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

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

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).


Arun Kundnani is the editor of Race & Class and the author of The End of Tolerance: racism in 21st century Britain (Pluto Press, 2007).