David Cameron's scapegoating will have a chilling, toxic impact. Blaming Islamists and multiculturalism for the backlash from US and British wars risks fuelling violence on the streets.
By Seumas Milne
9 February 2011
English Defence League marching in Bradford 2010
In parts of Britain, Muslims are effectively under siege. They are routinely spat at and abused in the street. Over the past couple of months there have been arson and other attacks on mosques in Hemel Hempstead, Leicester, Scunthorpe, Stoke and Kingston, as well as desecration of a Muslim graveyard and fire-bombing of a halal shop.
Most of these outrages weren't even reported in the national media, let alone the occasion for a supportive visit from a government minister. As elsewhere in Europe, far-right organisations such as the British National party have increasingly switched the focus of their hatred from Jews and migrant populations in general to Muslims. More than half the "significant demonstrations" in the past 18 months, according to the Inspectorate of Constabulary, were mounted by the English Defence League, which only targets Muslims, smashing shop windows and assaulting passers-by whenever it manages to break through police lines in mainly Muslim areas.
As the Conservative party chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi said last month – and was roundly abused for doing so – Islamophobia has also "now crossed the threshold of middle-class respectability". It is the last socially acceptable form of bigotry, often dressed up in the clothes of liberalism.
So when the EDL organised a "homecoming" march last weekend in Luton, did the prime minister use the opportunity to condemn the racially inflamed provocation of a gang of Muslim-baiters and show solidarity with fellow British citizens under threat? Not a bit of it. He didn't even mention what was going on in Luton. Speaking the same day in Munich, of all places, he turned his fire instead on "Islamists", "state multiculturalism" and "non-violent extremists" in the Muslim community.
Muslims must embrace "British" values of freedom, democracy and equal rights, he declared, as if the vast majority didn't do so already. Jihadist terror attacks were not driven by British and US wars in the Muslim world, he insisted – in the face of his own intelligence reports – but by an "extremist ideology" rooted in problems of "identity".
And, grotesquely comparing non-violent Islamists to "rightwing fascists", he warned that there would be a strict checklist of Muslim bodies the government would not now work with or fund (including the umbrella Muslim Council of Britain). He did criticise Islamophobia, but that passing comment was drowned out by the drumbeat of condemnation targeted at Muslims and their political organisations.
Not surprisingly his speech has been hailed by the far right. The BNP leader Nick Griffin called it a "huge leap for our ideas into the political mainstream". EDL activists, who constantly echo the established political and media discourse about "extremism", and "Islamism", were jubilant that Cameron had "come round to our way of thinking".
It also represents a decisive and dangerous victory for the neoconservative group in the Tory leadership, including Michael Gove, William Hague, George Osborne and Liam Fox. Backed by the government-funded Quilliam Foundation and their media cheerleaders, the neocons have pressed tirelessly to end residual official engagement with mainstream nonviolent Islamist groups, hitherto aimed at isolating the genuinely extreme groups actually in the business of blowing up buses and tubes.
On the other side, one-nation Tories and Liberal Democrats such as Warsi, Dominic Grieve and Nick Clegg have tried to hold the line for a more inclusive approach towards the kind of Muslim political activism you might imagine would be welcome in the prime minister's world of British values.
Cameron himself warned three years ago about the "lazy" use of terms such as "Islamist" that risked demonising the Muslim community, as Warsi did about "extremism". He's now carried out a U-turn, just in time to give a dog whistle to Tory supporters drifting away under the barrage of coalition cuts – and to a party for the most part yet to come to terms with multicultural Britain at all.
The silence from the Lib Dems, who dined off Muslim votes in the aftermath of the Iraq war, has been deafening. Labour's Sadiq Khan accused Cameron of "writing propaganda for the EDL", but much of the ground for Cameron's neocon turn was laid by Tony Blair and New Labour – and politicians such as Phil Woolas, who unsuccessfully tried to play the Islamophobic card to save his skin.
By blaming the threat of terrorism on multiculturalism, Cameron has signalled that ethnic minority policy will now be driven by an alarmingly skewed conception of state security. By groundlessly claiming that "we" have held back from condemning forced marriages among Muslims because they're not white, he's feeding racist prejudice.
And by branding political Islam as extremist, he's playing on the ignorance of those for whom Muslim and Islamist are as good as indistinguishable. What is called Islamism includes a wide spectrum of political trends, peaceful and violent, socially conservative and progressive, from Turkey's ruling party to al-Qaida. Mainstream Islamists, certainly including almost all the groups Cameron is now casting into outer darkness, are in fact committed to democratic freedoms.
What Cameron and the bulk of the British political class cannot acknowledge is that their continued support for the war on terror and occupation of Afghanistan, far from keeping the streets safe, is the crucial factor in the continuing threat of terrorism in Britain.
The revolutionary upheavals taking place in Tunisia and Egypt should offer the western powers a chance to change direction. After all, backing for despots across the Arab worlds such as Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak has long been one of the central grievances at the heart of Islamist (and nationalist) politics, in the region and beyond. It would be bizarre if just as the British and other western governments are having to come to terms with Islamist movements in the Middle East, they were treating their counterparts at home as enemies of the state.
The practical policy consequences of Cameron's neocon turn may be modest. But its wider impact is likely to be chilling and poisonous. If the government's message is that peaceful independent Muslim political activism is beyond the pale, it won't just be regarded as hypocritical and undemocratic – it will strengthen the hand of those committed to violence.