On Monday 13 May, Dilwar Hussain of the Islamic Foundation led an evening seminar at King's College London, 'British Muslims: Identity, Integration and Policy'. Hussain is the well-respected head of the Policy Research Unit and Senior Research Fellow at the foundation, and also serves on the board of the Commission for Racial Equality in the UK. He's the co-author of British Muslims Between Assimilation and Segregation: Historical, Legal and Social Realities (2004) and has also written several op-eds, not least a rebuke to charges of extremism laid at the door of the Islamic Foundation by the BBC Panorama programme in 2005.
Hussain describes the construction of modern British 'Muslimness' - encompassing a plurality all too often overlooked - as an ongoing negotiation of inherited identities. First, as the 'Other' (black), passing through the continental (Asian), national (Pakistani, Bangladeshi, etc) to the current situation in which many Muslims define their primary identity as religious. He outlined the internal and external drivers of this evolution, the latter including the oil crises and Middle East wars of the 1970s, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and the Satanic Verses affair a decade later. Critical events of the 1990s, like the genocide in Bosnia, 9/11 and 7/7 further served to polarise Muslims in opposition to notions of statehood and nationality, preferring instead to identify with their religion and the global ummah. More than ever, the tensions of hyphenated identity are being laid bare.
These intra- and inter-community stresses are sometimes exhibited - although this was not a point laboured by Hussain - in radicalised and 'extremist' behaviour. Perceptions of Muslims, howsoever they identify themselves, are driven by negative portrayals in the television and newspapers. The media has passed up chances to rectify this, feeding Muslim grievances of victimisation and marginalisation. This positive feedback loop of mutual reinforcement of stereotypes was the one issue for which Hussain, like everyone else in the room, was at a loss to suggest too many positive remedies. The idea of press censorship should rightly be rejected but self-censorship will also not take place if we are to believe that 'hate' and hyperbolic narratives sell newspapers. We have recently seen in the US top-down policy recommendations to tone down the language used in the War on Terror, would such an approach work in the UK? Hussain thinks not - such initiatives will only be successful from the bottom up, within local communities, via local news outlets and through community integration (equality, participation, interaction).
Hussain set out policy recommendations to facilitate this transition to integration. To the Muslim communities:
- develop a stronger sense of British identity, and encourage ownership of local space. Interestingly, he suggested that this was one positive aspect of the riots in northern cities in recent years - the reclamation of streets by Muslim youth was a function of their refusal to accept racism and discrimination
- evolve a new Islamic 'contextual theology' to address the challenges of living in the West, principally being a minority in a pluralist secular society
- become aware that whilst demanding rights for themselves non-Muslims should also not be denied them
- develop education systems that equip all Muslims to live in Britain; this includes not necessarily importing imams from more traditional societies
- realise that the answer does not always lie with the state - the development of local and civil society can fulfil roles inevitably denied to the state
For government, and more broadly, British society:
- recognise the contemporary and historical contribution of Muslims to British and Western society
- encourage increased equality in all walks of life
- develop a more open and trusting civic space that welcomes, rather than penalises, honest debate
- foster greater public literacy about religion, especially Islam
- move beyond the 'security' paradigm
It's the latter point which is of most importance. It's also the most difficult to achieve. British foreign policy is undoubtedly a major factor in shaping domestic opinions; domestic perceptions help shape community identities. Whilst Hussain's policy prescriptions for remedying some of the negative trends in British society are laudable it is hard to see how they can be successful, at present anyway. This is not at all to suggest they are worthless. The opposite in fact, but they must be operational in tandem with a broader strategic narrative that addresses the causes of grievance within the communities. It is correct that in the domestic context, any attempt to frame debate without mention of extremism would be immensely helpful. But the fact remains that it can't be achieved in isolation from an international situation in which the British are deeply embroiled.