How are thinktanks shaping the political agenda on Muslims in Britain?

How are thinktanks shaping the political agenda on Muslims in Britain?


Written by: Arun Kundnani

Policy Exchange, the Social Affairs Unit and the Centre for Social Cohesion are driving the political agenda on Muslims in Britain while thinktanks on the left are largely silent.

Over the last two months, a number of writers, journalists and policymakers associated with the Policy Exchange (PX) thinktank have taken up key positions on Boris Johnson’s London mayoral team. The most prominent of these appointments is that of former Times journalist Anthony Browne, who became policy director at City Hall in July 2008. Browne has been PX’s director since 2007 and is tipped for a senior role at Downing Street in any future Cameron government.

Founded in 2002, PX is regarded as having a considerable influence on David Cameron’s repositioning of the Conservatives as progressive and liberal, particularly on issues to do with multiculturalism and the ‘war on terror’. Two events in 2005 transformed the way that Conservatives present themselves on ‘race and immigration’ issues. Their general election defeat in that year led to a reluctance to repeat Michael Howard’s strategy of making immigration a key campaigning issue. And the London bombings a few weeks later shifted the focus from immigration per se onto questions of Muslims in particular, multiculturalism and Britishness – issues that PX has pursued vigorously since then.

The critique of multiculturalism

In the past, liberals tended to support multicultural policies while conservatives saw multiculturalism as a threat to national cohesion and social order. Since 7/7, many liberals have joined with conservatives in thinking that multicultural tolerance has gone too far and that the failure to defend western values has fostered ‘Islamic extremism’ leading, ultimately, to the creation of British suicide bombers. PX has led the way in promoting this argument across the political spectrum. Its critiques have focused not just on multiculturalism but also on the Muslim political leadership which multiculturalism has given rise to, in particular the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB).

In 2006, PX published a major report on the MCB, entitled When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries, criticising its ‘known links to the ideology of radical Islamism’.[1] Following this report, Labour government ministers began to distance themselves from the MCB and promoted the Sufi Muslim Council as an alternative Muslim representative organisation that was more supportive of western foreign policy. The importance of these issues for Cameron’s ‘modernised’ Conservative Party was also highlighted by the report’s author, New Statesman political editor Martin Bright, who noted the willingness of the ‘Tory progressives at Policy Exchange’ to take up the issues and the ‘signs that the reformist Cameron wing of the Conservative Party’ would pursue them.

In January 2007, PX released a far more wide-ranging report on Muslims and multiculturalism, entitled Living Apart Together. Billed as an attempt to find ‘the reasons why there has been a significant rise in Islamic fundamentalism amongst the younger generation’, its answer was that multiculturalism and Britain’s failure to assert the superiority of its national values had encouraged young Muslims to feel victimised and adopt anti-western views.[2] The report was released to the press to coincide with a speech by David Cameron attacking multiculturalism and Muslim ‘extremists’ who seek ‘special treatment’. A policy document published simultaneously by the Tories suggested that the MCB was dominated by such ‘separatism’.[3] Munira Mirza, a co-author of the PX report, is now working as Boris Johnson’s director of arts.

Later in the same year, PX published a report on ‘extremist literature’ which claimed that ‘radical material’ was being distributed in a quarter of Britain’s mosques and called for greater regulation and a new ‘gold standard’ to promote a ‘moderate Islam’.[4] The report was criticised by a BBC Newsnight investigation which suggested that book receipts collected by PX researchers had been faked.

Anthony Browne’s writings over the last six years exemplify this shift in emphasis from a general concern with ‘Third World immigration’ to a focus on Muslims in Britain. In August 2002, Browne wrote an article for The Times entitled ‘Britain is losing Britain’ in which he stated that ‘an unprecedented and sustained wave of immigration [is] utterly transforming the society in which we live against the wishes of the majority of the population, damaging quality of life and social cohesion, exacerbating the housing crisis and congestion’. He added that ‘in the past five years, while the white population grew by 1 per cent, the Bangladeshi community grew by 30 per cent, the black African population by 37 per cent and the Pakistani community by 13 per cent’; what he called ‘little Third World colonies’ had appeared in Britain.[5] A few months later, Browne wrote in the Spectator (then edited by Boris Johnson) that ‘it is not through letting in terrorists that the government’s policy of mass immigration – especially from the Third World – will claim the most lives. It is through letting in too many germs.'[6]

Following 7/7, Anthony Browne turned his attention to what he called Islamic ‘fascism’. Political correctness, he argued, had ‘allowed the creation of alienated Muslim ghettoes which produce young men who commit mass murder against their fellow citizens’.[7] Groups such as the Muslim Association of Britain, he said, are ‘like Hitler’ and Islamic ‘fascism’ has taken root in Britain because of the Left’s failure to break down Muslim separatism. The response to 7/7 must be a clamp down on arranged marriages, the deportation of imams who support the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly a French-style ban on the hijab in schools.[8]

Similarly, Charles Moore, the current chairman of PX and a former editor of the Telegraph and the Spectator, gave a speech in March 2008 outlining a ‘possible conservative approach to the question of Islam in Britain’. The government, he argued, should maintain a list of Muslim organisations which, while not actually inciting violence, ‘nevertheless advocate such anti-social attitudes that they should not receive public money or official recognition’ – in this category would fall any groups with links to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Jamaati-e-Islami, as well as individuals, such as Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss philosopher and fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford.[9]

Finally, there is Michael Gove, a founding chairman of PX and one of the young Conservative MPs who make up David Cameron’s shadow cabinet. In his 2006 book Celsius 7/7, Gove defines ‘Islamism’ as an ideology that is similar to fascism and includes Tariq Ramadan as a follower. He states that in the war against ‘Islamism’, it will be necessary for Britain to carry out assassinations of terrorist suspects, in order to send ‘a vital signal of resolution’. More generally, a ‘temporary curtailment of liberties’ will be needed to prevent Islamism from destroying western civilisation.[10] Fellow Tories regard Gove as a leading expert on Muslims in Britain.

Reviving the cold war

What Browne’s, Moore’s and Gove’s comments illustrate is the attempt to justify illberal policies in the name of defending ‘liberal’ western values against an alien ‘totalitarian’ threat. This is the paradoxical project that is now the major theme of centre-Right thinking on multiculturalism and the ‘war on terror’. Indeed, the debate on multiculturalism has become a part of what many regard as a new ‘cultural’ cold war to promote a ‘moderate’ (i.e. pro-western) Islam across the globe – and particularly in Europe. This is a model that has been endorsed by Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has spoken of a new cold war against ‘Muslim extremism’, fought through the ‘soft power’ of cultural influence.[11] The role of thinktanks would then not only be to supply political parties with policy suggestions but also to popularise the idea of ‘Islamism’ as an existential threat to the West that requires a hardline, Cold War-style response. As Dean Godson, a research director at PX who has strong links to well-known Washington neoconservatives, wrote in 2006: ‘During the Cold War, organisations such as the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office would assert the superiority of the West over its totalitarian rivals. And magazines such as Encounter did hand-to-hand combat with Soviet fellow travellers. For any kind of truly moderate Islam to flourish, we need first to recapture our own self-confidence.'[12]

Encounter, of course, was covertly funded by the CIA. But Godson’s suggestion has been taken up with the launch of Standpoint magazine, published by another thinktank, the Social Affairs Unit (SAU). Its editor Daniel Johnson explicitly sees Standpoint as a 21st-century version of Encounter, except with Islamism replacing communism as the threat to western civilisation.[13] By uniting around the formula of the ‘defence of the liberal West against the Islamists’, the magazine has been able to incorporate pro-Iraq war ‘liberal’ writers, such as Nick Cohen and Julie Burchill, with neoconservatives. Michael Gove serves on the magazine’s advisory board, as does Gertrude Himmelfarb (one of Gordon Brown’s favourite historians and wife and mother of the leading US neoconservatives Irving and William Kristol).

In Standpoint‘s first issue in June 2008, the historian Michael Burleigh praised Cameron’s approach to the ‘war on terror’, suggesting that, once in government, he would end Britain’s excessive multicultural tolerance and adopt a tougher counter-terrorist stance. Cameron, he says, has understood that ‘jihadism’ threatens the very existence of the West and that the way to fight it is through the dismantling of ‘state multiculturalism’, the banning of extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, the deportation of ‘foreign agitators’ and withdrawal from European human rights commitments.[14] In the same issue, there is an essay by the Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali, arguing that ‘radical Islam’ is filling the gap left by the decline of Christian influence at the core of British identity.[15]

Like PX, the SAU has also published a series of reports on ‘Islamic extremism’. Its 2005 study of ‘terrorist and extremist activity on British campuses’ by Anthony Glees, entitled When Students Turn to Terror, was widely seen as exaggerated and flawed yet had a significant impact in fostering an atmosphere of suspicion in further and higher education.[16] The report argued the need for greater monitoring and surveillance of students by police and security forces.[17]

The focus on campuses was repeated in a 2008 report by the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC). Islam on Campus by John Thorne and Hannah Stuart claimed that involvement in university Islamic Societies tends to encourage extremism.[18] In response, Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, argued that the survey on which the report was based asked Muslim students ‘vague and misleading questions, and their answers were then misinterpreted’.[19] The CSC is a project of the right-wing thinktank Civitas, which before 7/7 published a number of reports describing immigration as damaging to British life. Since the CSC was established in 2007, it has focused on what it regards as the threat to cohesion represented by British Muslim communities. Its neoconservative director Douglas Murray has stated that ‘conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board’ and has called for a bar on immigration from Muslim countries.[20] The CSC’s reports reflect this agenda.

The lack of an alternative vision

While PX, the SAU and the CSC have focused extensively on the crisis that they say has been caused by multiculturalism and on the Muslim presence in Britain, thinktanks which locate themselves on the left of the political spectrum have tended to approach these issues through the concept of community cohesion and the new identity politics of Britishness. The notion of community cohesion directs attention to local policy initiatives that might bind communities together more strongly. The new concern with Britishness is a way of responding to right-wing attacks on multiculturalism that favours a ‘third way’ on identity, rooting national belonging in liberal values. These have been the approaches adopted by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), the Smith Institute and the Fabian Society.[21] In effect, this has meant that the right-wing thinktanks’ definition of a ‘crisis of multiculturalism’ has not been challenged and the Left has differed only in the sorts of solutions it proposes. While IPPR, in particular, has over the last few years published reports that question the perception of an ‘immigration crisis’, it has not done the same to challenge the idea of a ‘multiculturalism crisis’ or a ‘Muslim problem’.

The only major thinktank that has attempted an alternative approach to notions of Muslim extremism is Demos. Its research has sought to challenge the conflation of Islamism, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. In July 2008, as part of this research project, Demos decided to host a session at the Islam Expo in London Olympia on the subject of ‘The Islamist Threat: myth or reality?’.[22] But Demos’ involvement drew a storm of protest as critics such as Martin Bright branded the event ‘Hamas at Olympia’.[23] Nick Cohen accused Demos of ‘appeasement’ and ‘collaborating’ with a fascist enemy.[24] Demos’ then director Catherine Fieschi resigned on the following Monday.

What of the political magazines of the liberal centre and centre-Left? Again, rather than challenge the tenets of the Right’s framework on these issues, the approach has been one of borrowing and adaptation. The liberal Prospect magazine, for example, has promoted a debate on whether the Left’s support for multiculturalism has been misguided. Its editor David Goodhart argued in his influential 2004 essay, ‘Too Diverse?’, that multiculturalism should be dropped since the welfare state was incompatible with ethnic diversity – a view that was influential with the Labour government. On British Muslims, Goodhart has written that he hopes that a ‘moderate’ leadership will emerge to defuse the Islamist threat and foster integration. What, though, makes a ‘moderate’ Muslim? Tariq Ramadan was one for a while, and was even held by Goodhart to be a positive example of a pro-integrationist Muslim leader, but was then rejected after arguing in the Guardian in 2007 that ‘a link exists between terrorism and foreign policy’.[25] Ramadan’s article was denounced by Goodhart as a ‘grievance-seeking, responsibility-avoiding diatribe’. And in an ‘open letter’ to Ramadan, Goodhart announced that his liking for him had come to an end: ‘You, I thought, were different. You were modern, confident, educated, in favour of Muslim integration against religious and ethnic balkanisation. … I was wrong about you.'[26] At the centre-Left New Statesman, the political editor Martin Bright has launched a number of attacks on the MCB and called for the Left to define Islamists as ‘Islamic fascists’. Only individual columnists, such as the New Statesman‘s Ziauddin Sardar and, at the Guardian, Seumas Milne and Madeleine Bunting, have tried to offer a positive view of multiculturalism and a more complex account of Muslim politics.

An atmosphere of suspicion

A number of questions can be raised about the methodologies of the reports that PX, the SAU and the CSC have produced on Muslims in Britain. But the deeper issue is their disproportionality and selectivity, which – in the absence of an alternative perspective from other thinktanks – end up reinforcing a systematic and unchallenged conflation of extremism and the wider British Muslim presence. The publication of these reports is often followed by incendiary newspaper headlines on the ‘Islamic threat’. As Ronan Bennett has written: ‘Hardly a day goes by when they [British Muslims] are not lectured and scolded by writers claiming to be the champions of true liberalism.'[27] This gradual ratcheting up of an atmosphere of suspicion and crisis contributes to Labour government policies that erode civil liberties and democratic freedoms. Yet, in the next general election campaign, the Conservatives are likely to take a tougher approach to multiculturalism and Muslim organisations – as they did in the London mayoral elections. The interpretation of ‘Islamic extremism’ that has been fostered by PX, the SAU and the CSC is likely to feed into this process.

It is of course true that some interpretations of multiculturalism have been counter-productive and that Muslim political leaders need to be held to account by the communities they represent. But that is a far cry from the political agenda implied by these writers. Certainly, their writings can be seen as contributing to an ideological atmosphere in which attacks on multiculturalism and demands to restrict civil liberties, suppress democratic Muslim voices and downplay the legitimate issues that fuel Muslim anger at western states all become increasingly acceptable and part of a common political agenda across the party divide.[28]

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

One thought on “How are thinktanks shaping the political agenda on Muslims in Britain?

  1. I am in broad agreement with Arun Kundnani and share concerns about the role of thinktanks in shaping the agenda for Labour and Tories alike. However, I have some reservations which I would like to register. The first is about “multicultaralism”. I take that as signifying the advocacy by individuals and groups on behalf of the communities or groups that they represent or claim to represent. In this sense, multiculturalism needs to be supported, as long as those advocating it are accountable to the communities they represent. Secondly, there is a complementary approach to multiculturalism, and that is anti-racism/race-equality, tethered to principles of equality and social justice. Racism remains and has always been urgent to tackle. My organisation, like some others does this daily through research, advocacy, training and consultancy. However, the struggle for race-equality is constantly undermined and diverted. It is undermined by government policies, particularly those on immigration. It is diverted by policies on diversity, community cohesion and, paradoxically by “multiculturalism” itself. That is to say by the kinds of advocacy that is narrow and in sectional interests only. In my views this leads logically to a kind of social apartheid and gives the excuse to decision and policy makers to play communities, including white communities, off against each other. Multiculture and what is known as the multicultural exists in British society and has always done so. Assimilation happens whether we find it desirable or not. (I personally don’t). But it is almost always partial. Call it what you will, what is not assimilable remains and that is what we refer to as multicultural. Multiculturalism as an ideology has changed over time. In the 70s it went hand in hand with race-equality and anti-racism, but with unresolved tensions. (I have always viewed anti-racism as something that is. by definition, a general struggle, something all of society needs to embrace. Multiculturalism embraces different cultures and contains sectional interests of what I term as visible minority communities. The dropping by CRE in the late 80s of the term “Black” in a generic sense is an example of the underlying and unresolved tensions within multiculturalism. During the Thatcher and Major years multiculturalism as an ideology underwent a change. This was in response to the emergence of what C Barker has called the new racism. He links the new racism to Conservatives and the ideology of the tribe. The emergence of this ideology led to multiculturalism getting embroiled unquestioningly in identity politics – itself a right wing ideology. Blair and Brown have continued down this road and taken on board the assimilationist agenda of radical US neo-conservatism. If multiculturalism is to be revived then it needs to disentangle itself from from identity politics and the ideology of the tribe and reconnect to anti-racism and social justice.

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