Since the murders in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket, thousands of soldiers have been deployed in France and the British secret services are braced for a similar incident in the UK. In this febrile climate, Eric Pickles recently composed a mild but timely missive – sent to all British mosques – praising the emphatic condemnation of terrorism issued by many Muslim leaders, but also urging vigilance. As figures of authority in British Islam, Pickles observed, the recipients of his letter are in a uniquely influential position and should be instrumental in extinguishing any radical strains of Islam that may be taking hold in their respective communities. He was careful to include caveats and riders: yes, the government has its role to play, too; extremism is not representative of Islam; even “British values are Muslim values”.
But even this trepidatious message was greeted with indignation and condemned for causing further division. The Guardian published a glib reply by Areeb Ullah. Would Pickles, he ponders, also be sending open letters to British rabbis regarding the behaviour of Israeli settlers in the West Bank? And will he be contacting every Catholic institution about endemic child abuse?
Well, the government certainly makes it its business to investigate allegations of child abuse as Theresa May’s (hapless, frustrated) inquiry attests. And to suggest that Israeli government policy is not criticised sufficiently harshly is strange, to say the least.
Again, we are invited to denounce crass generalisations. And yet, at this moment, radicalised young Muslims do pose a threat to the country’s security: hundreds of Britons have travelled to the Middle East to fight with Isis and a major terrorist plot has recently been foiled in Belgium.
Pickles’ main crime, it seems – and by extension David Cameron’s, too – is suggesting that there exists any tension between Islam and wider British culture at all; even if Pickles continues by insisting he wants British Muslims to be proud of both their religious and national identities.
Unfortunately there are clashes between the values adumbrated by Pickles and some beliefs commonly held by British Muslims. For example, an ICM poll in 2006 suggested that forty percent of British Muslims favoured the introduction of sharia law into some parts of the country. More seriously, about twenty percent expressed sympathy for those responsible for the terrorist attacks in London of 2005. Some people may contest these polls and raise concerns about their methodology. But how else should we canvass public opinion?
I suspect that while most British Muslims consider the murder of cartoonists or journalists for offending their creed unconscionable, a substantial number may support draconian restrictions on freedom of expression in certain instances. That is their right. But to pretend that there is no conflict between the views of – I would submit – a considerable section of the British Muslim population, and some aspects of British law is disingenuous.
That need not be a fatal rift. Religious objections to what the state deems permissible are hardly unheard of. (Abortion rights in the USA are very contentious, and nobody would suggest that the Christian pro-life lobby is un-American). But these disputes and disagreements need to be aired, and in some instances – especially when Europe is still menaced by the threat of Islamist terrorism – governments are right to seek assurances that children are being shielded from the virus of extremism.