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Matthew Goodwin: Why Baroness Warsi was right to highlight the growing problem of anti-Muslim sentiment in modern Britain

Picture 4 Dr Matthew Goodwin is a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, whose forthcoming book, The New British Fascism: Rise of the BNP , will be published by Routledge on May 4th. Follow him on Twitter here.

We are only in March and Sayeeda Warsi has already had a tough year. First, in January she attracts criticism after suggesting Islamophobia in Britain has ‘passed the dinner-table test’ (she was promptly branded ‘selfish and wrong’ by Charles Moore). Among a wave of criticism, Moore accused Warsi of using her role to complain about how the public treats her co-religionists, that it ‘is not Tory policy to say these things’, and that ‘she seems to see herself as the trade union leader of British Muslims: she can criticise them but no one else can’. Then, in February, the ConHome survey of party members revealed she has a negative rating, and is on her way to becoming the most unpopular member of the cabinet.

Warsi might be unpopular among the rank and file, but she was both brave and right to highlight the growing problem of anti-Muslim sentiment in modern Britain. I know she cares deeply about this issue, and is serious about tackling its root causes. Some of the most stimulating conversations I have had with politicians have been with Warsi. But first, a brief rejoinder to Moore. Irrespective of religious denomination, we should be thinking carefully about how Britons treat and view Muslims. Anti-Muslim sentiment and its effects pose one of the most complex and stubborn challenges facing European societies, and will only increase in salience over the next decade. It might not be Conservative policy, but highlighting its growing importance was responsible. More importantly, Warsi is backed up by a growing body of academic research.

As in other European democracies, since 2001 there have emerged worrying levels of public hostility toward Muslims, and anxiety over the role of Islam in British society. Not only is the scale of anti-Muslim sentiment significant, it is also proving stubbornly persistent. Yet albeit with some notable exceptions, politicians on all sides have tended to ignore this complex trend, or conflate it with anti-immigrant hostility. The evidence, however, suggests that hostility toward Muslims is not motivated by the exact same drivers as hostility toward immigrants. It appears to be spread more widely across society, including among better-educated and more economically secure citizens who perhaps sit chatting around a dinner table.

As I talk about in my new book - The New British Fascism: Rise of the BNP - the concerns which drive this hostility toward Muslims are not simply about economic resources, such as jobs or social housing. Rather, they stem more from a perception that settled (and expanding) Muslim communities and Islamic values pose a fundamental threat to ‘British’ culture, society and ways of life. This sense of cultural threat became apparent in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when one poll suggested over half of the British population thought their values had little or nothing in common with those of British Muslims. Furthermore, one third rejected the suggestion Muslims play a valuable role in society, while one quarter thought it was not possible for Islamic and Western values to co-exist peacefully.

Given the context, these findings were perhaps not surprising. But what appears more striking is the way in which this anxiety has not subsided, despite a decade-long investment in attempting to encourage ‘cohesive’ communities, counter segregation, support meaningful interaction between Muslims and white Britons, and prevent violent extremism. In both polls and nationally representative surveys, findings continue to point in the same direction: public hostility toward Muslims has become widespread. According to the British Social Attitudes survey in 2003, for example, more than three fifths of respondents endorsed the view that Muslims are more loyal to other Muslims around the world than to fellow British citizens, and over half thought Muslims can never truly be committed to Britain.

This, of course, is nonsense. According to the (recently cancelled) Citizenship Survey, Muslims are not markedly different from their fellow citizens in terms of their feeling of belonging to Britain. In fact, they were just as likely as others to say they ‘personally feel a part of British society’, with over 90% of Muslims feeling this way. This is usually the point where ignorant critics start screaming something about different generations within Muslim communities, or a gender imbalance. Actually, there was not much difference between old and young Muslims, or between Muslim men and women.

Nonetheless, a large portion of the British public remain deeply hostile toward settled British Muslims, so much so that in the BSA in 2008 indicated that only one quarter of respondents expressed positive views of Islam. During the European election campaign the next year, another snapshot of public opinion suggested over two fifths of Britons agreed with the statement that even in its milder forms, Islam poses a danger to Western civilization.

The political effects of these attitudes have also become clear. Since 2002, for example, the BNP has consistently polled strongest in areas where there are large Muslim communities of Bangladeshi and Pakistani heritage. In contrast, its support has been lower in areas with large black populations. Put in other words, anti-Muslim sentiment has become a key driver of support for the extreme right. This means talking tough on immigration (think Thatcher in ’79) is not enough to satisfy the modern far right voter. It is not only the BNP who have realised that anti-Muslim sentiment is a potential vote-winner: at the last general election UKIP also called to ban the burqa and is now making inroads into the BNP vote. This was confirmed in Barnsley where UKIP finished second as the BNP continued its decline.

So what does all of this mean? For one thing, if the Government and civil servants are to listen to Warsi and think more seriously about countering this trend, they should not focus their efforts on ‘traditional’ attempts to satisfy public anxiety over immigrants and minority groups – for example stressing the positive economic contribution of immigrants, introducing an annual cap, or tightening border security. When the focus of concern rests on settled and expanding Muslim communities (which, to be blunt, are not going anywhere), these are unfeasible or unlikely to work. Addressing concerns over economic resources and numbers are only two pieces of a very complicated puzzle.

Tackling anti-Muslim sentiment also requires politicians to tackle a perception that Muslims pose a more diffuse threat to the national community, values and ways of life. It means making the case for cultural diversity and the valuable contributions which Muslims make to wider British society far more forcefully. One way of countering these negative views is to invest more seriously in building strong and sustainable links across different communities, to provide citizens with more opportunities for interaction. The cohesion agenda got a lot of things wrong, but one thing it got right was acknowledging forty years of research in social psychology which demonstrates how increasing contact between different groups can have positive and long lasting effects. The types of citizens who hold intolerant views are distinctly unlikely to ‘self-select’ into these kinds of initiatives – they will need to be incentivized to do so.

The Dutch and Germans have been having a vigorous debate over these issues for some time. Their experience also comes with a warning for British political elites – if handled badly this debate can enlarge space for extremist parties which are willing to target an issue which large numbers of voters consider important, but which they think is not being competently addressed. With the notable exception of Warsi, few politicians have attempted to trigger this debate. It is an incredibly difficult one to have, but is one that ordinary Britons clearly want.


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