Transcript: Keynote Speech by Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Organised by LSE Students Union on ‘Campus Extremism, Freedom and Security: Working top promote Cohesion in British Universities’

Chair, distinguished guests, colleagues, students:


It is my pleasure and privilege to be able to talk tonight about three issues which dominate our headlines on an almost-daily basis.

1.    Extremism

2.    Freedom, and

3.    Security


Before I go into detail, however, let me give you some background about the Muslim community.


Muslim community & Muslim students


Muslim students make up a significant proportion of Britain’s further and higher educational institutions.


These young people are as varied as the Muslim community itself is varied. That community is known as a ‘community of communities’ and is not – contrary to what some might believe – a single monolithic block.


Originating from the four corners of the world, Muslim students hail from incredibly diverse ethnic, linguistic and religio-cultural backgrounds.


Meanwhile since the events of July 7th, 2005, the Muslim community is often stigmatised for apparent ‘fifth column’ instincts: for desiring to ‘take over’, to ‘impose Sharia law’, for oppressing women, homophobia, harbouring terrorist sympathies, and apparently being unwilling or unable to adapt to ‘Western’ ways.


This so-called ‘Counter-Jihadist narrative’ – which sees Muslims akin to McCarthyism in the 1950s – is similar to that espoused by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2012… just before he went out and bombed and shot scores of innocent victims.


Breivik’s justification was that the mainly young, white Norwegian Labour party members he killed were “cultural Marxists”, part of a liberal elite selling out Europe to some sort of ‘Eurabia’ fantasy.


As the new Government-backed anti-Muslim hatred body, ‘Tell MAMA’ has just reported, such sentiments are eating into British life, too, leading to Muslim women being the subject of increasing attacks in the street and transport.


The irony is that Muslims’ loyalty to Britain is actually ranked as higher than that of other Britons – 83% versus 79% according to a recent survey.


Muslims’ contribution to British life – in economy, business, charity, sport, politics and other professions – is becoming noticeable.


In last summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, this contribution was well recorded. From Mo Farah to thousands of ordinary helpers, together we made London 2012 the ‘greatest show on earth’. I played my own small part as a board member of the London Organising Committee but wish I could have been out there running with the young people again!


Now I wish to give you an overview of the British Muslim youth population today.


The overwhelming proportion of Muslim students are from a new generation – born, brought up and schooled with other fellow (non-Muslim) citizens in this country.


Most of their families, though, still live in poorer inner-city conurbations.


Many of these students will have passed through evening schools in their local mosques during their primary years; some may display overt religiosity in their dress and expressions.


However, they are remarkably similar in their hopes, aspirations and challenges to any other young, modern Briton. They are an integral part of our society.


Muslim students are also among some of the most active members on a university campus.


They fundraise thousands during Charity Week for orphans and needy children around the world; they are actively involved in organising stimulating debates and discussions; and many give up their free time for volunteering and transferring their skills back to their own community.


Some are actively engaged in political issues such as the recent high tuition fees debate. Some are involved in Islamic societies and student union activities. The umbrella body, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, or FOSIS, was established back in the 1960s and is at the forefront in encouraging Muslim students to be socially active. 


Like other fellow students, Muslim students sometimes disagree with the political establishment. There is nothing new in this. In our youth, we are well known for our passions and energy, and our attraction to causes. Although we may nod our heads sagely, and talk of the wisdom of our collective years, I am sure there are more than a few of us older generation here who wish we still had that youthful vigor!


Sadly the current trend in national politics is to see Muslims through the ‘prism of security’. This prism seems to have gripped our political class and media.


‘Securitisation’ of government policy has been affecting Muslim students now for several years. Innocent young men and women feel under pressure to ‘conform’, to not attract attention from such attitudes. There is a risk of alienating a generation of young Muslims who, like others, are simply trying to secure better futures for themselves and their families.


Successive governments and the Prevent agenda      


The Prevent agenda was born in the aftermath of 7/7 atrocities in London.


The-then Blair government came up with the Prevent initiative. It was highly flawed from the start.


Millions of pounds were distributed to chosen Muslim groups by central government, or via often-unwilling local councils.


Serious arguments were made by Muslims and civil society bodies that by conflating ‘security’ with ‘community cohesion’ the results would be counter-productive. The Government was not in a mood to listen – not, that is, until the Brown government initiated a review under a parliamentary committee led by Dr Phyllis Starkey MP.


The review acknowledged that Prevent was stigmatising and alienating an entire community. There was a strong case for Prevent to be ‘scaled back considerably’ it said, with more resources invested instead into “dealing with the social and economic difficulties that many Muslim communities face, which have nothing to do with terrorism or extremism at all.” 


Sadly, the Tory-led Coalition Government which entered into power in 2010 felt it had to initiate another Prevent review within months of coming to power. Only this time it did so without consulting any noteworthy civil society or Muslim groups.


Rather than following the Starkey recommendations, the Coalition decided to go one step further with a discredited ‘conveyor belt theory’ i.e. Meaning that, in theory, any Muslim could start off angry or disaffected, then become more religious and politicised, travelling through ever more extreme groups before finally turning to terror.


The Government formally distanced itself from mainstream Muslim groups it deemed as insufficiently ‘moderate’. Unfortunately this included Britain’s largest and most representative Muslim umbrella organisation, the Muslim Council of Britain. It also included FOSIS, the student body. British Muslims became, according to many, ‘conditional Britons’.


Almost the entire mainstream Muslim community and its many organisations have publicly declared, many times, that they have no truck with violent extremism. Ironically the truth was that, unlike other Britons, they were disproportionately affected by the curtailment of their liberties in the name of counter-terrorism and constant media demonisation.


Some politicians, journalists and think tanks began unleashing broadsides against these same Muslim groups. They often claimed their words were not about ‘Islam’ or the ‘community’ itself – but in the next breath they often accused ‘Muslims’ or vaguely-defined ‘Islamists’ (so-called political Muslims) of the most damnable things.


Some even went further, claiming there was an inherent problem with the religion of Islam itself: violence, misogyny, homophobia, backwardness, over-literalism. The list was endless.


The irony was, of course, that while senior Muslim leaders continued to attend and speak at events in Parliament, the official position was that there was no ‘formal’ dealing with the bodies that organised them! Nobody knew the real reason. There is a widely-held perception in some quarters, and certainly within the British Muslim world, that the Conservative Party does not want to ‘know’ Muslims.


In these troubling times, far-right groups like English Defence League (EDL) and various splinters were able to rise, orchestrating a number of violent demonstrations against mosques in major British cities since 2009. Mosques have been attacked and visibly-Muslim women – that is, those wearing a veil – have born the brunt of attacks recorded by the Tell MAMA project.


According to London Metropolitan University, Muslims have thus become part of suspect communities in public discourse. The Tory politician, Baroness Warsi, rightly claimed couple of years ago that Islamophobia is now socially acceptable in Britain. No wonder a recent YouGov poll found that fewer than one in four people believed Islam was compatible with British way of life.


Campus freedom and Muslim students


Muslim students are at the forefront of suspicion in university campuses. They are undergoing unrelenting scrutiny for their religious origin. The mistrust surrounding these students was part of the reason for draconian measures such as ‘section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000’, where any police officer could stop and search anyone or any vehicle that was in a specific area.


University lecturers, chaplains and porters were advised to inform the police about Muslim students “who are depressed or isolated under new guidance for countering Islamist radicalism.” The example of a student, Rizwaan Sabir of the University of Nottingham, highlighted the insanity of such moves when he downloaded a ‘publicly’ available al-Qaida training manual from a US government website, as part of research for his post-graduate study in 2008. He was subjected to horrendous treatment.

The consolation is that many student groups and universities have now acknowledged that the Prevent strategy is ‘discriminatory’ against Muslims.


The National Union of Students (NUS) said it was “totally unacceptable” for Prevent officers to demand details of student Islamic society members. The NUS warned ministers that “wild sensationalism” over claims about radicalisation on campuses would only serve to unfairly demonise Muslim students“.


The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) also said it was concerned that: “despite far-right groups being identified as a possible threat, Muslims continued to be singled out as part of the strategy.” Indeed, researchers into the far right, such as HOPE not hate, even the Home Affairs Select Committee, have said far more needs to be done to tackle the rise of far-right extremists than a lopsided, ideologically-driven obsession with Muslims.


No community or group should be treated with suspicion


Britain has a history of dealing fairly with people of diversity compared to other European countries.


Muslims in pre-9/11 Britain have been praised for their loyalty and enterprise; indeed, survey after survey still reveals that loyalty.


But in the changed landscape since 7/7, a small section of the media and political class seems desperate to prove just how ‘bad’ this community-of-communities is; just how dangerous Muslim students can be on the campus.


The reality is not without its problems – but it is changing.

It is encouraging that Muslims are fast-learning the nuances and reality of British political life, for example.


Many young people are now asserting themselves in the public arena. Muslims are ‘bedding down’ within the bedrock of our society.


There is no mass desire for establishing an ‘Islamic caliphate’ with ‘sharia law’ in the British Isles, despite what the EDL or certain think tanks or hate-filled blogs might claim. Most Muslims would simply laugh at this claim.


Similarly, I have not heard any call for death penalties, punishment of homosexuals, forced marriages or degradation of women by the vast majority of ordinary, law-abiding Muslim citizens. Most Muslims and Muslim organisations are indeed happy to be in a country that welcomes and protects diversity, as well as protects freedom of worship.


Yes, there are disagreements on some of parts of government policy – sometimes foreign, sometimes domestic – and that is part of democratic process. How we, as citizens, sort out our disagreements depends on the political maturity and wisdom of all in our nation – not just a few. The onus is there for everyone, not just Muslims.


Some ideas to address sensitive issues


The greatest fear in modern times is violence and terrorism. Some of this is undertaken in the name of religion.


While fringe elements in the Muslim world are hell-bent on creating havoc – including against their own communities – there is not a monopoly on the Islamic faith. Those evildoers speak for no-one but themselves.


Whatever the many reasons for terrorism, ‘racialisation’ or ‘Islamisation’ of crime is not going to solve the problems that we face. We need to deal with the true extremists collectively – not by stigmatising one community.


We, as British Muslims, want a world where rights, responsibilities and justice are everybody’s property.


In a modern pluralist society all communities should have a stake in the body politic.


No group or community should feel pushed to the margins.


With relative underachievement in education and over-representation in the prison population, the last thing the Muslim community expects, or wants, is to be demonised by the press and alienated from wider society, as has been recorded since the seminal Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All by  the Runnymede Trust in 1997.


The world can not afford to continuously see Muslims through the lens of security.


Being oversensitive or taking an ‘extremist’ view on extremism is not going to help anyone.


It is time we have a ‘new politics’: a politics that will be forward-looking and not become hostage to divisive rhetoric of die-hard anti-Muslim scaremongers.


It is time for a reappraisal of the place of Muslim citizens in Britain; for the better interest of our nation. We need a fresh “new way” of dealing with violent extremism. If we are serious about our shared values of coexistence, harmony and inclusion we should make sure “all people feel a connection with our society” and have “the control over their own lives”.


The Higher Education sector has the potential to lead in this debate and can be a springboard for broader discussion.


It is heartening that a premier educational institution like the LSE has arranged this conference to initiate a dialogue and discussion between key stakeholders in the debate around campus extremism, freedom and security. I am sure it will lead others to start the conversation surrounding these serious issues.


Muslim students today are different from what they were a decade ago. With a significantly higher presence in the campus now they have a huge potential to not only help their community, but become a serious force for good in wider society. Their energy and enterprise needs to be recognised by universities and governments.


The Latin motto of LSE means “To Understand the Causes of Things”. Yes, we must be ready to understand the causes of radicalism, extremism and violent extremism – but this we should do so with objectivity and rigor, with dispassionate arguments.


Universities are seats of learning and their success can only be achieved through fresh and creative ideas – often ‘radical’ – with the input of students and staff.


Government, meanwhile, is duty-bound to protect the security of the country, including university campuses, from any threat. But that should not be done, as the vice-chancellors and general students had been suggesting, by muzzling radical ideas from wherever they might come.


“Drive the problem underground” cannot be a solution.