How do you react to the news – the result of a major BBC survey - that 11 per cent of British Muslims sympathise with fighting against the West? That 20 per cent of them believe Western liberal society can never be compatible with Islam? That 11 per cent feel that organisations which publish images of the Prophet Mohammed deserve to be attacked?
I find these numbers profoundly disconcerting. But they are far from surprising.
For years, Islamists and other extremists have taken advantage of grievances of Muslims in Britain, and have successfully identified ways to integrate them under one “Islamic” banner. Sensitive issues such as Palestine, Kashmir, and Iraq have been used to bring together Muslim communities under unified goals. As a result, separate Muslim education programmes have increased among these communities, and inter-marriages between Muslims of different cultural backgrounds has become the norm. Through this, extremists hoped to create a religious “Islamic” identity that transcends, and grows on, ethnic and cultural differences. It appears to be working. Half of British Muslims interviewed stated that prejudice against Islam makes it very difficult to be a Muslim in this country. Some 51 per cent do not believe that Muslim clerics who preach for violence against the West are out of touch with mainstream Muslim opinion. Increased sympathy for an Islamist cause, lack of integration, and the absence of acceptance of Muslims into British society makes it harder for Muslims to challenge Islamism, and tough for non-Muslims to understand it.
Islamism is a desire to impose a version of Islam over society, anywhere. It can also include an effort to introduce it here, in the country where we reside via entryism. By refusing to challenge its roots, and its inherent biases, we increase negative spillover effects on all Muslims who live here. This manifests as prejudice. The way to tackle Muslimphobia is to tackle prejudice against Muslims. What it is not, is to pretend that Islamist extremism does not exist.
Let me give you an example. Instead of integrating with wider society, many Muslim communities in Britain have integrated on a wider scale with their own Muslim communities. They do this based on ethnic background, culture, common language, and country of origin. They follow television channels and news from within their own communities, while spending less effort interacting with the wider culture, social affairs, life skills, and appreciating the laws of their own countries. Some 31 per cent of British Muslims interviewed stated that they would like their own children to go to a Muslim state school, if they had the choice.
Disintegration from British society creates a breeding ground for preaching of religious hatred, and fosters a range of religious and political grievances. Broader social concerns within Muslim communities, such as discrimination, integration or socio-economic disadvantages, should be treated distinctively and not as part of counterterrorism agenda, which has been counter-productive. We cannot risk further isolating marginalised Muslim communities.
Moreover, there is a problem with viewing Muslim communities exclusively through a lens of their religious identity. It is entirely normal for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to have multiple facets to their identity, and an excessive focus on just one reinforces the Islamist paradigm that we should be trying to avoid. Promoting pluralism and understanding that gender, geography, economics, sexuality, hobbies and nationality are often as important to an individual as their religion, will allow for some fresh thinking. Supporting British values might seem like an overt focus on nationality, but really it fosters inclusivity and will help us tackle extremism, building a stronger Britain.
Beyond this, we must break this trend by pushing back against underlying narratives. This will require not just the voice of Muslims, but the whole of civil society standing in solidarity with those Muslims who are brave enough to challenge extremists in their midst. Islam is an idea: like other ideas, it must be open to scrutiny. But supporting secularism and challenging Islamism is not fighting “Islam”. It is moving from extremism to liberal pluralism. By neglecting to challenge extremist views, we will only increase anti-Muslim bigotry.
This is what happens when you ignore Islamist ideology. It’s time for a wakeup call.
Maajid Nawaz is the Lib Dem candidate for the Hampstead and Kilburn constitiuency is north London, and the author of ‘Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism’