Britain’s Muslim diaspora - Tariq Osman Hyder - Saturday, February 12, 2011

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Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech at the Munich Security Summit outlined British counterterrorism policy, mainly targeting the Muslim community. While acknowledging that terrorism is not linked to any one religion or ethnic group, nor were Islamist extremism and Islam the same, he said the threat to Europe overwhelmingly comes from young men following a warped interpretation of Islam ready to blow up themselves and their fellow citizens. His remedy called for a stronger UK national identity; adoption of British values by the Muslim community; opposition to segregated societies with non-British values, decrying the doctrine of state multiculturalism; and replacement of the tolerance of recent years by a more active, muscular liberalism.

This policy speech has evoked controversy in the UK, not least within the Labour Party whose 15 years’ policy of multiculturalism has been shelved, with the Muslim community fearing it will be increasingly singled out with anti-immigrant parties regaining strength. The space for Muslims in the West has been shrinking since 9/11. They are reminded of how in wartime America American citizens of Japanese origin were interned.

As all Muslim countries have a great stake in their diasporas in the West, how they are dealt with in Britain requires careful observation.

Is this a new departure? In terms of state policy, much of it was vintage Blair, who began distancing himself from multiculturalism after the 7/7 bombings in London. It is a continuation of the Counterterrorism Strategy, CONTEST, based on Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare and, its most important strand, Prevent, which seeks to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism in the UK and overseas. Assimilation and integration of the Muslim community have been key counterterrorism objectives.

Why has this not happened? Is CONTEST proceeding properly? Have the causes of extremism and terrorism been correctly identified? What should be done by the Muslim community itself, by the British government and by the Muslim countries to protect their minorities abroad?

CONTEST has been criticised in the Muslim community in Britain and by Muslim governments in their bilateral interactions for being directed exclusively at Muslims. While the origin of the diaspora in Britain, consisting mainly of the labour force, is different from that of the primarily professional emigration to America, it was not as well assimilated – until 9/11, at least – as in the melting pot of the USA, although perhaps better than in Europe.

Undoubtedly, the Muslim community itself missed many opportunities, often tied to traditions that have changed even in their countries of origin, let alone in the UK. Educational and employment levels are low. The generation gap is broad. Society is split at social levels with no common platform. The recently set up UK Pakistan Foundation inaugurated by the two countries’ foreign ministers in London in October is a small but useful step to redress this situation.

Should cultural diversity be condemned for allegedly causing these deprivation and alienation levels? In America each wave of immigration from the Old World, Italian, Irish, Russian, Chinese and Latin, idealised its unique identity, with even the Mafia, which still controls crime, being romanticised.

If most of the mainly South Asian Muslim community is economically and socially deprived and lives in virtual ghettos, it is less its fault than that of local housing policies and patterns of government spending. State schools in the posh West End are far better equipped and staffed than those in the East End. Of the objectives of CONTEST and Prevent, one is too limited, determined to de-radicalise; while the other is too ambitious, aiming for a Muslim religious and social reformation through local Imams, community leaders and activist NGOs.

Real reformation however is internal. It rests on raising educational and employment opportunities, enabling sustainable assimilation and integration and preserving dignity. The British government should carry out an affirmative action plan on the model of post-civil rights America. As noted, the community must do its part.

On the root causes of terrorism, Prime Minister Cameron admitted the importance of foreign-policy issues such as poverty and sources of tension, including Palestine. But he insisted that terrorism would persist even after their resolution, its roots lying in the existence of extremist ideology. Is this borne out empirically in the UK? Until the 1990s, terrorism had an Irish face. It was only when the UK joined the War on Terror, with its military-centric approach in Afghanistan and Iraq, that these extremist and terrorist trends appeared in the UK.

All terrorism must be condemned and combated, but its causes must be acknowledged and addressed. It is difficult to tell Muslims abroad to adhere to British or Western values when Muslim countries are occupied and when such occupation is increasingly opposed by non-Muslims in the very countries contributing troops on Muslim soil.

Muslim countries, including Pakistan, have always advised their diasporas to be loyal and law-abiding citizens. These countries have individually and collectively been unable to provide an economic or strategic counterpoise to protect them. They should nonetheless actively engage bilaterally with Western countries, through the OIC and in the UN Human Rights Council, to safeguard the human rights and equitable treatment of their communities abroad. Our communities abroad are entitled to nothing less.

Tariq Osman Hyder, a retired Pakistani diplomat who is a former ambassador, is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the National Defence University, Islamabad

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