Thursday, 26 February 2009

Extremism and religion in Britain

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This may prove unpopular, but I have to say I agree with much of what communities secretary Hazel Blears had to say in her speech at the LSE last night, in which she outlined changes in the government's approach towards Islamic extremism. Blears used the speech, which you can read in full online, to indicate the government's willingness to engage and debate with a wide range of Muslim groups, with only those advocating violence necessarily excluded from the process. Blears acknowledeges that this would involve engagement with groups holding unacceptable views on other issues such as, say, women and homosexuality, or the value of democracy, but reassures us that these views would be met head on.

This is an issue we've covered in New Humanist several times in the past couple of years, most recently in this piece by Dave Rich, and I think what Blears is outlining here is the right approach. It's clear that engagement with the Muslim community is the only real way in which the government can tackle the spread of extremism in the long term, and you can't carry out that engagement by only talking to those groups you deem to be putting out the correct message. As Blears points out in the speech, Muslims in Britain are not a single community with a single mouthpiece, so it is essential that the government engages with a wide range of groups and communities, including those they hugely disagree with. Yes, there are some Muslim groups, such as the Quilliam Foundation, that actively promote an anti-extremist agenda, but in truth the numbers they directly represent are very few. And as the government found out to its detrement when it favoured with the Muslim Council of Britain after 7/7, engagement with a limited number of organisations risks raising those groups up as self-styled "community leaders, who can then use their position to push their own agendas (which in the case of the MCB turned out to not be quite as savoury as the government hoped). Personally I don't see how you can defeat extremist ideas without tackling them head on, and so I find it encouraging that the government is now displaying a willingness to do this.

The last part of Blears' speech turned to discussion of religion in general in the UK, and her belief that "the quality of debate about religion in contemporary life - and by religion, I mean all faiths - is being sapped by a creeping oversensitivity." It's a little less clear what she was trying to say here. She used the results of a BBC survey to claim that the majority of people think "faith should have a bigger role in the public sphere", and cited classic "PC-gone-mad" cases like the praying nurse and schools "banning" Christmas decorations as examples of "people getting into a panic because someone, somewhere, might get offended."

Blears is right to suggest that these incidents are ridiculous and we could do without them, but she seems to blame those doing the apparent banning, rather than those who often manufature and deliberately inflame the stories, like the Daily Mail or the Christian Legal Centre. Which is a shame, because her next point is a good one – an appeal for robust debate about religion based around traditions of "open debate, rational inquiry, and plain old common sense".

Now that's something we can all support.


Philip Wigg said...

Did she take questions at the end? What were they like?

Ralph said...

Read Blear's speech. She failed to mention one of the root causes of the problem: the fact that Hazel Blears and fellow lefties have spent the last two decades spitting venom at anyone suggesting immigration is a bad idea.