Pluralism, counter extremism and Theresa May.

Six or seven years back I was listening to a white non-muslim youth worker being interviewed about Prevent on Radio 4. One thing he said that I remember, if I recall correctly, was that we needed “to persuade young Muslims to move away from radical ideas and become more like the majority of good Muslims we all like”. I remember despairing at the final description of the majority of Muslims as being ones that “we all like” – presumably because they subscribed to  specific religious understanding. He was of course faithfully following, naively in my view, the standard Prevent philosophy.

In my life both growing up in Bristol and working and living in Bradford – the Muslims I’ve liked are not those of a particular religious outlook. They are all sorts. Devout, unobservant and ambivalent, radicals, socialists, rude boys, new age spiritualists and more. There have been polar opposites in the way they have lived and embodied identity, religion and culture. Some would embrace new interpretations of faith in order to challenge their own religious culture, others be ambivalent or even hostile toward religion, especially these newly interpreted forms, but conversely deeply attached to its customs and rituals. With all of these different people, and regardless of whether I agreed with their world views or not, my liking them had nothing to do with their specific religious interpretations. Faith isn’t what defined their likeability and Muslims, like anyone else, are perfectly capable of being dislikelable while not being extremists.

But this is the reductionist nature of both Islamophobia and many attempts at positive counter messages. Which is why that youth worker hit the nail on the head as far as the problem with Prevent is concerned. Prevent repeats the mantra that it claims to be tackling; that religion, values, ideas and politics can be collected together into a lens through which we see the world. One that can make us ‘good’ (moderate or peace loving Muslims) or ‘bad’ (politically motivated Muslims). One that makes us a ‘threat‘ (anti British) or passive ‘citizen’ (loyal patriot). But the attempt to quantify religion into an alternative, and arguqbly equally one dimensional lens to the extremist’ one, has caused more problems than it seeks to solve. Not least because try as it might, there is simply not one single Islamic message that can provide an alternative perspective to the one with a terror narrative. And even if there was – why do we assume that Muslims can only change their minds through religion? It misses the point that any mindset, religious or otherwise, theoretically positive and peace loving or violent and confrontational, that can only see the world through one fixed analysis, is a problematic one. Both problem and solution are denials of religious pluralism.

The May mirror effect:

The Lib Dems have recently blocked a set of new measures proposed by Theresa May designed to tackle non violent Islamic extremism/ appease the anti Muslim sentiment so evident in modern Britain. While it’s good to know they’ve done something useful it’s a reminder that the Prevent psychology is still around and getting more extreme itself. The problem with May’s blunt and simplistic proposals is the same as the problem with Prevent and anti ‘extremism’ generally over the past 10 years. At a recent stand off outside a London mosque between Anjem Choudary’s crew and the new age far right Britain First, an obvious fact was the diversity within the conversations and confrontations taking place. One tiny bit of conversation I managed to pick up from the youtube footage was a Muslim man telling one of the Choudary affiliates that he (the Choudary affiliate) was ‘with them’ – as in with Britain First. I’m not sure what he meant by that, but I would guess that he was making the point that though in opposition the two groups share the same world view; that of a world in conflict between two static and homogenous systems. Each one benefiting from the others polar opposite in forming and confirming their own rigid idea of who they are and who we all should be. What was in clear evidence in that Muslim crowd confronting the ‘extremists’ who were imploring them not to vote in the godless Western democracy, was religious pluralism. If there is one thing that defines and links different ‘extremisms‘ it is their hatred of and inability to tolerate a pluralist reality. Islam is… Britain is… etc. As Reza Aslan has pointed out regarding the Islamophobia of Sam Harris and Bill Maher across the pond, their understanding of Islam shares the absolutist outlook of the extremists. Islam is… “yes we are”. Britain is… “yes we are”.

Islamophobia has provided the new right with new ideas of what it is to be British. We are now suddenly defined by women’s equality, by gay rights, and by our deeply humane animal welfare practices. All are bold claims. Just a quick look at the second of those three examples reveals the absurdity. This is country that, just 63 years ago, chemically castrated one its, and the worlds greatest scientists for being gay. The country with the richest football league system in the world without a single footballer comfortable enough to come out. Yet we now claim gay rights are written in the flag. Of course the backdrop to all these issues is conflict, opposition and political and civic campaigning. Much has been achieved but much is still to be done. Our core values if any, are the manner in which we do politics, in other words the manner in which political and value diversity is played out, not one set of values that requires no conversation. If pluralism is a core value, we attack it via the response to the idea ‘our’ values are under attack. People are all different and culture and values should always be open to change, but this is the thing extremists deny and detest. Much of why Islamic extremists take such a strong opposition to democracy in any form.

But May’s calls to subscribe to British values mirror these reactionary forces. Often it feels that the sentiment of anti extremism measures not only mirrors the attitudes of the worst of the EDL/ Britain First, but reduces the ability of Muslims to debate, discuss and tolerate their own differences, much as it does everyone else’s. We are being told we live in the end of times in terms of values and beliefs. We should not play along.


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