British Muslims: Active Players in UK Counterterrorism Efforts
Earlier this year British Prime Minister David Cameron criticised ”state multiculturalism” for encouraging people of different cultures, including Muslims, to live separate lives. While this does not in itself sound harmful, the speech went on to suggest that it was time for ”less passive tolerance” and ”more active, muscular liberalism” when dealing with extremism – either advertently or inadvertently linking extremism with culture. His target seemed to be community-based counterterrorism programmes, which he felt were accepting government funding but doing little to prevent extremism.
Community-based counterterrorism, however, has a proven track record in preventing terrorist incidents, with the communities themselves being the first to condemn criminal activity in their desire for peace. For example, Muslim communities in the United States have helped foil close to a third of Al Qaeda-related terror plots since 11 September 2001. Likewise in the UK, Muslim activists have worked for many years to cooperate with police, empowering their communities and helping shape the debate against extremism within them.
Rather than seeing British Islam as a political and security problem – undermining civil and religious liberties – the British government should view it instead in the context of diverse cultural expressions within its stated policy goal of promoting community cohesion. Much of Britain is profoundly ethnically segregated with different communities leading parallel lives, as Paul Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Youth and Community Work at the University of Huddersfield, notes in his 2010 article, “Failed and Friendless: The UK’s ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ Programme”.
Instead of winning hearts and minds, some government initiatives have led to a significant growth in surveillance of Muslim communities. It is deeply offensive to British Muslims to know their mosques are being spied upon by intelligence agents who consider Muslims the ”enemy”, which has the opposite effect of achieving social cohesion by focusing on Muslims and antagonising the very communities they are trying to win over.
One approach has been to fund new organisations and promote them as the voice of contemporary, mainstream British Islam. Successful community programmes, such as Channel – which works with at-risk youth – and those which prioritise work with Muslim women and children, may continue to be an effective alternative to isolation and disaffection amongst British Muslims.
A survey in 2009 on the attitudes of British Muslims showed they identified strongly with the UK and had a high regard for its institutions, including higher education. If this respect is to continue, then attention must be paid by the discerning public to the standard of contemporary scholarship regarding multiculturalism, which is not always academic or impartial, and the prevalence of harmful terminology in popular media and culture.
The British people are continually being warned about the threat of Islam, “Islamic extremism”, “Islamic radicalisation”, and the lack of cultural integration from a variety of sources: the media, right-wing think tanks and sometimes even the government. According to the University of Exeter’s European Muslim Research Centre, “these reductionist and populist portrayals of Muslims in Britain don’t do our society any credit. Politicians need to be braver – and reject cheap votes for real political engagement.”
Negative terminology is being steadily countered by work at many different levels. For example, cultural programmes, funded either directly or indirectly by the UK government, are empowering Muslim voices calling for understanding, integration and harmony through the Muslim press, Arabic-language television programmes, which at the same time are strengthening links with non-governmental organisations, and building religious and educational initiatives.
A positive sign of Muslim participation in political power is that the number of Muslim Members of Parliament in Britain continues to rise, with eight Muslims elected to the British Parliament in the 2010 election, including three women. For example, incumbent Shahid Malik, who lost his seat but remains an active participant in British-Muslim dialogue, has emphasised that the perpetrators of the June 2007 attack should be described by the media as “criminals”, not “Muslims”. It is this important distinction and its accompanying attitude that must be encouraged as the British government moves to defuse the Islamophobic undertones of the debate on multiculturalism and violent extremism.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a fellow and member of the board of directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and world fellow at Yale.
This article was published in Common Ground News Service on November 15, 2011.