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7 June 2007

Learning the Islam lessons

In one of Tony Blair's last public acts, Downing Street assembled an impressive conference on Muslim

By Martin Bright

There are two areas of policy in which Gordon Brown has shown little sign of interest during Labour’s years in power. The first is home affairs; the second is foreign affairs. Even though, as Chancellor, Brown has always been at the heart of policymaking on health, transport and education, he has rarely engaged with the ideas being grappled with at the Home Office or the Foreign Office, except to decide about funding particular projects. Even when paying for a boost in numbers for MI5 or for one of Tony Blair’s foreign adventures, he has seemed philosophically indifferent or detached.

Nowhere is this more striking than in the interlocking areas of national security and social cohesion, especially the tortuously complex issue of Muslim extremism. At a recent high-profile conference – Islam and Muslims in the World Today – which brought together theologians, academics and writers from around the globe, time and time again I heard the question: “But what does Gordon think?” The point is that no one really knows. I put it to one cabinet minister in attendance and the response was: “I don’t know. You tell me.”

To be fair, Brown has consistently said that the government must shift its approach to extremism within Britain’s Muslim communities away from a purely security-based strategy and towards winning hearts and minds. This, he says, should be based on the Cold War strategy used to fight communist ideology. How that might manifest itself in a 21st-century context remains a mystery. In fact, the conference, at which Brown spoke, as did Blair, marked an important change in the official approach. It could provide a model for the new premier.

The Labour peer Lord Ahmed slammed the event for exclu ding prominent representatives of the British Muslim community such as himself. The Islamic intellectual Tariq Rama dan wrote critically that the leaders of established British Muslim groups were not speaking from the platform. Both men were missing the point. The conference was a break with past practice, where all dialogue on Islam was filtered through self-appointed representatives such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) or hand-picked peers in the Lords.

Instead, speakers represented a huge diversity of thinking, from the Grand Muftis of Egypt and Bosnia to respected academics such as Professor Mona Siddiqui of Glasgow University and Tim Winter from Cambridge. There was also a range of speakers from Europe, including the Dutch MEP Emine Bozkurt and Imam Yahya Pallavicini from Italy’s Comunità Religiosa Islamica, who raised the question of whether it was possible to develop a distinct, European Muslim identity. The idea that these people are the running dogs of the British government is patently absurd.

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All in all it was an impressive gathering, although, shamefully, many of the delegates I spoke to said it was the first time they had been invited to an event that brought them into direct contact with government ministers. Behind the scenes, I discovered that the politics of the event had been fraught. It was organised by Cambridge University, but played out in a long-standing turf war between Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Home Office. Horse-trading over the invitation list took place between the departments until the last minute. My own place at the event was confirmed only 24 hours before it began, after Downing Street overcame Foreign Office objections to my presence following a series of critical articles in the New Statesman about British policy on Islam.

Elsewhere in Whitehall, the mood is fast changing and the Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has been central to this process. She has driven fresh policy, consulting a plethora of individuals and grass-roots organisations rather than the usual suspects such as Lord Ahmed and the MCB, which is now thought to have failed to deliver.

There are at least three departments, apart from the Home Office and the Foreign Office, that want a piece of the action: Communities and Local Government, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Education and Skills. There is huge potential for confusion here. Indeed, one of the few disappointments about the conference was the launch of the DfES report on Islamic studies at British universities, which was a throwback to the old style of thinking. Written inexplicably by Dr Ataullah Siddiqui, head of the Islamist Markfield Institute of Higher Education in Leicestershire, the report appeared to propose an injection of traditional religious instruction into the study of Islam. This would represent a worrying departure from the long-established university principle of disinterested academic inquiry.

One of Brown’s first priorities will be to establish a common approach. But the concern is that neither he nor anyone in his inner circle has a deep understanding of the issue or interest in it. Ian Austin, the Dudley MP and former adviser to Brown, has done much to bring together Muslims and non-Muslims in his Midlands constituency, but he would be the first to admit that he is no expert. Of the Chancellor’s allies, only Jack Straw has any experience. However, many delegates at the conference spoke privately of their trepidation at the return of Straw to the Home Office or the Foreign Office, which they fear would mark a return to the failed policies of the past.

Just as Blair’s Downing Street begins to devise a more pluralistic policy in its relations with Islam, it is imperative that Brown champion the approach being developed by those such as Ruth Kelly, and work to turn it into a sophisticated strategy that will help foster a progressive British Islam.

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