ISIS – the Guardian’s solution

This is a rather odd way of describing ISIS and its latest terror attack:

… a violent campaign of disruption intended to destroy multiculturalism wherever it exists. With fear and terror Isis intends to sow mistrust and hatred between communities.

Clearly the writer is particularly anxious about the impact on community relations, and ISIS presumably would like to peel more Muslims away from Western society, but multiculturalism is hardly the most obvious of ISIS’ targets – this seems more like a description of the far right agenda.  (Breivik really was targeting multiculturalism.)

The writer goes on to suggest that a feeling of exclusion from society may draw Muslims to extremism.

That means tackling the Muslim experience, common across Europe, of economic exclusion. Too often to be a Muslim means underachievement at school, difficulty in finding a job, a struggle for promotion, a lack of successful role models. From a sense of shared injustice, a shared identity can develop, one that may be reinforced by, rather than springing from, religion as conventionally understood.

By seeking to downplay the role of religion in this process the writer doesn’t seem to be doing Muslim communities any favours given that other groups are also disadvantaged.  Anti-Muslim bigotry clearly exists and there seems good evidence to back up claims of discrimination. But young Muslims are doing pretty well educationally – by contrast with their parents’ or grandparents’ lower starting point:

Approximately one-third of Muslims have no qualifications, the highest of any religious group, whilst approximately a quarter of Christians and Sikhs have no qualifications.[66] However, approximately 53% of British Muslim youth choose to attend university.[67] This is higher than the figure for Christians (45%) and the non-religious (32%).[67]

The editorial expresses concern about the low level of Muslim engagement in public life and continues earnestly:

The British government’s view of counter-extremism is too narrowly drawn. It seeks to rank Muslims on a scale from “extremist” to “moderate” and to reward the moderates while punishing the extremists. It does not understand that any organisation that takes government money and support is quickly discredited among the very people it is meant to influence.

This is a rather loaded way of describing the situation.  The rhetoric suggests that it’s quite unreasonable to ‘rank’ views – but it seems fair enough to exclude some from the process, and to do so is not really ‘punishing’ them.  The last sentence is a bit ambiguous – is the act of taking government money itself a problem or is it simply the fact that a government-approved Muslim organisation is likely to be more liberal and secular which  proves the sticking point?  And what might the answers to those questions tell us?

The writer goes on:

Talking about “extremism” in this context can become confusing and damaging too. To call jihadis (who are often religiously ignorant when recruited) extremist Muslims suggests that they are also extremely Muslim. But there are many Muslims who are devout and passionate and who interpret their religion as demanding nothing more than peace and self-sacrifice.

If the criticism had been of the term ‘moderate Muslim’ this point might have been fair enough.  But ‘extremism’ has very clear connotations and is not simply a synonym for ‘extremely’.

After some more reasonable points about the phrases ‘religion of peace’ and ‘British values’ comes a real clanger.

Without compromising core values of human rights and equality, there needs to be a better-recognised space for faith communities in secular society. This year, a handful of primary schools in east London banned fasting during Ramadan, inappropriate and unnecessary since young children are not expected to fast.

This point – that Muslim children are not required to fast – was clearly noted in the letter sent from one of the affected schools.  The writer implies that this was a completely unnecessary preemptive move. However just because something is ‘not expected’ doesn’t mean that it may not be encouraged.

Reacting to the news Ibrahim Hewitt, a former headteacher, told 5Pillars that the school could not possibly justify the prohibition on health and safety grounds.

“I’ve had five or six year olds fasting in my school without any problems. Of course if a child’s health is suffering something should be done about it but in general schools or teachers should leave it to the parents and children to decide.”

He added: “How exactly is the school going to enforce this? Are they going to force-feed kids who want to fast? The fact is that Muslim kids see their parents and siblings getting up for suhoor and fasting and they want to be part of that.

And in this piece Usama Hasan notes how the parents of one young child insisted he be allowed to continue with 18 hour fasts.  One might imagine Usama Hasan would appeal to the editorial writer – he is extremely devout but not an extremist, and he confirms the writer’s view that fasting is not required of children by Islam.  However he is also associated with an organisation which many Muslims would see as ‘discredited’.

I’m sure there are many British Muslims who have thought rather less about the rival merits of MEND, iEngage, Quilliam Inspire, Cage and so on than the average Harry’s Place reader. But if it is true that the more liberal organisations are much less respected than the more ‘normative’ outfits – should that stop the editorial writer from at least considering the possibility that the government is correct to draw some red lines over who it deals with?  A comment made by Sara Khan giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee is relevant here:

I think we have to move beyond this idea of representation … I have an MP who I will go to if I have a problem and I think we’ve got to move beyond this idea of the Muslim community – that they need to be represented as Muslims – I find that a very toxic narrative.