We live in age where it seems no longer to be the norm that politicians and governments, even of the liberal democratic sort, shy away from open authoritarianism. In what should be a chilling demonstration for what’s up the road, and in what is seemingly the pattern amongst troubling Tory Home Secretaries, Sajid Javed recently made clear some of his views in a speech on confronting extremism at the Coin Street Community Centre in London, on Friday 19 July 2019.
Here I’d like to make a few brief points about the contents of his speech. This is not a defence of the Muslim organisations he criticises since (1) I’m not privy to the full background of his criticisms, and (2) all of the criticised organisations have official spokespersons who are at liberty to provide an accurate defence/refutation on their own terms (I wouldn’t want to misrepresent them).
My point in this post is to highlight the worrying nature of the Home Secretary’s speech in light of wider political events and the things we (the British public) are generally aware of. Whether you agree or disagree with the Muslim organisations he turns his attention to, his speech seems not only unfair, the ramifications are extremely disturbing.
To start with, Sajid Javed attempted to set the tone of his speech as some great manifesto for liberalism and social cohesion, appealing to the public with positively-asserted rhetoric such as calls to social integration, and “naturally liberally minded people” who live in a country where “the right to protest and oppose government policy is one we hold dear”. Of course these are all legitimate points, and clearly an attempt to pre-legitimise his later assertions. He also defines extremism (a definition which I’ll adopt for this post): “At its heart, extremism is a rejection of the shared values that make this country great: freedom, equality, democracy, free speech, respect for minorities, and the rule of law. It attacks our society and tears communities apart. It turns us against each other and can lead to violence, discrimination and mistrust.” He also attempts to qualify the definition by stating that “it doesn’t help to exaggerate the problem, to demonise anyone with a different view, and to see danger when it is not there.” Obviously, he infers that it’s subjective – to see danger when it is not there is about perceptions, and his subjective and problematic perceptions are intimated in the speech.
- His attack on Muslim organisations MEND and CAGE come across as extremely arbitrary. As far as I’m aware, they’ve never rejected freedom, equality, democracy, free speech, respect for minorities, and the rule of law – in fact, it seems that these are the very things they advocate for in their campaigning! He states that they’re guilty of spreading “intolerance and division”, the precise claim they make about him and the government’s policies. Notably, Javed mentions them as an afterthought – why has he singled them out in this way from the host of other organisations out there that irritate him (because that’s all it seem to be)? One can only be left to assume that it’s because they’re Muslim-led. As Javed himself states, “it doesn’t help to exaggerate the problem, to demonise anyone with a different view, and to see danger when it is not there”. So what exactly is the “danger” posed by CAGE and MEND? Have they produced extremists? Have they inspired terror? Have they called for the destruction of liberal democracy? Which of his ‘shared values’ have they rejected? Where have their actions/sentiments led to “violence, discrimination and mistrust” between the British public – or is Javed saying that to mistrust the government is tantamount to extremism? Some of their members might not be particularly fond of modern capitalist nation states but across academia professors of all stripes (socialists, cosmopolitanists, etc) intelligently articulate the same – these are simply ideas in western political theory. Or IS IT simply because an anti-government policy stance taken by Muslims is maliciously countenanced as a security threat?
- These organisations are framed as anti-government. This is a gross misrepresentation. As far as I’ve seen, they’re not anti-government (i.e anarchists) but against the government’s policies on counter-extremism. They don’t support extremism and have been forthcoming in their opposition to it (unless I’ve missed something), so Javed misrepresents them with what seems to be the objective to unfairly demonise. He claims that “the right to protest and oppose government policy is one we hold dear” yet it seems not so, depending on who you are. In this Orwellian declaration, he puts it across to Muslims and others that we must acquiesce to government policies no matter how absurd or destructive they might be, or how unfairly they treat sections of the British public. This “either with us or against us” attitude is deeply undemocratic and illiberal, and treats Muslims not as equally participating democratic citizens that the integration he so celebrates ought to have us be, but as serfs under the power of their Lords. It’s a move towards despotism and synonymous with the sentiments of authoritarian regimes around the world which we have no appetite for as British people.
- He also misrepresents CAGE and MEND as holding the entire government as anti-Muslim. Not entirely. Whilst (as far as I’m aware) they’ve articulated that some of its politicians certainly are which is hard to disagree with – take Boris Johnson as a good example – it’s mainly its policies that are under scrutiny. Furthermore, given that the current government is represented by the Tories who clearly have a massively widespread anti-Muslim problem, are CAGE and MEND completely barking up the wrong tree? It seems they’d have a point IF it’s an argument they’re even making.
- What’s particularly chilling is how CAGE and MEND are considered extremists for showing antipathy to the government (as Javed intimates in his speech), and a lack of support for their clearly problematic strategies. Yet the many non-Muslims (academics, teachers, doctors and others in civic society) who also oppose the government’s counter-extremism strategy aren’t considered the same. Many (non-Muslim) bodies have openly criticised or condemned the government’s counter-extremism strategy yet THEY haven’t been singled out. Why not, and why the lack of consistency? Is this a personal vendetta which should be far above someone in the Home Secretary’s position? It’s not lost on us that this speech is associated with the Commission for Countering Extremism run by Sara Khan who has had very public spats with CAGE and MEND and has long sought to have them branded as extremists. The way in which they arbitrarily pop up in the speech seems to suggest more than meets the eye. (Interestingly, many don’t know that Sara herself was an associate/member of Ikhwani organisations in the past – a group the government has also sought to demonise elsewhere, albeit at the request of Gulf Arab states.)
Now the greatest absurdity, and what I believe legitimates my analysis above, is Javed’s support for Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, two egregious characters who meet Javed’s criticisms far more aptly, yet rather than calling them out he seeks an alliance that praises Farage in the very same speech. A brief explanation:
- Javed praises Farage who has consistently attacked the government often getting extremely personal, tantamount to calling many politicians traitors and all sorts of other terms. Farage has been the definition of anti-government and foremost in inciting public mistrust of the government – in fact the entire parliament, and his negative impact on Britain has a far wider reach into the lives of ordinary citizens than could ever be said of CAGE or MEND, even by their most ardent opposers. Furthermore, he’s had a MAJOR role in emboldening far-right extremists and nationalist racists – CAGE and MEND are nothing in comparison even IF Javed’s criticism were true.
- Farage has undermined democracy several times, and Johnson speaks of proroguing parliament! Both have colluded with questionable characters, Boris with the likes of far-right Steve Bannon, and Farage has links to the Russians and has benefitted from Russian money. Both have done far more than anyone to subvert British interests. Even IF Javed’s criticisms of CAGE and MEND were valid, Farage in contrast makes them look like amateurs! Yet not only is he not a security threat but instead declared a sincere officer of the empire?! What is it exactly – the colour of his skin or it that his interests are actually shared by Javed (which would say a lot about Javed)?
- Javed endorses Boris Johnson and praises Farage, both of whom have been a major force in “the barely masked racism of nationalism” which Javed claims to want to avoid. These two agents of Trump and Putin are celebrated, yet some paltry Muslim organisations attract the ire of the government and are branded as significant threats? You couldn’t make this up!
The fact that Javed singles out Muslims organisations but praises Farage in the same speech on countering extremism speaks volumes. It tells us much of what we need to know about the underlying agenda and premises of the strategy he supports. If “people are getting angrier about more things – and extremists are quick to try and exploit that” then a good idea would be not to play into it even more. Speeches like this are uninformed and ideologically driven, badly written, and send the chilling message to us ALL that if (for the now) you’re a Muslim and you’re critical of rightwing government policies, or refuse to kow-tow the government line/narrative, the government will demonise you and curtail your (illusory) freedoms. Submit or be got. And it’s only a matter of time until this is extended to other critical groups in British civic society.
Of course, there’s far more that can be said of the speech which can be embarrassingly dissected – clearly Javed needs a new speechwriter and some better advisors. But this is premised on the very charitable take that he’s simply misinformed.
The other logical and more likely explanation is that the Tory government continues its lurch to the right with Javed at the forefront as Home Secretary.
Intelligent and civilised resistance to this lurch is not futile. It’s a duty on us all.