Written by Saqeb Mueen
With the Con-Lib Coalition Government reaching the 100 day milestone, Saqeb Mueen explores some of the issues of particular relevance to Britain’s Muslim communities.
Since the 1930s, it has become customary for modern governments to be judged through its performance in the first 100 days. But in Britain today, the assessment of the Con-Lib Coalition Government is tricky given the novel make-up: where ministers are still coming to terms with former political foes, and where once diametrically opposed political parties are still grappling with the compromise they have forged.
The backdrop to this ‘arranged marriage’ is the dire financial and economic situation that Britain now finds itself; and the inevitable public expenditure cuts that may well affect all of us in profound ways.
On the 100th day of the Coalition Government, the symbolism of the coalition is best exemplified with the fact that the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister today is nominally in charge while the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is on holiday.
Much will be said about the delicate and complex negotiations pertaining to the Coalition Government’s challenges, however how have the first 100 days affected Muslims?
On Monday, Clegg spoke at an event for the international charity Islamic Relief in which he commended the generosity of Muslims during Ramadan, particularly in response to the Pakistan floods. There, Clegg and the Conservative International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, struck a chord with Muslims when both castigated the international community for its sluggish response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.
The Coalition Government began by appointing its first Muslim fully-fledged member of the Cabinet. Selected as Co-Chair of the Conservative Party, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has the onerous task of connecting and selling Coalition policies to the Party grassroots. She also has an unofficial roving brief to be an interlocutor between government and Muslim communities.
The government has gone some way in reforming those policies of the previous government that were perceived to adversely affect British Muslims as a faith group. Within days of being appointed, the Security Minister Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones granted her first interview with Islam Channel and emphasised the importance of rebuilding trust between Muslim communities and the government. Thereafter the government announced a review and most probably a cancellation of the highly controversial Prevent programme which conflated counter-terrorism and community cohesion. The government has also announced a review of counter-terror legislation, in line with its commitment to introduce a Freedom Bill. In this regard it will also review the use of stop and search powers in section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
Members of the government have also shown personal leadership in facing up to intolerance. Even though the attempt by Tory MP Phillip Hollobone to ride the wave of European Islamophobia by banning the niqab resonated with the media and polls here, Immigration Minister Damian Green asserted the values of this country by stating emphatically that a ban on the niqab would be ‘un-British’.
The challenge for government is to follow-up this personal display of courage with institutional support to tackle anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia at all levels. With the deepest public service cuts to be announced in a generation, there will be a challenge and an opportunity for British Muslim civil society to make its contribution.
The government has announced its ‘Big Society’ initiative that aims to give individuals and communities more control over their destinies. This presents an opportunity for local Muslim groups, who have been well established participants in civil society, to play their role; establishing voluntary initiatives that will help all people, regardless of faith.
One avenue for this is through education, where the government has promised to allow parents to set up and administer ‘free schools’, with direct support from central government.
According to the Guardian newspaper, Muslim parents in Normanton, West Yorkshire, have responded to the call by raising £100,000 to set up a primary school under this initiative. In this regard, Muslim educationalists will examine with interest as to whether Muslim faith schools will be treated fairly.
In foreign affairs the government has reaffirmed its commitment to remaining in Afghanistan but has also indicated, just like the US administration, that combat troops should return home in five years.
Meanwhile, David Cameron won plaudits in the Muslim world when he asserted in Turkey that Gaza “cannot remain a prison camp”, and how the attack on the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ to aid Gaza was completely unacceptable. Though such sentiments are much stronger in favour of the Palistinian plight compared to the previous government, the test will come when government will be presented with the need to apply official censure to Israeli actions.
Conversely, on that same trip, he also courted controversy by declaring that Pakistan should not be allowed to “look both ways” in relation to terrorism. The comments led to a furious backlash from Pakistani government circles with Pakistan’s UN Ambassador accusing Cameron of contributing to the lacklustre attitude of the international community in relation to giving aid post-floods. A forthcoming test will be how the UK conducts itself as the mutual antagonism between Iran and the West intensifies.
So in the early days of the Coalition Government, the scorecard has been promising but there are challenging times ahead.
Chief amongst these is the need to deal with alienation and exclusion. Many will be keeping an eye into how government facilitates getting Muslim women into work, tackling deprivation in the poorest areas where many Muslims live and working to bring harmony between communities. In austere times, we all need to think of creative ways to overcome these problems.
There does not seem to be a public consensus between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats when it comes to engagement with Muslims. Perhaps there does not need to be as policy on a raft of Muslim issues changed from year-to-year under the previous administration.
Prior to the elections, the Conservatives promised to deal with Muslims as citizens, not as a faith community or through representative groups. It remains to be seen how this will be done in practise, and whether this applies to other faith communities as well.
A further challenge will also come from those grassroots Conservative activists who vocally advocate a more hard-nosed approach to Muslims and British Muslim civil society. In this regard the comments by Damian Green did not go down well in these quarters while the banning of Zakir Naik, a controversial preacher with a popular following amongst some sections of the Muslim community, instantly drew praise.
The banning of Naik was not without controversy in government. The decision revealed tensions between civil servants and ministers with a Home Office Muslim advisor being suspended after revealing that the head of the Office of Counter-Terrorism was unhappy with the decision. This episode led to Conservative backbenchers censuring civil servants and calling for a tougher line in the face of an unaccommodating civil service.
Counter-terrorism was the backdrop to this problem, a problem which dogged the previous government when terrorism and community cohesion was conflated. To some, this controversy demonstrates that the allure to conflate Muslims with terrorism will continue to be a much debated policy problem.
Of interest to the Westminster village – but perhaps not to ordinary Muslims – will be how government will deal with the unseemly jostling by Muslim groups and consultancies for access to power and funding.
The challenge for government is to act as a fair and neutral interlocutor, as opposed to one that engages in the sectarianism and disunity that afflicts the Muslim community. Alternatively, we might find ourselves in the extraordinary situation where Muslim groups, realising that they might have to fend for themselves, will at last learn to live with difference and forge a common purpose for the benefit of Britain’s Muslims specifically, and wider society as a whole.
What do you think of the Coalition’s first 100 days?
Do you feel it is an improvement on Labour’s record; still too early to tell; or are you suitably under-impressed with their record so far?