Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 March 2018

We must approach all kinds of extremism equally

Fear of the ‘other’, especially Muslims, impedes serious attempts to tackle the rise of extremism , writes Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

British prime minister Theresa May is against extremism but can’t adequately define it. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg
British prime minister Theresa May is against extremism but can’t adequately define it. Chris Ratcliffe / Bloomberg

In 1865, politician John Bright coined the phrase “England is the mother of all parliaments”. The description has stuck – rightly or wrongly – claiming England as the fairy godmother of all things democratic.

Yet despite this, British people like me have a deep cynicism about politicians and the machinery of state. We don’t carry identity papers and we have opposed ID cards. In Britain, we don’t even have a written constitution, just a body of statutes and case law accumulated over time that creates a backdrop to an elusive idea of what it means to be British.

We were once proud of the fact that our idea of being British is not fixed, like a butterfly: if you try to capture it, it eludes you. We prefer not to be locked down by definition. Yet over the past 10 or more years, British politicians have relentlessly pursued the notion that by defining “British values” we can solve problems of terrorism, integration, racism, poverty and class divides. Despite the fact that the challenges this ideological idea claims it will fix are actually structural, the British values project has become an obsession; the distraction the illusionist unfolds to divert the audience.

Last week, the United Kingdom’s communities secretary Sajid Javid said that civil servants (and presumably, in the future, all of us) should swear an oath to uphold British values, which would include “tolerating the views of others even if you disagree with them”, as well as “believing in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from abuse ... a belief in equality, democracy and the democratic process”.

Apparently this will help integration and make migrants play a positive role in the life of the nation. There’s a continuing subtext to this which is that the problems of our society are due to Muslims not integrating and being forced to adopt British values to solve this problem. But no one quite knows what those values are. Even our prime minister, Theresa May, in her previous role as home secretary, could not define “extremism”, despite developing policies to tackle it.

Yet the apparent lack of understanding by Muslims of British values is also, somehow, why Muslims are extremists. Except they are not. All polls suggest higher levels of identification with Britain than average, and similar support for, and opposition to, political terror as the wider public.

In the long backdrop of ensuring we continue to be fearful of those “other”, scary Muslims, the idea of an oath comes from a recent review on integration by a government-appointed tsar, Louise Casey, who brushes past the problems of far-right extremism and how it needs to be tackled, to conclude that Muslims are the problem.

With this constant drip, drip, drip, it’s no wonder the “problem” of British Muslims continues to dominate our thinking.

A recent Ipsos MORI poll asked populations across Europe how many Muslims they thought live in each country. While the UK Muslim population is just under five per cent, respondents estimated it at more than 15 per cent. As an aside, this discrepancy is even higher in France at 7.5 per cent and 31 per cent.

Mr Javid’s proposal of the oath comes the same week as a Muslim man was stabbed several times by an assailant who deliberately boarded a train shouting: “I want to kill me a Muslim.” A Muslim woman was dragged along the pavement by two men.

Whether it’s Berlin or Ankara, the starting point when we talk about extremism is to acknowledge and tackle all forms as different faces of the same cancer.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

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