By Max Wind-Cowie, Head of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos.
When David Cameron announced that he wants his Government to pursue ‘active, muscular liberalism’ he was met with a chorus of angst, anger and attitude. Opposition to Cameron’s Munich speech, and to its policy implications, came in two guises. First up were those who claimed that it was somehow sinister, or at the very least oxymoronic, to be a ‘muscular liberal’ – that we have no business worrying about what British Muslims think, say or believe until they break the law. Second, but no less vociferous, were those critics who blasted the Prime Minister’s supposed naivety about Islam. Muslims, this argument runs, cannot join the liberal mainstream of British society precisely because they are Muslims.
Fortunately for the Prime Minister, for all of us, both these lines of attack are profoundly flawed. British Muslims are more liberal, more tolerant and more open than they are often given credit for and this not only justifies Cameron’s commitment to weeding out extremism in their leadership but it holds out hope of success in promoting better, deeper cultural and social integration more widely.
The Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos will soon be launching a new collection of essays on conservatism and multiculturalism in partnership with the Runnymede Trust, for which we polled British people on a series of issues connected with ethnic cohesion, racial justice and immigration. The results that stand out as striking are those that tell us what British Muslims really think about modern British norms and values.
The polling (conducted by YouGov on Demos’ behalf) showed that over 80% of British Muslims describe themselves as ‘proud to be a British citizen’ whilst two thirds of them agree that they are ‘proud of British culture’. We found that fewer than 25% of British Muslims take issue with Britain’s relaxed and tolerant approach to homosexuality. What’s more, almost half of British Muslims agreed with the statement “I am proud of how Britain treats gay people”.
This is good news for the Muscular Liberal agenda and very bad news indeed for both the traditional British Muslim leadership and for those who seek to paint Islam as incompatible with liberal, Western values. British Muslims are proud of their identity as British citizens and proud of our culture – perhaps most controversially they are also relatively unconcerned about homosexuality and other alternative lifestyles. And yet, too often, their leadership use their political capital, the ear of Government and their self-made legitimacy to portray their own community as uncomfortable in modern Britain.
This false portrait, painted by leaders more old-fashioned and more extreme than the community at large, does a terrible disservice to British Muslims and it plays into the hands of those who argue that Islam cannot be reconciled with democracy, liberalism and diversity. With statements like ‘gay partnerships undermine society’ not only are ‘Muslim leaders’ such as the Muslim Council of Britain alienating the overwhelmingly kind and tolerant British mainstream but they are directly misrepresenting what their own community believe.
Not only would David Cameron be doing gay people a favour by withdrawing funding, legitimacy and engagement from groups such as the MCB, but he’ll be doing British Muslims a favour too. As our polling shows, British Muslims are being misrepresented by a leadership that is far more extreme, far less tolerant and far less liberal than the vast majority of its members.
There is more good news for muscular liberals. Contrary to what we might imagine from the coverage given to the likes of Anjem Choudaray, British Muslims are relatively comfortable with Britain’s foreign policy choices. Our poll showed that only 20% of British Muslims responded ‘no’ to the statement ‘I am proud of Britain’s role in the world’ – suggesting both that Iraq and Afghanistan may not have done the long-term damage that opponents of those interventions so often ascribe to them and that our aid to Libyan civilians appears to be repairing whatever harm they did do.
One final ray of hope for the Prime Minister. Only 30% of British Muslims agree that ‘Britain’s best days are behind her’ – showing that the majority are not only comfortable with British culture, British values and Britain’s role in the world but are also optimistic about our future as a country. That this contrasts strongly with Anglicans – 48% of whom agreed with the statement – may imply that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s pessimism about British society is shared by many in his flock.
Cameron’s muscular liberalism has been presented by many on the Left as an attack on Muslims. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is about applying pressure to Muslim leaders, to push them into genuinely reflecting the beliefs, values and concerns of their congregations. It is about understanding and promoting the similarities and shared beliefs of British people rather than allowing the differences, and the militant headbanging of a minority, to dominate the debate. David Cameron should be comforted that, as he himself has long believed, the majority of British Muslims are with him (and the rest of us) in their perspective on British culture and society.
The only people who need to fear British Muslims are their leaders. Time is running out for the extremist posers who have long got away with declaring themselves representatives of the Muslim community and made a living from misrepresenting their views. It was not bravery or leadership that led the East London Mosque to ban homophobic speakers last week, but rather a recognition of two inescapable truths – that their congregation are far more liberal than we imagine and that its leaders now know that they’re dealing with a Government that isn’t scared to stand up for tolerance. As our polling shows, not only will the Government be right to sever its ties with so-called ‘non-violent extremists’ but they’ll be fulfilling the wishes of most British Muslims too.