Do we have to treat Muslims as Muslims?

Will the advent of Gordon Brown seriously change the Government’s approach towards radical Islamism? Since the abortive attacks on a London night club and Glasgow airport, much energy has been expended on two issues: whether we can or can’t call terrorists Muslims and the number of days that the police can detain jihadi suspects.

But another, even more important, battle is being waged behind the scenes. Who should be the Government’s chosen Muslim partners in the struggle against radicalisation? Mr Brown is already facing a big push from an Islamist-friendly faction in the Cabinet, led by Jack Straw and John Denham, to bring the once pre-eminent Muslim Council of Britain back in from the cold.

The MCB was cast into outer darkness in October by Ruth Kelly, the first Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The breaking point for the Blair Government had been the MCB’s denunciation of British foreign policy in the aftermath of the airlines plot of last August. Mass casualties had been narrowly averted – but the best that the MCB could do was blame the West. Far from challenging extremism ideologically, it was appeasing it.

The MCB lost government money, but it always had plenty of funding from other sources. What really hurt the MCB was the loss of influence, as Government sought to engage with a wider range of groups such as the Sufi Muslim Council. How to get back inside the tent has therefore been a serious goal for the MCB in the intervening period; it had been counting the days till Mr Blair’s departure.

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In fact, the MCB has often condemned terrorism in the UK: quite apart from anything else, bombs in London fouled the nest and prematurely altered the terms of trade in an anti-Islamist direction. Indeed, the continuities in its language are as apparent as the discontinuities. Once again, it has condemned attacks on innocents – leaving open the question of whether attacks on those who aren’t “innocent” remain “legitimate targets”.

And of course, it leaves open the question of who determines innocence and non-innocence. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi? Tariq Ramadan? This raises the next question: are certain kinds of foreign jihad still kosher? And if the MCB thinks they are, who can be surprised when there is a bit of “blowback” on to Britain’s streets?

The truth is that MCB’s new-found “revisionism” is extremely limited and owes rather more to tactical than ideological considerations. It has not undergone a public transformation, after the fashion of a Hassan Butt or an Ed Husain. If the views of Inayat Bunglawala, its assistant general secretary – as expressed recently on Newsnight – are anything to go by, it still largely blames Western foreign policy for the discontents of the world. By underwriting these attitudes, it contributes mightily to the grievance culture that fuels violent jihadism.

But the Straw-Denham faction will not have it all their own way. Another grouping, including Hazel Blears, the new Secretary of State for Communities, and Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary – backed, significantly, by some of the Muslim MPs – remain unconvinced about the extent of the change in the MCB. Ms Blears resisted strong pressure to attend the MCB’s recent conference held at Regent’s Park mosque on July 7 – which would have constituted an important sign that it enjoyed renewed favour.

The problems with the MCB run far deeper than the issues of the day. For the price of winning the support of the MCB in the struggle against violent jihadism on these shores is high indeed. The coin in which they must be paid is the further ideological radicalisation of Muslim communities.

The MCB’s vision of the future for Muslims in the UK is light years removed from Mr Brown’s conception of Britishness. Its recent document on education Towards Greater Understanding: Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils in State Schools is a charter for segregation of the sexes – and urges strict controls on how dance, drama and sports are organised. More Arabic lessons all round, too – in line with the traditional Islamist aim of “Arabising” Britain’s predominantly South Asian Muslims.

This kind of sectionalism is perhaps more entrenched in the public services than Mr Brown realises. Why, for example, is there an Association of Muslim Police? Why is there a Civil Service Islamic Society? Why do such organisations have so little to say about Britishness? Why does “integration” seem to take place on their terms?

The worst aspect of the renewed push for respectability by the MCB is that it caters to the delusion among policymakers that there is some kind of body that can “deliver” Muslims. A Policy Exchange survey this year revealed that a mere 6 per cent of Muslims believe that the MCB represents them – and 51 per cent believe that no organisation here currently does so.

A truly radical approach would be for the State to stop treating British citizens who happen to be Muslims mainly as Muslims. In other words, why does the Government still deem their religious affiliation the most important thing about them in the public space? A prime minister from Scotland – a country that has largely left behind its sectarian past – can surely understand that.

Dean Godson is research director of the Policy Exchange think-tank

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