The UK government’s view of ‘Britishness’ leaves minorities liable to be dubbed “extremist,” curbs debate and promotes animosity
In light of the debunked Trojan Horse investigation of an alleged “Islamist plot” to take over Birmingham state schools, the passing of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act in February, and the recent announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron of a new Counter-Extremism Bill, the discussion about the Muslim community’s acceptance of “British values” has been taking place within many circles of power and influence.
Amid a climate of increasing Islamophobia and the rise of far-right groups in the UK, Muslims have found themselves in a situation where they are at risk of being labelled “extremists” for supposedly failing to accept “British values” – an arguably ambiguous term that in reality means many things to different people, including non-Muslim Britons.
Over the past year, Muslim schools, charities, and public speakers have been under immense pressure to subscribe to “British values,” something that is loosely defined but frequently referred to by politicians and the media when labelling large sections of the Muslim community as “extreme”.
Furthermore, when legitimate questions are asked and these “values” are scrutinised by Muslims, in many cases it is perceived by some as an act of disloyalty to Britain.
‘What British values?’
As it stands, the current Tory government has defined “British values” as: belief in democracy, rule of law, individual freedoms and religious tolerance.
A fortnight ago, I was in central London filming a trailer for an upcoming debate on Islam’s compatibility with British values, organised by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA). I asked about 30 Caucasian UK-born non-Muslims to describe or define “British values” in four words.
Of course, under no circumstances can 30 people qualify as a significant quantitative specimen for serious research. Additionally, my interviews lacked any qualitative meaning, as I did not ask the public the simple follow-up question: “What do you mean by that?” – considering words are vehicles to definitions. Nevertheless, their responses were indicative of the confusion surrounding the concept of British values.
To my surprise, “I don’t know” and “What British values?” were the most common answers, along with “pride,” “patriotism” and “honesty”. There were a few who stated “tolerance,” “equality,” and “freedom of speech,” but not a single person mentioned two values stated by the government in their answer, let alone all four.
Naturally, these responses got me thinking – how absurd it is for the government to have such a rigid definition as a criterion to dictate who or what an “extremist” is in legislation such as the CTS Act and the proposed Counter-Extremism Bill, yet white non-Muslims who were born in this country failed to include those four values in their responses.
Thus, enforcing a specific definition on an entire religious minority poses a number of problems.
The cultural and socio-political implications aside, successive British governments’ commitment to these very values are questionable. Let me briefly explain why:
• Democracy – Like its numerous predecessors, if the current British government claims to be a global “champion of democracy,” it is rather disconcerting when it supports the most undemocratic and dictatorial regimes across the Muslim world; President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi (Egypt), Sheikh Hasina (Bangladesh), Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan), the Gulf sheikdoms and Israel, to name but a few. The aforementioned regimes are infamous for their brutality against its citizens and the suppression of political freedoms.
• Rule of Law – The MPs’ expenses scandal and the delayed investigation behind a child sex ring at the heart of the political establishment are two prime examples of how senior politicians are above the law, and in many cases are reprimanded lightly compared with laymen for comparable wrongdoings.
• Religious tolerance – The CTS Act, the proposed Counter-Extremism Bill and the Government’s Prevent strategy clearly demonstrate how major aspects of normative Islam cannot be tolerated and is consistently referred to as “extreme”. The irony is that everyone can discuss and debate Shariah law, Islamic State, jihad and Syria, except imams, scholars and mosques – unless they’re peddling the establishment’s narrative.
• Individual freedoms – Proposed Extremism Disruptive Orders, Mosque Closure Orders, the Draft Communication Data Bill, banning Muslim speakers from universities, and pressuring venues to cancel Islamic events, are all examples of how individual liberties such as the freedom of speech exist, except for those who oppose or criticise the Government.
Monitoring people’s online activities unrelated to violent criminality, spying on Muslim pupils as young as five, and acting as “thought police” are basically Draconian attempts to silence political dissent by over-playing the fear factor of national security to pass legislation.
Taking the above into consideration, one cannot help but humbly advise the government to practise what it preaches.
Islam and British values
British Muslims, predominantly from the Indian subcontinent, have been living in peace since they arrived in the UK as economic migrants after World War Two. It was only after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent “War on Terror” invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq did Britain face a real terror threat, albeit an arguably small one. Anglo-American foreign policy has been the main catalyst of most, if not all, the risks this country faces from international or home-grown terrorism.
Undoubtedly, an ultra-minority of Muslims have adopted fringe theological methodologies and positions pertaining to citizenship and warfare, but this should not be conflated with normative Islam, which is intentionally misconstrued by policymakers and neoconservative think-tanks when advocating the academically and empirically flawed “conveyor belt” theory.
Inevitably, there are common values that Muslims share with Britain and the whole of humanity in general, such as kindness, politeness, giving charity, and looking after the elderly, sick and needy. However, Islam’s ontological foundations and world view are unique compared to all other belief systems.
Therefore, it is imperative to allow open debate to take place around Islam’s compatibility with “British values,” both on a grassroots and policymaking level, because failing to subscribe to the current definition set out by the government leaves people exposed to being labelled an “extremist”.
If dialogue around this topic amongst many others is censored, the worrying Orwellian shift that Britain is steadily moving towards can lead to animosity and resentment towards the Muslim community, due to a lack of understanding and fair representation.
This article was exclusively written for the Middle East Eye.