Muslim by label and British by happenstance

Muslim by label and British by happenstance
Comment: A government report released this week pinpointed the counter-extremism Prevent programme as one of the main factors holding Muslims back, writes Sophia Akram.
5 min read
06 Jul, 2017
'While the premise of the report is offensive, the solutions presented offer some hope' [Getty]

This week the government released a report they commissioned from Citizens UK, which showed concern that they're "losing Muslims" in civil and political life, apparently preventing them from contributing to the fabric of society.

"The Missing Muslims" report kindly reminds us that "Muslims make a significant contribution to the country, adding an estimated £31 billion plus to the economy". In addition, "Over the last fifty years, significant numbers of British Muslim citizens have become active across a wide range of professions."  

And in case there was any confusion, it states that Muslims are not a "homogenous" community.

So, despite their value, and varied experiences, why do "they" not integrate?

The premise on which this report exists really serves to answer this question.

That there is "significant skepticism across British society about the integration, and even the shared allegiance, of their British Muslim fellow citizens" is projection of other people's perceptions onto the "Muslim community".

Perhaps though, British Muslims would participate more in the fabric of political and civic life if they were granted the virtue of owning one half of their identity - being British.

'The Missing Muslims' report kindly reminds us that Muslims make a significant contribution to the country

One thing the report did do, was highlight some damning indictments on British society that could well be to blame for othering Muslims struggling to "integrate".

Preventing integration

It's interesting that this report pinpointed the Prevent programme as being one of the main factors holding Muslims back.

This is a tune commentators and campaigners have been singing since the policy's inception, and under both governments. The programme, which uses people in a position of trust and authority to identify "worrying" behaviour has - many claim - backfired.

Instead of preventing extremism, it has created a "climate of hostility, sowing fear, division, mistrust and prejudice by reinforcing racist stereotypes, stigmatising Muslim communities and in effect encouraging ethnic profiling." writes Professor Marie Breen-Smyth in The Guardian.

British Muslims are put under unfair pressure to assert their commitment to "British values", setting up
an opposition between the two

This makes those of the Muslim faith feel that they are under constant suspicion. And can even mean Muslim children will face discrimination due to counter-extremism measures such as Prevent.

When the evidence pointing to the strategy's counter-productivity outweighs the "evidence" in favour of its effectiveness, it's time for the strategy to be revisited.

Promoting prejudice

The report also puts a spotlight on the destructive impact of much media coverage. The Pizza Express 'halal meat' scandal is one such example that was overblown to imply a sinister 'takeover' by Muslims.

But the demonisation of Muslims takes far more vitriolic forms than this, fuelling anti-Muslim sentiment. This could not be have more apparent, than in an incident that saw one toxic right-wing commentator's tweet quoted at the scene of a hate crime.

Read more: Attacks by Muslims 'receive 4.5 times more media coverage' than those by non-Muslims

The context within which this report has been created highlights the dichotomy between two types of extremism that currently exist in Britain.

Quite rightly, the country was in shock after an attack in Westminster, mourned the barbarity of a suicide bombing at a Manchester concert filled with children, and stood in defiance after a knife rampage in London Bridge.

Those responses legitimate, and Muslims - as members of British society - stood with others in shock, disgust and contempt, demonstrating solidarity. But with equal alarm, hate crimes that many will also call "terrorism" - as part of an Islamophobic agenda - are increasingly becoming part of the security landscape.

Skepticism over the 'Britishness' of British Muslims denies them parity in their status as members of society

Skepticism over the "Britishness" of British Muslims denies them parity in their status as members of soceity. Their mourning must always be a big(ger) gesture, and their suffering is not as worthy.

They are Muslim by label and British by happenstance.

This manifests itself when deplorable acts are cast in the name of religion. Nesrine Malik described what is expected as a "coordinated, coherent culpability on behalf of all Muslims". But both Islamist and Islamophobic extremists have been socialised in a British society, so any discussion about collective culpability must also concern the British people.

What is 'being British'?

YouGov polls that call into question the "shared allegiance" and integration of Muslims, are misguided. Other evidence shows that British Muslims overwhelmingly identify with "being British". One Policy Exchange poll even found that the number of Muslims who voted was proportionately higher than the overall voter turnout.

Read more: Why this Muslim is waiting for a white apology march after Finsbury Park attack

The barometer on which this is often based - so-called British values - also assumes not only that Muslims may not inherently possess these values, but that British values are better than non-British values. Here again, we see the arrogant suggestion that western culture somehow has the monopoly on integrity and civility.

David Cameron once insolently determined that Muslim women must learn English to integrate, so as not to be lured by Islamic State. Cameron should have been told that Muslims' allegiance to their country is not necessarily dictated by conversations they may or may not be able to have with their English speaking neighbours.

Such allegiance can also come from their own values - including those that might be dictated by religion - to obey the law of the land, the covenant of security, and unambiguous rules against murder.

In terms of values, there is shared moral ground between "British" and "non-British", and between Muslim and non-Muslim. So why pit one against the other?

The possible path to extremism

While the premise of the report is offensive, the solutions presented offer some hope.

Citizens UK highlight that those less likely to integrate are disadvantaged through lack of opportunity and discrimination. And such factors feed into the cycle of dissatisfaction that can lead to radicalisation.

To "unlock the potential of Muslims" is therefore, not without value. But this should go without saying, and should work across every group regardless of race, religion or other identity.

In Britain, more equality, more opportunity and greater levels of satisfaction will encourage integration, and will reduce crime, hostility and suspicion towards others.

So the burden of integration doesn't fall on Muslims alone. In Britain, we simply need to integrate.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff