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"Tackling the Islamists"

"Tackling the Islamists"

Categories: Latest News

Tuesday December 06 2011

The New Statesman follows up on the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong lead in the recent election in Egypt with a discussion piece on ‘Tackling the Islamists’.

The magazine posits the question, “Several British groups stand accused of acting as fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood. Should the state be willing to work with them?” and invites Bob Lambert and Maajid Nawaz to offer a response.

Bob Lambert, drawing on his book, Countering Al Qaeda in London, argues that his time as Head of the Muslim Contact Unit in the Metropolitan Police taught him a good many things about those casually labeled ‘Islamists’ and frequently derided as akin to the BNP.

Lambert writes:

“David Cameron, influenced by, among others, his Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has adopted the neocon argument that police forces and civil servants should not partner British groups or individuals associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and accuses them of being akin to the British National Party (BNP).

“I agree that the police should not, under any circumstances, partner the BNP with a view to “deradicalising” violent extremists in groups such as Combat 18. However, I have found no compelling evidence to convince me that my former Muslim Brotherhood partners are similar to the BNP, and much to refute the claim.

“Instead, I have found the overwhelming majority of Muslim Brotherhood figures in Britain to be similar in outlook to Rachid Ghannouchi, head of Ennahda, the Islamist party that was victorious in Tunisia’s elections last month. Having gone from a modest home in north London to the plush new headquarters of Ennahda and the levers of power in Tunis, Ghannouchi is a good example of the compatibility between the political ambitions of many British members and associates of the Muslim Brotherhood and democratic norms.”

Lambert’s views are borne out by successive surveys done gauging the attitudes of British Muslims to ‘Britishness’ and civic participation. Take the OSI survey of 2011 on Muslims in 11 EU cities which found that:

– Among Muslims surveyed in the seven countries, 61% have a strong sense of belonging to the country and 72% a strong sense of belonging to the city.

– The majority of Muslims eligible to vote did vote in local and national elections, over 70 per cent of all eligible Muslims surveyed voted in local and national elections

Or the recent Demos survey which found that more Muslims attested to pride in being a British citizen that the rest of the population, 83% compared to 79%.

A counter-view to the NS question is offered by Maajid Nawaz who claims the “Muslim question” has spawned the “good,” the “bad” and the “ugly”.

The “good” are those “patronising, self-righteous liberals, full of the very thing they riled against, colonial baggage – held that “the Muslim community” should appoint a “chief” to speak on behalf of his (for it was always a he) “savage” community”.

The “bad” are those who “insisted that, to integrate into western society, all Muslims must completely assimilate and shed any heritage from their “alien” culture, or “go home”.”

The “ugly” are those “politicised, agenda-driven Muslim umbrella groups that leapt at the chance of being chiefs for the Muslim “savage” and simultaneously claimed to defend Muslims against the “bad”.”

Nawaz’s main contention is that since Muslims are not a homogenous entity, evincing multiple identities which are not easily reducible to a singular faith identity, the way to tackle the “Muslim question” is to view Muslims “as equal citizens, nothing more and nothing less.”

Muslims should “seek representation through their elected officials,” not interlocutors of a communal variety, thereby eradicating the distortion created by the “good”, the “bad” and the “ugly”.

There’s much to pick apart in Nawaz’s contribution. For example, why posit the condition that Muslims seek representation through their elected officials when surveys not only show declining levels of trust in politicians and political institutions among the general population, see the Demos survey of last month or the British Social Attitudes survey of last year, but also low levels of participation in elections – whether local, European or national? Should Muslims be asked to satisfy conditions that don’t hold for the rest of the population?

Interesting too that those who like to bang on about Muslims seeking representation through their elected officials and deride Muslim community organizations, rarely, if ever, extend the same arguments to the British-Jewish community dismissing, for example, the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council as unnecessary interlocutors and obstructions to engaging with British Jews.

Secondly, Nawaz claims that Muslim organizations as representative organs derived from the extremes of the “good” – who wanted a village chief to act as interlocutor for his community, and the “bad – who wanted the community to divest itself of its religion in toto, the better to integrate and be “one of us”.

Strange that Nawaz should argue that Muslims should seek representation through elected officials, a cornerstone of our representative democracy, but then violate another prized principle of democratic societies – the right to freedom of association.

Muslim community groups are not, as Nawaz would suggest, the product of the desire for top-down management of the Muslim community (the “good”) or the result of fear-mongering that drives the community to appoint guardians against the threat of the “bad”.

Muslim community groups, much like any other advocacy and lobbying organizations representing the interests of their members, derive from the basic right in a democracy for citizens to organize and petition elected representatives – whether the premise of their organisation be religion (the churches); race (civil rights organizations and race equality groups); corporate interests (business groups) or employee interests (labour movements).

In arguing that Muslim organizations foist a Muslim identity on their membership in order to push religion into politics, Nawaz displays ignorance both about British Muslims (many of whom attest to religion being an important part of their lives) and democratic principles.

Nawaz elaborates his point stating that “Issues of employment, health, education, economy, racism or even foreign policy, have little to do with faith and everything to do with the political outlook one possesses.”

Nawaz’s argument is precisely that employed by secularists – that religion can have no place in public policy – and yet the argument is one rejected not just by Muslims, but by followers of other religious traditions too. Whatever Nawaz may think, for many of the faithful, “issues of employment, health, education, economy, racism or even foreign policy” are influenced by their faith.

Thirdly, Nawaz pushes the canard that Muslim
organizations in the UK are not really British but satellite off-shoots of foreign entities dragging British Muslims into the politics of farther regions. He writes, “By acting as a front for the political agenda of their parent Islamist organisations abroad, these so-called community groups hijacked the progress of Muslims as Britons by taking stances embroiled in the bitter politics of the Middle East.”

Quite odd that someone who trumpets cosmopolitanism should think that British Muslims ought to think and act only within the frontiers of the British Isles. But more significant is Nawaz’s complete misreading of the situation given that British Muslims who have, for example, protested against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or campaigned on the issue of Palestine, have done so not to be “embroiled in the bitter politics of the Middle East” but because, as British citizens and taxpayers, they enjoy the right to protest and lobby on the actions of their government abroad.

Nawaz goes on to argue that government in its engagement with Muslims should be careful not to give undue advantage to any particular group so as to appear to be “subsidizing” it. Well, that’s rich indeed coming from the co-director of the Quilliam Foundation which until recently enjoyed public largesse to the tune of a million pounds.

If Nawaz truly believes that “Muslims should be viewed as equal citizens, nothing more and nothing less,” he ought to leave questions of “which identity” and “what politics” to the many thousands of British Muslims who have demonstrated their capacity to wed their faith identity and their citizenship in ways that eclipse the crude tripartism presented by Nawaz on the “good” the “bad” and the “ugly”.

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