This is an article that appeared in the latest edition of Progress’s magazine.
The holy month of Ramadan may have prevented all good Muslims from literally choking on their cornflakes at it, but last Monday’s news that Ruth Kelly was meeting local authority leaders to urge them to detect and root out Islamic radicals in their areas has certainly raised eyebrows.
It’s important to point out that with its high degree of internal diversity there is no singular “British Muslim community”. By the same token it is facile and erroneous to claim that the New Labour government has systematically attacked all things Islamic since as some do. State-funded faith schools, the repeal of the detested primary purpose rule and the law against incitement to religious hatred are nothing if not Muslim friendly policies. Other general improvements and increased spending in public services have benefited people of all faiths and none: Yet there is a real danger that worthy acts at home are cancelled out by government action abroad in Muslim eyes: the general election result in Bethnal Green and Bow seems a clear illustration of this where after 8 years service Oona King lost out to George Galloway in battle that declined into a single-issue contest.
Foreign policy alone cannot explain the emergence of British born suburban suicide bombers but it is an undeniable contributory factor. There is a sense that civil liberties are being trampled all over under the flimsy pretext of the war against terror while other genuine socio-economic concerns are overshadowed. Taken in conjunction with the fact that Muslims frequently feature disproportionately in multiple indexes of deprivation, surely Monday’s pronouncements and ministerial comments of recent weeks on the vexed veil question only add fuel to the fire of those who almost revel in a pervasive victim culture, forever asserting that Bangladeshis are at the bottom of the heap and that it is open season on Muslims. Out of context religious quotations are further ingredients in this heady (obviously halal) cocktail.
We have always comforted ourselves with the claim that the UK has generally had a comparably good record on race relations – unlike say France where Jean Marie Le Pen was runner-up in the last Presidential election. However recent events have been a rude awakening. Readers who remember Derek Beacon’s Isle of Dogs victory will know that the BNP (British National Party not Bangladesh NP) have made inroads in Tower Hamlets in the past. Thankfully they were seen off from the borough over a decade ago however despite the colourful multicultural imagery surrounding the 2012 Olympics bid, in the next door borough to where the main site is (Barking and Dagenham), the BNP are the main council opposition party, peddling the politics of hatred and division. Extremism is not just a Muslim thing.
Crucially there is a silent moderate Muslim majority out there who balk at constant associations of us with terrorism, extremism and deprivation. We’re not the class of professional organised Muslims who speak fluently about Palestine and Iraq without knowing the price of a cup of tea in Brick Lane. We are not the vociferous sorts who barrack John Reid and John Humphries. We are Muslims but not exclusively so. I’m second generation Bengali. My parents came halfway round the world to build a better tomorrow for their future family not to construct an Islamic sharia state in the UK. Diversity brings complexity requiring sensitivity. My fear is that this week’s wide-ranging announcements – including even the direction for lecturers to undertake surveillance of their students and dob them in if necessary in a cones-hotline style manner – could be counterproductive.
It has recently become fashionable to dismiss the notion of multiculturalism yet this doctrine contained much that was positive. Cultural distinctiveness is an enormously enriching feature of this country but creating unevenness and exclusionary practices is plain wrong. Community cohesion needs to establish itself as more than just an exercise in new labels for the same old jars and stress cohesion within as well as between communities: the veil to my mind conversely creates divisions amongst Muslim women.
For separating out harder traditional Home Office matters like law enforcement and prisons matters from the sensitive stuff, the creation of the Department for Communities and Local Government is most welcome but I’m unsure of the mixed messages it has conveyed to date. New Labour Mark 1 was accused by detractors of being about government by focus group. Today task forces and forums are all the rage. Then again the meeting in question was behind closed doors so we don’t know what really went on. Don’t get me started on that one though. Surely that’s another article for another day.
Dr Rupa Huq is author of the book Beyond Subculture (published by Routledge, 2006). She is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Kingston University