Radical Islam: ministers get the message

Martin Bright on how we are slowly discovering the way to engage with Muslim groups plus

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Attitudes about how to deal with radical Islam are now shifting so quickly within Whitehall that it is hard to keep up.

The detailed announcement from Ruth Kelly, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, on how she will spend £5m on grass-roots hearts and minds projects is a genuine break with the recent past, when ministers preferred to fund self-appointed national representatives of Islam such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) rather than those working on the ground with young people. A new focus on schools, local civic leadership and the establishment of "forums on extremism" in areas of tension such as Preston in the north, Dudley in the Midlands and Redbridge in east London shows that Kelly's department is grappling with a different approach.

The shift has been deemed necessary because the old approach patently failed. If the events of 7 July 2005 were not enough to persuade the British public of the real threat of home-grown Islamic radicalism, subsequent trials have dem onstrated that we are no longer dealing with an imported phenomenon. The conviction of Dhiren Barot, a British Hindu convert to Islam, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder last November, marked a new high-water mark for the authorities in terms of terrorist convictions. Barot, also known as Abu Musa al-Hindi and Issa al-Britani, was named as a key al-Qaeda operative by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 atrocities. Barot admitted to having planned attacks on the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank and the IMF from Britain, where he grew up after moving here as a child from Kenya. Recent research which revealed that young Muslims are more likely than their parents to show support for sharia law has fuelled concern about the growing attraction of radical Islam among young British Muslims.

I was recently invited to address an international conference in Berlin on Islam and integration, and I began my presentation by saying that British government thinking had changed so much in the past six months that my paper had to be considered as a work in progress. The title of my session at the conference was "Framing Values: government engagement with Muslim communities". It sounded like the title of a dull PhD, but actually provides the basis of a crucial analysis of the British government's approach. For too long, the government has addressed the second half of the proposition (engagement) without taking account of the first (a set of common values which all parties bring to the table). The conference, organised by the US Migration Policy Institute, the German Bertelsmann Foundation and the British-based Club of Three, part of the Weidenfeld Institute for Strategic Dialogue, was dominated by discussions about what might constitute these common and potentially conflicting values. (Should they be blanket values such as tolerance, respect, security and freedom, or something more specific such as tolerance of difference, respect for the rule of law, security from extremist violence, freedom from arbitrary arrest?) Delegates, who included representatives from several European governments, the US state department and the grand mufti of Bosnia-Hercegovina, agreed that the west was still finding it difficult to define its values, let alone assert them in the face of the growing attraction of radicalisation.

In July of last year, I wrote a controversial pamphlet published by the think-tank Policy Exchange in which I exposed the extent to which the British government and the Foreign Office in particular had made a compact with radical Islam. In the Middle East, this constituted a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, which works towards an Islamic state through the democratic process; at home this was largely expressed by the Labour government's long-standing relationship with the Muslim Council of Britain. Leaked Foreign Office documents showed that officials and ministers had adopted a policy of what one diplomat described as "engagement for its own sake" with ostensibly mod erate Islamist groups in an attempt to counter the influence of more extreme organisations. This policy had also been allowed to seep into domestic policy, over which the Foreign Office had, until recently, an extraordinary degree of influence. Using a series of articles in this magazine and a documentary on Channel 4, I argued for a change in policy to broaden the scope of the dialogue.

The influence of Ruth Kelly has been hugely significant in this respect. I was initially sceptical that her new department would have the clout to take over responsibility for community cohesion and integration or that she would have the political will to take on the established Muslim organisations. But, from the outset, she made it plain that it was important to frame a set of values before embarking on the process of engagement. She refused to engage with the Muslim Council of Britain, for example, while its leaders continued to boycott Holocaust Memorial Day. She has since said that no organisation will rec eive money from her department until they make explicit their opposition to extremism. Engagement is now contingent on signing up to a shared set of British values.

So far so good, but the problem is that such values are as yet ill- defined. Gordon Brown has attempted to promote the rediscovery of Britishness as part of his guiding philosophy. But even that is barely sketched out and seems, at present, to consist of a deep respect for the liberal economic model that is yoked to a belief in the old-fashioned (and somewhat imperialistic) notion of the British gentleman.

One possible course is outlined in research commissioned by the government's Preventing Extremism Unit from Tufyal Choudhury at Durham University, who was also present at the Berlin conference. Choudhury argues that many young Muslims are suffering an identity crisis which leaves them vulnerable to radical Islam. They feel alienated from British institutions and blocked in terms of social mobility. The most vulnerable are those exploring their own religion for the first time. Choudhury argues that a European or British version of Islam could be developed as a response to extremism.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party has been having some difficulty with its own shared values in recent years and may have shed too many of its old left-liberal attitudes to allow for genuine assertion of its core beliefs. Traditionally, Britain has always been tolerant of foreign ideologies in its midst, as political exiles from Voltaire to Marx discovered. It has been criticised by many in Europe for sheltering Islamists from the Middle East, and in particular Algeria, since the early 1990s. But it is not contradictory to say that it is possible to oppose the totalitarianism of the Islamic extreme right, while refusing to shed the civil liberties that give representatives of the same ideology protection from arbitrary arrest.

Only by robustly upholding the human rights of every individual will we be able credibly to oppose those who would present the seductive totalitarian alternative of a collective set of values based on a literalist interpretation of Islam.