by Fahad Ansari
The centre of Luton, a large town 30 miles north of London, lay empty on February 5. This was unusual for a Saturday afternoon, as one would have expected the usual hustle and bustle of shoppers and families frequenting parks and markets in the town centre. Instead, it was like a ghost town. Shops were closed and people remained indoors. The only presence on the streets was that of 1,000 police officers who were waiting to steward a scheduled demonstration by the far right anti-Muslim fascist organization, the English Defence League (EDL).
Over 2,000 people attended; some came from other parts of Europe to show their hatred of Islam and animosity toward Muslims. It is not surprising that Luton was empty because the last time the EDL marched there, Muslim homes, businesses and masjids were attacked by the thugs, with little or no protection from the police. Unlike other Far Right groups, the EDL’s members comprise divergent communities — white, black, Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, homosexuals — all united in their opposition to Islam and Muslims.
More than half the “significant demonstrations” in the past 18 months, according to the Inspectorate of Constabulary, were mounted by the English Defence League, which only targets Muslims, smashing shop windows and assaulting passers-by whenever it manages to break through police lines in mainly Muslim areas. Since their formation, there has been a rapid increase in the number of Islamophobic attacks in the UK, including arson attacks on several masjids, desecration of Muslim graveyards, physical assaults on Muslim men and women, in addition to the daily verbal abuse and spitting which has become as common an experience for Muslims in Britain as wet weather and fish and chips.
One would have expected that at times like this, ministers would publicly condemn such activities or perhaps even make a supportive visit to the Muslim community. Neither has happened. Instead, at a time when Muslims lay besieged in their homes, British Prime Minister David Cameron was giving a speech at an international security conference in Munich (of all places) condemning “Islamist extremists” which he defined essentially to be those Muslims who believe in Islam as a political system, as opposed to merely one’s private beliefs. Moreover, in Cameron’s view, rejecting violence as a modus operandi, does not take such individuals out of the definition of an extremist, since one’s ideology remains problematic as it is opposed to Western political and liberal values. Cameron proceeded to denounce multiculturalism and urged Muslims to embrace British values of “freedom”, “democracy”, and “equal rights”.
Cameron casually dismissed concerns raised by the “soft left” that the root causes of terrorism are poverty, Western foreign policy, and Western support and sponsorship of brutal dictatorial regimes across the Muslim world. Rather than even accept the immorality and unjustness of the above, he simply insisted that the root cause was the extremist ideology of “Islamism” and lack of identification Muslims in Britain had with the UK.
Cameron made no mention of the EDL or of the events that were happening in Luton that day, events which alienate Muslims from British society more than multiculturalism ever has. Cameron had the opportunity on February 5 to show Britain’s Muslims that he stood with them against the far right homegrown fascists who constitute a real and significant threat to their safety and security. Instead, he chose to mimic their language in the land where the brutal consequences of fascism are still fresh.
Naturally, Cameron’s speech was welcomed by the far right. EDL leader Stephen Lennon is reported to have said, “He’s now saying what we’re saying. He knows his base.” Leader of the British National Party (BNP) Nick Griffin described the speech as “a legitimisation of our message” and “a further huge leap for our ideas into the political mainstream.” Even in Europe, Cameron’s words were received with adulation. The leader of France’s National Front praised Cameron for what she said was an endorsement of her party’s views on multiculturalism and immigration. “It is exactly this type of statement that has barred us from public life [in France] for 30 years,” she told the Financial Times. “I sense an evolution at European level, even in classic governments. I can only congratulate him.”
Cameron and his Coalition Government have essentially set off where New Labour finished — the demonization of Muslims and an attempt to create a “government Islam”. Cameron has used the bat of multiculturalism to bash Muslims by falsely conflating it with issues of security and terrorism. If multiculturalism and identification of oneself by one’s faith is the problem, then why no terrorist attacks have been committed by the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in North London who have completely isolated themselves from the wider society, more so than Muslim communities in the North of England? The problem is political, not cultural.
Furthermore, despite overwhelming evidence that previous terror plots, both successful and averted, have been committed by Muslims completely integrated into British society and motivated solely by anger at British foreign policy, the issue has now been narrowed down once again to the issues of integration and identity. Take Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the London bombings in July 2005. He was a teaching assistant who impressed parents, colleagues and pupils at the school where he worked. As a teenager, he called himself “Sid” and spent most of his time playing football with white kids. His motivations were not that he had a problem with his identity but because, in his own words “Your democratically elected governments continually perpetrate atrocities against my people all over the world. Your support makes you directly responsible. We are at war and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.”
Terrorism is neither a cultural nor religious problem; it is a political problem. This is further corroborated by the 2008 TE-SAT report on European Terrorism which found that in 2007, only 4 out of 583 (0.007%) attacks were “Islamist” in nature. In 2006 it was 1 in 498. This flies in the face of Cameron’s bold assertion that “this threat comes in Europe overwhelmingly from young men who follow a completely perverse, warped interpretation of Islam, and who are prepared to blow themselves up and kill their fellow citizens.”
More problematic in Cameron’s speech was his parrotting of New Labour’s position on the criminalisation of political belief, even if it was accepted that such a belief, did not promote violence. For years, Cameron has threatened that if he were in power, he would proscribe Hizb ut-Tahrir, not because they promote violence, but because of their political ideology which espouses a revival of the khilafah and the implementation of Shari‘ah. Now that he has become Prime Minister, it appears he is preparing to do just that. But it is not only about Hizb ut-Tahrir; it is about all those who believe in Islam as more than one’s private faith concerned merely with rituals.
Cameron said, “Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority. At the furthest end are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of Sharia. Move along the spectrum, and you find people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist worldview, including real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values.”
As Seamus Milne pointed out in his piece in the Guardian, “What is called Islamism includes a wide spectrum of political trends, peaceful and violent, socially conservative and progressive, from Turkey’s ruling party to al-Qaida. Mainstream Islamists, certainly including almost all the groups Cameron is now casting into outer darkness, are in fact committed to democratic freedoms.” Through such a simplistic “conveyor belt to terrorism” argument, (one which Tony Blair and his ilk tirelessly exhausted during their time in office), Cameron has criminalised Islamic political thought. To even discuss the plight of Muslims around the world is to spread “misinformation” and come within the fold of being a “preacher of hate.”
The issue of preachers of hate is something which Cameron promised to crack down on as well and in recent months, personalities such as Dr. Zakir Naik, Bilal Phillips, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to name a few, have all been banned from the UK, primarily due to their statements against Israel. On the other hand, Islamophobic community leaders such as Rabbis linked to the terrorist outfit, the Jewish Defence League, have been permitted to enter the UK and preach hatred against Muslims at the invitation of the EDL. Pastor Terry Jones, of Qur’an burning fame, was also only recently banned after national uproar when he too was invited to speak at an EDL rally.
So much then for British values of freedom of speech, that appear to be selective in application rather than constituting a value at all.
Amazingly, while Cameron threatens to proscribe non-violent Muslim organisations, the very violent EDL continues to operate freely without restriction, marching on Muslim areas and attacking Muslim homes, businesses and individuals. Yet, the government fails to take even such a threat to the Muslim community seriously. Foreign Secretary William Hague defended the timing of Cameron’s speech: “This is a prime minister giving a speech about the future of our country, that doesn’t have to be re-scheduled because some people have chosen to march down a street that particular day.”
For the EDL, this is a battle for British “values”. For the government, it is a walk in the park. For Britain’s Muslims, it is a matter of life and death. Unfortunately, to say even this could go against British values and be considered high treason.