The anti-Muslim drumbeat has become deafening across the western world. As images of atrocities by the jihadi terror group Isis multiply online, and a steady trickle of young Europeans and North Americans head to Syria and Iraq to join them, Muslim communities are under siege. Last week David Cameron accused British Muslims of “quietly condoning” the ideology that drives Isis sectarian brutality, normalising hatred of “British values”, and blaming the authorities for the “radicalisation” of those who go to fight for it.
It was too much for Sayeeda Warsi, the former Conservative party chair, who condemned the prime minister’s “misguided emphasis” on “Muslim community complicity”. He risked “further alienating” the large majority of Muslims fighting the influence of such groups, she warned. Even Charles Farr, the hawkish counter-terrorism mandarin at the Home Office, balked. Perhaps fewer than 100 Britons were currently fighting with Isis, he said, and “we risk labelling Muslim communities as somehow intrinsically extremist”.
But Cameron and his neoconservative allies are preparing the ground for the government’s next onslaught. The target will not be terrorism, but “non-violent extremism”. Next month, from nursery schools to optometrists, health services to universities, all will be legally obliged to monitor students and patients for any sign of “extremism” or “radicalisation”.
The new powers represent a level of embedded security surveillance in public life unprecedented in peacetime. We already know from the government’s Prevent programme the chilling impact of such mass spying on schools, where Muslim pupils have been reported for speaking out in favour of Palestinian rights or against the role of British troops in Afghanistan.
But the “counter-extremism” bill announced in the Queen’s Speech is about to take the anti-Muslim clampdown a whole stage further. The plans include banning orders for non-violent individuals and organisations whose politics are considered unacceptable; physical restriction orders for non-violent individuals deemed “harmful”; powers to close mosques; and vetting controls on broadcasters accused of airing extremist material. It’s censorship under any other name.
That was the view of Sajid Javid, then culture secretary, in a leaked letter to the prime minister earlier this year. But Cameron shows every sign of pressing ahead with what amounts to a full-blown assault on basic liberties. Most ludicrously, the new powers are defended in the name of “British values”, including “individual liberty” and “mutual respect and tolerance”.
But as became clear in the aftermath of the murderous Paris attack on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, we are not all Charlie when it comes to freedom of speech. Anti-extremism powers will be used overwhelmingly against Muslims, rather than, say, non-Muslim homophobes and racists who have little interest in mutual respect and tolerance.
And they will fail, as their earlier incarnations have done, to discourage the small minority drawn to terrorism at home or jihadi campaigns abroad. Government ministers claim such violence is driven by “ideology” rather than injustice, grievance or its own policies. But, given that they refuse to speak to any significant Muslim organisation they don’t agree with or fund, perhaps it’s not surprising to find them in thrall to an ideology, neoconservatism, of their own.
Any other explanation for the terror threat would in any case implicate the government and its predecessors. In reality, it shouldn’t be so hard to understand why a small section of young alienated Muslims are attracted to fight in Syria and Iraq with Isis and other such groups. Jihadi “ideology” has been around for a long time. But there were no terror attacks in Britain before US and British forces invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and those behind every violent attack or terror plot have cited western intervention in the Muslim world as their motivation.
Isis has a different appeal to al-Qaida. It has taken huge stretches of territory using naked terror, destroyed borders and set up a self-proclaimed caliphate. In the Middle East it presents itself as the defender of Sunnis in a convulsive sectarian war. For a few young marginalised western Muslims, such groups can offer the illusion of a fight against tyranny and a powerful sense of identity.
But add in relentless media hostility, rampant Islamophobia, state surveillance and harassment of Muslim communities, and such alienation can only spread. In the past year, we’ve had the “Trojan Horse” Birmingham schools plot that never was, the ousting of an elected Muslim mayor of Tower Hamlets by a judge – including on grounds that he had exercised “undue spiritual influence” on Muslims – and evidence of an increasing level of anti-Muslim attacks. Islamophobia now far outstrips hostility to any other religion or ethnic group.
Ministers and their media allies downplay the role of “foreign policy” in Muslim radicalisation, against all the evidence. By foreign policy, they mean multiple western invasions and occupations of Muslim states, torture and state kidnapping on a global scale, and support for dictatorships across the Arab and Muslim world. That includes Saudi Arabia, of course, which shares much of Isis’s “ideology” and practices; and Egypt, whose ex-military leader, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, overthrew the elected president in 2013 and is soon to be welcomed to Downing Street.
Isis is itself the direct product of the US and British occupation and destruction of Iraq, and both countries back armed rebel groups fighting in Syria – as they did in Libya. So no wonder would-be jihadis get confused about who is on whose side. Western Isis volunteers are a disaster for Syria and Iraq, but so far they haven’t carried out return attacks at home.
That could of course change, not least as the government criminalises dissent, brands conservative religiosity “extremist” and, in the formulation of ministers, “quietly condones” Islamophobia. The British government has long fed terrorism with its warmaking abroad. Now it’s also fuelling it with its scapegoating of Muslims at home.
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