British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to frame Britain’s response to Islam after the July 7 bombings in London by depicting the bombers as deviants, operating according to a warped interpretation of the Islamic faith. Blair’s intention, it seems, was to head off any possibility of a debate between the government and the citizenry over UK policy toward the Muslim world in general and Iraq in particular. This, he implied, was not the issue. Rather, the bombers’ interpretation of their religion was the problem.
Given that the British prime minister was himself ill-equipped to engage in a detailed discussion of the tenets of the Muslim faith, he placed the onus on those whom the press dubbed "the leaders of the British Muslim community" to engage the wayward youth in their midst and steer them toward moderation. The effect was to open up a debate about the place of British Muslims in the wider community. But it soon emerged that there is no such thing as a British Muslim community or a group of elders who command the respect of British Muslim youth.
There are some first and second generation immigrants from the Arab world, the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the Far East who not only espouse the Muslim faith but also expect to exercise authority within the extended family much in the way they would have done, by tradition, in their countries of origin. A few have made it into parliament, local government and other positions of responsibility. But their age and jobs do not necessarily equip them to offer an interpretation of Islam to rival that of the extremists. That role is adopted by preachers, imams and scholars, some radical, some not, who are more likely to communicate through the internet than from positions in the British establishment.
Bernard Haykel has researched what they are saying on the web and discovered that some of the very preachers the British government now wants to send into exile were quick to condemn the July 7 bombings and warn against indiscriminate attacks on civilians of all faiths. Other experts on the subject of radical Islam point out that disaffected Muslim youth in the West are more likely to pay attention to those who offer a radical critique of western policies toward the Muslim world than they are to listen to a select group of older men applauded for their "moderate" Muslim views by the British government.
Additional research reveals the existence of second and third generation immigrants, educated in the British school system, speaking perfect English with a variety of local accents, who share the same aspirations for jobs and material well-being as other British youngsters. But because of the color of their skin or style of dress many have experienced discrimination, fuelled by the Islamophobia that has increased since 9/11.
For some, the answer is to become more assertive about both their British and their Muslim identity. In the process they and their faith become more politicized. Yet the Muslim critique of western values, lifestyle and policies is not accorded a place in the exchange of ideas that informs any vibrant civil society. The multiculturalism of Britain is not yet recognized as a fact of life in all its ramifications.
Meanwhile, the government is determined to continue to defend its policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world as a well-intentioned attempt to replace dictatorships with democracy. Some criticism of the execution of these policies is countenanced in government circles, but the correctness of the goal is considered unassailable.
Hence Britain, along with the rest of Europe and the United States, is wedded to the reform agenda embodied in the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Program, Europe’s Neighborhood Policy and the G8’s Wider Middle East initiative. This is, in many senses, the West’s response to Islam. It was informed by the findings of the UNDP’s Human Development Reports that call for a radical overhaul of Arab economies and polities.
The model, in Europe at least, is the transformation of the former Soviet satellite states of eastern Europe into capitalist democracies anchored into the European Union. But when it comes to the question of Turkish accession to the EU, Europeans are divided. Opponents of Turkey’s inclusion have voiced the opinion that Europe’s identity and values are informed by its Christian heritage. Somehow, even a secular Muslim state would not fit, they suggest.
So Islam is "the other" and the West’s response, evident even in Britain which has championed Turkish accession to the EU, is to urge Muslim societies to become more like their secular, non-Muslim neighbors in the West and Muslim minorities in the West, and keep their religion to themselves. Yet on all fronts, western governments are discovering that moderates cannot assimilate radicals unless and until they acknowledge what those radicals are saying.