UK Muslims Need a Political, Not a Security, Strategy
The ruling Labour party in the UK seems set, if the opinion polls are to be believed, to either lose the upcoming election to the centre-right Conservatives, or to continue weakened in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Muslims across the world are watching closely, as well they should.
The Tories will be quick to point out that while it was under a Conservative government that Kuwait was liberated, it was under a Labour government that Iraq was invaded. Labour could just as quickly argue that the Conservatives have traditionally been more pro-Israel than Labour, and that it was under Labour that a Muslim population in Kosovo was saved from Serbian aggression. In any case, they would argue, the Conservatives supported going to war in Iraq.
But a very particular part of the nebulous “Muslim world” will be interested in seeing how things turn out from another perspective altogether — that of Muslims who are British. That community will be looking closely to see how the election affects their community.
During the last 13 years of a Labour government, Muslim Britons have found themselves empowered in ways that did not exist before. Of course, a great deal of that is simply that the community “came of age” around the same time that Labour took office. But it is also important to note that as an opposition party of the “working class” (which generally included Muslims), Labour invested a great deal in building bridges with the Muslim community.
Under Labour, the community’s relationship with the state was also heavily influenced by security. In particular, notions of integration, community cohesion and citizenship all became linked to the idea of a security threat.
The last three years have seen the “securitisation” of the Muslim community, specifically through the government initiative Prevent, which sought to stop young Muslim Britons from being infected by the terrorist bug.”
There are a lot of good things to be said about Prevent. As deputy convener of the Home Office working group on tackling extremism in the aftermath of the July 7 bombings, I followed its development closely. But there were key flaws — the worst being that anything to do with British Muslims became intertwined with security.
The two main agendas for the Muslim community in the UK have to do with security and integration. And the two, through Prevent, were made indistinguishable. While that might have made practical sense at one point, it has caused a backlash. Recently, a committee of MPs conducted an inquiry into the success of the initiative, speaking with a variety of people both within and outside the Muslim community.
The overwhelming feeling was that Prevent had scored a home goal, as the Muslim community felt targeted as a whole. And when a community, or an individual for that matter, feels unfairly targeted, co-operation and progress is unlikely.
The committee urged that integration issues and security concerns be separated and managed by different parts of government altogether. If we view Muslims’ involvement in security discussions to be useful at all, it is hard to argue against their findings.
But we should also consider more broadly how the next government will deal with the Muslim community regardless of the committee’s recommendations. The Conservatives have already made it clear that they regard Prevent as deeply flawed because of the variety of activities it funds, so it is likely they will curb a lot of spending. That means that a lot of good work will probably just stop.
They have also made it clear that they will take a harder approach in terms of who they “as a government” would deal with. There is a risk that we may see civil liberties threatened and more Muslim organisations denounced, rather than brought into the discussion, under the pretext of preventing terrorism.
The reality is that the threat of terrorism does not come from those groups we know about from the pages of the more hysterical British tabloids — it is from groups that the mainstream media know nothing about.
On the optimistic side, the Conservatives have a long history of promoting the rule of law and maintaining a respect for civil liberties. In particular, the MP Dominic Grieve has shown a deep knowledge and respect for the law. We hope that history will guide how the Conservatives move on these issues.
On the other hand, other members of the party, including in the shadow cabinet, have displayed a rhetoric that could be severely damaging not just for Muslims, but Britons generally who uphold traditional values like the rule of law. These values must be remembered at all costs and not disregarded in challenging times, as members of both parties sometimes seem to be proposing.
Perhaps the most damaging element of a Conservative-led government would be within the Muslim community itself. For years, Muslims have built bridges with the left but not the right.
There are good practical reasons for that trend, but the result is that very few Muslims are involved in the Conservative Party — something that is likely to work against the community’s interests if the Tories are elected. Politics requires a long-term strategy which is not simply a knee-jerk response. It is a lesson that Muslims, not only in the UK, but across Europe, need to learn. Come to think of it, it is a lesson that the UK’s mainstream parties also have yet to learn.
Dr. HA Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and the Europe Fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding
This article was published at thenational.com on April 13, 2010 at www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100414/OPINION/704139954&SearchID=73398866580474