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Back News Comment Everlasting Love? Muslims and Citizenship in the UK and the Decline of Minority Rights

Everlasting Love? Muslims and Citizenship in the UK and the Decline of Minority Rights

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With a general election looming in the UK, Arzu Merali overviews the findings of the IHRC research project British Muslims’ Expectations of the Government  (BMEG), and asks where the ideal of effective citizenship has gone?



The ‘post your comments’  sections screech at us: “If they don’t like it here, go home,” “I’d apply for that job, but some immigrant will have got it” “This society is been taken over and run by Muslims,” “We’re living in a Shariah state…” and so on.  Some of these comments, well those of us old enough to remember do remember them from the 1970s and 1980s as we were growing up.  Slowly the tide turned, and it became not only taboo but illegal to voice racist sentiment.  Except…

As the years passed, a new target – Muslims – developed.  Criticism of them, particularly their perceived values, some vague notion of self-segregation and so on, started rumbling in media discourse.  By the mid-nineties this had translated to an almost daily assault on Muslim communities in the press but also by mainstream politicians.  Those of us flagging up the alarming rise of anti-Muslim sentiment since the 1990s were accused of attacking free speech and trying to prevent discussion of religion.  This is despite the fact that many of us were simultaneously trying to show not only the falsity of many of the claims being made by those on the offensive, but pointing out that by allowing such attacks on Muslims in this manner, society was once more validating openly racist discourse.  

Enter stage left the British Muslims’ Expectations of the Government project in 2004.  IHRC, with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, set out to survey actual Muslim opinions and experiences in the UK.  The project, among other things, sought to set out parameters for discussion and ways of moving policy on and away from the vicious cycle of negativity that surrounded Muslims.  Since then six volumes have been published looking at different aspects of Muslims’ experiences as well as their aspirations with regard to law, representation, participation in the media, and so on.

The first of these volumes, Dual Citizenship: British, Islamic or Both? — Obligation, Recognition, Respect and Belonging [1] looked at citizenship as not only a series of 'rights and obligations', but also comprising the 'need for recognition' and the 'emotional' elements. Without looking at the emotional aspects of citizenship or the idea of individual and group recognition, attempts at fostering civic values are meaningless.  The results, based on quantitative work with 1200 respondents across the UK, contained mythbusters galore.  It was the first time e.g. that questions of religiosity and its impact on feelings of loyalty and affiliation were subjected to scrutiny.  Overall the survey found that Muslims in the UK had a much higher sense of loyalty and that self-perceived religiosity was a factor in determining that sense of loyalty, even though, as the results showed, Muslims’ experiences were very negative.  Much later surveys and studies [2] reiterated this result with headlines last year proclaiming that Muslims in the UK were the most loyal in Europe.  With this in mind how is it that government policy, particularly its so-called Prevent strategy which has developed rapidly in the last few years, has what is a demonstrably irrelevant fixation with theology?

Government ministers, Prevent and its subsets of Contest and particularly Contest II have singled out theological and political issues like nikab, Caliphate, even gender segregation at weddings, as well as Islamic rulings on homosexuality, as evidence of a political and social unwillingness – maliciously so – to integrate.  It casts society in very clear cut terms, containing a homogenous upstart, unruly and disloyal Muslim minority, and a homogenous normative majority whose existence and perceived value base must be adopted by Muslims.  For many years this mantra was even adopted by those who should be colleagues in the struggle against anti-Muslim sentiment, with many notably flagging up issues of censorship (as though Muslims have actually managed to have something banned), so called self-segregation (avoiding issues of ‘white flight’, racist bullying in schools and so on), and narrow value sets.  Muslims are so maligned, more often than not they are depicted as less than full agents, requiring direction from a crazed anti-British mullah or even their crazed anti-British parents, so incapable are Muslims perceived to be of making a fully congnitive contribution to society.

Muslims were an easy target but now, just as we’ve been arguing – not least in BMEG volume 1 – we have regressed as a society in the UK.  Daily we see evidence of that slippery slope back into a society where ‘immigrants’ and ‘Muslims’ are to blame for every ill, and mainstream commentators can freely blame young black men for "[t]he overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London…”[3].  Whilst this particular slur has been the subject of a ruling against it from the Press Complaints Commission, it is but one of many which accuse individuals, organisations, groups and far worse communities, of being inherently criminal, inferior or simply harmful to the idea of a cohesive Britain.

BMEG 1 sought to break the polarisation of debate that was at that been inflamed by the rhetoric of security and anti-terrorism and which has since descended into attacks on the way Muslim women dress (See Jack Straw et al since 2006), what religious rituals they perform (see any number of articles on ritual slaughter of meat, rules of cleanliness and so on) as well as demonstration outsides mosques, and protests against Islam involving neo-fascist groups.  When IHRC embarked on the BMEG project, it was to provide a way, for those who were sincere enough to do so amongst policy makers to engage with communities who were at that time already beleaguered and under siege.  Since BMEG 1, many other studies have shown up time and again what’s wrong with political and media obsessions with Muslims.  Rather than closing themselves off to non-Muslims communities, some 87% of Muslims count non-Muslims amongst their closest friends [4] whereas only 37% of non-Muslims claim the same.  Other surveys have even suggested that 60% of the majority community don’t actually know a Muslim.  Rather than fostering closed ideas of ethnic and religious superiority, and an intergenerational dependent mindset, Muslim children in almost entirely Muslim schools were found, in comparison to children in almost entirely white or mixed schools, to have more open and tolerant ideals, whereas conversely the ideas of ethnic and religious superiority were found in their majority community counterparts[5].

It really is well beyond the time, when those in power can claim any excuse for ignorance.  We face a General Election n the coming weeks, yet the two main parties vying for power have the worst track records on the issue of discourse around Muslims.  Whilst the focus has been somewhat shifted from ‘cohesion’ issues as a result the credit crunch and the MPs expenses scandal, the real concerns of Muslims and other minority groups remain.  The expenses scandal leaves the door open for far-right parties to actually win enough votes to get parliamentary seats.  Aware of this already, the main parties have in any case been upping the ante on immigration, Muslim and other ‘race’ issues.

BMEG 1 offers an opportunity, not just for those of us concerned with the demonisation of Muslims in the past few years, but those of us who are increasingly concerned about the demonistaion of ethnic and other faith communities to work towards common goals of dynamic citizenship for all.  Muslims or young black men or even working class white men all have legitimate aspirations and great contributions to make towards a better society.  Fostering hatred against them, through endless vilification simply chops away at their affiliation to the state or the ‘nation’.  Whereas for those who live as minorities, this erosion of citizenship is just one more part of the process of disempowerment, the free rein being given to these types of hatred is already giving rise to an illusion of nation that denies minorities not just the rights so hard won after the Second World War, but their right to even exist.  This is the rise of fascism – by whatever other name – and those of us who care must act now.

Endnotes
[1]  Dual Citizenship: British, Islamic or Both? — Obligation, Recognition, Respect and Belonging A report by Saied Reza Ameli and Arzu Merali for the Islamic Human Rights Commission, 84 pp, £8.50, ISBN 1-903718-25-2, 2004

A PDF can be bought here.

A summary can be found here:

You can order a hard copy (paperback) of this volume on-line here or over the phone on (+44) 20 8904 4222 for £8.50.


[2]  See the Gallup / Coexist Foundation 2009 report
and the OSI report of 2009 ‘Muslims in Europe: A report on 11 EU Cities’

[3]Rod Liddle blog, ‘Benefits of multicultural Britain

[4] see Muslim 7/7 Poll 

[5] see the Burnley Project undertaken by the University of Lancaster and funded by the UK Home Office

 

By: Arzu Merali, Head of Research and Publications, Islamic Human Rights Commission

 

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