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Policy Exchange: How Muslims fought for Britain in the past, and how more can do so in future

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2011-09-05 at 11.44.42 Coverage of 9/11's tenth anniversary will inevitably project images of terror, betrayal and loss.  So it's cheering to see Policy Exchange releasing a publication which, while touching on the terrible events of ten years ago, is an uplifting story of patriotism, sacrifice, duty, service and loyalty across any religious divide - and a reminder that practising Islam is no less compatible with being British than following any other religion (or none).

Shiraz Maher has already contributed one book, Choosing Our Friends Wisely, to Policy Exchange's series on security, integration and extremism matters. (Munira Mirza's Living Apart Together remains well worth revisiting some five years on.)  Its core argument - that the Government's Prevent policy should seek to target non-violent as well as violent extremism - has since become the foundation of the Coalition's revision of the policy, a tribute to the rigour with which it was argued.

Today, the think-tank releases Maher's Ties that Bind - a paper that looks forward to our challenged future as well as back to our imperial past.  He reminds us of the contribution of the peoples of Imperial India to Britain's needs during two world wars (and between them).  In particular, he gazes back at the efforts of our enemies to persuade Muslims that it was their religious duty to take up arms against the Crown, and at how these were countered.  He writes:

"What motivated these men to keep fighting? It is easy – and tempting – to dismiss the Indian Army as a purely mercenary force serving for pay and pension. Certainly, there are some for whom this was true; although, significantly, a letter from Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy from 1910 to 1916, to the Secretary of State for India, Lord Crewe, noted that Indian Army salaries were not much higher than what men on a basic agricultural or farming wage could expect. For many, serving Britain was the honourable thing to do. In part this was bound up with social Indian conventions relating to izzat – honour. But for some, Muslim and otherwise, they also felt a religious duty to serve."

But Maher also takes stock of where we are now, recording both Al Qaeda terror attacks on Britain during recent years and the sacrifice of British Muslim soldiers, such as Lance-Corporal Jabron Hashmi, who was killed in Afghanistan.  He points out that both Islamist and fascist extremists argue in common that one can't be both Muslim and British, and goes on to explore further ways of proving both wrong. He notes:

"In [a] study looking at Muslim attitudes towards the armed forces, it was this category of respondents – those working in manual and low skilled jobs – who expressed the greatest likelihood of considering a military career (79 percent).  Support for this option was similarly high among the unemployed (59 percent) – another problem particularly acute in segments of the British Muslim community.361 There is consequently a real opportunity for the armed forces to advertise itself to this category, explaining the lifelong skills and qualifications which a career, for example, in the Royal Engineers, can bring."

His main proposals are:

  • The Government must continue to work hard to counter the divisive messages of Islamists and the far right – which assert that the possession of Islamic beliefs is a barrier to pursuing a career in the armed forces.
  • The notion that Britain is at war with Islam needs to be confronted.TheGovernment should offer a counter-argument that refers to those occasions in which the British military has acted in defence of Muslims – and Muslims in defence of Britain.
  • The MoD should vigorously promote the lifelong skills and qualifications that an armed forces career can offer.
  • The armed forces must continue to meet the spiritual needs of its servicemen and women. But there should be less consultation with self-appointed community groups from outside the military structure over the appointment of faith-specific chaplains. Anyone involved in the religious affairs of the armed forces must have sufficient experience of life in the military.
  • The MoD should update its recruitment techniques. It should engage Muslims directly and not through ‘gatekeeper’ organisations.
  • The heroic record of Commonwealth soldiers in the two World Wars should be more fully reflected in the history curriculum.


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