- Preventing extremism
In July 2005, just days after the 7/7 terror attacks, Tony Blair called a delegation of senior Muslim community leaders to 10 Downing Street, in what appeared a gesture towards a show of national unity. He was seeking confirmation of the position that these bombings were neither a consequence of British foreign policy, nor an expression of Islam, but rather the product of an extremist ideology that all present were invested in defeating. He also wanted the people gathered to acknowledge that it was from their Muslim community that the problem had arisen; and the business that he charged them with was to take responsibility for finding out why, so that, collectively, a solution could be achieved.
Designated as the Preventing Violent Extremism Taskforce, the group reported back within weeks with a list of four factors that its members had agreed on as the underlying causes of extremism. Largely social and economic, they included [End Page 53] inequality, deprivation and discrimination, but there was also foreign policy, that moot point of the political that was meant to remain off the agenda. Shortly after, Blair called a press conference in which, at length, and suggesting the full support of this taskforce, he proceeded to jettison their recommendations altogether, outlining instead a bold new approach to counter-extremism, founded on the institutionalisation of a distinction between moderate and radical Islam. One, he said, could be found compatible with British values, the other could not.
In a sense that moment marked the end of an illusion. Central to New Labour’s rise to power had been a new narrative of nation - crassly spun out as ‘Cool Britannia’, and in Robin Cook’s ode to tikka masala, but a narrative, nevertheless, that lay in stark distinction to the racist overtones of a Conservative Party that had never really demonstrated itself at ease with Britain’s multicultural reality. The Conservatives were a party where people still believed that your citizenship could be linked to the international cricket team you supported. New Labour’s modernisers, for all their faults, had promised better, not least when, very soon after they came to power, they put in place an inquiry into the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The resulting Macpherson Report, published in 1999, would recognise, momentously, the truth of the institutional racism that is a daily fact of life for black British citizens.
The writing had been on the wall, though, from very early on. The 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, for example, had established the idea that your Britishness could now be filtered through a Citizenship Test (much like a school exam), and the test was finally introduced in November 2005, just as the Blair government’s new counter-extremism measures were coming into effect.
So Blair’s impulse, that July, to seek counsel from and co-operation with Muslim leaders, could be seen as the last gasp of the multicultural vision that had helped launch him into power eight years before. After this he reverted to the old tactic of exploiting the idea of Britain, Britishness and British values to help steer a tricky political course - and this is very much part of the legacy that we are still dealing with today …
Because what is a British value exactly? Who gets to be the judge of that? And over who?
These are the questions that Labour governments struggled to define over the [End Page 54] next five years, as most members of the taskforce that had been convened after 7/7 (including the Muslim Council of Britain, the organisation effectively placed at the head of it) responded passionately against the logic of this new approach. They argued that it would only alienate British Muslims further, that it would feed the causes of extremism at the root.
Thereafter, relations between the government and organisations like the MCB became increasingly strained until, in 2009, shortly after the Gaza war of December 2008 to January 2010, communication channels were severed entirely (by the government).
Instead, under the PREVENT strategy, generous funding was made available to Muslim community organisations ready to accept the government’s programme of...