Question Time – Part #2 “”What’s going wrong in the public discourse on British Muslims?” Prof Arun Kundnani and Rashad Ali discuss

By Myriam Francois|August 19, 2015|Question Time|2 comments

Continuing the conversation on “what’s going wrong in the public discourse on British Muslims?“, two leading voices, Prof Arun Kundnani (NY university) and Rashad Ali (Institute for Strategic Dialogue) offer their analysis.

Prof Arun Kundnani –  Lecturer at New York University:

In each of the last fourteen years, essentially the same speech has been delivered by one or another UK government minister. From Tony Blair, David Blunkett, Hazel Blears, and Ruth Kelly to David Cameron and Theresa May, the message has been identical: Britain is said to be in crisis because a minority of Muslims have cut themselves off from the rest of society, advocated their own distinct value system and thereby created the conditions for extremism and violent disorder. In their essentials, there is little difference between David Cameron on integration in 2015 and New Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett on integration in 2002.
Public discourse on integration and extremism rests on this longstanding, cross-party consensus. Its origins lie in the Labour Party leadership’s ideological transformation in the 1990s. As Labour’s embrace of neoliberalism meant it had less ways of distinguishing itself in social and economic terms, so it turned to questions of identity, culture and values in the hope that these could be used to stitch together an increasingly fractured social fabric. Earlier, Prime Minister John Major had hoped to bind Britain together with a notion of unchanging Englishness, quoting Orwell’s “old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist”. By the late 1990s, New Labour politicians understood that such an image had no basis in the social realities of modern Britain. Instead, they advocated a “third way” nationalism based on progressive liberal values. When Cameron now claims that what defines Britishness is “equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith”, he is following a Blairite script.
The official definition of an extremist is someone who rejects British values. For the sake of political correctness, care is taken to emphasise that extremists also come from the far Right. But the association between extremism and excessive belief in Islam has already been solidified in the public mind. Thus Muslims have found themselves constructed as the “ideal Other” of a new cultural nationalism. They are the solution rather than the problem, the screen upon which a refiguring of national identity can be projected and the object of a racialized surveillance gaze.
Of course, it makes no sense to understand British identity as an expression of liberal values. Cultural values like freedom are not the property of any one nation. Nor does Britain’s history display a deep cultural affection for equality; quite the opposite. And there is of course a glaring contradiction in Cameron’s anti-extremism policy, which restricts freedom of speech in the name of defending “British” freedoms.
Yet this is more than straightforward hypocrisy. The deeper point is that official discourse starts from the assumption that cultural difference is the chief threat to British society. On a geopolitical level, this position is known as the “clash of civilisations” thesis. It has been widely discredited on the grounds that it displaces what are actually global political conflicts onto the more comforting plane of cultural essentialism.
The same is true on the domestic level. In real terms, the people of England, Wales and Scotland no longer have a shared collective identity. Cameron’s project is a ghostly enterprise: to bring back the spirit of a dead Britishness to cover up deepening social antagonisms. The fear of an “external” enemy fostering religious segregation serves to distract us from actual class segregation. We concede too much, therefore, if we accept the culturalism of public discourse on British Muslims. A better response is to relate what appear to be primarily cultural differences to the social and political antagonisms they are expressions of. The question is not whether Muslims can be integrated into some version of Britishness but who gets to decide what Britishness means and whether a Britain can be imagined free of empire and racism.
Rashad Ali – Senior Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue:
Image result for rashad ali

The Muslim diaspora and the Muslim question

Muslims in Britain, British Muslims, the Muslims Community, Muslim communities, among other phrases and expressions are all used with different connotations, as well as the obvious denotational differences.

There are commentators on the political Right who would prefer to essentialise Muslims in Britain and seek to do so purely through the lens of their religion and religious identity. Not all. But some. Often this is done whilst ironically telling Muslims they need to integrate, be British in their identity, be loyal and feel like they belong to the UK. Not realising that this is in itself arguably a little problematic, seeking Muslims to identify not only through the lens of religiosity and religious identity whilst having essentialised them through a religious identity. Note many now will do the mandatory, “not all Muslims are extreme and most are moderate etc”, whilst often implying that those Muslims who do not share the above political narrative are some kind of fifth column extremists, giving rise to often unfounded, but understandable concerns, of fear mongering and perceptions of the police state being created against Muslims.

Conversely Muslims are equally contradictory.

It is not uncommon for language to be used in speaking of how Muslims experience British society, implying both a shared and common experience and uniformity of views. There is also a tendency which then looks at Muslims as a whole as being persecuted and in reaction to parts of the Right, some of the Left appear to then speak on behalf of Muslims and the community as victims of the essentialised right wing discourse, whilst falling prey to a similar discourse. One that looks at all Muslims through a similar lens and as victims; which leads to them criticising all who do legitimately critique abhorrent views about women, apologetic perspectives on suicide bombing of civilians, and ludicrously wild conspiracy theories which are given a pass as independent thinking. The net result is the implicit defence of these attitudes and groups becoming mainstreamed in Left wing discourse as just how Muslims think, inadvertently providing support to those essentialising Islam and Muslims as authentically barbaric or extreme.

In the mix of the above, government policies have also created further tensions. Namely, the contentious content of extremism policy, which major Conservative MPs, like the former attorney General, have criticised – rightly – pointing out that one doesn’t defend the idea of free speech by banning speech that is “within the law”. Combine that with the diametrically opposed tabloidesque media on the Left and the Right and we get some press speaking of Muslim rape gangs and others speaking of the authorities trying to deradicalize 3 year old under the Prevent strategy (a strand of the State’s counter terrorism policy) and we can see the completely irrational discourse that surrounds us. Both of the above are obviously problematic. I know of no one who has claimed religious, theological or ideological motives in the UK for such behaviour in the former case and in the latter, the media coverage was sensational and plainly absurd, yet appeared in apparently respectable Left wing (and some Right leaning) press.

In this context, it is not surprising that we see a huge polarisation happening within the Muslim diaspora in Britain. So it is not surprising that there exists both contradictory emotions and attitudes among the population in general. Most surveys show Muslims in the UK in general feeling more British than their compatriots. Yet it is also so true that many do feel that wider society does discriminate against them.

It is true that we have some Muslims speaking of their experiences with certain policies and certain institutions and also experiencing horrid anti-Muslim attacks and behaviour. It is also true that other Muslims come out and speak of the opposite interaction with government policies and agendas, which they see as hugely engaged in Muslim communities, and gaining wider support from many.

The reality is that Muslims are not one bloc, with one vote or one political view. Nor do they share one set of experiences and attitudes. The recent sectarian graffiti and treatment of Shias in some northern cities is the negative side of that diversity and religious cultural differences.

A friend of mine who is a very successful and articulate Muslim female, who produces great media and has worked throughout various institutions, a few months ago was verbally abused for wearing a headscarf. It was a horrid experience. Denying this sentiment exists in society is foolish and dangerous. At the same time another person who was not Muslim stepped in and stood up for her. Defending not just her and her abstract right to wear what she wants (she was wearing a headscarf) and her identity as a Muslim, but more basically as a human being. This was not just a positive to be taken away from that horrid experience, but also hopefully an indication of where we can stand together as a society.

Muslims are as diverse as any other fraternity of believers. In their views, experiences, politics and religion and identities. There are major challenges they face and there are disparate ways they face these, collectively, within themselves as smaller communities but also as people belonging to British society. These include wider social perceptions, fears, stereotyping and essentialising by the Right and patronising by some on the Left, in addition to fundamentalist and reactionary voices within and combined with the challenges facing all peoples.


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About Myriam Francois

This is the official blog for the SOAS-CIS. It aims to encourage scholars to debate and engage with the wider public on the basis of their research and will foster discussions about mainly UK and also European Integration discourse as relates to Islam and British Muslims. We tweet @SoasCis

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