Last summer, my Wycombe constituency found itself in the media spotlight after the alleged airplane bomb plot. Four of my constituents were held. Two have been charged with serious offences. As I write, a local school which bars the niqab or veil for both educational and social reasons is facing a human rights court battle with a legally-aided parent.
Some readers may not know that Wycombe has the largest proportion of Muslims of any Conservative-held constituency. Relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are an important issue locally. And they are, by and large, good. There is a growing Muslim middle class, and the whole community makes a huge contribution to the town. Employment levels are high – compared, at least, to Oldham or Burnley, whose visible troubles we’ve largely avoided. The tradition of the main mosques is moderate and sufi-influenced. Its leadership condemns terror unequivocally. Local Muslims have helpfully made it clear that wearing the veil isn’t an Islamic requirement.
Nonetheless, the local veil case is a reminder of the fragility of relations across Britain. So was the recent Dispatches programme entitled "Undercover Mosque", and yesterday’s Policy Exchange report which found that one in eight young Muslims are prepared to "fight the west" and that four in ten wish to live under forms of sharia law. As Munira Mirza – one of the report’s authors and herself a Muslim – put it:
"There is clearly a conflict within British Islam between a moderate majority that accepts the norms of British democracy and a growing minority that does not".
Pauline Neville-Jones’s "Uniting the Country" report, published today, and David Cameron’s speech on national cohesion, made yesterday, address a key question: how can Conservatives help to maintain a moderate, prosperous and integrated British Muslim majority?
One possible answer is to tip-toe round the question, cowed by political correctness – for example, by failing to recognise clearly that the multi-cultural experiment has failed. Another is to trample all over the question with jackboots – raging against Islam, as the BNP do, and ranting odiously about Muslims. David and Pauline have rejected these false choices unambiguously.
Instead, they’ve responded in a way that’s informed, decent, consistent and rigorous – a form of words that I used in the Commons while trying to address this question last year. I believe that it poses the most profound challenge to the country and to the wider western world since the collapse of communism.
My own response is clear. To answer the question – how to sustain the moderate British Muslim majority – one has first to identify the barriers to integration. In my view, these barriers include not only deprivation, inter-generational tension and foreign policy, or even the discredited doctrine of multiculturalism, but the ideology of Islamism.
Islamism, of course, isn’t Islam. Islam is a great religion; Islamism is a modern political ideology. And like those other modern ideologies, communism and fascism, Islamism divides – not, this time, on the basis of class or of race, but on the basis of religion.
For evidence of this claim, consider some of the sentiments quoted by preachers on "Dispatches":
- "We love the people of Islam and we hate the people of kuffar, we hate the kuffar."
- "Those whom the wrath of Allah is upon, is the Jew and the Christian."
- "We want the laws of Islam to be practised, we want to do away with the man-made laws."
- "Allah has created the woman, even if she gets a Phd, deficient. Her intellect is incomplete, deficient. She may be suffering from hormones that will make her emotional. It takes two witnesses of a woman to equal the one witness of the man."
- "If the imam wants to crucify him, he should crucify him. The person is put up on the wood and he is left there to bleed to death for three days."
- "Do you practise homosexuality with men? Take that homosexual man and throw him off the mountain."
The mosque leadership in the area I know would be horrified by these statements and wouldn’t allow such preachers into their mosques. But such words can’t be dismissed as the eccentric view of a few isolated crackpots: rejection of the world of "the kuffar" is part of an ideology – just as hatred of "the Jews" or "the bourgeoisie" was part in turn of the Nazi and communist ideologies.
I’m not an expert on Islamism, but to this politician it has three significant features. First, it emphasises the separation of peoples into the inhabitants of the Dar-Al-Islam, the House of Islam, and the Dar-Al-Harb, the House of War. Second, it proclaims to Muslims that their political loyalty lies not with the country they live in, but with the Umma – with the body of believers worldwide. Third, it aims to bring the Dar-Al-Islam under sharia law.
This analysis brings hard choices in its wake. Some moderate Muslims argue that public use of the word "Islamism" drives Muslims into a corner – and makes sustaining the moderate Muslim majority harder, not easier. They maintain that neither ordinary Muslim nor non-Muslim voters understand the difference between Islam and Islamism, and that the word risks stoking anti-Muslim prejudice. Some are in any event reluctant to accept that people who call for a sharia state, or who carry out terrorist acts on London’s Underground, are inspired to do so by religious zeal: they prefer the labels "extremist" and "criminal". They describe an increasing sense of suspicion and isolation among British Muslims, and are bewildered by the speed at which bodies that successive British Governments long dealt with and indeed helped to create, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, are being sidelined. They say that each blunder by public or private authorities – Forest Gate, the killing of Jean de Menezes, the shameful incident in which airplane staff yielded to a passenger mutiny and refused to let two Muslim passengers aboard a Monarch airlines flight – is a recruiting-sergeant for terror.
Up to a point, these moderates are right. After all, it wasn’t Muslim moderates who stood idly by while London’s reputation as a safe haven for fanatics earned it the sobriquet of "Londonistan" from the French security services; who propagated and encouraged multi-culturalism; who courted the MCB for years as its main partner; who side-stepped the main recommendation of the Cantle Report; who lost control of Britain’s borders; who initiated a report called "Preventing Extremism Together"; and then junked the recommendations; who tried to press flawed and unworkable religious hatred laws through the Commons: who appointed advisers that believe in active dialogue with Islamists to sensitive posts; who failed to arrest and charge the Danish cartoon protestors, or prevent Abu Hamza from purchasing a prison property portfolio: it was successive British Governments – and this one in particular. The uncomfortable truth is that 7/7 found the British establishment ill-prepared. Moderate Muslims shouldn’t carry the can for its failures.
But if these moderates are right only up to a point, it follows that beyond that point their guidance is doubtful. To flinch from the appalling truth that a handful of British Muslims have claimed terrorist atrocities in the name of Islam, or that many British Muslims want to live under a sharia state, is to fail fully to confront the menace of extremism. And these forms of extremism, like other totalitarian extremisms before them, must be challenged and conquered. The objection that confronting these ideologies only fuels support for them is inevitably met by the obvious counter-objection: that not challenging these ideologies has already fuelled support for them – as the Policy Exchange poll findings confirm – and that the risks of not confronting them are now greater than the risks of doing so. And of course there are the feelings of non-Muslims as well as Muslims to consider.
During recent years, there’ve been a rush of publications which have sought in part to analyse radical Islamism, at home and abroad: Caroline Cox and John Marks’ "The West, Islam and Islamism"; Michael Nazir-Ali’s "Conviction and Conflict"; Melanie Phillips’ "Londonistan"; my colleague Michael Gove’s "Celsius 7/7". A theme sketched out by some of these publications is that while all terrorists are Islamists, not all Islamists are terrorists: Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, for example, opposes the use of violence in western Europe. But to oppose violence is not necessarily to be acceptable. This is why the Conservative policy answer to the question "How can a moderate British Muslim majority be sustained?" must reject Qaradawi’s drive for sharia jurisdictions in the Britain and the west as well as Bin Laden’s quest for a revived Caliphate across the globe.
In summary, we’ve now reached the stage where it’s necessary to move from the analysis of problems to proposals for action. I believe that such proposals fall under four main headings. I’ll try not to replicate too many of Pauline Neville-Jones’ recommendations as published this morning.
First, there’s Parliamentary action. To date, Parliament hasn’t engaged with Islamist extremism in an institutional manner. For example, the Treasury Select Committee should hold an enquiry into the funding of extremism in Britain from abroad, as Michael Gove has suggested, and the Education Select Committee an enquiry into extremism in Universities.
Second, there’s improving security. Intercept evidence should be made available in court; a dedicated counter-terrorism minister should be appointed; a dedicated border police should be introduced; the delayed Treasury assessment of charities in relation to terrorist fundraising should be published, and Ministers should raise the matter of EU regulations that prevent the details of bank transfers which may affect terrorist activity being released to US authorities in the Council of Ministers and with the European Commission.
Third, there’s preventing extremism. The Government should streamline guidance to Universities in relation to countering extremism on campus (colleges are currently faced with two sets of guidance); issue guidelines to prison governors about Islamist literature in prisons, and similar guidance to customs and excise about material from abroad; prosecute hate speech vigorously; close the financial loopholes that allowed Abu Hamza to build a property empire from prison; deny visas to extremist clerics from abroad; recommend that burkas and niqabs aren’t worn in schools or by staff in hospitals (a burka-type gown was pioneered last autumn in the Royal Preston Hospital); take a close interest in the Tablighi Jamaat mosque proposal in East London, and ensure that the BBC does not give airspace to terrorist supporters (as the Head of BBC News recommended last November). The proper control of immigration, as David pointed out yesterday, is an essential tool in relation both to improving security and preventing extremism.
Fourth, there’s building moderation. Government can ensure that moderate organisations are funded and sensible initiatives backed. Ruth Kelly spoke last year of "a fundamental rebalancing of our relationship with Muslim organisations from now on", and promised that:
"our strategy of funding and engagement must shift significantly towards those organisations that are taking a proactive leadership role in tackling extremism and defending our shared values".
This presumably means more support for such organisations as the British Muslim Forum and the Sufi Muslim Council, and this implied funding shift must be rigorously monitored. Ministers have not yet responded to the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Body’s consultation findings and recommendations, published last July. The establishment of such a representative body to provide support services for mosques would be a step in the right direction. Forums are also needed for women – whose role David and Pauline have rightly stressed strongly – and for young Muslims, who are often at odds with mosque leaderships, whose viewpoints, attitudes and outlook will help shape the Britain of the future.
But British Muslims themselves, not governments, are the ultimate guarantors of continued majority moderation. The establishment of a grassroots educational and political campaign called, for example, "British Muslims", with a Euston Declaration-type charter unambiguously committing signatories to the practice of Islam; to common allegiance to British law (rather than separate legal sharia jurisdictions) to the rejection of terrorism and the practice of democratic and pluralistic values is a task beyond the scope of a non-Muslim writer or politician.