One of the bravest things I have witnessed is the stand taken by ex-Cabinet Minister Hazel Blears against political Islam. As her adviser, I saw first-hand the pressures on her to sit round the table with groups whose political outlook was the diametric opposite of her beliefs in pluralist democracy, rights for minorities and equality for women. She consistently stood firm.
For years, government ministers unquestioningly invited the leaders of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) to meetings to “represent” the political, ethnic and religious diversity of Britain’s Muslims, as though such a thing were possible. First under Ruth Kelly, then Hazel Blears, the Government wised up to the nonsense that a small, unelected group of men, drawn from the conservative elements of Islamic politics, spoke for millions of Muslims in modern Britain.
New groups were nurtured and supported, such as the Muslim Women’s Advisory Group. The hardliners in the MCB and other groups were challenged, not fêted. It culminated in a boycott of the MCB after one of its leaders attended a conference in Istanbul dominated by supporters of Hamas.
This approach — the so-called “Prevent” agenda — will come under new pressure following the ministerial reshuffle as new ministers arrive at the Department for Communities.
Within Labour, as in all parties, there is a debate about how to tackle radical Islamic politics. Some, schooled in 1960s and ’70s student politics which saw the PLO, IRA, ETA, etc, as “freedom fighters”, view today’s Islamist groups as a legitimate part of the political scene, to be debated with, as though politics is just an extension of the Oxford Union or LSE students’ union. Some Cabinet ministers seem to believe they can appear on public platforms with Jew-haters, misogynists, or people who believe 9/11 was a CIA/Mossad plot, and win the audience over with their debating skills.
Others see the rise of political Islam as a major threat to our democracy; to the UK Jewish community; and to Britain’s interests abroad. Some enlightened ministers, such as Ms Blears, recognised that young Muslims were coming into contact in colleges, youth clubs and cafés with the “Al-Qaeda narrative”, which seeks to explain the world through the simple lens of “the West versus Islam”, Muslim victimhood, and through a “Zionist conspiracy” — and sought to counter it in practical ways. Tens of thousands of young British Muslims hear these messages. But it takes only a tiny minority to become radicalised to the extent that they want to support or even commit acts of atrocity.
The way to tackle this strand of political Islam, which creates the environment for terrorists to brainwash and recruit potential bombers is not to debate with it, nor to invite it for tea at the Department for Communities or Number Ten. It is to expose it, disrupt it, and make it clear such views are repulsive and unacceptable. The new Secretary of State, John Denham, and the new Communities Minister, Shahid Malik, arrived at their desks this week. All eyes will be on them.