Blair’s jihad, Blunkett’s crusade


Blair’s jihad, Blunkett’s crusade The battle for the hearts and minds of Britain’s Muslims

Gita sahgal

As the city blazes, the watchman Sleeps happily, thinkingMy house is secure.

Let the town burn, as long as my thingsAre saved.

During the air strikes in Afghanistan, I was reminded of these words of the fifteenth-century poet Kabir. Is the house of Western democracy to be secured by the bombing in Afghanistan or will its blow-back cause a collapse in Britainʼs historic accommodation with its minorities? As the government continues to deal with the ramifications of shutting down terrorist operations in Britain and the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, demands oaths of allegiance from new immigrants, the foundations of British multicultural social policy appear to be unravelling. Security considerations in the war against terror have forced the issue of citizenship as a marker of loyalty for minorities, particularly Muslims, who have now been charged not only with disloyalty but with backwardness in embracing British norms of behaviour.

But while Blunkett has resurrected a version of the assimilationist model, the prime minister, Tony Blair has been attempting a restatement of multiculturalism as a policy which celebrates difference and diversity. The prime minister has argued that this war is just, democracyʼs jihad if you like. However, Muslim scholars have recently explained that jihad does not simply mean a holy war but expresses the individualʼs spiritual struggle – the battle within. As the war against terror moves into its next phase we are being treated to the spectacle of the prime ministerʼs jihad as he struggles not only to make moral sense of the Western powersʼ ramshackle coalition with despots and fundamentalists, but to balance the bombing of Muslims abroad with the wooing of Muslims at home. Invoking the House of Abraham to emphasize a common Christian–Islamic heritage, the prime ministerʼs peculiar contribution to the debate about a multicultural society has been to move an identification of both the problem and the solution from race to religion.

Much of the politics being played out internationally has been developed in the domestic arena. While Blairʼs discovery of the Koran appears to be relatively recent, his ministers have long been adept at selectively using religious texts to promote their political agendas. Twin-track policies have been in place for some time. Central to them is the difference between the treatment of settled minorities and the attack on the rights of refugees. At the same time as the government was pursuing its ugly policies of restricting rights of asylum, dispersing refugees and enforcing the humiliating and inefficient voucher system, it was sending out a very different message to British Asians. In its first term of office, with a complete absence of fanfare, the Labour government quietly dropped the ʻprimary purposeʼ clause in immigration rules, which had prevented people marrying a spouse if they admitted that the main purpose of the marriage was settlement in Britain. The clause was seen as an attack on the arranged marriage system and its abandonment was greeted with relief. But the government remained coy about publicizing this liberalization, presumably on the assumption that any relaxing of immigration rules would play very badly with the Daily Mail.

Meanwhile, under pressure from MPs and Asian feminists, the government took on the most complex intervention in what had previously been considered the internal affair of Asian communities in Britain. It appointed a working group on what was termed ʻforced marriageʼ. Feminists had distinguished forced marriage, in which coercion – physical or emotional – was exercised, from arranged marriage where both parties had actively consented to the marriage. Adopting feminist arguments, minister Mike OʼBrien was widely quoted as saying, ʻMulticulturalism is no excuse for moral blindness.ʼ

How had the government been persuaded to tackle an issue which was seen as deeply ʻculturally sensitiveʼ? In an early run of the arguments that Blair has put forward about the war, the call went out that this was not ʻabout Islamʼ; indeed the issue was not about any major religion. The formula, presumably developed by agile Whitehall mandarins and energetically peddled in ministerial speeches emanating from the Home and Foreign Offices, pronounced what was close to a fatwa on the state of religious law (a legal opinion, not as is popularly thought a death sentence). All major religions, it was said, require consent in marriage.

This is a highly problematic statement since in Hindu marriage ceremonies consent is assumed, while in some forms of Muslim law ʻconsentʼ is bestowed by the guardian of the girl, particularly if she is a minor, even though there is a part of the marriage ceremony where the consent of the woman is sought. A young woman who was forced to marry her cousin described a fairly typical example of what actually happens and the way in which religious authorities collude with the parents: ʻAs the marriage ceremony was going along, the imam asked if I consented to the marriage. My mother, she pushed my head down three times. Thatʼs how the marriage was consented, it was not my choice at all.ʼ Nevertheless, leaders of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu organizations were lined up to denounce forced marriage as having no foundation in their core religious beliefs.

The lineage of these arguments extends well back into the colonial past to the most famous of British reforms (often cited as evidence of a civilizing imperial mission):

the abolition of sati, the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. As officials anxiously considered the implications of reform, they asked for opinions from pandits, Hindu priests, about whether this was a central part of early Hindu beliefs or merely a later accretion which could not be considered a compulsory rite. However, the crucial factor was the considerable pressure from Indian social reformers, which created a climate in which colonial power could act. In this, as in other instances of reform, such as the raising of the age of consent (at a time when child brides were forced to cohabit with their husbands), it was Indian demand coupled with some scriptural authority which opened the space for reform of the law.

Internal affairs

The forced marriage debates in Britain preceded the prime ministerʼs attempt to justify democracyʼs jihad in terms of religion. They were also part of the process by which unelected lay community leaders organized into religious bodies were given considerable status by the government. (The leaderships of the Councils of Mosques and Temples, which exist in every major British city, tend to be controlled by businessmen rather than imams or priests.)Since the prominence of these religious leaders depends in part on their patronage by the state, they are happy to provide an emollient message according to the government line. This also serves to obscure their failure to confront existing religious practices and the direct collusion of many clerics in imposing forced marriage on unwilling young people.

A statement such as ʻIslam seeks consent in marriageʼ has much the same weight as ʻIslam gave equal rights to women in the seventh century.ʼ It relieves the authorities of having to consider what actively seeking consent would actually imply in the modern world. And it takes the sting out of the governmentʼs critique of forced marriage among those conservative ʻcommunity leadersʼ who feel that the state is trespassing on their territory.

That territory, it has become increasingly clear as the war against terrorism progresses, is not really an area of autonomy in the ʻinternal affairsʼ of the community.

Rather it is the domain of the struggle to control the representation of the community and therefore determine the types of policy and intervention that the state adopts.

Even the earlier non-interventionist approach of the state committed the police, social services and Foreign Office to ignore suffering and the committing of serious crimes, such as abduction, in favour of actively supporting very harsh systems of patriarchal control.

Where the agenda has been set by secular feminist groups, the strategy adopted is to temper and dilute policy decisions to hamper womenʼs autonomous organizing. This is seen as far more problematic than state intervention in the arena of the family. Muslim womenʼs groups, who have always challenged the right of secular feminists to speak for Muslim women, have demanded that the state bring back stricter immigration controls to protect helpless women from Asian men in pursuit of visas.

Zaki Badawi, the head of a theological college trying to create a class of Britisheducated imams, has demanded that the government stop giving visas to foreign-born imams who donʼt speak English, and in addition close down after-school classes run by radical Islamists, on the grounds that they are recruiting grounds for terrorism.

The awareness of the terrorist threat has come just as last summerʼs riots in the northern cities of Oldham and Bradford made the government aware of a layer of extremely alienated Muslim youth. It has also come at the time of an acute crisis of labour in many different sectors from skilled workers in the public sector, to information technology and agriculture. The government had cautiously begun to acknowledge the success of Asian immigration and the need to start opening up to new generations of immigrants, while continuing to show ʻbogus asylum seekersʼ the door, to prove that Britain was no soft touch for economic migrants. But the solution proposed by David Blunkett of dealing with all these problems simultaneously through raised standards for acquiring citizenship will not only fail to deal with the problem; it admonishes the victims rather than dealing with the perpetrators of separatism.

Many of the Councils of Mosques and Temples that have the ear of government are controlled by fundamentalist elements in their communities who have succeeded in excluding not just more secular voices but minorities within their own communities.

The Ahmaddiyas, a minority Muslim sect, have been excluded, sometimes violently, from the Muslim Umma and sit on none of the Islamic Councils. The Hindu temple committees are dominated by proponents of an aggressive Hindu identity. These are the groups pushing for more single-faith schools and who argued for the laws on incitement to religious hatred (not the anti-racist groups, which have to deal most directly with the fallout of racial or religious attacks). For these conservative leaderships a new blasphemy law would be a victory for one of the key demands of the anti-Rushdie campaign and could lead to enormous censorship on matters of religion.

The other payoff for loyalty has been the promise of rapid expansion of single-faith schools. But there has still been no public acknowledgement of one of the key aspects of segregation within the educational system. Government-funded Christian schools have attracted white and Afro-Caribbean children, with the result that nearby state schools have become almost entirely Asian.

As for the connection between forced marriage, learning English and rioting: the alienated young men who rioted are British-born and certainly spoke English. If they had foreign-born wives or British sisters who were subjected to forced marriages, where are the resources to help them escape? Where is the acknowledgement of the stateʼs role in upholding forced marriage through its ʻrespectʼ for cultural diversity?

And, finally, where are the resources for English classes that groups like Southall Black Sisters have been struggling to provide?

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