UK Politics

Muslim Voices

There’s a lot which is interesting in Madeleine Bunting’s account of the problems encountered during the course of producing the report of the Government’s taskforce to tackle Islamist extremism.

It is her conclusion which I find slightly odd:

The Commission for Racial Equality is in danger of losing patience with the Muslim community. In part, this is a turf war for government attention: should the focus be faith or race? But it is also an increasingly ideological position about a push to define common values – and the definitions used privately range widely to include tolerance of homosexuality, even participating in the social life of the pub.

The CRE’s push for this integration debate is in line with government thinking and the proposed commission on integration. The problem is that to Muslims feeling increasingly beleaguered and burdened with explaining themselves, the cosy huddle of integration begins to sound more like a smothering bear hug, designed to expose them to a whole new set of tests of whether they belong in the UK.

Now, there’s a familiar question: “should the focus be faith or race“. The answer, I think, should be neither: rather it should be the act of discrimination. If a person suffers substantive discrimination by reason of their ethnicity or identification with a cultural group, that is plausibly a proper concern of government. Identity, in its own right, is a significantly private matter, and so is not.

When the act of discrimination is the state’s focus, the definition which matters is that which is applied by the person who carries out the act of discrimination. You may have one black grandparent and consider yourself to be white. You may be a Coptic Christian with middle eastern looks. However, if a bigot denies you access to goods and services, or punches you, it’s his definition which is the problem.

Identity politics obscures the properly limited role of the state when dealing with with discrimination suffered by citizens. It isn’t always easy to exclude questions of identity and self definition from the process of combatting discrimination. Indeed, the experience of suffering discrimination – by virtue of ethnicity or membership of a cultural group – tends to reinforce a sense that one belongs to that particular group. However, ethnicity and cultural identity are not monolithic. Indeed, Bunting’s picture of a disparate, decentralised British Muslim community, divided along lines of age, ethnicity and affluence, suggests that a governmental search for partners within “faith communities” is doomed to failure. Like a spectre, the Government has reached out to embrace the Muslim “community” only to see it dissolve into mist.

In this context, Madeleine Bunting makes a strange criticism of the CRE policy makers. If I’m reading this correctly, she accuses them of believing – privately – that Muslims will not have integrated until they start frequenting pubs, and tolerating homosexuality. There are two things to say about this.

First, it would indeed be absurd were the CRE to seek to integrate society by creating common a pub-based culture: and I’ve seen no evidence that it is doing anything of the sort. But it is not ridiculous for a government agency to oppose and seek to discourage discrimination against individuals by virtue of their sexuality. It is telling that Bunting bundles the two issues together as if they were in some sense equivalent and equally objectionable.

Secondly, as Madeline Bunting’s article indicates, the Government’s search for a Muslim “community” with which to engage has been a futile one. Partnerships with unrepresentative, self important, self-appointed, and politically compromised groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain have been unproductive. Certain of those who have pushed themselves forward as consultees – such as the Rhodesian convert “Ahmed” Thompson – turn out to be bigots and conspiracy theorists. There’s a lesson, here, surely. Those who have devoted their lives not simply to religion, but to political campaigning in the name of their religion, are atypical. They are but one of the visible tips of a fragmented and diverse religious-cultural identity, which includes both the devout and, indeed, the pub frequenters. These figures do not hold the key to preventing terrorism, or indeed achieving anything at all. The strategy of classical colonial rule: appoint a headman to keep the natives in order” only suceeds in empowering the headman. Bunting, on that point at least, is right.

But what it boils down to is this. Any attempt to engage with the Muslim “community” is bound both to disappoint and fail. Citizens have a right to the equal concern and respect of the state: as individuals, not as members of groups, however subtly those groups are defined. Identity is ideological quicksand, and the Government would be wise to stay out of it.

Also, see Norm.