The West’s enmity to Islam was brought home to Muslims in Britain earlier this month, when the British government published its list of proscribed “terrorist” organizations, most Islamic or Muslim. The British government’s enmity to Islamic Iran and Islamic movements — ranging from the ‘Islamists’ of Turkey to the Taliban — has long been evident, not least through its policies on Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, the Rushdie fatwa, the spread of Islam in Britain and so on. But this latest move has a direct impact on Muslims living in Britain.
The question of the proscribed Islamic groups is not simply a matter of disagreeing on a government position or policy. Large parts of British society do that, on many issues, for example Britain’s relationship with Europe, its policies in northern Ireland (where there has been a nationalist insurrection for almost a century), and its economic and social policies. But in none of these cases has legislation been used to prevent the government’s critics from debating the issues or supporting the government’s opponents. By making it illegal for British Muslims to support certain political groups, the British government has raised questions about the loyalty and allegiance of British Muslims to Britain. Although none of the groups proscribed has ever directly targeted Britain or British interests, the government is effectively demanding that British Muslims choose where their loyalties lie.
This question was bound to arise some time, as the confrontation between the West and Islam becomes the main business of contemporary history. The West’s determination to dominate the world utterly makes it inevitable that peoples in other countries will resist. The West’s strategy is to install and support pro-Western governments, however oppressive and incompetent they may be, provided that they understand that their job is to run their countries in the interests of the West. All over the Muslim world opposition to this agenda is dominated by Islamic movements. It is hardly surprising that the West should see Islam as a threat to its interests, and frankly it is right to do so.
Western governments have not stated their enmity to Islam so clearly, nor explicitly demanded that their Muslim citizens choose between Islam and the West. Part of their strategy to prevent Muslims from considering their position in this way is to deny such intent, but the implications of their position are clear. British Muslims (and Muslims in other Western countries) must refuse to allow their positions to be dictated by Western governments through bullying tactics such as these. Instead, we must develop and promote a more accurate understanding of the contemporary historical situation, without being browbeaten by governments that perceive us as the enemy within.
Such a position will emerge gradually as a matter of course. However, two key points can made now. The first is that Muslims in the West must not allow themselves to be defined as outsiders. Most Muslims in Britain and other Western countries were born there; indeed, many Western Muslims are indigenous converts (or reverts) to Islam. We are not Muslim guests in the West; we are Muslim parts of Western society. We are entitled to demand every freedom that the West proclaims is the right of its people, and we are entitled to use those freedoms to promote Islam in the West. (The practical limits of these ‘absolute’ freedoms are quickly becoming clear.) The second point is that we cannot be required to choose between allegiance to the West and to Islam. Western liberals rejected the patriotic notion of “my country, right or wrong” decades ago, and it cannot now be demanded of Western Muslims. When our governments take morally indefensible positions, we are entitled to oppose them; where this involves supporting those that our governments regard as their enemies, we are entitled to do that too.
Such principles are easy to state, but harder to realise. Our communities lack effective leaders and institutions:Western governments are expert at exploiting our weaknesses and manipulating those that aspire to lead us, and the liberal establishment that dominates the media and political discourse will do its best to marginalise and disparage those who take such a position. However, our position is likely to become more precarious, not less, and our very survival may depend on immediately developing institutions capable of promoting and protecting our position as Western Muslims and Muslim Westerners.