Confused? The cabinet certainly is

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The Independent Online

Even its most ardent supporters, who must by now be a dwindling band, could hardly accuse Tony Blair's government of being overburdened with great intellects. Geoff Hoon, John Prescott, Alistair Darling, Tessa Jowell - well, I hardly need to go on. What the Cabinet does have, and I don't believe that this is a coincidence, is an abnormally high number of church-goers. I was at university around the same time as some of the leading lights in New Labour and I never dreamt that my generation, which was radical, sceptical and secular, would throw up a government containing so many people with a direct line to the Almighty.

Even its most ardent supporters, who must by now be a dwindling band, could hardly accuse Tony Blair's government of being overburdened with great intellects. Geoff Hoon, John Prescott, Alistair Darling, Tessa Jowell - well, I hardly need to go on. What the Cabinet does have, and I don't believe that this is a coincidence, is an abnormally high number of church-goers. I was at university around the same time as some of the leading lights in New Labour and I never dreamt that my generation, which was radical, sceptical and secular, would throw up a government containing so many people with a direct line to the Almighty.

Robin Cook's resignation last year removed the Cabinet's most original thinker and one of the few senior ministers with a sensible attitude to religion. Cook never struck me as a fully paid-up member of the New Labour cult, which has embarked on any number of disastrous "faith" initiatives since 1997, including support for Creationist schools. This is, I think, one of the chief causes of the mess the Government currently finds itself in over Islam. On Friday morning, Radio 4's Today programme reported that the Home Office is so alarmed by the inflammatory teaching of foreign imams that it is considering placing strict entry requirements on Muslim clerics who come to Britain to preach. New arrivals will be expected to speak English and understand British values - more of these later - while 125 imams who are already resident here are about to begin a course to improve their skills in "faith leadership", whatever they may be.

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, said that the entry restrictions were being considered because Muslims in this country are at risk of "greater separation from the community as a whole". That's exactly why I oppose another of the Government's initiatives, state-funded Muslim schools, which divide children from each other on the basis of their parents' religion. There are only five of these to date but Baroness Uddin launched a report last week from Muslim academics and educationalists which talked about institutional racism and called for existing Muslim schools to be fast-tracked into the state system.

At a time when some young Muslims feel alienated from the culture they have grown up in, it is the height of folly to encourage further segregation in this way. And I suspect that ministers support this idea as a feeble gesture towards even-handedness, the alternative being to withdraw state funding from those Christian schools which they, like many middle-class parents, regard as a jolly good thing. I would go further and argue that the religious sympathies of New Labour, coupled with a fear of the catch-all accusation of Islamophobia, make the present government peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with the problem of political Islam in the modern world. They are not even sure what the problem is, judging by their contradictory statements, although it is clear enough to secular liberals.

Political Islam aims at fundamental change in the relationship between the individual and the state, restoring a degree of authority to Muslim leaders that Christian clergy have not enjoyed in this country for many years. In that sense, bogeymen such as Abu Hamza are useful distractions, suggesting that the problem lies in a lunatic fringe. Yet British mosques have been importing conservative imams from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for years, and the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of political Islam, have been circulating here for a long time.

Indeed it is often difficult to separate the demands of recognised militants and those mainstream members of the religion who advocate segregated schools, compulsory Islamic education and exemptions from school uniform for Muslim girls. Like evangelical Christianity, political Islam supports a conservative agenda when it comes to women, sexual conduct and education; unlike the Church of England, it seeks the power to enforce its own rules, even when they are in conflict with the values of the wider culture. Those values, which Blunkett chooses to call British - they actually derive from the Enlightenment - include a degree of individual freedom that militant religions find very difficult to tolerate. You don't have to be a secular intellectual to work that out, but it helps.

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