Regular ConservativeHome readers will know that I’ve a special
constituency interest in Islam and Muslims in Britain: the Editor’s
kindly let me post on these matters in the recent past (here and here). So I was
delighted when David Cameron asked me last week to join Eric Pickles’
Shadow DCLG team to work with Sayeeda Warsi on community cohesion. For
community cohesion, read helping to sustain and build a common sense of
Community cohesion, of course, is not – repeat not – just about
Muslims and Islam. Neither will it be central to cohesion in, say, East
Yorkshire or West Devon (or, for that matter, in some parts of our
suburbs and cities). Other religions matter just as much – not least
Christianity, which still boasts our state church: a very large number
of Britons self-identify as Christians. Indeed, some argue that
religion isn’t a core element of community cohesion or Britishness at
But against the background of the attempted terrorist outrages in
London and Glasgow – and Gordon Brown’s response as Prime Minister to
both – I want to return to my special interest, and offer four
principles on which, during the months ahead, to build a Conservative
approach to community cohesion policy in relation to Islam and Muslims.
Identify the problem. Poverty, foreign policy, multiculturalism, inter-generational tensions among British Muslims – all these are contributing to separatism and terrorism. But the main driver of both is ideology. The ideology preached by Al Qaeda urges British Muslims first to separate themselves from the kuffar, or non-Muslims, and then to inflict terror on them, in order to build a worldwide Caliphate. This separatist ideology is itself a malign development of strands of thinking among the Wahabis and Deobandis. So the struggle against it is primarily a battle of ideas, like the battle against communism and fascism. Like both, it will take place over a generation. Unlike either, it will be won or lost among the hearts and minds of British Muslims. This is why the language used to support the unwritten social contract between British Muslims and non-Muslims is crucial. Non-Muslims must acknowledge that Islam is an integral part of modern Britain, and that Islamophobia must be rooted out; Muslims must acknowledge that the terrorists who attacked Glasgow airport claimed to act in the name of Islam, and that their ideology must be confronted as well as condemned.
Support the moderates. Perhaps 800,000 of Britain’s 1.8 million Muslims are from Pakistan and Kashmir. Their Islamic tradition is pacific, and strongly influenced by Sufiism and mysticism. Many of their Imams don’t speak English as a first language, and many of their mosques are run by older, non English-speaking men. A majority of other British Muslims share the same mainstream Islamic background. They need advice from other mainstream Muslims about opening up their mosques to the younger generation and to women, and support in raising money to produce books, tapes, films and DVDs and information in English about mainstream Islam for their English-speaking children and grandchildren – to counter the stream of propaganda from the Wahabis in particular. (How about a state-assisted leadership school and publishing house?) They’re represented primarily by organisations like the British Muslim Forum and the smaller Sufi Muslim Council. These are the kind of main partners that the Conservative Party should actively engage with.
Put the separatists on the spot. Vocal moderates are already emerging. Hassan Butt helped to recruit British Muslims to wage terror in Afghanistan. Ed Hussain was a member of the extremist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. Both have changed heart, and are courageously exposing the organisations and ideology which they once helped to promote. The Sufi Muslim Council has been active for some time. Last Saturday’s Glasgow march against terror was a good sign – as was the same day’s advertisement by “Muslims United”. But it’s important to be clear that separatism as well as terrorism is a challenge to cohesion and to Britishness. For while all separatists aren’t terrorists (indeed, the separatist-leaning Muslim Council of Britain has always strongly condemned terrorism in Britain), all terrorists are by definition separatists: to adapt a saying of Mao Tse-Tung’s, separatism is the sea in which terrorists swim. This is why the MCB can’t be one of the Conservative Party’s partners in supporting moderation – and why it has consistently to be put on the spot. Does it rule out the incorporation of parts of sharia law into British law? Does it unequivocally condemn attacks on our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why does it insist on boycotting Holocaust Memorial Day? As David Cameron said recently: “cultural separatism is something we must all work hard to resist and reverse”.
Hold the Government to account. Ruth Kelly, when Communities Secretary, spoke of “a fundamental rebalancing of our relationship with Muslim organisations”, and said 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 was clearly a code for switching support and backing from the MCB. We must be vigilant in ensuring that new Ministers don’t renege on Ruth Kelly’s commitment – and in holding the Government to account generally. Why hasn’t Hizb ut-Tahrir been banned, as Tony Blair promised? Why did it take so long to prosecute the Danish cartoon protestors who were inciting violence? Why is the legal loophole that allowed Abu Hamza to pass on property from prison still open? Why were there no protests at Ministerial level when Pakistan’s Religious Affairs Minister incited suicide bombings in the wake of the Rushdie knighthood? Is the £6 million of Preventing Extremism money actually being spent on preventing extremism? There’s a lot of work for Opposition spokesmen to do.
And finally – on a broader and more cheerful note – let’s take up an idea suggested in the excellent report “Uniting the Country” produced by our new Shadow Security Minister, Pauline Neville-Jones. She proposed “that the Queen’s Birthday should become a formal holiday for the whole population (and not just, as now, civil servants)”. Let’s party on April 21!