Tony Blair’s Comments Represent an Attack on the Foundations of Democracy
Categories: Latest News
Monday October 08 2018
Last week, Tony Blair attacked several Muslim organisations, accusing them of promoting “extremist ideas”, orchestrating a “propaganda barrage” towards counter-terror strategies and attempting to present the Government as a “hostile force”. Putting aside the hypocrisy of Mr. Blair accusing others of propaganda, a former Prime Minister making comments which encourage the “combating” of such organisations in a “battle of ideas” is part of a wider pattern of shutting down Muslim voices in public debate.
One of the targets of Mr. Blair’s comments was MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development), an organisation engaged in supporting Muslims to access societal opportunities. Crucially, this involves challenging Islamophobia – which we define as the “prejudice, aversion, hostility, or hatred towards Muslims which… has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Islamophobia represents a tool to exclude Muslims from the rights and freedoms of public life and it is within this framework that we should examine Mr. Blair’s comments.
The implication that groups like MEND are “trying to drive a wedge between Muslim communities and the Government” is representative of a three-pronged attack:
- on British Muslim and minority communities;
- on Muslim groups attempting to engage critically with government counter-terror measures;
- and on any individual who seeks to challenge injustice and inequality.
Firstly, for British Muslims and minorities, such statements are highly inflammatory in language, stoking already significant levels of Islamophobia and incidences of racist violence. Secondly, for Muslim groups, it attempts to delineate certain topics – such as counter-terrorism – as unacceptable for Muslims to engage in, side-lining minorities from mainstream politics. And thirdly, it advances the problematic language of security, whereby the ill-defined label of “extremist” may be applied to anyone critical of power, virtually guaranteeing they will be tarnished without critical examination of their views or arguments. As well as grossly misrepresenting the work of MEND in supporting Muslims positively engage with society and politics, such attacks impact on Muslim communities and all British citizens.
Firstly, Tony Blair’s choice of language in this attack – taking place in a political climate where Muslims face daily threats of violence and intimidation – is highly inflammatory. This risk of violence is frequently exacerbated by prominent politicians who attack Islamic identity-markers in public statements, campaigns, and policies.
Indeed, record numbers of anti-Muslim attacks have been recorded since the divisive political rhetoric advanced during the Brexit campaign during 2016, with increasing attacks ‘not only on social media but also at congested places and in broad daylight, verbal and physical assault’. Women are especially targeted with acts of public violence as an increasingly muscular far-right, alarmist national media and isolationist government policies create an hostile and toxic environment for Muslims and minorities.
With minority communities already under such scrutiny and public pressure, Mr. Blair’s attack on a public organisation attempting to positively engage Muslims in politics, media and society risks further casting them as a ‘suspect community’ and leaves them vulnerable to further violence.
Secondly, Mr. Blair’s comments form a part of a sustained pattern of public demonisation of Muslim groups and other views that are critical of PREVENT, without actually debating the substance of the validity of those criticisms. As MEND itself has stated, it is a right of democracy to critically review government policies. By challenging this right, Mr. Blair strips Muslim communities of these rights to participate in mainstream conversations on issues affecting them.
PREVENT has been roundly criticised by groups of all backgrounds, examples including three special rapporteurs to the UN, the NEU (formerly known as the NUT), the NUS, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Rights Watch UK, the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Joint Committee for Human Rights, and more than 140 academics, politicians and experts in one instance alone.
PREVENT has been criticised as poor in its implementation and inadequate in its training, which has created a high level of ‘false positives’: PREVENT delivery officers received only 45-60 minutes of training to identify radicalisation, leading to 95% of CHANNEL referrals to date requiring no further action. Public officials have often reported Muslims to authorities due to personal understandings informed by stereotypical media representations, leading to the direct stigmatisation of religious practices.
Meanwhile, a growing tranche of research has shown that UK approaches to counter-terrorism overtly and disproportionately targets Muslims, with roughly 1 in every 500 British Muslims were referred to PREVENT annually in recent years and Muslims being more than 110 times likely to be referred than those deemed at risk of ‘far-right extremism’.
Despite academic criticism of CONTEST and the PREVENT programme as negatively impacting community relations, being poorly constructed and implemented, and failing even by its own standards (with 95% of de-radicalisation programmes deemed ineffective), Muslim groups critical of ‘pre-crime’ counter-terrorism approaches continue to face political demonisation and accusations of extremism.
The ultimate consequence is the reinforcement of hostile conditions, limiting Muslims’ ability to engage in key political debates on issues central to their lived experience in Britain. This clearly attacks notions of community equality and further marginalises Muslim voices in mainstream debate.
Finally, Mr. Blair’s use of the term ‘extremist’ is a tool of exclusion. By tarnishing those who question problematic ideas as extremist, he seeks to cast anyone who challenges existing powers as irrational and dangerous. Counter-terrorism has already been shown to perpetuate the idea that, according to one former Home Secretary, “the norms of prosecution and punishment no longer apply”, and by applying such notions against democratic actors, Mr. Blair risks the loss of civil liberties and the stifling of legitimate forms of dissent from all manner of groups. Such comments, therefore, further erode of the fragile democratic foundations of British society.
Tackling inequalities is a noble and important task which requires the participation of all British society. It needs not only honest, critical, and self-reflective discussion, but representation and acceptance of the lived experiences of the many minority communities that make up this country. As MEND attests, “it is a fundamental right of democracy that citizens are able to critically review Government policies. For anyone to present academic and evidence-based debate as a “propaganda barrage” is disingenuous and a disservice to the tenets of democracy that Mr. Blair has a moral responsibility to uphold.”
Instead of celebrating an organisation dedicated to embedding minority engagement at the heart of British society, Mr. Blair chooses to attack critical voices by suggesting they are ‘extremist’. In doing so, he attacks not only the country’s many Muslim organisations and communities but all those who seek to create positive change in an increasingly securitised and unequal Britain. Mr. Blair’s comments remind us all, therefore, that we have a responsibility to uphold the key tenets of democracy – and to challenge those who choose to disregard them.