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The good Muslim delusion

Western powers have been trying—and failing—to dictate what Islam should be for centuries
Miriam by Hassan Hajjaj (2010) from Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic ed by Lynn Gaspard, a new collection of stories and images by Muslims

After the London Bridge attacks last June, Theresa May told the nation that a purely military response to Islamic State (IS) was insufficient.

What was needed, she said, was a battle of ideas.

The prime minister added that there was “far too much tolerance of extremism,” and that certain communities— for which read British Muslims—weren’t doing enough to tackle the problem. They needed to be “made to understand” that “British values” were “superior” to “anything offered by the preachers… of hate.”

In the wake of such an attack, few British people—of any faith— would argue with a preference for law-abiding mutual respect over the bloody chaos unleashed by fanatical attackers. But what precisely, beyond rejecting terrorism, did May hope to make Muslim communities “understand”? And how?

Her statement didn’t spell out the answer to either question, but it hardly mattered. The words and deeds of British governments over a decade or more show fairly clearly what she had in mind. Under New Labour, the Home Office cultivated links with recovering Islamists keen to promote their newfound love for British values. Back in 2011, David Cameron jetted to the Munich Security Conference, decried “passive tolerance” and avowed a “much more active, muscular liberalism.” More recently, Amanda Spielman—the businesswoman the Conservatives controversially brought in as Ofsted chief inspector—also called for a more “muscular liberalism” in the classroom, in a speech whose target was plainly religious Muslims. One narrative runs through these interventions— that the antidote to violent Islamism is western modernity, defined as a particular (and, for Britain, rather recent) form of social liberalism, alongside a religion-free public sphere.

But how would that work? Does it mean that the 2.8m Muslims who call Britain home have to abandon their faith to properly assimilate? Or does it mean—just as problematically—the state nurturing an Islamic-inflected liberalism, enforced by a centrallyapproved religious authority? After the attacks in Barcelona last August, the Times columnist David Aaronovitch flexed some liberal muscle, and went for the second option. For any Muslim who doesn’t want to travel the whole way to atheism with him, Aaronovitch offered a “progressive form of Islam” that throws off the shackles of the past and becomes “British and therefore modern.”

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s March issue: A series of writers turn their thoughts to the developing war over words in the UK and the US. Lionel Shriver, Afua Hirsch, Simon Lancaster, Hugh Tomlinson, Tom Clark and two students ask if free expression is truly compromised? What’s really going on in our universities? And what do voters think? Elsewhere in the issue: Michael Ignatieff questions why today’s left-wing leaders can’t live up to the high mark set by FDR, Sameer Rahim shows how western powers have been trying to dictate what Islam should be, and Mary Beard asks “How do we look?” as our perceptions of what is beautiful have changes over the centuries.