One minister who understands the problem
Ruth Kelly's wake-up call about Islamism to Britain's Muslims and British society at large is far mo
When, in last May's reshuffle, Tony Blair appointed Ruth Kelly to deal with Islamism, I was sceptical, I admit. I felt the issue of how to integrate Britain's many different Muslim communities into wider society was too important to be dealt with by her newly created Department for Communities and Local Government. I called it a "minor department of state" that would not be equal to the task. I also questioned the wisdom of putting a devout Catholic in charge of Muslim cohesion.
I have been forced to reconsider. Kelly's recent statements show a sea change in government policy, driven by her determination to tackle the ideology of radical Islam head-on. Her speech on 11 October to groups representing British Muslims was a wake-up call not just to them, but to Britain at large. "This is a shared problem. It is a shared battle for the kind of society we want to be and the values that we all hold dear," she said.
Significantly, the Muslim Council of Britain, the UK's controversial umbrella body that claims to represent Islam in this country, was not invited, and Kelly has called on the organisation to show its capacity for genuine leadership. The MCB will receive no more state funding, she says, until it can show that it shares the common values of a democratic society: freedom of speech, equality of opportunity, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. The MCB's boycott of Holocaust Memorial Day, its dismissal of certain Muslim minority groups and the ambiguous attitude of its leaders to suicide bombing will no longer, it seems, be tolerated in Whitehall.
Kelly has made a bold decision to take the ideological battle to radical Islam. Although it has been subsumed in the debate over the veil, her intervention is far more significant than Jack Straw's opportunistic intervention on the issue of the niqab, which should convince no one of his commitment to liberal values. No other cabinet minister has faced up to these radicals, least of all Straw. As home secretary and then at the Foreign Office, he did more than anyone to bring the MCB into the heart of government, while turning a blind eye to the Islamist ideology that drove its leadership.
Downing Street has become increasingly concerned about moves within the Foreign Office to engage with representatives of Islamism abroad, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, as we revealed in the NS in February. On the domestic front, the Prime Minister wanted to tackle the problem of Muslim integration by wresting control of this area from the Home Office. He used the May reshuffle to make a fresh start.
The three most senior figures in the cabinet - Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Reid - all support the shift in government policy. But each in his own way is also an obstacle to progress.
There is no doubt that Blair understood the threat of Islamist ideology earlier than most in the government. But his stubborn refusal to recognise that British and American foreign policy has fuelled radicalisation, particularly through the war in Iraq, raises the suspicion that he is using the argument over Islamism as a smokescreen. Brown, meanwhile, has yet to engage his formidable mind with the problem.
It was only in June that the Chancellor spoke on a joint platform with the MCB celebrating the benefits of Islamic banking - just as his cabinet colleague at the DCLG was coming to the conclusion that she could not work with the organisation in its present incarnation. Reid is working closely with Kelly to develop the new approach. But it is difficult to see how a man who has questioned Britain's commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights and the prohibition of torture can be seen to share "the values we all hold dear".
Kelly's calm reassertion of her position after an angry response from the MCB to her speech shows she has not come to her position lightly. I am told that she spent recent months reading widely on the history of modern political Islam and that she has become fascinated by the subject.
One publication she has read is a short pamphlet I wrote for the think-tank Policy Exchange, When Progressives Treat With Reactionaries. I argued that the government has spent too long engaging with the representatives of an austere form of political Islam forged in the sectarian politics of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
I suggested five measures, four of which I stand by: a full public inquiry into the events of 7 July 2005; a royal commission into British Muslim integration; the revival of the extremism task force set up after the London bombings; and an end to the government's policy of "engagement for engagement's sake" with the MCB. My fifth proposal was that the Home Office should take the lead on cohesion and integration because it was too important to be left in the hands of Ruth Kelly. On this, I was completely wrong.