x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Britain's wrestling match with 'extremists' is self-defeating

Despite the terror threats, Britain's record on integration is good. Its policies in the fight against extremism, however, are not.

All over Europe, amid increasingly harsh political debate, governments are having to address the issue of how to integrate Muslims communities. In some cases the response has been populist: Belgium is expected next month to follow the lead of France in banning the veiling of women's faces in public.

In countries as diverse as Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Austria and Italy, political parties are on the rise that focus the generalised discontent of voters on to Muslim communities. Views which only a few years ago would have been dismissed as fascist are now part of mainstream debate.

The centre-right Danish government, under pressure from the nationalist Danish People's Party, is planning to restore border controls that were abolished in 1995 in core parts of the European Union, in order to limit illegal immigration. If this goes ahead it would undermine one of the greatest achievements of the EU.

Amid all this uproar, Britain has been largely quiet. In some ways Britain's problems could be considered among the most serious in Europe. In July 2005, four British Muslims blew themselves up on public transport in London, killing 52 and destroying the myth that no British-born person would launch a terrorist attack on their homeland.

This week, after a six month delay, the year-old British coalition government launched its plans to counter Islamist extremism. The launch was accompanied by much sound and fury: a crackdown on campus recruitment was promised; extremist Muslim organisations, which had been funded from the £63 million (Dh380 million) a year the government spends on anti-radicalisation, would be blacklisted.

These brave words masked a deep split in the government over what it should do to prevent a repeat of the 2005 bombings. On the one side are the prime minister, David Cameron, and his ideological allies who want a US approach to immigration, where all are forced to adopt a new American identity. In British terms, that means Muslims have to ditch "extremist" beliefs and move towards the secular consensus.

Ranged against these ideologues are Sayeeda Warsi, the chairman of the Conservative Party and the first Muslim woman to sit in the cabinet, and some leading members of parliament, with the tacit support of elements of the police and security and intelligence services.

Lady Warsi has spoken out to warn the government against dividing Muslims into moderates and extremists, based not on their actions, but on their beliefs. While Islamophobia is regrettably now acceptable at smart dinner parties, she points out, it is no basis for government policy.

To judge by the headlines, Mr Cameron has won the debate on the new anti-radicalisation strategy. In future, Muslim organisations will not be judged on whether they advocate violence, but on whether their beliefs are "extremist". Extremism is defined as "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs".

Actually, the truth is less clear. How this anti-extremism policy will be implemented is not said. The document is a mishmash which tries to give the impression of toughness, but it is in fact the usual British bureaucratic fudge, exacerbated by being the product of a right-left coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

The much-touted cull of extremist Muslim organisations that were mistakenly getting government handouts turns out to be a damp squib: only 20 of 1,800 organisations will lose their funding. The new strategy even allows the government to engage politically with organisations it would judge unfit to receive government money.

If this plan is implemented it opens up a disturbing vista. The government will be setting itself up as arbiter, a sort of Grand Mufti by committee, of what is proper for a British Muslim to believe and what is not. If the religion of Islam is to be put under the microscope, how is that going to endear Muslim communities to the British state? What the security services want is for Muslims to police themselves and to work with them in combating home-grown terrorists.

This is not happening at the moment, and the distrust could get worse. The new doctrine wants doctors to snoop on Muslims and report any who appear to be extremists, an idea vigorously rejected by the medical profession.

In the end, the government has failed to make a coherent case for its new strategy. The paths to radicalisation are complex and probably too varied to admit simple solutions. The most religious families, according to some research, produce the fewest terrorists, so the problem is as much political and social as it is religious.

As Mehdi Hasan, the political editor of the New Statesman magazine, has pointed out, there is a very serious lacuna in the report. In 116 pages it mentions Iraq only once. But only last year Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of the domestic security service MI5, which devotes most of its efforts to combating terrorism, blamed the invasion of Iraq for radicalising a new generation of British Muslims to engage in terrorism.

Fortunately, lacking a populist president such as France's Nicolas Sarkozy or a powerful anti-Muslim political party, the government seems to be doing no more than signalling right and driving straight ahead. On the plus side, it is clear that people of Muslim heritage are now able to put forward their views with authority, and receive a hearing. In future, politicians and commentators of Muslim background will be more common.

Despite the ever present threat of Muslim youth falling prey to evil ideologies, either home-grown or imported from Pakistan and elsewhere, Britain's record of integration is not so bad. In opinion polls, Muslim communities display greater trust in British institutions, such as parliament and their local councils, than does the population as a whole.

What is important is that politicians, looking for quick fixes to generational problems, do not move the process backwards.