ones’ turn out to whine just as much to the government, and struggle to guarantee their own grassroots support), it sends the message to young Muslims that ‘we can’t deal with you’. In the eyes of mainstream politicians, places like West Dewsbury, Beeston and Keighley must seem like Mecca – only Muslims are allowed to enter. No wonder younger Muslims think that politicians are spineless and disinterested. They do not even dare to look them in the eye and tell them they have a better alternative in their own parties. Hysterical mullahs have managed to win some hearts and minds because there wasn’t even a contest.
Paradoxically, being at the centre of attention with these endless schemes makes Muslims feel under even more pressure and scrutiny. Add to this the fears over counter-terrorism measures, and there is very little the government can do that will reverse the tide of distrust. Whilst the majority of Muslims will never be driven into the arms of extremists, they will be driven away from political life.
Although it seems counterintuitive, the way to ‘deal’ with young Muslims may well be to stop ‘dealing’ with them. The short-term, obsessive focus on them seems to be precisely the thing that alienates them even further. A long-term focus on politics elsewhere might at least remind them that Islamism is not the only game in town.
Munira Mirza is a writer and researcher based in London, and a co-founder of the Manifesto Club.
Josie Appleton suggested that the extremism taskforce would fail, and argued that young women who wear niqab have much in common with ‘hoodies’. Munira Mirza wrote that ‘homegrown’ terrorism is shaped by Western self-loathing not religious sects. Brendan O’Neill observed that the 7 July attacks in London were very British bombings. Or see spiked-issue, Race.
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