Oct 15th 2015
ISLAM in Britain has been on David Cameron's mind this month. His stated aim is twofold: to make sure that law-abiding Muslims can live safely, and to reduce the risk of Muslim communities becoming nurseries for violence. Last week, when the prime minister addressed the Conservative Party conference, the item in his 7,000-word speech that caught attention was his pledge to regulate and where necessary, close down madrassas, where many Muslim children go after school to be drilled in their faith. This week, in response to a longstanding Muslim demand, he announced that police in England and Wales would be required to record anti-Muslim hate crimes as a specific category of misdeed, just as they do for anti-Semitic attacks. He also joined senior Muslims (and many others) at the first session of a new "community engagement forum" which is supposed to tackle extremism.
The promised crackdown on rogue madrassas was somewhere between a play to the nativist gallery and an overdue pledge to close a legal loophole. Mr Cameron told the party faithful:
Did you know, in our country, there are some children who spend several hours each day at a madrassa? Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with children learning about their faith, whether it's at madrassas, Sunday schools, or Jewish yeshivas. But in some madrassas we've got children being taught they shouldn't mix with people of other religions; being beaten; swallowing conspiracies about Jewish people. These children should be having their minds broadened, not having their minds filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate. So I can announce this today: if an institution is teaching children intensively, then whatever its religion, we will, like any other school, make it register so it can be inspected. And be in no doubt that if you are teaching intolerance, we will shut you down.
Nobody could deny that Britain's madrassas are a huge, under-regulated social phenomenon (about 250,000 children attend around 2,000 such institutions) and that at worst, they are dreadful. In Birmingham last month, a 60-year-old imam and his son, a fellow Islam teacher, were both jailed for a year after pleading guilty to beating a ten-year-old child for his supposed failures in religious classes. It is certainly a bit crazy that up to now, "supplementary schools" have not been subject to the sort of inspection regime that has long been applied (albeit rather too leniently, until recently) to all full-time schools, including faith-based ones.
Mr Cameron's words will reassure citizens whose sympathies teeter between the Conservatives and parties further to the right; but they will be badly received in the hard-core Muslim areas of British cities, like Bradford and Birmingham, even among those who agree that their communities suffer from all sorts of pathologies, from forced marriage to domestic violence to self-segregation to intolerance, that badly need to be tackled.
And the main reason, says Bradford imam Alyas Karmani, is not so much the contents of the prime minister's statement, but the context; and in the particular the implication that by teaching, sometimes rather badly and brutally, a fairly purist form of Islam, madrassas are incubators for jihadist violence. What Muslim listeners to the speech will have noticed is the fact that Mr Cameron's reference to madrassas came immediately after a segment deploring the fact that British boys and girls are being lured off to Syria to fight for the terrorists of Islamic State. "People do not become terrorists from a standing start," said the Tory leader, after pledging to "take on extremism in all its forms, violent and non-violent." Both openly and subliminally, he was implying that deeply traditional Islam is a step on the path to terrorism.
And there, precisely, lies the nub of the deep argument between the British political class and many of the country's Muslim leaders, especially those who are close to the grass roots. In parts—not all—of the former camp, it has become an ideological axiom that ultra-traditional social attitudes (on gender and sexuality, for example) and terrorism are points on the same spectrum, and not very far apart. But there are many Muslims (including those who resolutely oppose terror, and don't much like ultra-traditionalism either) who insist that this is simply wrong. On the contrary, they say, social and theological conservatism is one thing, and sympathy for terrorism is another; they need to be separated not conflated.
Whatever their (often dire) failings, British madrassas are not an especially significant factor in incubating terrorism, insists Mr Karmani who knows the Muslim scene in London and many northern cities. The sort of youngster who is tempted to quit Bradford for Syria is often the product of a secular, non-madrassa-going family who is led into fanaticism by material on the internet. As evidence against against any link between hard-line theology and terror, he says that hardly any of the British youngsters who have left for Syria have been products of the purist Deobandi school of south Asian Islam, which accounts for a lot of Muslim education in Britain. As another prominent British Muslim adds, madrassas (especially those attached to well-known mosques) are the last place where a rogue teacher would try to find a jihadist warrior; they are watched by too many people and any such recruiting drive would be quickly found out.
H.A. Hellyer, an analyst of Western Islam who is affiliated with two think-tanks (America's Brookings Institution and the Royal United Services Institute in Britain) is yet another observer who is sceptical of any hard-and-fast link between madrassas, theological conservatism and violence. He told me:
I think many within the [British] Muslim community, including within the "madrassa establishment" would freely admit that there are issues to be addressed in some or many madrassas. But we can’t assume that such shortcomings then lead people to taking a flight to Syria. Hundreds of thousands of British Muslim youngsters have attended madrassas, but how many of them have gone off to fight? On the contrary, religious authorities in Britain's madrassas would view groups like ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] as deviant or heretical. The reality is that there is no one pathway to radicalisation. Ideology often plays a critical role, but there will almost always be other socio-political factors. Recruitment into such groups happens for many reasons, and if we’re going to fight back successfully, we need to address them all.
There is a lot of common sense in what Mr Hellyer says, and he speaks with authority; he was deputy convenor of the task-force on extremism which the [then Labour] government set up after the London bombings of 2005. But unfortunately the discussion over the causes of terror has become an ideological argument, not an empirical or facts-based one, rather like the dispute over soft and hard drugs.