Saturday, October 14, 2006

the muslim card in britain

British politicians and the 'Muslim card”'

It is a tradition of British politics that to accuse a politician of “playing the race card is to make one of the most unpleasant allegations possible against a political figure. Such an allegation implies that the politician is stirring up fears about race and immigration for political ends. For example in the May 2005 general election campaign of May 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair accused the Conservative Party leader Michael Howard of playing the race card when Howard announced a new hardline policy on immigration.

But since the four suicide bombings in London on July 7 2005, in which the young British Muslim bombers killed themselves and 52 other people, the discourse of leading government and opposition politicians have become less inhibited about speaking out on matters relating to race and immigration. Thus the Home Secretary John Reid told the Labour Party conference in late September that mass migration is causing a feeling of “anxiety” and “unfairness” among the British, and that he favours “tighter immigration controls, and identity cards.”

While issues around race, immigration, asylum and community relations are being discussed with increasing frankness by politicians on all sides, the “race card” is increasingly being replaced by the more specific “Muslim card”. It is clear that the “Muslim card” will be a significant factor in the forthcoming contest to succeed Blair as leader of the Labour Party, and in the next general election.

The government’s relations with the Muslim community of between 1.6 and 2 million people have become strained since the 9/11 2001 terror attacks in the US. The tensions have been increased by Britain’s close alliance with the US in the “war on terror”, its military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently Blair’s policy on Lebanon.

The effort to try to detect and combat extremism among some parts of the British Muslim community has become a priority for the government since the terror attacks of 9/11 and July 7 2005.

Since the London suicide bombings, the police claim to have uncovered several other suicide plots. On August 10 Home Secretary John Reid announced that a plot had been disrupted in which suicide bombers were to have blown up several aircraft flying from the UK to the US.

Anxiety about extremism has led the government to abandon the concept of “multiculturalism” on which race relations policies were based for the past 30 years. The emphasis is now on increasing the integration of communities, so that they do not live separated, parallel lives. Such racial segregation was blamed for the serious riots in summer 2001 in Bradford and other northern English cities with large Muslim populations. The government has created a new Commission on Integration and Cohesion, which was launched by Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Ruth Kelly in late August.

On October 11 Kelly announced that only Muslim groups which prove they are trying to outlaw extremism and to “defend values that the vast majority of us share” will in future receive financial aid and engagement from the government. She strongly criticised those Muslims organisations (meaning primarily the Muslim Council of Britain, although she did not name it) for their refusal to attend the annual Holocaust Memorial Day. The Muslim Council of Britain angrily responded by saying it has had dialogue with the government about this in the past, and has called for it to be named as a genocide memorial day rather than one naming only the Holocaust.

The government has urged the Muslim community to do more to tackle extremism. It was annoyed when in August Muslim politicians and leaders wrote an open letter to Blair warning that British policy is putting civilians at increased risk in the UK and abroad. The letter called for “urgent” changes in UK foreign policy.
Home Secretary John Reid furiously denounced the letter as a “terrible misjudgement” and said no competent government would remain in power if its policies were “dictated by terrorists.”

Since late September several members of the cabinet and other government officials, as well as the Conservative Party leader David Cameron, have made challenging statements about the Muslim community.

The most controversial remarks came from the leader of the House of Commons, and former Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw who said he would like Muslim women in Britain to stop wearing the “full veil” or niqab.

Straw’s remarks triggered an intense debate in Britain and abroad. He claimed he had spoken out for the sake of community relations, because the “full veil” hinders proper communication between people. But some commentators believed his remarks were really aimed at increasing his chances of becoming deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Tony Blair said it was “perfectly sensible” of Straw to raise the issue. Blair said: “How do we make sure people integrate more, how do we make sure people aren’t wanting to separate themselves out from the mainstream of society?”

The Higher Education minister Bill Rammell in an interview with the Evening Standard published on October 11, backed universities that ban Muslim students and staff from wearing the niqab. Imperial College, part of London University, recently banned the face veil, and Rammell said “I think this is arguably the best decision.”

The Home Secretary John Reid is increasingly being thought of as a possible rival of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Gordon Brown for the Labour Party leadership after Blair departs.

Reid’s tough stance on terrorism and security has enhanced his public image. In his speech to the Labour Party conference, Reid accused the Conservative Party of being “too soft on terror”.

He said there can be no compromise or appeasement with terrorism. “If we are going to ask the decent, silent majority of Muslim men – and women – to have the courage to face down the extremist bullies, then we need to have the courage and character to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in doing it.”

Reid added: “When the terrorists or their loud-mouthed sympathisers tell me that we won’t be allowed to raise our arguments in this or that part of the community, my answer is simple. Yes we will. This is Britain.”

The Home Secretary warned: “There are, and there will be, no ‘no-go’ areas in our country for any of our people, whatever our background, colour or creed. We will go where we please, we will discuss what we like and we will never be browbeaten by bullies. That’s what it means to be British.”

Reid’s reference to there being “no no-go” areas referred to an incident that happened during his first speech to Muslims, on September 20, in the Leytonstone area of East London.

During Reid’s speech a well-known extremist Jamaican convert to Islam, Abu Izzadeen, interrupted him loudly shouting “how dare you come to a Muslim area when over 1000 Muslims have been arrested? You are an enemy of Islam and Muslims, you are a tyrant.” Izzadeen was removed from the meeting by police.

In his speech to Muslims, Reid demanded that Muslim parents keep an eye on their children for signs of radicalisation by extremists. Reid warned: “These fanatics are looking to groom and brainwash children, including your children, for suicide bombings.” But some Muslim leaders accused Reid of asking Muslim parents to “spy” on their children.

In his speech to the Conservative Party conference, the party leader David Cameron also brought up Muslim issues. Newspaper reports were headlined: “Cameron says ‘Ban Muslim Ghettos in British Cities’.”

Cameron called for more contact between communities, and a sharing of common values. He particularly focused on faith schools, and said the new generation of Muslim schools must be “part of our society and not separate from it.” He called on Muslim schools to follow Church of England schools and admit a quarter of their pupils from other faiths.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who until recently seemed certain to follow Blair as leader of the Labour Party, has been emphasising the need for increased “Britishness” and shared values. In a speech to Chatham House on October 10 he said “The debate Jack Straw has encouraged about the veil will continue.”

Brown said anti-terror policies will be a priority in his review of government spending. He announced plans for pre-emptive action to seize the assets of suspected terrorists, on the basis of covert rather than open intelligence material. He will also target “dubious charities”.

The security of a nation and its people has to be the priority of a government. But some of the recent statements by politicians risk raising the temperature and creating an anti-Muslim backlash. There are already signs of this. There has been near-hysteria in the tabloid press, with the publication of sensational stories about Muslims. Some Muslim women have been attacked in public and had their niqabs or hijabs removed since Straw spoke out against the niqab.

Politicians must be very careful how they play the “Muslim card”. A significant rise in anti-Muslim feeling directed not only at the dangerous extremist fringe but at the community as a whole could increase that very extremism that the politicians say they wish to combat.

Susannah Tarbush
Al-Hayat, October 14 2006