Is Britain at Last Facing Up to Domestic Islamist Threat?

Britain more than any other country offers a sharp contrast between a robust foreign policy, in support of the War on Terror, and an approach on the domestic front characterized by a feeble fawning toward vocal groups and leaders that purport to speak for Muslims. When Tony Blair speaks on the War on Terror, he gives a passionate defense of its morality, and is fiercely confident of the virtue of policies he has followed. But this rhetoric on foreign policy belies an official stance towards Muslim radicals based in Britain that is racked with self-doubt and the fear of giving offence—with every provision made for Muslim groups to critique it and second-guess.

Britain’s Ambassador to Egypt Sir Derek Plumby termed the approach of his government toward Muslim organizations “engagement for engagement’s sake.”

The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group of British Islamic organizations, has been granted so much access to the corridors of power that the investigative journalist Martin Bright described it and the government as “joined at the hip.”  So much weight does the MCB’s voice carry in the outreach department of the British Foreign Office that its pamphlet “Muslims in Britain” is issued as a government document.  Its secretary-general until June, Iqbal Sacranie, has met with Tony Blair and shared a platform at public events with Britain’s foreign secretary. Last year he became Sir Iqbal Sacranie as he was awarded one of the British establishment’s highest honors, a knighthood.

But the MCB is also an organization whose ideological roots are found in the ambitions and ideals of Mualana Maududi, who sought a global revolution to achieve an Islamic state governed by sharia law.  Sir Iqbal Sacranie, a veteran Muslim radical, first distinguished himself by arguing when Iran issued a fatwa against the novelist Salmon Rushdie that for him “death was perhaps too easy.”  As head of the Muslim Council of Britain, he argued for criminalizing the phrase “Islamic terrorist” and lead a boycott of Britain’s Holocaust memorial day.  The MCB’s press spokesman Inayat Bunglawala has praised Maududi,  and its new secretary-general, Mohammed Abdul Bari, already has a record of hosting at his mosque the Bangladeshi fanatic Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, who has called for American soldiers to be “buried in the soil of Iraq.”

Many others gain from the government’s efforts at “engagement.” Yusuf al-Qaradawi supports suicide bombings on the West Bank, the execution of homosexuals and of Muslims who lose their faith, and preaches that it is the duty of every Muslim to resist coalition forces in Iraq.  Nonetheless, the political director of the British Foreign Office, John Sawers, argues that “Having individuals like Qaradawi on our side should be our aim,” and this July the British government paid for him to attend a conference in Turkey to discuss Islam in Europe.

In policy terms, the Blair government’s attitude has been even more startling. Since 2001, it has twice acceded to radical demands that arguments judged to promote “Islamophobia” be criminalized as incitement to “religious hatred.” In a move of ludicrous naivety, it announced this September that police preparing for counter-terrorist raids would consult with Muslim lobby groups before taking action—showing them intelligence documents as long as they promised to keep the contents secret.

After all these efforts and concessions, it must have been hoped that the government would make political progress winning over the sympathies of these organizations. Their spectacular failure to do so appears finally now to have lead to a stiffening of the government’s spine.

The turning point may have been the way these groups reacted to the foiled plot in August to detonate 10 airplanes over the Atlantic, killing thousands of people. Two days later, 38 Muslim groups signed a joint open letter to the prime minister urging a foreign policy less inimical to the wishes of would-be terrorists. It was textbook good cop/bad cop maneuvering, a sly and sickening warning that if their foreign policy preferences went unheeded, it was plain what would soon happen.

This was soon followed by the wrecking by extremist groups of British Home Secretary John Reid’s speech to Muslims on common values. Reid’s call for Muslim parents to help guide their children away from radicalism and extremism was dismissed as “unrealistic” and “ridiculous” by some Muslim leaders, and faced heckling and protests from others who were already under police investigation for allegations of threatening the lives of the prime minister and the pope.

The government’s policy of engagement and concessions had plainly failed to win over the extremists it hitherto embraced. At last, the signs are now of a new attitude.

His recent debacle no doubt in mind, John Reid has urged the need to “face down the extremist bullies” in a combative speech that shocked liberal commentators with its politically incorrect pledge to “discuss what we like.” The Department of Education is drawing up an 18-page document to be sent to university lecturers and staff encouraging them to monitor Muslim students suspected of involvement in extremism. The leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, has lamented the “implications of separateness” of the Muslim veil and claimed that he asks Muslim constituents to remove it when they come to speak to him.  Muslim groups expressed their opposition and anger, but Straw’s comments were supported by Tony Blair, Blair’s likely successor Gordon Brown, and other cabinet colleagues.

In these cases at least, the British government is finally showing the robustness against vocal Islamist extremists at home that it has long shown against armed Islamist extremists abroad. Unelected Muslim pressure groups have no legitimate role negotiating policy in partnership with an elected government, and the objectives being sought were radically at odds with the government’s. But neither of these factors seems to have been as decisive as the simple failure of domestic appeasement to soften Islamist opposition to the government. It must be hoped that recent indicators of a tougher approach are a harbinger of things to come.