Are moderate Muslims refusing to take responsibility for rooting out extremists
within their communities? Or is the Government ignoring the advice of Muslim
leaders about how to deal with extremists and assuage alienation? It was unfortunate
for both sides that this week's spat between Tony Blair and Muslim leaders
should break out on the same day as the publication of the Times/Populus poll
on Muslims in Britain. For the poll reveals how out of touch with reality
are both sides in the debate - and how dangerous are the assumptions common
to both sides.
The starting point in any discussion about terrorism and extremism seems to be that Muslims constitute a community with a distinct set of views and beliefs, and that, for them, real political authority must come from within their community. Mainstream politicians, so the argument goes, are incapable of engaging with them; only authentic Muslim leaders can. So there has to be a bargain: the Government acknowledges Muslim leaders as crucial partners in the task of rooting out terrorism and building a fairer society; in return Muslim leaders agree to keep their own house in order. The argument this week was really about who was, or was not, keeping their side of the bargain.
But the trouble is the bargain itself. Not only is it rooted in a picture of the Muslim community and its relationship with the wider British society that is false, but also the cosy relationship between the Government and Muslim leaders exacerbates the problem it was meant to solve.
At first sight the results of the poll may seem to confirm the picture of a Muslim community set apart from the rest of society: 7 per cent of Muslims approve of suicide bombings in Britain; 2 per cent would be proud if a family member joined al-Qaeda; more than one in ten believes that the cause, if not the actions, of the 7/7 bombers was legitimate.
A more careful reading of the poll, however, tells a different story. For a start, it reveals that Muslims and non-Muslims share a surprising number of attitudes. Three quarters of non-Muslims think Muslims should do more to integrate; so do two thirds of Muslims. Virtually the same proportion of Muslims and non-Muslims are offended by public drunkenness and by women wearing revealing clothes. A third of the general population has close friends who are Muslims - a high figure given that they make up less than 4 per cent of the population. Nearly nine out of ten Muslims have close non-Muslim personal friends.
Not only are there common attitudes across communities but Muslims themselves are, unsprisingly, divided on many issues. They cannot agree, for instance, for instance whether the police should be allowed to monitor mosques, whether the 7/7 bombers should be regarded as martyrs or whether public displays of affection are offensive.
The poll suggests that both Muslims and non-Muslims believe that Britain is a deeply Islamophobic society, but it also suggests that this perception is unwarranted. More than half the general population understands why Muslims might feel offended by people getting anxious about Muslims carrying large bags on the Tube or the buses - a higher figure than the proportion of Muslims who feel offended by this. Almost a third of non-Muslims object to the police monitoring imams. Nearly 60 per cent think that Muslims have made a valuable contribution to British life.
This is not a picture of a nation in thrall to Islamophobia. Nor is it a picture of a uniform Muslim population that responds in the same way to all questions and whose primary, or only, loyalty is to Islam. Few policy-makers have, I suspect, an image of Muslim communities as identical but the stereotype of homogeneity is what animates current policy towards Muslims.
The Government has long since abandoned its responsibility for engaging directly with Muslim communities. Instead it has effectively subcontracted its responsibilities to so-called community leaders. When the Prime Minister wants to find out what Muslims think about a particular issue he invites the Muslim Council of Britain to No 10. When the Home Secretary wants to get a message out to the Muslim community, he visits a mosque. Rather than appealing to Muslims as British citizens and attempting to draw them into the mainstream political process, politicians of all hues prefer to see them as people whose primarily loyalty is to their faith and who can be politically engaged only by other Muslims.
The consequences of this approach are hugely damaging. 'Why should a British citizen who happens to be Muslim have to rely on clerics and other leaders of the religious community to communicate with the Prime Minister?', asks Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist, in his new book Identity and Violence. Far from promoting integration, government policy encourages Muslims to see themselves as semi-detached Britons. After all, if the Prime Minister believes that he can engage with them only by appealing to their faith, rather than their wider political or national affiliations, who are Muslims to disagree? If politicians abdicate their responsibility for engaging with ordinary Muslims, is it surprising that those Muslims should feel disenchanted with the political process? Or that disenchantment should take a radical religious form?
The policy of subcontracting political responsibility allows politicians to wash their hands of the alienation of sections of the Muslim community. And it allows self-appointed community leaders with no democratic mandate to gain power both within Muslim communities and the wider society. But it does the rest of us - Muslim and non-Muslim - no favours. It is time that politicians dropped the pretence that there is a single Muslim community and started taking seriously the issue of political engagement with their constituents, whatever their religious faith.