When a secular state interferes in the private religious affairs of its citizens, it is no longer secular or democratic.
Barely a week after the UK Government announced that Islamophobic hate crimes would be treated as seriously as anti-Semitic attacks, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a new set of counter-extremism measures on Monday, vowing to crackdown on both violent and non-violent elements of the “poisonous” Islamist ideology.
Whilst many within the Muslim community have continually failed to understand Cameron’s “carrot and stick” approach to extremism, many more have failed to question why the recording of anti-Muslim hate crimes was framed within anti-terror and counter-extremism legislation.
Evaluating this new piece of legislation, Dr Chris Allen, from the University of Birmingham, argued that whilst the recording of anti-Muslim hate crimes separately would practically counter those who dismiss the reality of Islamophobia, the key protagonists who lobbied the government did not question why the news about the new legislation emerged in the midst of the latest anti-terror and counter-extremism laws.
As Cameron outlined his new counter-extremism strategy, he and Home Secretary Theresa May mentioned that all police forces in the UK will be legally required to record Islamophobic hate crimes as a means to counter any objection from Muslim communities towards the new anti-extremism measures.
With regards to the new strategy, unsurprisingly it contains a number of highly problematic measures. Not only does it reinforce the draconian policies that first emerged in February under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CTS), but it also made it clear that the McCarthyite witch-hunt of Muslim preachers, organisations and institutions will continue. Of course, the mandatory twopence for the sake of “political consistency” was thrown in when the policy addressed far-right extremism, but in most part, the measures were targeted towards “Islamist” extremism.
ISIS and foreign policy
The frequent mentioning of events in Syria and Iraq involving the so-called Islamic State group – or ISIS – appeared to be the focal point of the wisdom behind the measures, similar to the CTS Act. The laughable predictability of Cameron and May using ISIS to rationalise this strategy but totally ignoring legitimate foreign policy grievances came as no surprise. Parents contacting the authorities and confiscating their children’s passports was presented as a practical means to prevent young Britons from joining ISIS, but understanding why some Muslims have left the comforts of life in Britain to fight a brutal dictator like Bashar al-Assad was given no attention.
Whilst reading the new counter-extremism strategy, I could not help but think that this country was steadily shifting towards a Stalinist police state. Mosque closure orders, extremism disruption orders, banning “hate preachers”, pressuring venues not to host certain organisations, granting the Charity Commission arbitrary powers to shut down charities, preventing “entryists” from working in the public sector, the NHS and with children; all based on ideas and beliefs, which allegedly contravene Britain’s secular liberal values.
The extremism strategy went as far as to mention the founding father of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Hasan al-Bana, its leader Syed Qutb, and prominent theorist Abu-Ala Mawdudi. It flagged the opposition to bid’a (innovation in religion) and the “doctrine of takfirism” as “key elements of Islamist thought”. It was reassuring to know that Cameron and the Home Secretary were able to display some grasp of theological terms, yet failed in demonstrating what components of this “poisonous ideology” could drive “non-violent extremists” to become violent.
Undoubtedly, this was an impossible task because the “conveyor-belt theory” which the government is peddling cannot be empirically substantiated, and has been consistently refuted by academics and the intelligence services. No matter how convincing neoconservative think-tanks and policymakers are when propagating this deluded theory, it will never stand any credible scrutiny.
Community Exclusion Forum
At a time of austerity, cut backs and creeping unemployment, Cameron also announced the allocation of £5m for “grassroots organisations” to fight extremism, which posed another dilemma. The Community Engagement Forum (CEF) that met Cameron at Downing Street last week consisted of organisations like the Quilliam Foundation, Inspire and members of the Ahmadi community – none of whom have an ounce of credibility within any British Muslim spheres.
The CEF excluded the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the country’s largest Muslim umbrella organisation, who described the new strategy as having a “McCarthyite undertone”. There were no prominent leaders from the Salafi, Sufi, Deobandi or Shia circles; perhaps the “Community Exclusion Forum” would have been a more apt term for Mr Cameron’s dream team.
Inevitably, funding and giving platform to bolster the subservient and compliant “moderate voices” to drown out the “Islamists” was expected. Ironically, while the British government defines an “Islamist” as someone who imposes their version of Islam on society, Mr Cameron and his secular liberal Muslim reformists see no problem with imposing their version of Islam on society!
Expectedly, the new counter-extremism strategy received strong criticisms from a wide spectrum of groups. Sir Peter Fahy, one of the most senior police officers in the country, told the Guardian that the measures could be counter-productive, and result in further alienating the Muslim community. Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham stated that the strategy could fuel “resentment, division and a sense of victimisation” among groups who felt they were targeted. Matthew Goodwin, who left the government’s Anti-Hatred Task Force after three years due to its lack of financial commitment and seriousness, commented on the “highly divisive” individuals and organisations that made up the CEF.
Ultimately, when a secular state interferes in the private religious affairs of its citizens, it is no longer secular. When governments use taxpayers’ money to fund initiatives and policies that will silence dissent and take away peoples’ civil liberties, it can no longer claim to be a free liberal democracy. If beliefs are criminalised and thoughts are policed, then surely these are the signs of a police state in the making?
Unfortunately, Mr Cameron is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Tony Blair, who created a battle of hearts and minds by declaring a war against the “evil ideology” of ‘Islamism’. As simplistic as it may sound, the solution to preventing extremism and radicalisation are the following: stop bombing and meddling in the affairs of Muslim countries, allow ideas to be debated, and do not criminalise orthodox normative Islamic beliefs under the facade of the conveyor belt theory.
If the UK government continues to ignore legitimate foreign policy grievances, and introduces more anti-terror and counter-extremism laws, it will further criminalise large swathes of the Muslim community, which in effect, can “radicalise” more Muslims.