THE GUARDIAN VIEW ON MUSLIMS IN THE WEST: MARGINALISED BY MISTRUST
Ministers should stop boasting about supposed British values. The debate about security in a diverse society needs to be framed in the language of human rights.
The book was in the college library, and a student enrolled for the very subject that it covered was spotted picking it up. The scene might not be so common as it was in the pre-Google era, but nor is it – one would hope – so rare as to prompt a college official to instigate a worried conversation, and then call for security. Indeed, the fact that this happened at Staffordshire University makes no sense at all until you know that the course was terrorism and security, the book title Terrorism Studies, and the student’s name Mohammed Umar Farooq.
Mr Farooq’s story comes to light within days of two tales about Muslim 14-year-olds, on both sides of the Atlantic. In Irving, Texas, young Ahmed Mohamed ended up in handcuffs after his homemade clock was presumed to be a bomb. Meanwhile, a young British Muslim, at Central Foundation Boys’ School, north London, was questioned about Islamic State for having referred to “L’ecoterrorisme” while discussing environmental activism in a French lesson.
Spin these three yarns together, and you get a sense of why many Muslims feel they are treated differently. Jihadi terrorism is a real but very rare phenomenon in the west. The suspicion it engenders, however, is more routine. That creates two dangers – the alienation of Muslim citizens, and then, as a consequence, the failure of a multicultural society to knit together. Where any part of the population feels walled off from the rest by mistrust, hostile ideas will be encouraged on one side of the divide, while ignorance sets in on the other. That ignorance is bad in itself, but it also hobbles those tasked with preventing terrorist acts. It is therefore not only liberals and multiculturalists but also smart security services that should worry about the state being too heavy-handed.
For as long as a distinct jihadi threat remains, the sad truth that is public policy will struggle to eradicate all anti-Muslim prejudice. But it can, at the very least, recognise the danger and try to prevent discrimination. It can and should prevent the whims of suspicious minds from aggregating into systematic differences in treatment. It ought to be possible. Britain has more than half a century of pertinent and broadly successful experience to draw on, since the passage of the Race Relations Act, and much of the necessary legislation is already on the statute books. But the don’ts are just as important as the dos, which is where things are going awry. Counter-terror initiatives must never be allowed to warp into social engineering; instead, they must build the broadest support by working to the narrowest of definitions. The first Cameron government, however, imposed a “new duty to prevent” support for terrorism on public services, from schools to hospitals, that would not ordinarily regard security as part of their work; and the second is moving towards enshrining a new definition of “extremism” which does not require any connection with, or even support for, violence.
David Cameron has talked about ditching “the passive tolerance of recent years”, and moving towards a “much more active, muscular liberalism”, which makes for good headlines, but could also trigger the systematic suspicion that’s so unhelpful. The mooted definition of extremism is opposition to “fundamental British values”, which only patriotically fundamentalist historians would pretend this country has always measured up to. “Mutual respect and tolerance”, for example, is listed as one such value, and reactionary attitudes towards homosexuality are increasingly held to be a warning sign in schools. But only a dozen years have passed since parliament scrapped its own sexual Jim Crow law, section 28, in a division in which Mr Cameron abstained; not 30 months have passed since the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, voted against gay marriage. And even if these much-vaunted values were more than humbug, at a time when 45% of Scots, and over 90% of Scottish MPs, are committed to dis-inventing Britain, the whole idea of “British” values is now contested.
The need is for a different language that talks to diverse society – a language that can condemn the vicious nihilism of Isis without lapsing into the sort of nationalism that could sound like chauvinism in disaffected Muslim communities; a language that allows the state to balance the objective of a happily integrated society with its duty to defend itself. That language exists: it is the language of international human rights. It is high time the government began speaking it, instead of seeking to undermine it.
- This article has been edited to correct the name of Ahmed Mohamed.