We Must Engage With Moderate Muslims

Far from being ’paranoid’ my book calls for a more robust relationship with Islam, says Michael Gove

Building a secure and tolerant multi-ethnic society is one of the biggest challenges Britain faces. Which is why I was pleased to be able to share a radio studio last month with Madeleine Bunting (The venomous media voices who think no Muslim is worth talking to, August 16) to discuss what government’s role should be. She and I agreed that the government’s current approach was flawed. It smacked, we both agreed, of the old colonial approach of “getting the sheikh to deliver his people”. I argued that what we needed was an engagement with Britain’s Muslims which did not see them as an undifferentiated mass, but rather recognised the variety of traditions and identities they enjoy.

Which is why I was surprised to read that Bunting thinks I am a “venomous media voice who thinks no Muslim is worth talking to”. As someone who has spoken to hundreds of Muslims at meetings organised by a variety of groups the allegation is nonsensical.

According to Bunting, I, along with Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail and Martin Bright of the New Statesman, not only believe that extremists should be shunned but I also think moderates shouldn’t be engaged with because they’re “unrepresentative”. This couldn’t be more wrong. My new book on Islamist terror, Celsius 7/7 – which she dismisses as “paranoid” – explicitly makes the case for improved engagement with those moderate Muslims who I believe represent the majority.

The argument I make in Celsius 7/7 is a plea for a more robust approach to those individuals whose version of Islam leads them to reject liberal values of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality and sexual diversity. There is a strain within Islam at once puritan and militant which is closely associated with the thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In her piece, Bunting argues that the Brotherhood is “the 20th century’s most influential political Islamic movement”, but the prime minister and many others have warned of the impact of Brotherhood thinking in driving extremism. Indeed, some of voices associated with the Brotherhood have also appeared regularly in the Guardian’s comment pages.

I am concerned that the Islamist argument that Muslims should put their allegiance to a particular version of their faith ahead of their commitment to the country they share with others risks undermining healthy community relations. And I think government should consider how its interaction with Islamist groups may be holding back social cohesion.

We need to widen the range of Muslim voices government listens to, so that debate is broadened beyond the agenda of the most theologically conservative and politically militant. Far from arguing that Muslims aren’t worth talking to, I believe we need a more open conversation about how we tackle extremism together. Sadly, on the basis of her article, I fear it is Bunting, not me, who seems to want to deny certain arguments a fair hearing.

· Michael Gove is Conservative MP for Surrey Heath. His book Celsius 7/7 is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

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