In the west, we mostly live in representative democracies. Our vote ultimately decides the direction which our country takes. The electorate must be sufficiently informed to make a decision as to whom they might want to represent them.
This is why openness and honesty in public discussion and debate are imperative. Nothing should be taboo or too controversial to discuss if it is of importance to society. As long as the discussion is civilised, calm, based on reason and not on visceral hatred, nothing should ever be off the table.
This is where the nature of the discussion surrounding Islam and the Muslim community comes in. At the moment people tend to tiptoe very carefully around anything related to Islam. It is clear to any reasonable observer that the Islamic world has a number of major issues. At its core, the problems relate to the manner in which a significant number of Muslims view the world; particularly in relation to attitudes towards non-Muslims. Most Muslims follow forms of Islam that are rooted firmly in the past, because at some point in the history, Islamic renewal and evolution of thought largely ground to a halt. As a result, the views of many Muslims can be narrow and illiberal.
This perspective serves to explain some of the problems we see in the UK with respect to the community: from terrorism to the grooming gang scandals, to the protest against LGBT-inclusive education at a primary school in Birmingham. At the heart of this lies the idea that intolerance towards gays is a religious duty; that the non-Muslim world is in perpetual opposition to the Islamic world; and the idea that Islam is both a religious and political ideology, complete with its own political identity which stands in opposition to the contemporary notion of nationality. This perspective causes some Muslims to distance themselves from British values, British culture, and British identity.
Some are, to some extent, aware of these issues, but their understanding of them is often confused and unduly exaggerated. Any attempt at honest discussion is shut down in the public realm, so these views cannot be challenged or corrected. This adamant denial of the nature of the problem and the refusal to engage on these key issues causes frustration and anger.
I do understand the logic of those who are concerned about people being critical of others’ deeply held religious beliefs. I even sympathise with them to an extent. They are worried that opening this apparent Pandora’s box might serve to inflame tensions, and that the Muslim community might as a result retreat even more inwards and become further estranged from wider British society. I appreciate this response comes from a good place, but the flat-out refusal to engage is naive, dangerous and, ironically, reactionary in its own right.
We must talk about these issues openly, but in a manner that is respectful, calm, measured. We must take care not to foment hate or demonise. This is very uncomfortable territory for most, which is entirely understandable. On the one hand, we need to show that we are accepting of all people regardless of ethnicity, religion, race: but that this acceptance is conditional on whether you are, at the very least, willing to integrate. We need to be clear that society will not tolerate intolerance regardless of whether it is religiously sanctioned.
One of the reasons that I turned away from my own radical beliefs was the realisation that Britain genuinely was an open, tolerant, and accepting society, contrary to what I was being told. I realised my own beliefs, in contrast, were closed, intolerant, and hateful. If that realisation could change me, a genuine radical who wanted to fight jihad abroad, then I am very optimistic that everyday Muslims can change too.
This is why it is so important we stress that Britain genuinely is open. At the same time, we must be firm in asserting its values of liberalism. Such a two-pronged approach could prove effective, and my own experiences would seem to support that view.
If we do not accept the reality that serious issues do indeed exist in the Muslim community, and we keep trying to silence people talking about it, I fear two things may happen.
The first is that these problems in the Muslim community may persist. And the longer these problems remain, the more they will fester and grow. There is evidence suggesting that radicalisation has become more prevalent and widespread over the past 20 years or so. My own personal experience, as well as my understanding, which draws on the experiences of other Muslims, would certainly bear out that assessment.
The second thing that might happen is that an increasingly alarmed and disillusioned subset of people, especially people from white deprived communities, might then – in desperation – turn to the far Right in greater numbers. We can already see this happening. The extreme Right are the only people talking about Islam. Of course, their rhetoric is designed to agitate, enrage, and exacerbate, and is more often than not exaggerated. This fuels further radicalisation in this group, and with increasing Right-wing radicalisation on the one hand, and increasing Islamic radicalisation on the other, the two sides will feed off one another in a positive feedback loop, becoming more intolerant of the other in the process.
I am sure no reasonable individual would ever wish for that to happen. This well-intentioned but ultimately misguided attempt to thwart and suppress any critical discussion on Islam will fuel hatred, not dampen it down.
If we are to have any hope in solving these issues, we will need both bottom-up civil action, and top-down government action. For instance, one thing the government could do is take steps to make schools in largely monolith minority areas more ethnically and religiously mixed so that children can grow up with other children from different backgrounds.
Unfortunately, politicians from mainstream parties tend to remain silent on this issue. Worse, they usually actively engage in suppressing any dialogue. One of the only people from the centre-ground who has spoken about this problem candidly is Tony Blair. Sadly, he only realised the extent of the challenge once he had left office.
Politicians need to lead. We must have an honest dialogue. By remaining silent, they leave a vacuum that the far Right can easily exploit. Our mainstream politics needs to shift on this issue, because it has clearly not delivered, and the people it has failed most are the children who are born into these extremist families. We need genuine change. Not a lurch to the Right, or a move towards intolerance and bigotry, but change lead by the centre-ground.
The public consciousness needs to change on this. One can be tolerant, open, and sensitive, whilst being fully cognizant of the issues the Muslim community face. Remaining silent will only result in increasing polarisation, more radicalisation, and, further down the line, more political violence in the form of terrorism.