It has been a month since the now notorious speech Prime Minister David Cameron gave at the Munich Security Conference. Since then, the varied responses have ranged from vociferous applause from right leaning nationalist English Defense League (EDL), and abroad from French nationalist leader, Marine Le Pen, organisations like the Quilliam Foundation, to scathing criticism from journalists, academics, organisations such as the Institute of Race Relations, and multiple Muslim institutions such as Muslims4UK. While the multiplicity of voices have now subsided, a month later, it is critical to review the speech within a wider perspective in order to understand its potential implications.
Back in November, Home Secretary Theresa May, in her first major speech on counter terrorism, assured Britain that “we will not securitise or integration strategy. The kind of society we wish to encourage will not emerge through counter-terrorism work.” Fast forward to February, and it appears that the conservative government has begun to securitise an assimilationist strategy instead.
The Munich Security Conference, sponsored by major military and defense corporations, such as Thales and Cassidian, seems a rather inappropriate venue for David Cameron to choose to discuss issues of integration, immigration, multiculturalism and the failures of varied ethnic communities to create a cohesive British identity. Yet he did precisely that.
In the immediate aftermath of Cameron’s speech, the Quilliam Foundation website posted their approval, stating that the organisation “welcomes the British governments new commitment to tackling all forms of non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism and terrorism” and cited six grounds of support ranging from “distinguishing between Islam the religion from Islamism the political ideology” to “ceasing funding, endorsing, or establishing joint initiatives with extremists” and calling for a “clearer defense of human rights.” Other Muslim organisations were not so keen. Inayat Bunglawala of Muslims4UK accused Cameron of “firing at the wrong target” while Mahmud Al-Rashid of Emel Magazine gave his poignant personal reflections calling Cameron’s speech a depressing missed opportunity. Cameron, Al-Rashid writes, “desecrated the memory of Muslims who had contributed to Britain; he singled out a largely powerless minority group that is constantly demonised; he conflated terrorism with cultural identity.”
The sounds of alarm amongst British Muslims have certainly outweighed the sprinkled voices of support. That’s probably because the Prime Minister’s speech is indeed troublesome and British Muslims have serious cause for concern.
Cameron’s vision for a more secure Britain made three ominous blunders. First, while attempting to separate Islam from violent extremism, a point that Quilliam lauded as a positive step, Cameron drew a very distinctive circle around Britain’s Muslim communities. While stating that violent extremists lay at the farthest end of the British Muslim spectrum, he also cited young Muslim identity as potentially problematic. This, in light of his opening statements reminding the world that the single greatest threat to British national security is terrorism, which, nevertheless, comes “overwhelmingly from young men who follow a completely perverse, warped interpretation of Islam,” creates an obvious target of suspicion. It is clear, told Cameron, that many of those that carry out acts of terrorism were “initially influenced by what some of them have called ‘non-violent extremists’, and then they took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence.” The net effects becoming that British Muslims, whether directly, or loosely, are responsible for this single greatest threat to British national security.
Second, Cameron paints a rather menacing picture of British Muslim culture plainly stating that it is at odds with core British values. British Muslims, according to Cameron, promote separatism when defining themselves primarily as Muslim, not British or European, placing self-isolated Muslim communities at risk for falling into the type of extreme thinking that leads to forced marriages and radicalisation, while contending that Britian has wrongfully “tolerated” these misguided ways of life that “run completely counter to our values.”
Third, Cameron places the onus of responsibility to fix the problem of extremism in Britain on Britain’s Muslim community, stating that the counter to extreme arguments must be made “by those within Islam.”
It stems from these points that the new conservative logic cleanly follows German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s widely criticised line and concludes that that the doctrine of state multiculturalism has failed while allowing the erosion of a British national identity.
Liz Fekete, an expert on Islamophobia and anti-terror legislation at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), notes that the post 9/11 climate has seen an increased debate on integration noting that integration has been tied to issues of terrorism, extremism, and national security; a deeply problematic trend. The debate, states Fekete, “reinforces the view that you cannot simultaneously be an observant Muslim and European. It gives the impression that being Muslim poses difficulties in terms of loyalty to the state” and thus constructs a sinister illusion of a perpetual ‘enemy within’ British borders. The increasing social and political polarisation will have a toxic impact in terms of British race relations only serving to isolate British Muslims even further.
Amongst politicians there has been a fascination with the concept of separate parallel lives in Britain. This line has been used time and again, most notably, by the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Trevor Phillips, that Britain was “sleepwalking into segregation,” as a means, according to Fekete, to attack state multiculturalism. That is, that the condition of British Muslims, as a self-segregated community refusing to integrate and accept British values and the British way of life, in essence, is self imposed. British Muslims are responsible for their own social, political, and economic marginalisation. “Such claims are based on generalisations and over-simplifications,” states Fekete, and are disingenuous as historical contexts, structural analyses, and debates on racism are rarely touched upon. Instead, politicians, like Cameron, harp on social problems that exist within minority communities, the case in point example being Cameron raising the issue of forced marriages at the Munich Security Conference, and will cite these social ills as a means to draw social and cultural distinctions feeding the idea that there is a fundamental difference in core values between Britain and its Muslims. The consequence of such provocative claims promotes the idea of British moral superiority and fans the flames of racial stereotyping. While the issue of forced marriages most certainly deserves critical dialogue and an earnest search for solutions, it is best to discuss such issues within the appropriate context: that being within the framework of sexism and family abuse as a wider British problem. To politicise victims of forced marriages and frame them within the context of political radicalisation and national security forms a very slippery slope.
The conservative solution calls for the strengthening British values in order to counter the radical ways of life that, according to Cameron, have been “thrust upon us.” Drawn before us is a crude formula implying that adherence to British values negates the potential for violent radical extremism; the more integrated the population, the less terrorism on British soil, and vice versa. Such sloppy analysis also follows the Cameron logic that rejects political and economic reform as a means to ease ethnic tension, because, he asserts, acts of violent terror would still happen. As if Muslims are inherently prone to radical ideology and committing acts of terror.
“We have got to get to the root of the problem,” said Cameron. “We need to be absolutely clear on where the origins of where these terrorist attacks lie. That is the existence of an ideology, Islamist extremism.”To tackle this, Cameron warns against a “passive tolerance” which leaves its citizens alone in their secluded parallel lives so long as they obey the law, and to apply muscular liberalism – the creation of a policy that aims to do more to promote liberal democratic values. Muscular liberal policies would assure immigrants are taught British values and the British way of life by introducing more citizen tests, programmes placing immigrants together in housing and work environments in order to teach them the British ethic, and to ensure immigrants learn and speak English. Here we have before us the image of the barbaric savage who will be civilised once absorbed by European sensibilities – as if knowledge of the English language will cultivate orderly conduct.
With the emphasis primarily on spreading British values above all else, and the push to create a culturally homogenous society where debates about “the other” have taken on a negative subtext, integration, says Fekete, has really come to mean assimilation. That is, British society now requires a cultural conformity, in which outsiders will be taught how to think and behave ‘British,’ creating a monocultural society. The implications of such a political approach are clear. First and foremost, British Muslims have been told that they have a problem – their way of life – and they’ve got to sort it out. Secondly, British Muslims have had their sense of belonging entirely undermined, and until they conform, Muslims can never really belong to Britain. Third, the repercussions of this speech on ethnic and race relations in Britain could be potentially catastrophic. To reverse the Quilliam analogy of non-violent radical thinking providing ‘mood music’ to violent Islamists, Cameron’s speech certainly provided the ‘mood music’ to the EDL rally taking place in Luton the same day.
In response to Cameron’s February speech, Fekete stated in an interview, “I feel we are moving to a new form of citizenship for Muslims, not so much second-class citizenship, as ‘conditional citizenship’ – you only have full citizenship rights if you tick all the government boxes as to how you should behave as a British Muslim – but if you don’t, then a stigmatisation process ensues and certain civil rights are removed.”
The voices of the average everyday British Muslim have also shown similar disapproval. 30 year old Shaden Ahmed, of Egyptian descent and a primary school teacher in London, expressed resentment and scoffed at the idea that the government expects average Muslims to do their part to prevent the spread of radicalisation. “We are proud of our heritage, and equally proud of our society, of our Britain and of our contribution to it. We do not need a pat on the back to say job well done. We do not need to be patronised by someone who is far more un-integrated with average British society than we are,” said Ahmed. “We do not need [Cameron] to give us a voice: we already have one. Do not tell us that we need to root out extremism in our midst. That is subscribing to a fallacy that the insane minority of violent extremists knows or is known by average British Muslims. Do not deride multiculturalism. The benefits of it to our British society are immeasurable. If people break the law by committing violent acts, being party to forced marriages, arrest them. However, you do not have the right to dictate to any member of this society how they should live their lives.”
With this widely cast net around Britain’s Muslim community and the daggers so clearly pointed at Muslim institutions, the processes of further isolation and stigmatisation of British Muslims has been set in a spiralling motion. Right wing organisations and political figures across Europe have commended Cameron’s ‘u-turn.’
But place Cameron’s February speech in light of efforts by many Muslim communities and institutions across the United Kingdom and the reality appears poles apart. Efforts by Inayat Bunglawala, chair of Muslims4UK, to derail organisations such as Anjem Choudary’s Islam4UK, are mistakenly placed onto a dusty backburner. An article in the Daily Mirror, which days before, ironically, hissed at Respect Party member and Birmingham City Councillor, Salma Yaqoob, for refusing to give a standing ovation to war hero Matt Croucher, spoke glowingly about the successes of multicultural Leicester. “This city seems to be flying in the face of David Cameron’s speech,” said the Mirror. “Along the busy street, a Hindu temple stands next to a mosque, a West Indian travel agent opposite a saree dress shop, and a group of schoolgirls wearing Muslim hijab head-coverings stand on a street corner tucking into fish and chips.” This could, indeed, be the description of many a street in Britain, or mainland Europe for that matter. One must ask, are these facts not seen as positive development toward an integrated Britain? That British Muslims choose to define the United Kingdom as their home – a place in which they wish to invest – to live life and to die and be buried there under the very soil that bolsters the Union Jack? To suggest otherwise, particularly by our Prime Minister, is incredibly troublesome.
This article originally published here