James Brandon is an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) in London. He was formerly the Director of Research and Communications at Quilliam.
Government statements on Islam are sowing dangerous confusion; it is time to tell voters the truth
Scarcely a week goes by without the British people being told, including by their elected representatives, that ‘Islam means peace’ and that this ‘great religion’ has nothing to do with violence. However, every day the British people also read, hear and see fresh news of Muslims around the world, apparently devout ones, carrying out new attacks in the name of this same religion.
At the same time, they also hear the siren song of anti-Muslim groups telling them that Islam is violent, that jihadists are merely following the Quran, and that British Muslims amount to a ‘Fifth Column’ threatening us all.
These diverse, confusing and contradictory messages are creating a powerful and dangerous cognitive dissonance which, instead of soothing religious tensions around Islam, instead risks driving ordinary British people towards extremist anti-Muslim groups.
Such confusing messages on Islam and Muslims originate from the highest levels of government. For instance, following the Pakistani Taliban’s attack on a school in Pakistan in December, David Cameron said:
“It is nothing to do with one of the world’s great religions – Islam, which is a religion of peace. This is a perversion.”
Previously, for the Eid al-Adha festival in October, Cameron also said that ISIS “have nothing to do with the great religion of Islam, a religion of peace”.
In September, Home Secretary Theresa May made the same point, saying that the “hateful ideology” of ISIS “has nothing to do with Islam itself…. Let the message go out that we know Islam is a religion of peace and it has nothing to do with the ideology of our enemies.”
Meanwhile, across the Channel, following the recent Paris attacks, the French president Francois Hollande said:
“Those who committed these acts (or terrorism) have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”
If we accept that ISIS and the Paris attackers are not really Muslims, what then of the hundreds of Afghan villagers who demonstrated in support of the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Uruzgan province on 11 January? By this logic, are they also not real Muslims?
Likewise, a massive global poll of Muslim opinion by the Pew Foundation last year found that 89 percent of Pakistani Muslims support stoning for adultery while 86 percent of Egyptian and 82 percent of Jordanian Muslims support the execution of those who leave Islam. Are they also not really Muslims either?
Such repeated ritual mass excommunications of Muslims by the supposedly secular government of a mainly non-Muslim country are absurd. In addition, rather than calming nervous populations, as they are apparently intended to do, such statements instead risk undermining trust in the government on this critical issue.
One only has scroll down any British newspaper comment thread on the subject of the recent attacks to see the sheer volume of people who reject the Prime Minister’s ‘nothing to do with Islam’ meme and to see how ineffective the his present messaging has been. Indeed, the ‘religion of peace’ phrase has in itself become an ironic internet meme among anti-Muslim activists.
Instead of pontificating on ‘true’ Islam and on which Muslims are not actually Muslims, a practice which ironically popular among jihadists themselves, a more intellectually honest and also effective approach would be to state clearly that Islam, like any set of ideas, is open to a spectrum of interpretations, ranging from violent and intolerant through to non-violent and liberal.
This is not to say that Islam is uniquely or inherent violent. Nor is it ‘singling out Muslims’ or ‘demonising Islam’.
Such a recognition is, however, a necessary step towards the government treating the Islamic religion as we would any other corpus of diverse religious ideas and practices; indeed, it is a step towards recognising Islam as a truly British religion, subject to all the scrutiny and interpretation that entails, rather than a foreign import with its own inviolable taboos.
Not coincidentally, many politicians of Muslim heritage have advocated exactly this approach. Following the recent Paris attacks, the Conservative Party’s Sajid Javid, the Culture Secretary, said:
“The lazy answer from people out there is to say that this had got nothing whatsoever to do with Islam and Muslims and that should be the end of that part of the debate… That is lazy and that would be wrong. You can’t get away from the fact that these people are using Islam, they are taking a great religion, a peaceful religion of a billion people around the world, taking this religion and using it as their tool to carry out their horrible activities.”
Even the Egyptian president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, while certainly no liberal or democrat, in a recent speech at al-Azhar, Egypt’s pre-eminent Islamic university, identified that the problem is not the religion per se, but in certain religious interpretations [fiqh, in Arabic]:
“It’s inconceivable that the fiqh that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible! That thinking — I am not saying ‘religion’ but fiqh — that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world.”
Instead of promoting the untrue and self-defeating idea that there is a single Islam and that Islamist attacks are entirely unrelated to any Islamic teachings, a clear government position that jihadism is simply one interpretation among many rival interpretations of Islam will both resonate with ordinary people. and plausibly explain Islamist extremist to those who are often confused and scared by recent events in a way that the ‘Islam is peace’ narrative cannot.
Such a statement is not ‘Islamophobic’; it is simply saying what the vast majority of Muslims already know to be true. If, however, the government cannot provide such intellectual clarity, then some people concerned by recent events will undoubtedly seek more convincing answers elsewhere, including from anti-Muslim extremist groups.
These include the English Defence League (EDL), whose narrative that the Islam is always violent (a “political and social ideology that is every bit as reprehensible as Nazism”), together with its claim that that British politicians are afraid to state this alleged truth, is – in its own terms – far more intellectually coherent that the government’s claim that Islam is entirely peaceful and jihadists are not actually Muslims.
The best way for the politicians and civil servants to avoid fuelling such anti-Muslim extremism and to rebuild trust among a nervous populace to tell the voters the truth; Islam – like any religion – is neither solely good or bad but rather it is what its followers make of it.