|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 204 Dec/Jan 2016/17
The Battle for British Islam: reclaiming Muslim identity from extremism
Written by Sara Khan, with Tony McMahon
Published by Saqi Books, 2016, £14.99
Reviewed by Michael Barker
On the whole, The Battle for British Islam defends the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy, a Home Office policy which ostensibly aims to stop people (most particularly Muslims) from becoming terrorists, but in reality does nothing of the sort. At times, however, Sara Khan does raise some glancing criticisms of the government’s "draconian" methods. Khan states: "As Muslims in the UK face increasing anti-Muslim attacks, there is a sense that the media are only too happy to report Muslims as perpetrators of violence but never as its victims". And that "the media has not captured the life experience of most ordinary Muslims who are not involved in these activities".
To provide evidence of the long-standing demonization of Muslims, Khan quotes from the conclusion to a Leeds University study, which highlighted how "representations of Muslims in the British media are persistently negative, unfair and discriminatory and have subsequently contributed to establishing a climate of fear or a ‘moral panic’ with the Muslim ‘folk devil’ at its heart". (The Media and Muslims in the UK, March 2012) She also refers to a more recent Cardiff University study (British Media Coverage of the ‘Migrant Crisis’ Amongst the Most Aggressive in EU, 17 March 2016).
However, Khan downplays the systematic nature of this demonization: "British media outlets have inadvertently provided grist for the far-right propaganda mill". In fact, the majority of the mainstream media is owned by right-wing moguls who have actively encouraged their media outlets to demonize people from Muslim communities. The Daily Mail has relentlessly spread this kind of hate and fear, something made clear in the two aforementioned studies. Khan writes that "a March 2015 poll conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Programme reveal[ed] that over half of British voters (55%) believed ‘there is a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society’…" And she is correct to state: "Such emotional responses are further exploited by the far-right to nurture anti-Muslim hatred".
Contrary to this persistent narrative in the mainstream media, Khan also notes: "Most opinion polls among Muslims evidence a strong endorsement of being British. A study by the think-tank Demos showed that British Muslims tend to be more patriotic than the average citizen". Khan then adds the proviso: "This may be the case, but a parallel trend over the past twenty-five years has seen some British Muslims become ever more conservative on social and equality issues", and that, "the seemingly unstoppable growth of puritanical and Islamist ideology in Muslim communities troubles me deeply".
Although not given prominence in Khan’s tale of ‘radicalisation’, she does hit on a key issue: "Islamist groups [like the Muslim Brotherhood] have been present in the UK since the 1960s, but from the late 1980s faced ‘a significant challenge for community support from militant Salafists who had returned to the UK after fighting in Afghanistan and regarded the Brotherhood as ineffective’."
A few pages later Khan explains how a group that was founded in 1984 by Abu Muntasir actually "spearheaded the spread of Salafism in the UK". Khan writes that he had previously "waged jihad in the 1980s and 1990s fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Burma, Bosnia and Chechnya". She notes that Muntasir now rejects violence, but at no point does she make the obvious connection between the support given by the British and US governments to such militant Salafists and the growth of right-wing political Islam in Britain.
This tragic connection has been highlighted by Seumas Milne. Commenting on the brutal killing of off-duty soldier, Lee Rigby, in a south London street in 2013, Milne observed: "To say these attacks are about ‘foreign policy’ prettifies the reality. They are the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others in eight direct military interventions in Arab and Muslim countries that have left hundreds of thousands of dead. Only the wilfully blind or ignorant can be shocked when there is blowback from that onslaught at home. The surprise should be that there haven’t been more such atrocities". (Woolwich Attack: If the Whole World’s a Battlefield, That Holds in Woolwich as well as Waziristan, Guardian, 20 December 2013)
Khan adds that Milne "has set out in other articles a prevalent view among many in the mainstream left that ISIS is not just an accidental by-product of military action by the west in the Middle East. Milne previously cited a 2012 secret US intelligence report that countenanced a ‘Salafist principality’ in eastern Syria. Milne does not assert that the UK and US directly created ISIS but that it exploited the existence of the group against other forces in the region. Essentially, he sees ISIS as fitting into an imperialist project of classic divide and rule".
But even after citing such damning evidence, Khan massively underplays the role of western-power intervention and duplicity in the Muslim world. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Khan should also brush aside the influence of social deprivation on the alienation of working-class communities, Muslim or otherwise. Khan writes: "Some believe the overriding factors are poverty and social deprivation feeding a grievance against western society". However, she says that this "brushes over the fact that many convicted terrorists" come from middle-class backgrounds. But it is hardly controversial to think that better educated (and, perhaps, less impoverished) individuals might become radicalised by the ever-increasing levels of social and economic inequality within society, even if they personally do not suffer its worst ravages.
Following on from this, Khan also spends a good proportion of her book attacking the legitimacy of the democratic concerns of trade unions, the primary organisations of the working class that fight for economic and social justice. Two of the main unions in the education sector (the National Union of Teachers, and the University and College Union) – as well as the National Union of Students – oppose the Prevent policy. Above all, this is because Prevent puts the burden on teachers and lecturers to act as the state’s thought-police, monitoring student activities and duty bound to report ‘suspicious’ behaviour.
Khan seeks to besmirch all criticisms of the government’s anti-terrorism strategy. At the same time, she is a little too keen to excuse any government action that can be construed as racist as largely being down to accidental "miscommunication". In January 2016, for instance, when the then prime minister David Cameron announced "a £20-million fund to help Muslim women with little or no command of English", he linked it to the need to counter the rise of Muslim extremism. Khan admits that drawing such a link was "counter-productive and unnecessary", but says the fund "had plenty to commend it, advocating gender equality and real freedom of choice for both women and girls – all good progressive stuff". In reality, it was a savage cut-back dressed up as anti-terrorism. This £20-million fund was announced shortly after the government had slashed £45 million from the English for Speakers of Other Languages programmes!
The current Tory government – like the Con-Dem coalition and New Labour governments before it – represents the interests of the 1% establishment at the expense of the rest of us. So in much the same way that the capitalist political establishment sought to demonize socialists during the cold war – including those opposed to Stalinist dictatorship – governments have now found a ready scapegoat for society’s ills in Islam. Sara Khan is a willing partner. Contrary to her claims, Prevent is a key part of the government’s counterproductive counter-terrorism strategy that not only demonizes, but also creates a climate of fear that can only exacerbate the alienation and anger of Muslim people.