Conservative thinktanks are in a bit of a bind when it comes to responding to the rise of Islamophobia. On the one hand they want to condemn the BNP and the English Defence League for their racism and violence, but on the other they want to downplay the extent and existence of anti-Muslim racism because it might deflect attention from “Islamism” – the catch-all term for politically active Muslims, which they see as the main problem facing the UK. The difficulty with their position is that they end up condemning the peaceful political activism of Muslim groups, while downplaying and even excusing the violent modus operandi of racist and Islamophobic groups such as the EDL.
In our report we examine two of the most prominent British thinktanks engaged in work on the role of Islam in UK politics. The Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) is the smaller of the two, focusing mainly on Islam, while Policy Exchange has a wider remit. Nevertheless, their work has followed quite similar lines. They have both rejected counter-terrorism policies based on public safety and have instead sought to revive discredited counter-subversion policies from the cold war era – policies that targeted a generation of trade union leaders and peace activists, including future Labour ministers.
The counter-subversion thinking of this earlier period undermined civil liberties and had a problematic influence on counter-terrorism policy; they risked repressing those engaged in legitimate political activity, while misunderstanding those who present a genuine threat of violence. As a result of following this highly ideological approach, both thinktanks have regularly attacked politically active Muslims, Muslim organisations and traditional liberal institutions such as churches, universities, schools and libraries. In one report, The Hijacking of British Islam, Policy Exchange famously attacked mosques alleging that they were selling extremist literature. The report was subsequently removed from the thinktank’s website after the BBC discovered evidence suggesting that the report’s findings had been fabricated.
The record of these thinktanks is that their publications at best exaggerate the threat posed by “Islamists” and the supposed Islamisation of public institutions. Their concern is not over the threat of terrorism or even of any illegality. Rather it is based on their counter-subversion analysis. This leads them into suggesting – as Policy Exchange has in a report titled Living Apart Together – that experiences of Islamophobia and discrimination faced by Muslims in Britain are simply “myths” attributable to a “victim mentality”.
This downplaying of Islamophobia is also seen in the thinktanks’ analysis of the far right. The CSC has produced two reports on the British far right. One, on the BNP, in particular underplays the extent to which it has been influenced by other Islamophobic currents. The BNP’s alliance with the counterjihad movement and the subsequent emergence of the EDLwere among the most significant developments on the British far right in recent years. Yet neither of the CSC’s reports on the far right adequately addressed them. This is, perhaps, not surprising in the light of the CSC’s own contacts with members of the counterjihad movement, such as the US-based Robert Spencer. In marked contrast to the CSC’s analysis of other forms of political extremism, its director, Douglas Murray, has characterised the EDL as a predictable response to political failure and has recently described the EDL as a “grassroots response from non-Muslims to Islamism“.
Events in Norway have now directed attention to the violence of the far right and in particular serve to highlight the danger presented by the spread of Islamophobic ideas. It would be a mistake to replace an exaggerated fear of Islam with a mirror image fear of the far right. However, the double standards at the heart of the approach taken by Policy Exchange and the CSC suggests that any policymaker or politician genuinely interested in public safety and the health of the democratic system should recognise that Islamophobic ideas are not just a product of violent far right groups, but equally can be fostered even by apparently respectable thinktanks.
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