UK Politics

Unintended Consequences

Last week, Graham wrote:

My question is this: If we want to keep the [Richard] Reids of the future away from the Tanweers of the future should we not be co-operating with mainstream Islam, and if so how should this be achieved? It is unrealistic to think that society can prevent young people from seeking explanations for the world around them. Even speaking as a confirmed atheist I would suggest that you can no more keep young people away from the pull of religion than you can stop them from becoming Marxists.

To the extent that the “we” which is to do the “co-operating” is the State, I remain unconvinced to the value of such a policy.

Most importantly, although I have no objection to public officials talking pleasantly to clerics, religious leaders, and associated pressure groups, I do not think it is appropriate for the State to engage or co-operate in a formal manner with faith groups. The co-mingling of the activities of Church and State are a historical relic of an illiberal state. The less of it, the better.

Faith based groups have, however, been regarded for quite some time as ideal voluntary sector partners by government. Religious organisations – capable of assisting in the delivery of public services to otherwise difficult-to-reach cultural groups – are increasingly co-opted by government as intermediaries and facilitators. “Co-operating” with religious groups, as a means of dealing with social problems, is not a new policy by any means.

In short, that policy has been tried, and it has failed.

The expectation of Government is that the involvement of religious groups will inject a useful level of pluralism into the process of policy formation and service delivery. In fact, it empowers reactionaries and, worse, contributes to the balkanisation of minority groups.

In an article for OpenDemocracy last month, Delwar Hussain set out the process by which Muslim religious groups became part of the social services establishment:

The social policies of successive British governments have played a part in the long-term trend away from secularism and towards Islamism. The British state has since the early 1990s deferred to a generic idea of the “Muslim community”. This has increasingly enabled mosques to enter into partnership with local authorities to deliver social-welfare programmes.

[The East London Mosque and the London Muslim Centre] share with others based on Islamic principles a facility in targeting youth “at risk” and helping to curb anti-social behaviour.

[A]n effect of structural economic change in Britain …has been that local authorities themselves have funded faith-based initiatives that answer the livelihood needs of second – and third – generation Bengalis.

This funding has its origins in two significant events in the early 1990s – the Salman Rushdie affair (1989) and the Gulf war to eject Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait (1991) – that were crucial in the formation of the “British Muslim identity”. In their aftermath, Britain’s political establishment realised that British Muslims could not be ignored, believed that gestures towards fighting poverty and social exclusion would undercut support for specifically “Muslim”‘ causes, and at the same time sought (for economic and ideological reasons) to cut government funding to voluntary organisations. The result of these combined processes was the rapid emergence of faith-based alternatives in the social arena, whose agents urged individuals into using their “Muslim” identity to access particular services and to gain traction over social and political concerns.

While in earlier periods British Bengalis were known by their national origin, today they are seen as part of a homogeneous “Muslim community”. This is the irony of multiculturalism: policies aimed to create diversity in British society opened spaces for fundamentalist intolerance and homogeneity. Islamists have been the main beneficiary of these developments. The media may portray them as “backward” and “medieval” people who reject British values, but their demands on the British state have been and are legitimated within a government-created framework.

Of course, there is a close connection between religious groups and the delivery of benefits. Certainly, many religions place a strong emphasis on charity, and therefore religious people will often manifest a particular enthusiam for, and interest in, the business of taking care of others. However, the delivery of public services is essentially a matter of entitlement. It should not be confused with charity, which is an practice which is underpinned by a very different set of philosophical assumptions.

Moreover, social welfare provision has also been used by religious-political groups as a way of building their power-base. Hamas and Hizb’allah are paradigm cases. Therefore, when engaging with “mainstream” religious groups, the State should take particular care to ensure that it understands, properly, the nature of that religious group’s political agenda.

The focus of Delwar Hussain’s study is the East London Mosque and the London Muslim Centre: organisations which share “the ideology of Jamaat-e-Islami”:

The fight of secularists against racism and poverty appears bland compared to the ardent certainties of religion. In Bangladesh, secularists and the left have been marginalised and suppressed by the post-2001 ruling coalition. While the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – and George Galloway in London – seek to ride the Jamaat-e-Islami tiger for political gain, the prospects of this strategy for resolving the enduring questions of social justice, equality and diversity are dim. Jamaat and other fundamentalist groups are sowing the seeds of future conflict, as well as obscuring more hopeful and humane pathways to equity and harmony for Bengalis, in both Britain and Bangladesh.

The irony is this. The State has engaged, actively, and in a well intentioned manner with religious groups, with the aim of combatting “Muslim alienation”. Paradoxically, in following that path, it has ended up partnering with one of the most extreme and dangerous factions in religious politics: in a manner which has increased the power and profile of that group.

It is no answer, either, to say that we should engage only with religious groups which are “mainstream” and “moderate”. Many of those involved in extreme religious politics have situated themselves right at the heart of the religious establishment. Indeed, Muhammad Bari – the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain – is former chair of the East London Mosque Trust and the former President of the Islamic Forum Europe, which organised ExpoIslamia: at which attendees were told that they should think of themselves as “”Muslims in Europe” and not “European Muslims””, and that they should aspire to die for their beliefs.