myriamfrancoiscerrah

Just another WordPress.com site

Posts Tagged ‘David Cameron

New Statesman: State-sanctioned prejudice is at the heart of David Cameron’s approach to countering extremism

leave a comment »

Last year, Olive Tree Primary School in Blackburn was being investigatedbecause a teaching assistant had allegedly discussed, “stoning for gay people” and “condemned music and clapping as satanic”.

As a consequence, Olive Tree primary, as well as other schools within the Islamic trust, Tauheedul Education, were visited by Ofsted. Although no evidence of extremism was found, suspicion here – like elsewhere in the case of schools affected by the so-called Trojan Horse scandal – has lingered.

Unlike the front page headlines parading schools as hotbeds of Islamic extremism, news that Olive Tree primary and three other schools run by the trust have since been classed as “outstanding” in every category by Ofsted has been much less prominent.

Yet accusations of extremism have seen schools struggle to recruit and retain staff – a reality that Sir Mike Tomlinson, Birmingham’s Education Commissioner, has described as “the biggest issue facing schools” in the area.

Cameron’s decision to deliver his big address on how to tackle extremism from within a school in Birmingham was entirely calculated to set the stage for schools as the battleground for counter-extremism.

The choice of location speaks to the recent so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, which, despite being debunked by at least five official investigations that found “no evidence of a conspiracy” nor of “a sustained plot”, continues to be used as the basis for seemingly never-ending state encroachment into the private sphere of Muslim citizens – now including Muslim children.

All this is despite a huge backlash from educationalists, teachers, as well asacademics against the increasing securitisation of education and the perils this poses to the very objectives of education – namely, a frank exploration of knowledge, within a trust-based environment.

David Lundie, a senior lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope university, who has actively opposed the new powers of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, points out that the statutory duty now incumbent on teachers to report suspected “extremism” did not apply to educators in the prison system in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, when educators understood the importance of open dialogue in “de-radicalising” the adherents of violent ideology.

But learning lessons from the past isn’t this government’s forte.

The Prime Minister’s address this week was meant to set out a new vision for counter-extremism, but for keen observers of the government’s befuddled strategy (or lack thereof) it sounded decidedly familiar.

But there were a few caveats – the saving graces of an otherwise patronising and ill-advised speech. For a start, the PM recognised the “profound contribution Muslims from all backgrounds and denominations” “in every sphere of our society” and, most significantly, recognised that extremism is a threat first and foremost to Muslims – to Muslims in regions where they hold sway and those in the UK who may be targeted for grooming, or who may come under attack from far-right extremists.

The reality of the latter situation is stark, what with a bomb being left outside mosques as recently as last month, and an Asian man recently hacked at with a machete by a man shouting white power slogans.

Acknowledging Muslims as partners, not a “swamp” harbouring terrorist crocodiles, to paraphrase the rather gauche Michael Gove, is certainly progress.

Some of the initiatives laid out for countering the appeal of Daesh – such as giving a platform to its victims or empowering those communities most affected to speak out – are important in countering its propaganda.

Tackling segregation and discrimination, improving social mobility, and even the proposal to establish a new community engagement forum are constructive ideas.

But while there was some encouraging talk of working with communities, the government’s key failure has been its inability to identify extremism and its causes correctly, a misgiving that can be more than partially attributed to its selective hearing.

Cameron has once again laid out – as in Bratislava last month, and Munich before – a definition of the threat being faced that perpetuates the same tired, misplaced and critically, unsubstantiated notion that “what we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology”.

Ideology – or ideas – do not exist in a vacuum. They are the product of material factors, which, when ignored, reduce the battle against extremism to a cosmic battle of ideas. This is exactly the terrain upon which the terrorists would like it to be played out, rather than in the real world circumstances producing anger and disaffection.

Ideology plays its part; it is the packaging of political concepts to render them accessible and attractive. But it’s hardly the core.

The issue of defining the nature of extremism has been a longstanding government struggle. Most recently, a working definition was set out, the brilliant irony of which was typified by a now classic interview with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who, when asked to provide an example of the kind of behaviour from a pupil that should trigger an anti-extremism intervention, wriggled nervously before responding – homophobia.

Her intervention might of course have proven more compelling had she not voted against gay marriage twice herself, at least on one occasion in reference to her own religious views as a Christian.

And why not? There are plenty of folk whose views, religious or otherwise, might prompt them to vote against gay marriage, but to suggest this is the basis upon which children – and let’s be honest, Muslim children specifically – ought to be investigated is where comical policy blunder switches to dangerous criminalisation of children.

The speech also reiterated the notion that some ideas, although not calls to violence, are too subversive to be allowed expression. Think carefully about that statement. There are ideas which need criminalising.

Now, I write as someone who frequently denounces what I regard to be institutionalised forms of prejudice – racism. But I have never once suggested that racists should be jailed, unless, of course, they are inciting violence.

I do, however, believe communities and society as a whole have a responsibility to challenge prejudice. Anti-Semitic jokes aren’t funny. Sexist innuendos don’t deserve lockdown, but they should be shut down. The suggestion that we should regard the expression of critical views of anything from liberal democracy to foreign policy as harbingers of extremism should make us all shudder.

In a free society, citizens must be able to express unpalatable views: subversive ideas, counter-cultural perspectives that contribute to challenging the status quo. Shutting down the fringes is counterproductive at every level – it forces such voices underground, limits free speech and fosters a climate of fear in which certain ideas are deemed not simply bad taste, but worthy of police intervention.

The great hypocrisy of Cameron’s speech is of course that the far-right has for generations expressed the sorts of ideas that bear considerable continuity with those who then go on to attack minorities. But groups from Britain First and the EDL, far from being shut down, are permitted to march through some of our most diverse cities in an act of clear provocation.

The parallels being drawn between Muslim extremists and far-right extremists are themselves questionable, not least because Muslim extremists – the limelight-aspiring Al-Muhajiroun aside – don’t tend to be very public. They function underground, often online and, contrary to popular belief, out of sight of the community that has shown itself prepared to ban speakers from premises and flag violent concerns from co-religionists to the police.

The ideals of violent Muslim extremists are not tolerated in your local mosque, nor are they accepted in schools or local community associations. Their voices are not regular contributors to flagship programmes that shape public opinion, such as that of Douglas Murray, from the Henry Jackson Society, who puts a plummy twist on a fascist classic with his view that “all immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop” and who has previously argued that the EDL should be “given the benefit of doubt”.

This brings me to the next trope in Cameron’s woolly speech: the idea that Muslims are somehow in the grip of mad conspiracy theories. Who are the overpaid incompetents who convinced the PM that conspiracy theories should top the list of concerns regarding British Muslims? And why only Muslims? Is David Ike about to become a banned entity?

And how about the decision to throw in a host of social ills with no connection to extremism – from FGM to religious councils to forced marriages – none of which are the exclusive purview of the Muslim community.

Nor do they have any discernible link to radicalisation, unless you count the far-right trope that Muslim communities bring with them an array of “problems” – a stereotyping and essentialising of Muslims for which Tommy Robinson himself couldn’t have dreamt up a more prominent platform.

But the most galling aspect of David’s monologue was the attempt to undermine the most academically-grounded, widely-recognised notion that foreign policy grievances play a significant role in motivating attacks by Muslim extremists; what he attempts to recast as “the grievance justification”.

He spoke as if anger at the death of innocent men, women and children in invasions of sovereign nations, or support for brutal autocracies, could simply be rebranded as an “excuse” to cover up that the true source of anger – recast as “hate” – is something within Islam itself.

Cameron also seeks to undermine the very significant concept of alienation, with attendant concepts such as relative poverty, or the disconnect between aspirations and real world expectations. This feeling can, in fact, be greater in highly-qualified individuals who fail to see their hopes matched by reality, and are consequently more open to counter-cultural messages of self-assertion. A Western education and a flat screen TV are hardly a preserve against a sense of discrimination or thwarted dreams.

It is a sad indictment of the government’s attempts to tackle extremism properly that it continues to peddle the same, unsubstantiated, widely-debunked and frankly self-serving “conveyor belt” theory of extremism. This theory somehow holds that anyone with socially conservative views is merely a few steps away from blowing us all up.

The truth is, the profile of those engaging in terrorist activists, those orderingIslam for Dummies online, is less befitting of the notion of pious devotees, and much closer to the classic model of a political radical enamoured by the latest articulation of subversion.

The notion bandied about in Cameron’s speech that “the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination” would be true if the definition of extremism wasn’t so broad as to encompass opponents to gay marriage, monarchists, anarchists, communists, Nigel Farage – we’ve now reached a stage where it is no longer possible not to be a liberal within a liberal democracy. Or, more accurately, it is no longer possible to be a socially conservative Muslim within liberal Britain.

Cameron of course would deny that the policies outlined are Muslim-specific, even if, as the Tory insider Paul Goodman clearly indicates on his blog, the speech was “mainly addressed to Britain’s Muslims”.

It is Muslim children being targeted through intrusive questionnaires. It is Muslim majority schools that have become the focus of a witch hunt dressed up as a “neutral” Ofsted inspection. It is Muslims who are primarily affected by our decision to sign away some of our most cherished civil liberties, under the guise of the protection of “British values”, all the while upbraiding those who challenge their “suspension” –  the stripping of British citizens of their nationality, the introduction of secret courts, undermining open justice, and a raft of proposals under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 that civil liberties campaign group Liberty describes as “as unsafe as they are unfair”.

The PM spoke of establishing a “community engagement forum” to marginalise “non-violent extremists” and allow “moderate” voices to be heard, which seems like a perfect antidote if the government weren’t determined to engineer the nature of the discussion by selecting only the types of voices likely not to rock the boat.

We need not look too far back in recent political history to recall the disastrous attempt by Hazel Blears, then Tony Blair’s Communities Secretary, to set up various groups with the intent of socially engineering a politically acceptable form of Islam.

We definitely don’t need more of that, thanks.

For all the berating of community leaders as little more than “professional Muslims”, the fact is their replacement with Whitehall-manufactured voices, dressed up for the sake of legitimacy in half-baked think tanks, is no improvement. Bring back the Mr Khans, I say. At least they actually know where the community centre is.

The notion that government is going to “actively encourage the reforming and moderate Muslim voices” should make any self-respecting secularist shudder. Why is the state meddling in the religious practices of its citizens? And do we really aspire to a state that seeks to dictate the nature of “correct” religious praxis?

This sounds less liberal democracy and more religious autocracy. Unless you’re not Muslim of course, in which case your religious freedom isn’t under threat. And that, I believe, is quite possibly the definition of state-sanctioned prejudice.

“This extremist ideology is not true Islam,” added Cameron – a statement that might have been met with relief were the implication of it not that the government is somehow beholden to the meaning of “true Islam” and prepared to try and enforce it.

“We can’t stand neutral in this battle of ideas. We have to back those who share our values,” he continued. But standing neutral is exactly what the secular state should do.

You can read the original piece on the New statesman website, here

Written by Myriam Francois

July 22, 2015 at 09:12

New Statesman: Why is David Cameron using British Muslims as the scapegoat for his government’s failings?

leave a comment »

You can read the original piece here

In a video message to British Muslims to mark the beginning of the Muslim month of fasting yesterday, David Cameron drew a parallel between Muslim values and British values, as he affirmed the important contribution of Muslims to society, as part of “one nation”. His point about Muslim values and British values overlapping seemed a timely and important one, particularly considering recent tensions in Birmingham and elsewhere.

But just 24 hours later – and in a perfect illustration of government doublespeak – the PM has decided that Muslim communities apparently aren’t part of the “one nation” as much as they are quietly complicit in support of Islamic State (IS), guilty of normalising hatred of “western values” and, despite radicalisation happening primarily covertly online, primarily to blame for that too.

In brief, Muslims – not just the violence-preaching minority – are a problem community. Ramadan Mubarak to you too, David.

The PM’s speech at a security conference in Slovakia today has echoes of his 2011 Munich speech, in which he announced a shift in counter-terrorism strategy to an assertion of “muscular liberalism” as a means of challenging ideas, not simply violent acts, deemed to be in contradiction with the ever nebulous “British values”. Despite much critique of the strategy and little in the way of success, it has endured, largely down to an ideological commitment to its survival among some of Cameron’s more hawkish advisors.

Today’s speech comes in the light of serious questions being posed over the departure of 17-year-old Talha Asmal and an entire family for IS controlled-territory. According to the Munich-style rhetoric repeated today, the root of their departure is to be located nowhere in Britain or its policies (domestic or foreign) and entirely within the realm of “ideas” – or “islamist ideology”. Because Muslims don’t live in Britain, they live in Islam. Or Islamism. Or whatever.

The truth of course is that while ideas play their part, material conditions have far more influence in determining people’s behaviour than ideas per se – something the government seems determined to ignore.

In his speech, Cameron stated that “we are ignoring the fact that the radicalisation starts with the individual” – but the reality is that individuals are enmeshed in structures. They are not floating atoms, they are part of a broader fabric that contributes to their sense of self and belonging – or lack thereof. That is partly the fabric of their local communities, but also, the fabric of broader society. To focus purely on individual motivations – or ideology – is to try and disculpate broader society from its responsibility to its citizens. It essentialises Muslims as somehow the pure product of their religion and conveniently glosses over government failings, not least most recently in how a family known to the security services, with a close relative already fighting in Syria, was allowed to leave the country with young children in tow.

“The cause is ideological”, Cameron repeated, adding that non-violent views – or a pervasive “extreme Islamist narrative weight” – a phrase so poorly constructed it could only have been designed to obfuscate – paves the way to violent radicalisation. Those familiar with the defunct, yet decidedly resilient in Westminster circles “conveyor belt theory”, will recognise its hallmark. An indication that Cameron continues to be taken by narratives of radicalisation which have been debunked by everyone from former MI5 officers to leading terrorism experts.

And the reason the government is so poorly informed is that it has made the ill-advised decision to ignore local communities in favour of unrepresentative and ideologically-driven think tanks with little claim to authority beyond the fact their founders were naïve enough to join a pseudo-revolutionary Islamic group at university. Credentials indeed. The consequences are dire – a misplaced counterterrorism policy and a growing chasm between government and the very communities it should be working to build trust and cooperation, further alienating the very pool from which recruiters seek out marginalised youngsters. Hole in one!

But it gets better – or worse, as it were. It is those same communities that then become targets for hate as a consequence of the PM’s claim that they somehow quietly support IS. A study released just two days ago by Teesside University shows that Muslims in Britain are becoming the target of hate crimes in retribution for terrorist attacks around the world. You couldn’t design state-sanctioned prejudice better than to tar an entire community with alleged complicity in the “evil” of our time. Who exactly, in the mainstream Muslim community, condones IS? Name and shame them. There is nothing more insidious than an unfounded generalisation, which sows seeds of doubt without ever naming the culprits.

The allegation is all the more dumbfounding when you consider the sheer number of Muslim-run initiatives to try and tackle IS propaganda, such as the campaign launched last year by leading UK-based Shia and Sunni imams who united over sectarian divides to film a video message urging young British Muslims against fighting in Iraq and Syria. Or the recent open letter by 120 of some of the world’s most senior Muslim scholars to IS, in which they meticulously blew apart its ideology through recourse to mainstream Islamic theology. The initiatives are there for those who bother to look.

It isn’t just the 24-hour disparity in government tone that makes today’s speech so jarring. With what moral authority does the government lambast Muslims about British values, when it ignores them in our international dealings? The PM was right to denounce IS as a group encouraging child marriage and women’s servitude (“to live in a place where marriage is legal at nine and where women’s role is to serve…”), but he seemed to miss the irony of the statement given Britain’s key ally Saudi Arabia’s propensity to condone those very same actions. Not to mention their shared love of beheadings. What weight is to be given to a discourse on human rights, the rule of law and tolerance as “British values” when the man embodying their official representation recently invited General Sisi, responsible according to Human Rights Watch for the “most dramatic reversal of human rights in Egypt’s modern history” to the UK? Or when the same government pushes for policies which result in refugees fleeing war being left to drown?

These inconsistencies aren’t lost on those who see in the discourse on “British values” just another means to cement an increasingly official form of prejudice. One aspect of discrimination is double standards, whereby expectations are higher of stigmatised groups than of dominant groups. The “British values” Cameron advocates are – polls indicate – widely shared by British Muslims. Accountability, fairness, the rule of law. Which means Muslims won’t settle for a patronising Ramadan message slipped under the table, while the same community is rendered a national scapegoat.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 23, 2015 at 17:31

Middle East Eye: The language of ‘evil’ doesn’t help us defeat IS #IslamicState

with 2 comments

You can read the original piece on the Middle East Eye website here

The horrifying beheading of British aid worker David Haines by the so-called Islamic State (IS) militants, and the spectre of future executions following the release of a video featuring journalist John Cantlie has once again shone the spotlight on IS’s violent tactics. Although the latest video seems to reflect a shift in strategy with Cantlie appearing alone, without the presence of an IS figure threatening him, his fate may ultimately prove no less brutal. Indeed the group has come to be associated with extreme acts of violence against both local populations and foreign nationals living in the region.

In a tweet, British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to Haynes’ murder “an act of pure evil” and described IS as “monsters”. But how helpful to our understanding of IS is it to label their actions using cosmic references to wickedness, and how effective can our response be if we fail to assess violence as a deliberate strategy?

IS’s staged approach to its executions – set, scripted, filmed and edited – suggests the group revel in their brutal image. They feed off the shock which their carefully choreographed actions engender and the horror they elicit only fuels their sense of power. After all, the way they like to depict their captives, dressed in the sort of orange jumpsuits we’re more used to seeing on Guantanamo detainees, reflects precisely the sort of power relations they are seeking to present – the tables are turned they are saying, we are the super-power now, it is your citizens whom we will do with as we please.

But it is precisely because of the group’s efforts to manage its image as a seemingly well organised, fully functioning state, with PR machine to boot, that we must be attentive not to readily accept their crafted appearance. In fact, according to French security specialist Alain Chouet, IS could well struggle to manage the territory it has conquered due to a lack of both manpower and funds, a much needed depiction of the group’s real, rather than overstated capabilities, which redresses some of the often unwitting hype created around the group. Just because IS controls territory the size of the UK, doesn’t mean the group can or should be regarded as a state or even entity of any equivalence. To quote the Arab academic Nazih Ayubi, referring to the region’s actual, existing states, “the real power, efficacy and significance of this state might have been overestimated.” The same is true but to a far greater extent concerning IS. A state suggests elements of legitimacy and consent wholly absent from this group’s engagement with local populations. To accept their self-declared status as a state is to implicitly accept their claim to representation, yet again favouring unrepresentative political pretenders over the drowned out voice of the people.

IS want to be perceived as a threat significant enough to be treated as an “equal” by Western states, and this is precisely why using the language of state actors, such as when both the White House and the Pentagon described the United States as “at war” with the group, only serves to reinforce the group’s mystique. In not adequately challenging IS’s narrative as an equal interlocutor, a rival “state”, we risk allowing the videos of these beheadings to become what the images of the fall of the Twin towers were for Al Qaeda, a victory totem and a rallying call to a group which seeks to build its support on an image of an ‘alternative utopia’ resisting Western might.

France recently announced it would no longer refer to the group by its chosen name, but by the derogatory term “Daesh”, partly to challenge precisely this narrative. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared: “This is a terrorist group and not a state. (…) The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats’.”

In so doing, the French have actively rejected the group’s rebranding as “the Islamic State” and the concomitant attempt to lay claim to grandeur of Muslim empires by a guerrilla group who as Professor Fawaz Gerges from the LSE points outs, “actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base.” In fact, violence is central to the group’s strategy. Fawaz describes the violence as a rational choice, arguing that it represents a “conscious decision to terrorise enemies and impress and co-opt new recruits.” That is to say there is a logic behind the use of extreme violence. A logic which belies notions of an ahistorical “evil”.

When we refuse to see the perpetrators of violence as anything more than moral renegades, we risk overlooking the ways in which violence has in fact been not only key to the construction of the modern state, but central in fact to the very narrative of progress. Clearly, not all violence is equal. We accept the necessity of violence when we attribute it to a higher moral cause, but deem it senseless if the violence doesn’t fit our own narrative of progress. In the case of IS, understanding what motivates their belief in “violence as progress” is central to defeating them.

The violence meted out by IS today is itself happening in a region which has experienced the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians over the last decade: over 200, 000 in Syria in the last three years alone, and hundreds of thousands more in Iraq before that. In both cases, extreme violence has been justified in order to either midwife or ‘protect’ the modern state, and to advance given ideals, of nationalism or democracy-promotion.

Understanding that IS’s violence has emerged from the overlap of two of the deadliest conflicts in the region is to realise that the group represents a continuation of local aspirations for self-governance in a context where violence has been the language of power and rule. While modern democracies evolve non-violent methods for ensuring public acquiescence, linking participatory initiatives to political success, in the region IS currently occupies, despite attempts a democratic process, brute violence has been the mark of the successful ruler. What’s more, their methods – crucifixions, beheadings and other forms of cruelty have become increasingly common among other, less high profile groups, whose exclusively Arab and Muslim targets make for less prominent headlines.

Despite the temptation to view IS as Al-Qaeda 4.0, a more accurate representation would be the apogee of the guerrilla groups which have come to over-run the failed states in the region. Unlike Al-Qaeda’s ‘transnational Jihad’, IS’s focus is state building in Syria and Iraq. While for Al-Qaeda, the main impediment to Muslim autonomy was Western meddling, rendering the West a target, IS’s main focus has been local targets they deem as “enemies”.

The focus on “evil Islamists” might be a useful bogeyman against which to rally public support, but it fails to understand IS’s violence either as a strategy to intimidate its opponents and inflate its weight, or as part of its internalised repertoire of state building.

Defeating them can’t possibly come through inflicting yet more violence on a battered region, nor in the form of Obama’s coalition of Western military interventionism teamed with notoriously repressive autocracies. The tried and hardly successful recipe, is unlikely to provide the necessary elements for a counter to the narrative of violence which has gained strength in the wake of the demise of the Arab uprisings, a narrative which claims political routes are ineffective and violence alone can build an independent Arab state. Ultimately, there is only one long term solution – a genuine process of inclusive state-building. Without it, the trumped up claims of impostor groups like IS seem far more convincing than they truly are.

Written by Myriam Francois

October 1, 2014 at 10:37

Middle East Eye: The language of ‘evil’ doesn’t help us defeat IS

with 2 comments

You can read the full article here, on the MEE website

The horrifying beheading of British aid worker David Haines by the so-called Islamic State (IS) militants, and the spectre of future executions following the release of a video featuring journalist John Cantlie has once again shone the spotlight on IS’s violent tactics. Although the latest video seems to reflect a shift in strategy with Cantlie appearing alone, without the presence of an IS figure threatening him, his fate may ultimately prove no less brutal. Indeed the group has come to be associated with extreme acts of violence against both local populations and foreign nationals living in the region.

In a tweet, British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to Haynes’ murder “an act of pure evil” and described IS as “monsters”. But how helpful to our understanding of IS is it to label their actions using cosmic references to wickedness, and how effective can our response be if we fail to assess violence as a deliberate strategy?

IS’s staged approach to its executions – set, scripted, filmed and edited – suggests the group revel in their brutal image. They feed off the shock which their carefully choreographed actions engender and the horror they elicit only fuels their sense of power. After all, the way they like to depict their captives, dressed in the sort of orange jumpsuits we’re more used to seeing on Guantanamo detainees, reflects precisely the sort of power relations they are seeking to present – the tables are turned they are saying, we are the super-power now, it is your citizens whom we will do with as we please.

But it is precisely because of the group’s efforts to manage its image as a seemingly well organised, fully functioning state, with PR machine to boot, that we must be attentive not to readily accept their crafted appearance. In fact, according to French security specialist Alain Chouet, IS could well struggle to manage the territory it has conquered due to a lack of both manpower and funds, a much needed depiction of the group’s real, rather than overstated capabilities, which redresses some of the often unwitting hype created around the group. Just because IS controls territory the size of the UK, doesn’t mean the group can or should be regarded as a state or even entity of any equivalence. To quote the Arab academic Nazih Ayubi, referring to the region’s actual, existing states, “the real power, efficacy and significance of this state might have been overestimated.” The same is true but to a far greater extent concerning IS. A state suggests elements of legitimacy and consent wholly absent from this group’s engagement with local populations. To accept their self-declared status as a state is to implicitly accept their claim to representation, yet again favouring unrepresentative political pretenders over the drowned out voice of the people.

IS want to be perceived as a threat significant enough to be treated as an “equal” by Western states, and this is precisely why using the language of state actors, such as when both the White House and the Pentagon described the United States as “at war” with the group, only serves to reinforce the group’s mystique. In not adequately challenging IS’s narrative as an equal interlocutor, a rival “state”, we risk allowing the videos of these beheadings to become what the images of the fall of the Twin towers were for Al Qaeda, a victory totem and a rallying call to a group which seeks to build its support on an image of an ‘alternative utopia’ resisting Western might.

France recently announced it would no longer refer to the group by its chosen name, but by the derogatory term “Daesh”, partly to challenge precisely this narrative. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared: “This is a terrorist group and not a state. (…) The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats’.”

In so doing, the French have actively rejected the group’s rebranding as “the Islamic State” and the concomitant attempt to lay claim to grandeur of Muslim empires by a guerrilla group who as Professor Fawaz Gerges from the LSE points outs, “actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base.” In fact, violence is central to the group’s strategy. Fawaz describes the violence as a rational choice, arguing that it represents a “conscious decision to terrorise enemies and impress and co-opt new recruits.” That is to say there is a logic behind the use of extreme violence. A logic which belies notions of an ahistorical “evil”.

When we refuse to see the perpetrators of violence as anything more than moral renegades, we risk overlooking the ways in which violence has in fact been not only key to the construction of the modern state, but central in fact to the very narrative of progress. Clearly, not all violence is equal. We accept the necessity of violence when we attribute it to a higher moral cause, but deem it senseless if the violence doesn’t fit our own narrative of progress. In the case of IS, understanding what motivates their belief in “violence as progress” is central to defeating them.

The violence meted out by IS today is itself happening in a region which has experienced the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians over the last decade: over 200, 000 in Syria in the last three years alone, and hundreds of thousands more in Iraq before that. In both cases, extreme violence has been justified in order to either midwife or ‘protect’ the modern state, and to advance given ideals, of nationalism or democracy-promotion.

Understanding that IS’s violence has emerged from the overlap of two of the deadliest conflicts in the region is to realise that the group represents a continuation of local aspirations for self-governance in a context where violence has been the language of power and rule. While modern democracies evolve non-violent methods for ensuring public acquiescence, linking participatory initiatives to political success, in the region IS currently occupies, despite attempts a democratic process, brute violence has been the mark of the successful ruler. What’s more, their methods – crucifixions, beheadings and other forms of cruelty have become increasingly common among other, less high profile groups, whose exclusively Arab and Muslim targets make for less prominent headlines.

Despite the temptation to view IS as Al-Qaeda 4.0, a more accurate representation would be the apogee of the guerrilla groups which have come to over-run the failed states in the region. Unlike Al-Qaeda’s ‘transnational Jihad’, IS’s focus is state building in Syria and Iraq. While for Al-Qaeda, the main impediment to Muslim autonomy was Western meddling, rendering the West a target, IS’s main focus has been local targets they deem as “enemies”.

The focus on “evil Islamists” might be a useful bogeyman against which to rally public support, but it fails to understand IS’s violence either as a strategy to intimidate its opponents and inflate its weight, or as part of its internalised repertoire of state building.

Defeating them can’t possibly come through inflicting yet more violence on a battered region, nor in the form of Obama’s coalition of Western military interventionism teamed with notoriously repressive autocracies. The tried and hardly successful recipe, is unlikely to provide the necessary elements for a counter to the narrative of violence which has gained strength in the wake of the demise of the Arab uprisings, a narrative which claims political routes are ineffective and violence alone can build an independent Arab state. Ultimately, there is only one long term solution – a genuine process of inclusive state-building. Without it, the trumped up claims of impostor groups like IS seem far more convincing than they truly are.

Written by Myriam Francois

September 22, 2014 at 10:58

AJE: What are Cameron’s ‘British values’?

with one comment

The discourse on British values smacks of neo-imperialism in a post-colonial world.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent speech on “British values”, published as an op-ed in The Daily Mail, had all the hallmarks of a colonialist eulogy. If the colonial project was about land and power, it was also a cultural project which involved exporting a presumed superior culture and imposing it on presumed inferior peoples.

We in Europe have a long history of defining ourselves in opposition to the great “other”. The Greeks often contrasted themselves with the Asians who were deemed to be servile, ruled by tyrants and corrupt, whereas Greeks were virtuous and freedom loving. Viewing Islam as the great threat also dates back to the days of competing empires, in which Islam came to be the measure against which European Christians forged their identity.

“[F]reedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law” are values all human beings aspire to and the British have no monopoly over. In fact, a recognition of the multiplicity of routes through which humanity has arrived at these ideals, acts as a form of global solidarity, of mutual respect and ultimately, of equality. Although many societies lack these ideals in their formal structures, this shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of their rejection, but of the tumultuous conditions which impede their full realisation.

Any discussion of British values can’t be blind to the historical inequities undertaken in the name of those very values, and any assessment of other cultures cannot occur outside of an understanding of their position within the global system of wealth. When Cameron stated “I strongly believe our values form the foundation of our prosperity”, he could have inverted the sentence with far more accuracy to: “I strongly believe our prosperity forms the foundation for our values.”

We have come to formalise, institutionalise and uphold certain principles thanks to a level of affluence which not only came off the back of many nations but deprived them of the ability to achieve those same objectives. We absolutely should be bashful about our “greatness” because it came at the expense of others who continue to suffer the consequences to this day. The supreme haughtiness is to then decry the backwardness of the very nations which we helped relegate to the developmental dung heap.

What’s more, to speak of the need to assert the greatness of British values over a portion of society requires examining the power relations which govern those dictating the values and those being dictated to. As the educationalist Sir Tim Brighouse rightly points out, in reference to a number of schools in Birmingham targeted in Cameron’s “British values” speech, “what the proud city of Birmingham needs least is to be treated as a colonial outpost of London”.

Cameron’s op-ed is a clear means of expressing the dominance of white, secular liberal Britons, and articulating the commensurate respect of that supremacy from those deemed subordinate, in this case, minorities and specifically Muslims from some of the most impoverished areas in the country. It was also an attempt to arrogate the meaning of “British values” while excluding those targeted by the speech from inclusion in any discussion over their ultimate definition.

Identifying “the other”

The claims about historical truth made in the speech mask the very real construction of a narrative, a particular vision of “Britishness” in which some Britons apparently have no say. This vision is asserted as enduring and unchanging in nature when such narratives always involve a convenient reimagining of history, as illustrated through the grandiose extolling of the Magna Carta.
Inside Story – Extremism in British schools?

As the historian Dr Dominic Selwood points out in the Telegraph, “despite widespread beliefs about the charter’s contents, it actually contained very little of significance.” It also had a number of clauses we might not be so keen on highlighting today, such as “No one will be taken or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman for the death of anyone except her husband” and provisions against Jewish bankers.

The discourse concerning the “otherness” and danger posed by Muslims is reasserted through manufactured hysteria about otherwise mundane aspects of Muslim life.

From halal meat to circumcision, the construction of a mega-mosque or the amplification of abhorrent, but thankfully limited social injustices: forced marriage, honour killing, female genital mutilation – all these are portrayed as inherently Islamic issues, despite evidence of their presence across ethnic and religious groupings.

The consequence is a social stigma attached to the Muslim label, reinforced through media associations of relatively uncontroversial issues, such as separating boys and girls for certain activities, with far more serious allegations, such as endorsing extremist speakers. An unconscious equivalence is drawn between the two, equating a practise otherwise normalised in other parts of British society such as single sex schools, single sex clubs or facilities with support for al-Qaeda-style views.

Most recently, former Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that the problems identified within a number of schools in Birmingham somehow reflect the type of Islamic extremism “practised by Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist network”. This slippage creates the notion of a monolithic Islamic threat, stretching across the globe. Such high-profile statements reinforce perceptions of essential “otherness” and of a latent threat posed by the so-called enemy within.

Other social issues are labelled in manner which essentialises them, as a means of locating the route of oppression within Muslim culture, rather than broader, patriarchal practises found across societies. The term honour killing suggests phenomenon culturally distinct from domestic violence, which afflicts 30 percent of British women.

The same might be said of forced marriages, for which new legislation has recently been passed. The establishment of a specific law to target this practice, one already criminalised under existing laws, reinforces the perception of a culturally specific crime, rather than recognising coercion as one of a myriad of patriarchal oppressions. As activist Amrit Wilson states, the reason prosecutions are so low isn’t to do with laws, or a lack thereof, but rather, “These are often not implemented, partly through lack of will and partly because most services which support women through the legal process have been abolished.” Such laws actually serve a distinct purpose: They are about defining ourselves against an imagined bogeyman, rather than recognising shared ideals.

‘A wink to the right’

Ultimately, the debate on British values hinges on the nature of liberalism and whether we think of liberalism as a tool which allows for the articulation of varied and mutually contradictory viewpoints, including illiberal ones, or if we consider it a narrow ideology, which requires a muscular imposition on those who fail to recognise its truth. The irony of the latter position should hopefully not be lost.
Listening Post – Is the British media Islamophobic?

It is also an opportunity for the Tory party, which has lost support among its more conservative followers to pander to those voices who might otherwise be leaning towards the UK Independence Party or UKIP.

This wink to the right of the right was evident in Cameron’s choice to refer to “fish and chips”, rather than Britain’s national dish of curry, a hankering after a romanticised image of white Britain, untainted by these foreign influences, engaging those alienated through his adoption of liberal policies on issues such as gay marriage.

Every empire has claimed it has a mission to enlighten, bring order and democracy. Although the empire may be long gone, the mentality which views the descendants of the former colonies as subjects remains. The motivation for imposing “superior” British values on others was bound up in a doctrine of European superiority and racism. Back in the 19th century, it was a British mission to lead the backward non-European nations to civilisation. Today, it’s all about leading the backward non-European subjects to civilisation, a notion of British greatness constructed off the back of its own minorities.

What we do need as a society is a common language, a critical and contested understanding of global history and our place within it, and some common ideals. The ideals cannot be forged by a section of society as a civilising project, but rather should include a broad-based discussion on the nature and manifestation of those ideals. To paraphrase the great philosopher Aime Cesaire, no culture possesses “the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force. And there is a place for all at the rendez-vous of victory”.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 18, 2014 at 15:43

European Islam or Islamic Europe

with 2 comments

A talk I delivered at Northampton University in February 2011, in light of David Cameron’s Munich speech on Multiculturalism:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNa5SK2kec0

My speech at the launch of the Platform on: Muslims in the media

with 10 comments

The Muslim community’s relationship to the media is undoubtedly a fraught one. From those producing it to those featured in it, studies tend to paint a fairly bleak picture.

The search for Common ground report by the GLA in 2007 pointed to the pitfalls faced by those Muslims lucky enough to find employment in the media – and they are few and far between. Problems included anything from feeling pigeon holed, to assumptions they ‘must’ know everyone in the muslim community, to the very reasonable request of going undercover to infiltrate al Qaida. One line which stuck out for me in the report was when one journalist commented: “The thing is I’m a professional journalist, not a professional Paki”, pointing to the essentialisation and reification of his identity in his workplace.
Of course, the essentialisation of Muslim identity doesn’t just concern, nor does it primarily concern journalists. The findings are even more damning when we look at how Muslims are actually portrayed in the media.

From the terrible Turks/Pakistanis/bearded brown guys threatening Jack Bauer in the popular TV series 24, a show which shaped the debate on the legitimacy of torture in America, through to films, like Iron Man in which bad and backward Arabs – Or are they Pakistani (who cares, right, they’re ‘bad’ Muslims ?!) seek to thwart the efforts of technologically savvy, ‘good’ Americans seeking to save the world from impending Islamic doom – let’s face it, Muslims are never the goodies.

Few of us need to see the stats to corroborate the feeling that Muslims are poorly represented in the public sphere. From the outright false headlines such as “Muslims offended by pig in Natwest advertising” or ‘Muslims seek to ban Christmas’, through to the inane – “Muslim cabby bans guide dog”, numerous studies, including a recent report by the Cardiff school of journalism have pointed to the pervasiveness of prejudice against Muslims in both print and visual imagery, which the report concludes “compounds a view of Islam as dangerous, archaic, irrational” and also conflates it with terrorism.
Interestingly, they also found that from 2008, stories focusing on cultural and religious differences exceed the volume of stories on terrorism for the first time.

This of course is a worrying development which reflects a shift in the broader discourse on what constitutes extremism, from previously widely accepted definitions based on violent actions, we are now facing a definition premised on the holding of views allegedly incompatible with “mainstream” British values, to use the language of the Prevent report.

Now it is my feeling that Cameron has taken a lot of slack over this term ‘mainstream’, which I think is in fact, patently clear. So let’s be fair to the PM and let’s look at the ‘mainstream’ view of women, an issue we are told which is to be central to the definition of extremism.
Say in football? Pretty mainstream, right? Clearly neither Andy Gray nor Richard Keys, two of football’s most famous faces, had received Camron’s memo about gender equality when they stated, referring to a female referee: “Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her.”
OK, so we set the bar a little low there.

Just a few bad eggs – we get it, we’re Muslims after all, we understand the concept of a few renegades tarnishing the entire community! Let’s look at politics instead. That’s pretty mainstream – oh – wait, hold on – not sure this one is going to work either…

Wasn’t it our very own PM who only recently made the rather gauche gaff of telling a female shadow minister to “calm down dear” – playing on the perennial ‘hysterical woman’ cliché, and almost just as bad, popularising Michael Winner’s stupefyingly irritating catchphrase. No, perhaps we simply misread that one – we just didn’t get the gag, too over-sensitive and politically correct. But what about the Tory council candidate who was recently forced to resign after it came to light he was referring to local women as ‘slags’ on his facebook page – are we misreading that one too? Or the case of Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen , who has just been arrested on suspicion of sexually assault – is there something I’m missing?!

The proposition that “women’s rights” are a mainstream British value might be laughable on a number of fronts if it wasn’t so obviously discriminatory in its focus – one can only presume the latest Prevent brigade won’t be sent to monitor derogatory views of women in lap dancing bars and gentlemen’s clubs (including the Conservative Party’s favoured gentleman’s club, the Carlton Club, which as early as 2008(!) granted women “equal status” as members) – no, one can safely assume this latest initiative speaks only to Muslim misogyny – which you’d be forgiven for assuming is the only type around!
And incidentally, might I ask, why we are taking gender equality lessons from a government whose cuts have been the worst for women since the creation of the welfare state – when 70% of the government’s proposed “savings” will be made by slashing, freezing or cutting women’s incomes – where lone mothers will be the hardest hit, losing 18.5% of their income as a result of the cuts – where over half of the 300 women’s shelters nationally are facing the threat of closure – a government which had to be taken to court by the Fawcett society to ensure it complied with existing equality legislation!
But let’s get back to the problem shall we – we were talking about Muslims.
Let’s stay focused on what the real problem is here people.

According to Cameron “under the doctrine of state multiculturalism we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream”- while I’m certain a man whose personal fortune runs in the millions may know a thing or two about “living apart”, and a party which considers auctioning off internships a form of meritocracy certainly knows a thing or two about encouraging that sense of ‘living apart’ – sorry, again -wrong focus – I’m talking about the ever increasing gap between rich and poor when what we’re supposed to be discussing are Muslim ghettos. I’m obviously easily distracted.

If we haaaave to discuss these, lets at least get some facts straight. According to the 2001 census, the most recent data we have on the matter, the most segregated religious groups geographically are Jews and Sikhs, while those people most isolated from meeting people from other ethnic groups are in fact this country’s ethnic majority group.

Indeed, while failure to accept liberal values and a propensity for isolationism are considered markers of un-britishness if you’re Muslim (and we’re told, it is only a step from there to full blown terrorism – you join the dots!) one can safely assume the Haredi Jewish community of Stamford Hill, will be safe from misguided Prevent strategies aimed at teaching British citizens how to be British.
In his Munich speech, Cameron bemoaned the fact we have allegedly “failed to provide a vision of society to which they (i.e the iffy moslemz) feel they want to belong” but is it any wonder when those very same people are being dictated a set of values from above and denounced as un-British if they’re seen to question them – and what does being British mean exactly and who gets to define it?
Apparently not young British Muslims.

Away from all the political manoeuvring and sensationalism, the misrepresentation of Muslims in the public sphere is a critical issue when one considers that eight out of 10 Britons have no close contact with Muslims. In addition, research by the EMRC has pointed to a symbiosis between anti Muslim hate speech in British politics and media and anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Speaking from personal experience, having lived the shift from unquestioned, non-Muslim Briton, (despite having a French passport at the time), to suspect not very white-maybe-brown-ish Muslim citizen (despite now having a British passport), the disparity between the treatment afforded to Muslims as compared to other citizens is all the more striking to someone who’s lived the difference. Which other community has to worry about being monitored at the doctor’s surgery or in their tutorials?

I usually say to people who really don’t get it, put on a scarf for a week and see how you go – grow your beard and shun alcohol for a while and watch gradually how people’s attitudes to you harden, how you are suddenly called upon to prove your most basic humanity, even by those you’ve known for decades.
Confronting the ignorance, the misrepresentations, the stereotypes and offering a contribution which moves beyond the reactionary responses in which we are continuously called to define ourselves in opposition – ‘We are NOT terrorists’, ‘we are NOT extremists’, is not an empowering way to view ourselves. It is essential we move beyond this defining ourselves in the negative, to presenting what we are actually about.

Instead of what we’re not, let’s hear about what we ARE about.

I recall an exchange I had a few years back now with Dr Timothy Garton-Ash, on the issue of free speech. I said to him at the time that I didn’t and I don’t think the issue is really about curtailing free speech in any real way, ring-fencing anything or anyone from criticism, but the real issue for me is one of unequal power relations.

Edward Said (whom I incidentally must plug as your essential summer read) defines Orientalism as the ability of the ‘Occident’ to define the ‘Orient’, over and above itself. I consider the same principle as intelligible when we consider much of what we read and hear about in the media today about Muslims. In other words, the dominant discourse about Muslims, talks ‘to’ and ‘about’ Muslims, without properly engaging Muslims themselves on how they see themselves. In other words, it defines Muslims over and above how Muslims define themselves, with all the intended plurals which such a definition should and does entail.

At the time, his response to me was “then, fight the power relations”, which I’ll admit I felt was somewhat convenient and a tad predictable – perhaps I should have asked for a step by step guide on how, when our access to positions of power are so curtailed, we are meant to do so. But in any case, I consider initiatives like today’s (the launch of the Platform), an essential part of that struggle to make ourselves heard, on our terms, about the issues which are of import to us.

It is for these reasons and many more that I decided to get involved with the Platform – those who get to know the Muslim community tend to realise the nuances, the diversity, the eclectic nature of our ummah and recognise the many young and some not so young Muslim men and women making reasoned, intelligent and critical contributions to the issues of the day. It seems obvious to me that contributing in this fashion is an essential part of our obligation as Muslims, to enjoin the good and forbid evil, to seek to render our society a fairer, more humane place where every soul has the opportunity to live and flourish to the fullest. But it is also blindingly obvious to me that the platform for such voices to be heard is not always available. And so creating our own opportunities, making our own Platform is an essential step in ensuring we do our utmost in our commitment to the overarching theme of justice which permeates the Quran.
In a society in which the sacred has largely been banished, the idea that religion has anything positive to contribute to our public sphere is pervasive. While most people consider God a parochial relic from a bygone era, young people of faith have an important role in reminding broader society of the value of faith and its relevance to the modern era, and initiatives like the Platform are a window into the rich, spiritually-infused contribution Muslims have to make to the issues of the day.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 9, 2011 at 23:19