Over the last few weeks I have been at Georgetown University, Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral, a few local authorities, a Mosque, with parliamentarians and several Catholic gatherings to speak on, and discuss, the emerging policy response to British Muslims. With sadness I have come to the conclusion – post ISIS, post Charlie Hebdo – that we are rapidly reaching the point where reasoned policy conversation is almost impossible in some of these settings. And that there is possibly an acute problem emerging in some British Catholic and Evangelical circles.
Policy-making usually goes tragically wrong when it ascribes profound ontological categories to its design, resource allocation and implementation. Policy, of course, is not the same as ‘politics’ or ‘law’ which is not a distinction that much faith based social comment and activism often recognises. Once the law is written, much faith based comment will suggest, the job is done. Which is why their analysis will often not notice variations of design and implementation or resource allocation by department, locality, race, ethnicity, region or nation: It is almost as if the theological victory for the religious group is secured in the normative legal ‘word’ or an equally normative reach for the words ‘spend’ (good) or ‘cut’ (bad). But policy and its unintended and intended consequences are more complex than that.
Consequently, it has been notable that over the last decade there has been no public Catholic nor, that I can find, formal Evangelical comment on the government’s ‘Prevent’ programme and associated ‘anti-radicalisation’ strategies. While these two communities stridently argued that the state absolutely lacked religious literacy to engage with their own religious communities they seemed not to find it remarkable that Hazel Blears had founded a well – staffed ‘theology team’ in government to modernise Islam, nor that the government were bank rolling a range of new Muslim representative bodies , or a ‘faith unit’ at the Charity Commission to focus on Muslim institutions. DCLG is currently out to tender for a large contract to ‘build the capacity of religious bodies’ for which do not really think about Dioceses or Synagogues.
Under Labour the government funding criteria for Muslim ‘threat’ inside the UK was Muslim ‘headcount’. This is one of the last policy-making reference points for local authorities as they pick up new statutory duties to ‘combat violent extremism’ that have just made their way through parliament. The rhetoric of ‘Muslim risk’ is now stronger than ever at the Home Office and parts of the Department of Education. As local decision-makers seek to do their best how easy will it be to default to securitising whole populations and lifting the sense of fear that so many already feel? I was stunned to meet a young, talented, legally qualified Muslim woman recently and learn that for the first time she has now been made to feel like the ‘other’ within. Are we back to ‘no dogs, No Irish’ and something worse again?
But in the Catholic and Evangelical cases not only has there been no discussion of the blunt impact of blunt policy but the conversation has taken an intensely theological turn. It is almost as though some Catholics and Evangelicals are relishing all the accusations of ‘theological failure’ that are being thrown at Muslims because somehow, at last, this all makes religion relevant again.
Perhaps sensing opportunities to grow voluntary income there has been a real leap in Christian engagement in questions regarding violent Islamism since ISIS invaded Mosul. And for simplicity of comms some of the messages have been startlingly simplistic about the risk from ‘within’ our own country. I have yet to attend a Christian discussion where those in the room have read the world class work on how to combat political violence from LSE, Oxford, St Andrews, SOAS or Harvard universities. Nor even one where anyone had worked their way through the superb work of Richard English on lessons from Ireland. Christian theological angst has focused on ’Islamic theological failure’ not on policies which work to defeat political or other illegal violence
And so there is huge emphasis on historical theological analogy or claims that the present challenge is an ‘historical first’ in anti-terrorism or war. Washed away from our analysis are the religious groups that stacked up on either side of the Cold War, that have been co-opted or otherwise by the Chinese state , that ran amok in Rwanda or went to fight on both sides of the Spanish civil War and all sides of the demise of Yugoslavia. Most notably the inter-play of family-race-ethnicity-state-firms-clan, rurality and geography are absent as ‘theology’ and ‘religious ideology’ trumps all. No matter how many centres of Islamic authority condemn violence the ‘theological problem’ with Islam is re-asserted and its leaders accused of lacking courage.
And so social disaffection, post – modern individualism, media portrayals, misplaced heroism, insults, romanticism, idealism, housing, personal crises, sloppy policing, frustrating parents, sexual drive, romantic failure, perceived senses of political grievance , lack of respect for the ability of democratic politicians to deliver responses to any grievance, are discounted as complicated multiple pathways to adopting political violence in favour of a single linear path of ‘faith’. A single linear path that mirrors the analytical categories of the security forces who are also strongly of the view that the problem in all of this is Islam in and of itself.
And this is the conundrum: Talk about British Muslims and one will be bowled a googly about Pakistani militants. Look at the statistics that show a real crisis among all of our young British men – from rape figures of 26 thousand per annum (over 10% at knife point) to domestic violence stats– and ISIS is held up as the counter-point. Suggest that the number one British Muslim ‘problem’ is how to bring your kids up safely, get them through school and help them to a good job and – literally – someone in the room will react with apoplexy and the words ‘but that’s a normal problem’.
Which means that the conversations between Catholics, Evangelicals, British Muslims and others need to start again in the UK. Yes, they should have a theological aspect to them but they should also take in social sciences, medicine, travel, family, sport and some kind of conversation about intense feelings of grievance. But above all those conversations need to take on board the nature, form and impact of the policies that the state has made and will be making. Because to express reservations as to whether any of them is actually working or of any help seems not to be possible at this time. Unless, that is, we all think that Muslims – of their very nature – are the enemy within.