Interview with Arun Kundnani

Arun KundnaniArun Kundnani is a British writer and human rights activist. He is the former editor of Race and Class, published by the Institute of Race Relations in London, and is currently an Open Society Institute fellow. In 2009, he wrote Spooked: How Not to Prevent Violent Extremism, which explored the effects of the Prevent program, the British counter-radicalism policy aimed at Muslim communities. Here he talks to John Feffer of Foreign Policy In Focus about the debate on multiculturalism in the United Kingdom, the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Muslims, and the status of the Prevent program.

John Feffer: Let’s begin with the Rushdie affair, when members of the Muslim community mobilized against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. How and why did that become a pivotal moment, particularly as it relates to multiculturalism?

Arun Kundnani: The Rushdie affair was when the debate on multiculturalism in Britain shifted from being a left-right debate to being a debate within liberalism or within the left. Up until that point there was the Conservative government position, which was that Britain had reached the limits of ethnic minorities in terms of numbers and the job was now to ensure that these minorities adopt some kind of British values. The riots that happened in the 1980s were seen as a symptom of the failure of these people to adopt British “norms of civility.” For the left, discrimination against Muslims was bound up with racism. The left embraced the notion of cultural pluralism, believing that communities had the right to develop their own identities. There was a dissenting view on the Black left as well that said: “we don’t really want to accommodate ourselves to British society within a multicultural framework but transform British society to destroy its structures of racism.” In other words, cultural pluralism needed to be combined with political radicalism.

With the Rushdie affair, new positions emerge. There was a new liberal critique of multiculturalism. It opposed multiculturalism not from the conservative point of view — that people have to assimilate into some old-fashioned kind of society. It opposed multiculturalism because it ran counter to Enlightenment values. A lot of people that would ordinarily be on the left articulated an argument about immigration and minority cultures as a threat to post-1968 liberal values. At the same time, there was a burst of activity within the Muslim communities as members began to think about what it meant to be a British Muslim as opposed to a British Asian or Black. Groups that until then had been quiescent, but which had come out of Islamic politics in other parts of the world, were becoming much more vocal domestically in Britain.

It’s the first time that you get the contours of what becomes more intense after 9/11 in terms of how the discussions around Islam become framed. The space for people to talk about the experience of victimization that Muslims have suffered – but according to a progressive politics that’s not about restricting freedom of expression in a reactionary way – that space narrows very quickly. And the anti-racism movement after the Rushdie affair is completely fragmented, splitting along pro- and anti-Rushdie lines.

Before The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was by and large admired by British Asians. He made quite an important TV program in Britain about racism.

In Bradford, where a lot of this was playing out, the main political force coming out of the Muslim community up to that point was the Asian youth movements formed in the late 1970s. This was a broadly socialist politics influenced by the Black Panthers and anti-colonial politics back in South Asia. This movement sprang up spontaneously among young people who were getting beaten up every day on their way to school, people whose families were under threat of deportation, people getting harassed by the police. This grassroots movement became quite significant. In response, the local authorities wanted to find a different group of actors within the Asian community that they could establish as their go-betweens. They go to the mosques in the early 1980s, which were the bastions of conservative Muslim values. They set up a council of Bradford mosques to be reasonable voice of the Muslim community, which Bradford and the local authorities will work with.

With the Rushdie affair, it’s precisely those mosque guys, who were earlier established as go-betweens, who protest the Rushdie book. It’s yet another example of the state going to what it thinks are the “good Muslims” who turn out in a different political context to be the “bad Muslims.” The secular politics associated with Asian youth movements has nowhere to go after that.

That’s the first stage. After the immediate impact of the Rushdie affair, with the intervention of Iran and Khomeini’s fatwa, different political groups within the Muslim world try to win the British Muslim constituency over to their political bloc. Saudi Arabia is trying to mobilize among British Muslims. Iran is issuing the fatwa to up the stakes. One group in Britain that’s very pro-Iranian and is linked to the Iranian regime becomes the most radical voice for Muslims in Britain.

Now the state says that it needs to find a new set of “good Muslims” to counter the “bad Muslims.” Historically that had been the Saudis. The Saudi relationship with the British foreign office had dominated how the British government saw Muslims. But in the early 1990s, the government goes to individuals linked to the Jamaat-e-Islami and encourages them to set up the Muslim Council of Britain. That’s supposed to be the new official face of British Islam. The same history repeats itself when the Muslim Council gets demonized after the 2003 Iraq War because it wants to criticize British foreign policy in a very direct way. And the state responds, saying in effect: “that’s not what we set you up to do. “

After the Rushdie affair, a number of events happen very quickly. The Gulf War in 1991 was hugely significant, not least because the British government detained without trial a number of Arab students. And then comes Bosnia. Each of these events were being interpreted within a new world order that turns out to be one in which Muslims are often the victims. Around the time of Bosnia a number of Muslim organizations that had come out of the Rushdie movement were actively mobilizing around the war and communicating their political message. There was a diversity of different takes within that framework: the Salafist network, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jamaat-e-Islami.

John Feffer: How does the discourse of Islamophobia emerge from this context?

Arun Kundnani: “Islamophobia” comes out of a discussion taking place in the mainstream of the race relations field in the United Kingdom. A debate taking place since the Rushdie affair in the Commission for Racial Equality was whether or not the existing framework for race relations had a gap when it came to religious discrimination. Given that a large part of the scene was historically bound up with a kind of left/liberal secularism, Muslims were rightly highlighting a blind spot. The Runnymede Trust’s introducing the word Islamophobia at that point was quite controversial. People were much more comfortable with race and racial discrimination. And there’s still a lively debate in the UK about whether the term is appropriate or not. One of the objections made to the term is that it wrongly assumes there is a grand conspiracy against Islam, an assumption that is thought to feed into a kind of reactionary Islamic politics.

In practice, what the word meant to most people and particularly most Muslims was a structured pattern of discrimination against Muslims. It was not necessarily seen as motivated by a theological grand struggle to suppress the truth of Islam but rather by sociological factors in the UK leading to discrimination against Muslims. There were similar trends in other European countries.

John Feffer: Can you talk about what happened at the Finsbury Park mosque in London in light of your remarks about “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims”?

Arun Kundnani: There was this quite unusual Muslim contact unit within the counter-terrorism branch of the Metropolitan Police in Greater London. The head of this unit, Bob Lambert, pioneered this idea that the best counter-terrorism partner in the Muslim community may well be Islamists or Salafists. These might be people who, from the mainstream liberal point of view, may have an extremist ideology but even so aren’t interested in violence and are perhaps best placed to take on the people drifting into violence. Lambert facilitated the Islamists in the Muslim Association of Britain taking over Finsbury Park mosque. The criticism that a number of people have made is that we’re simply swapping one extremism for another, given that the Muslim Association has some overlap with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

There’s a certain mystery about what was going on in the Finsbury Park mosque in the 1990s. We still don’t know why the police and intelligence services allowed the mosque to operate the way it was, given that it was an obvious place for people to receive violent propaganda, given all the anti-terrorism powers that the government had, given all the Muslims who came to the police and told them to do something about the mosque, given that the French were arguing that the mosque should be shut down. There’s some indication of a relationship between the people running the mosque and the intelligence services, with the former serving as a source of intelligence and agreeing that the mosque wouldn‘t be involved in violence within Britain. That relationship seems to have broken down with the Iraq war of 2003.

Where I have concerns with Bob Lambert’s particular approach is that I don’t think it’s the business of the government or the police to be saying who should be community leaders or who should run a mosque. That kind of approach is always bound up with a particular colonial history in Britain about managing communities rather than seeing them as democratic citizens. If there were criminal elements operating in the mosque, they should have been removed. It should then have been a matter of the mosque’s congregation choosing its leaders. The model should be: anyone can run a mosque as long as they operate within the law, and it’s up to the community to work out who runs the show.

John Feffer: How has the British government’s Preventing Violent Extremism program strained relations with the Muslim community?

Arun Kundnani: In the end, terrorism can only be defeated when communities delegitimize it. That insight, which is central to the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism program, is correct. Where it goes wrong is when the government thinks that it can divide up the Muslim population into moderates and extremists and the government can then fund the moderates to challenge the extremists. That’s a fundamental flaw in the policy. Every local authority with more than 2,000 Muslims has to be part of this policy. Money is thrown at each of those areas in proportion to the Muslims living there. The formula is very mechanical. It’s not based on any particular intelligence about particular problems. It imagines that the whole Muslim community has a problem and all Muslims have to be engaged. The truth is that there isn’t really a substantial body of support for al-Qaeda among British Muslims. The situation is quite different from, for example, Irish nationalist support for the IRA during the 1970s and 1980s. So the policy seeks to intervene in the Muslim community to delegitimize a form of terrorism that has no real support. But, in so doing, it actually alienates Muslims further and ends up being counter-productive.

Extremism versus moderate – these are not legal terms. They have no substance in the policy arena. It’s up to the actors in the structure to define these terms. Some come up with political definitions such that if you are radically critical of British foreign policy then you are an extremist. Others come up with cultural definitions such that extremism is a failure to adapt to modernity. And others come up with theological definitions such that Salafists are extremists and Sufis are not.

The policy also gives rise to all kinds of opportunism. A mini-industry springs up. A group will say, “We’re the good Muslims. We’ll take some of that money to promote what the government wants to promote. We’ll tell young Muslims to be more British and take them on tours of the British Museum.” But this is meaningless in terms of terrorism. Then there’s this other effect where people in non-Muslim communities say, “Even the government is saying that we should be suspicious of the Muslims down the road. And why aren’t we getting money? Do we have to become extremists to get money?”

Then there’s the surveillance. According to the policy, teachers, youth workers, those working with young Muslims all need to be briefed and trained to spot the indicators of someone being on the path to being radicalized. And then they need to share that information with the police. So a 17-year-old kid in school in a debate about the Middle East says he’s really angry about what’s happening and can understand why people become violent. That can be taken as an indicator of vulnerability to radicalism. He gets tracked in the counter-0tterrorism system. The space for democratic discussion of political issues that Muslims tend to feel strongly about becomes smaller and smaller.

After 7/7, the government created a forum for a diverse range of Muslim voices to come up with a policy framework for going forward. But these recommendations were mainly ignored when the government worked out its policy. Then you had a situation in which some of the Muslim community organizations started to pull away from the process. This culminated with a parliamentary report that made strong criticisms of the process for alienating Muslims. The new government agreed to review the whole policy, particularly in light of the budget cutbacks. The policy is likely to be significantly shrunk down with more of an emphasis on identifying individuals who are being radicalized. The other stuff – throwing money at Muslims organizations considered moderate – will be cut back. The reduced budget for this policy is not such a bad thing. But the narrative remains that there is a problem of extremism across the entire Muslim community.

Imagine you’re a Muslim women’s group in the community trying to do work for a number of years around domestic violence. Around 2007, you get a call from the local authority and they say, “we want to give you money because we think your work is important. We want to give you money from the Prevent program because we believe there’s a correlation between domestic violence and extremism.” You’re in a dilemma, if you don’t believe there’s such a correlation. Some groups took the money, feeling that it was the only way they could offer some kind of service to their clients. Even though they did not buy the argument about extremism being related to domestic violence, they re-organized their work around the counter-extremism narrative. And now, with the funding going, they‘re in a crisis.

The solution is to desecuritize the issues facing the Muslim community. The problems with drugs, gangs, domestic violence – which the government has seen as part of counter-terrorism policy – should be seen not as connected to terrorism but as problems shared with other communities. But the solutions might require a specific Muslim response.

John Feffer: Can you talk about the debate on the left about Islamism? Some associate Islamism with reactionary politics while others, like Alastair Crooke, see Islamism as a resistance to the ills of the modern world that are of a piece with, for instance, the Frankfurt School critique.

Arun Kundnani: Every Third World country that has experienced European colonialism has struggled with this issue of how to deal with culture after colonialism, how to deal with a set of values that are alien to the country’s history, that have been established as the only model to follow. That was essentially what Islamist thinkers like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb were trying to address. Essentially their message was that the West has a superior scientific materialistic knowledge but knowledge of the spirit and the soul is its weakness. On that issue, Islam has the answer. The gap between this message and the kinds of things Gandhi, for example, wrote in his Hind Swaraj is narrower than one might expect.

There are basically three paths here. The first is that Western society works better than anything we’ve come up with and we should follow it. The second is that we should try in some way to reconstruct our own value system to oppose the West and give us an alternative. And the third – for me the most interesting and productive – refuses both approaches. I see thinkers such as CLR James and Frantz Fanon as emblematic here. But there are no major movements or figures today. In the past, they could piggyback on a real anti-colonial movement. But it’s much harder to do this now.

One way political Islam translates into the European context is to become just another element within the general picture of identity politics in a multicultural European scene. Many activists say, “We like liberal democracy, we just want an Islamic space within it.” It seems to me that Tariq Ramadan is more or less of that opinion. For me, that’s less interesting than the people who are posing a more radical challenge to liberal democracy. You can see an interesting interaction between people coming from Islamic political movements and people coming from a socialist politics in Britain or other parts of Europe.

Ramadan has been singled out because of the constituency he identifies with, because he’s made a decision that he will not take the position of turning against his constituency. Rather, he wants to bring his constituency with him – which is the right decision to make.

John Feffer: How does political Islam in Europe connect to global Islam?

Arun Kundnani: There’s a very strong interconnectedness between daily life in Bradford or Birmingham and what’s happening in many other parts of the world. They’re interconnected to the entire Muslim world through the Internet and through the media. This is also how the Islamophobic narrative is mediated in Europe. The media picks up on incidents in one country and replays them in other countries, as if countries are interchangeable or Muslim communities are interchangeable.

In Ireland, for instance, the Muslim community is relatively small. There haven’t been any big trigger issues like the Rushdie affair or the murder of Theo van Gogh. Yet in Irish newspapers, there’s the exact same debate on Islam as if the issues affect Ireland the same way. It doesn’t matter what the Muslims in Ireland do or think. They’re caught up in this drama happening around Europe.

Arun Kundnani is a British writer and human rights activist. He is the former editor of Race and Class, published by the Institute of Race Relations in London, and is currently an Open Society Institute fellow. John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.
  • Phillip McAllister

    Kundnani is a shill for the muzzie fifth column. He’s the muslim Gerry Adams. He says “The truth is that there isn’t really a substantial body of support for al-Qaeda among British Muslims. The situation is quite different from, for example, Irish nationalist support for the IRA during the 1970s and 1980s.”

    The situation is not different. It’s exactly the same. Whom do you think the muzzies learned their tactics from?

    Not also above that Kundnani NEVER directly addresses what the muslims–and the British government–did to Salman Rushdie. They allowed his freedoms to be taken away for the sake of “commerce” and British relations with Saudi Arabia.

    Kundnani is a dangerous little man. And Soros knows all about precipitating dangerous men and events.