The title of this post was the question asked by Paul Goodman MP within a speech he gave to the New Culture Forum on Monday night.

Mr Goodman, Shadow Minister for Social Cohesion, analysed three potential strategic answers to that question: appeasement, assimilation and integration.  We summarise the speech below and this PDF contains the full text.

Appeasement is a course that Mr Goodman quickly rejects: "If our armed forces withdraw from Afghanistan – the argument runs – if we simply let Iran acquire nuclear weapons without sanctions or resistance; if we actively seek the replacement of our allies in the Islamic world by Islamists, if we abandon our support for the existence of Israel and if we connive in Britain at special legal dispensations for Muslims, then the problem will go away… You don’t have to be a neo-conservative – as I am not – to dismiss this option with the contempt it deserves.  It’s hard to perceive how abandoning parts of Afghanistan to Al Qaeda could help weaken that movement rather than strengthen it; how writing special sharia provisions into British law could strengthen community cohesion rather than weaken it, above all, how knuckling under to extremism could possibly help mainstream Islam worldwide."

Paul Goodman also rejects assimilation: "At heart, this school of thought usually believes that Islam in particular, if not religion in general, is at the root of separatist extremism… If government is to hold that religion in general is a problem – a habit that, like smoking, is bad for your health, and is to be tolerated only in private, if at all – it must surely move towards, say, cutting off all state support from faith schools, removing all tax breaks from religious-based charities and, eventually, scrapping the Coronation Service.  You can make your own judgement about whether such courses of action are more or less likely to lower school standards, remove support from vulnerable people, offload new burdens on the taxpayer, damage civil society, harm the current quest for shared values and dent our common sense of Britishness.  I’ve already made mine."

Mr Goodman then devotes a large section of his speech to discussing whether Islam is different from other religions and deserves special prohibitions.  His strong conclusion is that there is enough hope within certain traditions of Islam to firmly reject the idea that Islam needs to be suppressed.  He focuses particularly on Sufism as catalogued by Bernard Lewis.

The third option, favoured by Goodman is integration: He defines it in this way: "Non-Muslims should make Britain a warm home for mainstream Islam, and that Muslims, like other religious communities, should root out support for separatism and extremism within their communities.  This mutual bargain is essentially an unwritten social contract – one of many in today’s Britain.  You don’t need me to tell you that a very great deal hangs on the success of this one – including, perhaps, the domestic struggle against Al Qaeda."

He then argues that understanding of mainstream Islam is too limited within many of Britain’s Muslim youths and he suggests some ways in which the British Government might address the lack of understanding:

  • More education of policymakers: "First of all, our politicians, policy makers and opinion formers clearly know less about Islam and Islamism than they might.  France has a specialised research unit within its Foreign Ministry.  We abolished our equivalent in 2002.  Would a small college to educate these groups about trends in modern Islam be out of place?"
  • Financial support for mainstream Muslim projects: "Shouldn’t Government encourage its contacts to give private money to suitable charities or foundations which would in turn grant funds to, say, a mosque seeking to a well-qualified, English-speaking Imam the kind of salary that would not only attract him to the job, but keep him in it; or to an education project that brings pupils from different schools and religions together, or to a madrassa curriculum for children that seeks – as some are now doing – to demonstrate a Koranic basis for our common way of life?"
  • Sponsorship of a mainstream Islamic publisher: "Separatists and extremists are adept at constructing a grand narrative of perpetual conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims by the manipulation of Islamic texts, and running bookshops on site or online that produce books, tapes, DVDs, films and lectures in English that hammer out simple and repetitious messages of confrontation, hatred and anger – based on these narrow readings… There seems to be a gap in the market for a mainstream Islamic publisher who offers clear, simple and Islam-based material, in English, that rebuts extremist claims, and advances the case for shared values and our common democratic settlement.  Is there nothing that government can do to stimulate the emergence of such an enterprise?"
  • Projects that educate children about Muslim struggles against totalitarianism: "Turning to schools, up to 2.3 million inhabitants of the old Imperial India fought for Britain during the last World War.  Over 30,000 people died and over 60,000 were wounded.  Many of these soldiers were Muslims.  Some of their friends and relatives, and indeed some of the soldiers themselves, live in Britain today.  A project on the contribution which Muslims made to the struggle against totalitarianism has been carried out in my local area – with obvious resonances for the present day.  Shouldn’t such projects be encouraged by government on a larger scale?"

PS Over the last few days we have seen Derek Conway pollute the name of all politicians.  Paul Goodman’s thoughtful speech – the product of a great deal of research over a long period – is a reminder that we are still fortunate to have many politicians who take their briefs very seriously and whose whole engagement in the public square is about providing answers to the real challenges our nation faces.  Some of his recommendations will be unpalatable to some conservatives but they should provoke all of us to think more deeply about serious solutions to the related problems of extremism and separatism.

Related links: Baroness Warsi’s first major speech on community cohesion and Paul Goodman’s Platform archive.

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