Under the veil: There are limits on what government can do to change Muslim attitudes

Tony Blair berated moderate Muslims yesterday for not doing enough to challenge extremists in their communities, and insisted that this was not a task for the Government. “You cannot defeat extremism through what a Government does. You can only defeat it within a community.” His remarks come after the accusation by Sadiq Khan, a Muslim Labour MP, that the Government had failed to carry out most of its promises to help Muslims to fight extremism, and had left them disillusioned and bitter at the the lack of any action plan to integrate Muslims more fully into British society.

There is a confusion here. The Prime Minister and Mr Khan are talking about different issues. One factor contributing to the alienation of many young Muslims and their frustration with mainstream society is low achievement: across Britain, Muslims, on average, are less well qualified, earn less, have higher dropout rates, suffer greater unemployment and live in poorer neighbourhoods than other Britons. This is an area where Mr Khan and others believe that the Government should focus its intervention.

The problem, however, is that such dirigiste policies rarely bring results: and it is far from clear that simple government decrees can lift Muslim attainment in schools, encourage the spirit of entrepreneurship or promote integration across the tense racial and religious divisions that mark the geography of some northern towns. But economic hardship alone is not the issue. The profiles of the London bombers and their extremist associates show that many came from solid, respectable homes that would normally be seen as middle class with middle-class values and attitudes. Improving social conditions does not drain the pool in which terrorists swim.

A more important factor, to which Mr Blair was referring, is the cultural, social and religious framework of Muslims growing up in Britain. Are low ambitions or meagre successes in commerce related to prevailing attitudes to the education of women, social isolation or cultural incongruity highlighted by an inability to speak English? In some areas, government intervention can make a difference: it can refuse visas for foreign imams, make it harder to import brides from abroad, insist on access to English classes. But the mind-set and beliefs of a community are not the remit of government; adapting those to life in Britain must be the responsibility of scholars examining Islam’s confrontation with modernity as well as those who have moved away from their religious roots.

Government intervention in the vigorous theological debate in many Muslim communities in Britain is perilous and can be counter-productive. Even the attempt to embrace Muslim leaders has its drawbacks: the more they are photographed at Downing Street, sit on official committees or accept honours and medals, the less credibility they have on the streets. There is a generation gap among Muslims, far wider than that found in other communities, which young Muslims, torn by the conflict between Western and Islamic values, find difficult to bridge.

It is encouraging that Muslim leaders have just launched a national forum to counter extremism, specifically recognising its dangers in their midst. It must be here, and not in Whitehall, that strategies are elaborated to overcome this problem. The question many will ask, however, is: why has this initiative taken so long?


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The Times, UK
July 5, 2006 Editorial

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday July 5, 2006.
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