On January 29th 2007, at a speech in Birmingham, the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, said, "Those who seek a sharia state, or special treatment and a separate law for British Muslims are, in many ways, the mirror image of the BNP." A day later, the Conservatives published a report by their policy group on national and international security, accusing Islamic groups of promoting separation. The report said that a significant number of Muslim groups were "keener to promote ideologies than the totality of the communities they claim to represent" and that "Considerable pressures are being exerted on Muslims in Britain. Propagators in the UK of political Islam, which exploits a contested version of belief for political ends, are active and influential in Muslim communities."
The report singled out "political Islam" for particular attention, arguing that although followed by "many of the world's Muslims", adherents "advocate concepts of political justice and a social order which are not compatible with modern western ideas of individual freedom, the equality of men and women, fundamental human rights and democratic government under the rule of law."
Writing in the Times recently, the Research Director of Policy Exchange, Dean Godson, wrote, "Perhaps the boldest aspect of the report is its rejection of "victim culture" — blaming Britain and the West for the ills of the Muslim community." He also wrote of the "myth of Muslim victimhood".
Following anti-terrorism raids in Birmingham, David Cameron visited the city again to meet with mosque leaders at Birmingham Central Mosque. The Times reported that the meeting developed into a "blazing row" with Cameron emerging to criticise mosque chairman, Dr Naseem, for saying that the terrorist threat had been invented to turn Britain into a police state. Cameron said, "He's completely and utterly wrong and I think that's not responsible at all. It's quite clear from the events of 7/7 and other events that Britain does face a terrorist threat and we need to confront that and defeat it. We have the rule of law, we have an independent police force and they do an extremely good job."
These speeches and reports came immediately after the publication of a report authored by Munira Mirza of the right wing Policy Exchange think tank entitled "Living apart together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism". The report suggested that support for Shariah law, Islamic schools and wearing the veil was much stronger among younger Muslims in Britain, than amongst their parents. The Policy Exchange report also reported that there had been a "rapid rise in Islamic fundamentalism amongst the younger generation".
It was very apparent that the content of Cameron's Birmingham speech and the contents of the policy paper were very similar to the Policy Exchange report. The Policy Exchange report also singled out "Islamism", describing it as "not only a security problem, but also a cultural problem". Cameron's claim about Muslims demanding "special treatment" or a "sharia state" was taken directly from the report. The attack on multiculturalism was also a common feature between Cameron's speech and the think tank report.
Links to the Neoconservative Ideology
Policy Exchange was established by Michael Gove MP – who describes himself as a neoconservative - and the former Conservative parliamentary candidate for Hove, Nicholas Boles. The influence of the neoconservative think tank established by the "Notting Hill set" on the Conservative leader and party is unsurprising. Income for this think tank comes from a 'business forum' that includes oil companies and Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB.
Its links with the Conservative leadership are very strong. There are also links with the ultra-right Henry Jackson Society which calls for a pro-active approach to the spread of democracy throughout the world – a policy which has brought the disasters in Iraq and the war on terror generally.
The comments about Shariah by Cameron betray the emerging neoconservatism of the Conservative party. Cameron raises no issues about the availability of religious courts or the internal handling of community affairs for Britain's Jewry, yet accuses some in the Muslim community of calling for "special treatment". When Catholic adoption agencies sought to opt out of new anti-discrimination legislation, Cameron said that there was a need for "decent compromise" – he made no comparison between their desire for "special treatment" and the BNP.
Cameron's comments about the Shariah are indeed similar to those made by Blair and former Home Secretary Charles Clarke. In his 2005 speech to another right wing think tank, Heritage Foundation in America, Charles Clarke said, "There can be no negotiation about the re-creation of the Caliphate; there can be no negotiation about the imposition of Shari’ah law". In July 2005, Blair argued that there was an "evil ideology" whose adherents demand "…Shari’ah law in the Arab world en route to one Caliphate of all Muslim nations."
Shariah and "Special Treatment"
It is widely understood that many Muslims, whilst advocating the implementation of the Shariah in its entirety in Muslim societies in the Muslim world, have not sought its implementation in Western societies. Hence, it is scaremongering to perpetuate the idea that Muslims are calling for the implementation of Shariah in the UK.
Cameron denigrates the Shariah in general by arguing that those who favour the Shariah are equivalent to right wing fascists. While such proclamations may be populist, they are superficial.
The Shariah is constituted of the rules that regulate the life of individuals personally and their relationship with others in their community. It includes rules governing the personal conduct of Muslims including prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. The Shariah obliges Muslims to care for their parents and neighbours, visit the sick, be honest in commercial dealings and to speak up against injustice. In the personal sphere, Shariah places a large emphasis on modesty and manners over rudeness and lewdness; it puts an emphasis on mutual respect and good conduct over disrespect and antisocial behaviour.
The Shariah also stipulates matters which become apparent in society, such as dress code. In their adherence to the Shariah, Muslims have not sought "special treatment" – only the same treatment they see others afforded in society, who have their personal dress codes respected. Indeed, Muslim women who chose to wear the veil broke no laws nor sought any special treatment.
The attack on Shariah is not about "Islamism" but about Islam itself
It would seem extraordinary to many that neoconservatives attack the idea that Muslims should not be advocates for Shariah or an Islamic State in the Muslim world. There is overwhelming evidence from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and Algeria that, given the option, Muslim populations are much more likely to choose Islam over secularism. There is undoubtedly a tide of global Islamic resurgence which rejects the imperialist era of Western backed dictators and brutal occupation in the Muslim world. While the era of imperialism has brought instability and bloodshed to the Muslim world, the era of the Shariah and the Caliphate brought stability and a flourishing civilisation. The Shariah rules on economics which oblige the distribution of wealth, rather than hoarding, ended poverty in Africa, instead of enslaving it. The Shariah brought rights to women when they had none [Europe was still debating whether women had a soul] and created a society where Muslims and non-Muslims lived in harmony. The Shariah establishes the principle of the rule of law over the despotism, anarchy and vigilantism that sadly characterises the Muslim world today.
Indeed, it was the implementation of the Shariah in Andalusia that led Hume to write "Side by side with the new rulers lived the Christians and Jews in peace. The latter rich with commerce and industry were content to let the memory of their oppression by the priest-ridden Goths sleep, now that the prime authors of it had disappeared. Learned in all the arts and sciences, cultured and tolerant, they were treated by the Moors with marked respect, and multiplied exceedingly all over Spain; and, like the Christian Spaniards under Moorish rule - who were called Mozarabes - had cause to thank their now masters for an era of prosperity such as they had never known before." Of that era, Gibbon wrote, "In a time of tranquillity and justice, the Christians have never been compelled to renounce the Gospel or to embrace the Qur'an."
The argument that Muslims should be denied the right to implement their own system is indicative of the neoconservative cultural imperialism that led to the disastrous Iraq war. There is an assumption that the values of the West are universal and the US and Britain wrongly assume that if Western governments just engage a bit better then they are destined to win "hearts and minds" in the Muslim world. This is despite a wealth of evidence suggesting that the battle for "hearts and minds" has been lost and that there is strong support in the Muslim world for Islam, not Western secularism. Recent election results in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and the Gulf indicate the strong support for Islamic based parties. In addition to this The Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS) at the University of Jordan in 2005 published a survey which cited that they believed their societies as compared to the West had stronger values of tradition, religion and family and were less fraught with social problems. They also cited that two thirds of respondents in Jordan, Egypt and Palestine believed that the Shari'ah should be the only source of legislation while one third believed it should be a source, while in Lebanon and Syria these figures were reversed. Very few people carried the view that the Shariah should have no role in governance.
It is hardly surprising that many Muslims want an Islamic state governed by the Shariah in the Muslim world, whose population and heritage is overwhelmingly Muslim and Islamic respectively. Indeed, what is surprising is the insistence on imposing "liberal democracy" on the Muslim world using force where necessary.
In the narrative presented by Policy Exchange, the West is blameless, through its history or today, in its treatment of Muslims. In Blair's words, Muslims have a "false sense of grievance" and according to the pro-Cameron Dean Godson there is a "myth of Muslim victimhood". This narrative is no different to the bully who insists that his victim shouldn't shed a tear.
Of course, both Blair and Godson make no mention of the Muslim anger over Palestine, western-backed dictatorships, the aftermath of the 1991 war against Iraq (100,000 killed), the presence of US troops in the Arabian Peninsula or the murderous sanctions regime against Iraq (500,000 killed). There is no mention of the invented lies of WMD and Al-Qaeda links which have resulted in the deaths of over 650,000 Iraqis nor of the 300,000 Somalis killed through starvation since US military intervention. The victims of Russian and Indian aggression in Chechnya and Kashmir, to which Western governments have turned a blind eye, deserves no mention either. The list could go on.
The suggestion by Godson that this trail of death and destruction can be laid at somebody else's door, other than Western governments, is escapist fantasy.
What is clear is that Western governments have no problem in playing the victim – after all, the deaths of 3,000 civilians on 9/11 have been used by these governments to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. These deaths have been cynically manipulated to justify detention without trial, the use of torture, secret jails, draconian "anti-terror" measures and extraordinary rendition. They will undoubtedly be used again when further colonialist intervention in the Muslim world is advocated.
Despite the bloody military invention in Iraq and Afghanistan, intransigence towards Israeli aggression and Western government support for dictators and tyrants, Muslims have shown remarkable restraint.
The comments by Cameron and the allegation by the Conservative policy group that a significant number of Muslim groups were "keener to promote ideologies than the totality of the communities they claim to represent", suggest a strong reliance on the findings of a Policy Exchange report by Martin Bright entitled "When Progressives Treat With Reactionaries". In the report, Bright concluded that, "Until now, ministers have opted for the quick fix of engaging primarily with the representatives of political Islamism. This is no longer enough. Until the Government begins to reach out to those many Muslims who are not currently being heard, there is a real danger that the radicals will retain the initiative."
Bright also recommended "an end to the Government’s policy of “engagement for engagement’s sake” with the MCB. He went on to conclude that, "Any body that represents itself as speaking for the Muslim community must demonstrate that is entirely non-sectarian and non-factional. The MCB has consistently failed in this area and the Government should consider cutting all ties until it has thoroughly reformed itself. For too long, the Government has chosen as its favoured partner an organisation which is undemocratic, divisive and unrepresentative of the full diversity of Muslim Britain."
Following Munira Mirza's report for the Policy Exchange and the report by the Conservative policy group, Cameron said, "Policy makers should stop assuming that the loudest voices and the most organised elements within the Muslim community necessarily represent the Muslim population as a whole. There's a danger that groups with agendas aimed at separation rather than integration are deferred to when they should be challenged." Mirza's report argues, "that the Government has to change its policy approach towards Muslims. It should stop emphasising difference and engage with Muslims as citizens, not through their religious identity. The ‘Muslim community’ is not homogenous, and attempts to give group rights or representation will only alienate sections of the population further. People should be entitled to equal treatment as citizens in the public sphere, with the freedom to also enjoy and pursue their identities in the private sphere."
While Cameron refers to those Muslims who want "special treatment", it appears that it is Muslims who are being singled out for "special treatment" from policy makers and politicians – Muslims are being told that they should be treated as individuals and only allowed 'representative' groups that tow the government line. There is no problem with doctors joining the British Medical Association and criticising Government health policy or the Jewish community being represented by the highly politicised pro-Israeli Board of Deputies of British Jews which seeks "to advance Israel's security, welfare and standing." No politicians have come forward to urge British Jews to promote more 'moderate' voices or abandon the idea of collective faith based representation.
It is also interesting to note that while the MCB and others are criticised for "promoting ideologies" and being centred on "identity politics", the Conservatives [and Government] promote other Muslim groups such as the British Muslim Forum and Sufi Muslim Council, who are not "non-sectarian and non-factional". Cameron's proclamations are indeed nothing new – in October 2006, Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, declared that the Government would now only fund those organisations that towed the Government line.
These policy recommendations are intended to silence the views of the Muslim community about colonialist foreign policy. So while it is unacceptable for Muslim groups to advocate the return of the Caliphate in the Muslim world, Jewish groups can work to "advance Israel's security, welfare and standing".
In a speech on foreign policy and national security in the annual JP Morgan lecture at the British American Project on 11 September 2006, David Cameron, said, "I am a liberal conservative, rather than a neo-conservative." However, while Cameron has tried to distance himself from neoconservatism, the proclamations by him, his policy group and supporters at Policy Exchange, are no more than the doctrine of neoconservatism.
While Blair's New Labour ideology was relatively unknown, the same cannot be said of Cameron's neoconservatism. Since neoconservatism is the ideology that has been responsible for the Iraq quagmire and the era of instability and bloodshed of the "war on terror", it is hardly surprising that Cameron wants to distance himself from the term, whilst not the ideology. In distancing himself from the term, Cameron was keen to exploit the disenchantment amongst British voters with the Government's foreign policy.
It is useful to recall that even the architects of neoconservatism are in disarray. Francis Fukuyama, one of the original 25 neocon signatories of the Project for a New American Century's 1997 statement of principles, recently wrote, "Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support. Neoconservatism, whatever its complex roots, has become indelibly associated with concepts like coercive regime change, unilateralism and American hegemony." Perhaps Mr Cameron has not, this time, jumped onto a bandwagon, but onto a sinking ship.