Divisive ideas about the place of Muslims in the West are threatening social cohesion in Britain today. These narratives come from activist groups that claim that Muslims cannot fully be part of our society, and they risk making British Muslims feel that their identity is incompatible with modern Britain. Countering and recognising this is an essential part of fighting extremism because—let us be clear—there is nothing incompatible between being British and being Muslim. But too many people, Muslims and non-Muslims, actively push messages that suggest otherwise.
This report demonstrates that political leaders must devote more focus and resources to challenging these corrosive narratives. It examines the messaging of prominent Muslim activist groups that UK authorities have accused of spreading divisive or extreme views and finds that they thrive on portrayals of victimhood and anti-Western conspiracy theories. Many of these groups advance a worldview that pits Muslims and non-Muslims against one another, in which the government and British society are portrayed as inherently anti-Muslim.
For example, many of the recent attacks on Prevent and Muslim organisations that receive public funding are from a perspective that is contrary to the very idea of engagement with the government. That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate debates to be had on these issues, but many objections come from a starting point that sees the government, and any Muslim who engages with it, as an adversary. This atmosphere discourages moderate voices from speaking out because of the abuse and delegitimisation they receive from these radical groups. This skews discourse, making fringe views appear more dominant.
Sadly, it often seems as though policymakers have just decided to cede the argument in these debates. This failure to engage with these difficult issues creates a worrying dynamic. Many Muslims in the UK hear more from divisive groups about how there is a security state set up to oppress them than they hear from our national leaders about how communities and policymakers can work together to build a thriving, inclusive Britain.
Changing this debate requires leaders to demonstrate that Muslims and non-Muslims have lived in peaceful co-existence for much of history and can continue to do so today. There is a notion that Western and Islamic values are inherently contradictory, yet they have actually developed in tandem. The Enlightenment and the modern Western ideas that emerged from it would not have been possible without significant influence from advances in mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine and philosophy made during the Golden Age of Islam.
Britain has a long history of Muslim activism. But while many of these activist organisations focus on promoting a uniquely British Muslim identity, others have applied Islamist ideologies to the British context in a troubling way. The latter are now seeking to shape the narrative about a Muslim population that is growing, disproportionately young, and facing significant social and economic challenges. We cannot leave it to such divisive groups to speak for them, or the growing strains on our social fabric will only worsen.
The idea that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot co-exist has to be confronted more vigorously by a united political front. Failing to challenge these messages will boost the political fortunes of the far right, which will characterise these divisive messages as representing the views of all Muslims, when they obviously do not. Political leaders on the left must work to counter these narratives and avoid legitimising, intentionally or otherwise, the fundamentally anti-Western worldview that many of the groups identified in this report espouse. The failure to promote a type of politics that seeks to unite rather than divide will only create more space for extreme voices and views.
Unless deeply divisive narratives that undermine the relationship between Muslims and broader British society are rooted out, the threat of Islamist extremism will not be defeated. Often, when people think of this challenge, they focus entirely on violent jihadi groups. Yet as this report shows, many of the central ideas that British Muslims are hearing today from some activist groups are worryingly similar to the ideology of violent extremist groups. To succeed in our struggle against extremism, we must do more to counter the core ideas that fuel it.