With pre-election polls suggesting a close contest between Labour and the Conservatives, Theresa May was in the unfortunate position of having to portray a strong Conservative manifesto. In a powerful speech that would have certainly animated admirers of Thatcher, she came across determinedly with language that was bold and no nonsense; a second term Conservative government means business and will be dealing with Islamist extremists once and for all. Yet the backdrop to such resolution is embarrassing when the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for Dudley, Afzal Amin, has been forced to resign after being recorded as offering ex-EDL member Tommy Robinson incentives to stage a fake demonstration in order to enhance his own political reputation. The Tories have displayed typical reservations in accusing their own of cavorting with extremists, and the entryism offered to the Far Right by members of the Conservative party has been conveniently overlooked. In fact, the only entryism May is interested in preventing is where Muslims, that is those with clear Islamic affiliations, engage with democratic processes. This attempt to exclude tax-paying citizens out of democratic processes only to then assert that democracy is a means for the common man to have a say is ludicrous and will inevitably create an even larger group of disaffected citizens, reinforce the narrative of extremists, and intimidate politicians and policy makers into eschewing engagement with Muslims lest they be smeared later on as Islamist apologists.
The Tories would have the entire country believe that democracy is a British value, one that Islamists in particular should believe in, but a process that they should have no access to. This contradictory line of thinking is borne out of the increasingly alarming manner in which the Cabinet has seemingly taken much of its narrative on politicised Muslims (from across the religious spectrum) from highly sensationalized reporting spewed by the Daily Mail and other such outlets – ministers are meant to be at least half-informed of the realities before instituting policies rather than kowtowing to the rightwing press, yet the underpinnings of the Home Secretary’s speech was based around the Trojan Horse plot that a parliamentary select committee confirmed as being a hoax last week, in which the committee chair said actually had very little to do with extremism. However consequently, there are plans to enforce a range of measures on the back of the non-existent plot, such as schools being increasingly monitored, councils being placed under scrutiny with a view to root out infiltration by extremists, and NHS staff having the responsibility to identify extremism; as if the burden of staff shortages, high bed occupancy, increasing waiting lists and failing A&E services isn’t enough. Remarkably, there is no evidence of any of the above having actually taken place yet the Tories seem to insist that the show must go on.
With the general election only a couple of months away, the Tories are desperate to reach out to potential UKIP voters; perhaps the greatest giveaway in this speech was the talk of immigration, and how visitors to the UK will need to sign a declaration saying that they will respect British values whilst here – the continued obsession-cum-ideological rhetoric emanating from the party is no less than infantile and visibly a ploy to paint serious religious affiliation amongst Britons as something foreign. Contextualising her speech to be predominantly about Islamic extremism – an ideology that transcends race and ethnicity – later references in the speech to honour killings, FGM and forced marriages draw a strong inference to these practices being a problem within Islam whereas it is accepted that these are regressive cultural practices emanating from certain immigrant communities, some of which happen to have members who ascribe to the Islamic faith.
Undoubtedly there are shared values that we as a nation celebrate, our decency is something we should, and where we fall short it is our collective duty to pick up one another. This is the true worth and meaning of the values we share, they exist to give us comfort, security and prosperity through working together and having an active interest in the well being of our neighbours. But to look upon these as British is reductionist and simple electioneering – if British values equate a respect for the rule of law, recognition of democracy, free speech and respect for minorities then how do these values differ from, say, Scandinavian values, American values, or on a greater level, Islamic ones?
Islamic values are greatly misunderstood, and in being fair, much of it is down to the Muslim community. The reserve shown by the average believer to speak out or call to appoint those that are suitable to lead has meant that anyone can speak about matters of the faith in public without being called to account for their religious ignorance, inconsequential rants, an abrasive demeanour that abandons all Quranic injunctions of civil conduct, and imbecilic formulations of Islamic law and theology that fail to reflect modernity, all on national television. What the general believing populace overlooks, those who opt for quietism or defer their political activism to others is that a number of persons and groups have spoken on their behalf by speaking about their religion, and rather oddly, with absolutely no knowledge of Islamic law or theology; we have been privy to spokesmen on the topic of Shariah who have absolutely no knowledge on the subject – they have clearly never read an elementary book of fiqh from cover to cover let alone know what the word hukm means in Islamic jurisprudence. We have secular commentators who argue religio-political positions on foreign affairs or normative Islam, and groups who absurdly assume that wilayah to the faithful means sympathising with extremists and illegitimate agitators to the obvious detriment of the cause of God and the standing of those who adhere to the faith of Abraham.
This, amongst other reasons, has led to a substantial section of wider society relating to the narrative set out by the Tories; both Theresa May’s speech and that which has been peddled largely by the political right have sought a juxtaposition between democracy, rule of law, and freedom on one side and the Shariah on the other. The inevitable implication is that anyone with a religious commitment to the Shariah endorses despotism, arbitrary implementation of an archaic legal code, and tyrannous repression. Not only is this based on ignorance that must be unacceptable when coming from appointed representatives of the nation, but the role of the Shariah as personal law or the existence of private arbitration councils – inflammatorily called ‘Shariah courts’ – cannot be allowed to be used as a tool by the political right to scare voters. If there really is a commitment to question the role of religious law in personal matters or the decision to refer to them by adults who freely choose to do so (although what it has to do with extremism is quite unclear), then should we be expecting the same of other religious traditions such as the long established and celebrated Beth-din Jewish courts or the arbitration services offered in Christian, Sikh and Hindu communities?
We believe in the moral superiority of the rule of law, recognition of democracy and freedom of speech, but that should also mean the conviction that such values will always, by their nature, obliterate regressive ideas that support tyranny, despotism, and arbitrary rules. To strong-arm citizens through the use of law or inaccurately represent their views by relying on unsupported claims in the media is to demonstrate a lesser commitment to our own, and to treat sections of society inconsistently will always leave government ministers open, and rather reasonably so, to the charge of unjustified prejudice, discrimination and irresponsible scaremongering to shore up support at the ballot box this May.