Over the short term, the British policy will deliver political benefits; over the long term, it will open up unnecessary sectarian division
None of us have the faintest excuse for feeling surprised at the intervention by new Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman over the hijab ban at St Stephen's primary school in Newham.
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Spielman's defence of "muscular liberalism" is another manifestation of the approach that produced Sara Khan as Britain’s first extremism commissioner. Ofsted’s successful High Court appeal to ban gender segregation in Birmingham's Al-Hijrah School forms part of the same pattern.
How can we be so certain these three events are connected? Try reading the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto. Spielman is implementing government policy.
Promoting 'British values'
The manifesto states that one of Prime Minister Theresa May's core objectives is "confronting the menace of extremism". It notes: "Extremism, especially Islamist extremism, strips some British people, especially women, of the freedoms they should enjoy, undermines the cohesion of our society and can fuel violence." It pledges that an incoming Tory government would "support the public sector and civil society in identifying extremists, countering their messages and promoting pluralistic, British values."
The leadership chaos inside the Conservatives Party, coupled with Brexit, has caused observers to lose sight of what is actually happening. But there should be no confusion: May is determined to establish a new and much tougher relationship between the central government and Muslims. Those who refuse to conform to so-called “British values” will be pilloried as "extremist".
This failure to define extremism is serious ... Lacking an agreed meaning, it can be used selectively by politicians and activists as a way of insulting their enemies
I predict that over the short term, the prime minister's war against what she calls extremism will deliver political benefits; just look at the glowing reviews Spielman is already receiving in the mainstream media.
The Muslim communities at the receiving end of the Tory extremism policy are already unpopular. They do not vote Conservative, and provide convenient whipping boys.
Over the long term, I am certain that this new policy will open up unnecessary sectarian divisions. This is because nobody has come up with a definition of extremism; despite the best efforts of the finest minds in Whitehall, all attempts to provide a definition have failed. Indeed, this is why May's promise to bring a counter-extremism bill to parliament has never been fulfilled.
Extremists - from suffragettes to Gandhi
This failure to define extremism is serious because it means that the term is open to abuse. Lacking an agreed meaning, it can be used selectively by politicians and activists as a way of insulting their enemies.
To illustrate this point, I looked back at Hansard the parliamentary record, to see when the term first appeared. And I quickly discovered something interesting and significant. The first use of the term "extremist" in Parliament was in 1912, at the height of the suffragette agitation six years before women secured the vote.
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Hereditary peer Viscount Helmsley (who was killed four years later in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on the western front) told the House of Lords of his "fear that the sensible women, the majority of women, would be so disgusted by the conduct of the extremists of their sex, that you would find that gradually they tended to drift more and more out of politics, and you would be left with this type of woman only, exercising the vote which you are proposing to confer up them to-day."
It's easy to see what was going on here. The term extremist was being used to exclude suffragettes from mainstream discourse. Women who did not believe they should have the vote were considered "sensible" (or moderate). By contrast, those who wanted the vote were “extremist” - far beyond the range of accepted opinion. They could therefore be ostracised or ignored.
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels in June 2017, during which they agreed to crack down on online extremism (AFP)
Today, by an extraordinary historical irony, the positions have switched entirely. Anybody who campaigned for women to be denied the vote would themselves be regarded as “extremists."
Muslims singled out
My research, carried out with my friend and collaborator Alastair Sloan as part of a research project for a book I plan to write on British Islam, shows that once women were given the vote, politicians ceased to describe suffragettes as extremists. Instead, they used the term against those who supported Home Rule for India.
Once again, a huge historical irony is at work. Mahatma Gandhi is today regarded as one of the greatest statesmen in world history; it is the opponents of Indian independence who are seen as the die-hard extremists.
The term was also applied in parliament to the early Zionists who supported the existence of a state of Israel for the Jewish people. This is no longer viewed as an "extremist" position. In fact, not believing the Jewish people have a right to self-determination is, in Britain today, seen as extremist. Nowadays, our research has shown, the term "extremist" is almost exclusively applied to Muslims.
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Muslims will likely pass on the baton in due course, and some other group will have the misfortune to be invidiously singled out as "extremist" by the dominant media and political class of the age.
I believe that our research is worthwhile because it demonstrates so precisely the problem with using the phrase extremist. Extremism is something that only exists in the eye of the beholder: it cannot be objectively defined, but it does have a spurious authority that makes it ideal for vulgar abuse against whatever group happens to be most unpopular at any given moment.
Before the First World War, that unpopular group was the suffragettes. In the 1930s, it was the agitators for Indian independence and the Zionists. At present, it's applied to Muslims.
Enforcing cultural conformity
There is, however, a special difficulty about the use of the term today that makes it far worse and more dangerous than a century ago when it was applied to suffragettes, Zionists and supporters of Gandhi. This is the Conservative Party determination to incorporate the term into British government practice.
Officially sanctioned busybodies like Spielman (who has no teaching experience and was given her job against the advice of the House of Commons education select committee) are starting to use it as part of their work.
Spielman is on a mission. Ofsted used to focus on establishing high education standards in British schools. Now it's got a second objective: enforcing cultural conformity in British classrooms - but, it appears, only when it comes to Muslim children.
When it comes to extremism, it’s the May government, and not Muslims, that has a problem with British values
Crucially, Spielman’s determination to enforce conformity to so-called British values - another undefinable phrase - appears to apply to only Muslims. So far at least, there's no evidence that she has a problem with Jewish boys wearing the kippah with clips and tzitzit, Sikh boys wearing the patka, gender-segregated public school boys wearing top hats and tail jackets and girls wearing ankle-covering floor-length skirts.
Ofsted was firm on this point when I spoke to them yesterday, with a spokesman noting that Spielman has "been clear that the context of this debate specifically relates to the wearing of the hijab by young girls where traditionally, the hijab is not worn until girls reach puberty, as a mark of modesty as they become young women".
In other words, Spielman's war against extremism in British schools is being applied selectively.
No legal definition of extremism
To be fair to Spielman, this is inevitable once you start using a term that has no generally agreed meaning. This is spelled out very well in an excellent research note circulated on Wednesday by the advocacy group Cage, entitled "Why we must reject the Commission for Countering Extremism".
"The CCE has no such basis in law," the note states. "It has not been debated in Parliament, there is no legal definition of extremism and its work is not underpinned by any parliamentary authority."
It then draws attention to an alarming exchange between Democratic Unionist Party MP Gavin Robinson and Conservative MP Gerald Howarth in Parliament in January 2016. Robinson told Parliament: “The government recently published a counter-extremism strategy. When I asked why Northern Ireland, which has a fair number of extremists, was not included in the strategy, I was told, 'Don't push the issue too far. It is really a counter-Islamic strategy.'"
A man addresses people gathered in front of St Paul's Cathedral in central London on 24 June 2017 for a ‘United against Extremism’ rally (AFP)
Howarth replied: "Indeed. Everything is being done so that the government can pretend that they are being even-handed. We cannot be even-handed between those who do not threaten our national security and those who do. We have to be specific."
Here, we have two well-informed MPs apparently agreeing that the term extremism is being applied only to Muslims. This selective use of "extremism" as a weapon against Muslims recalls the way UKIP mobilised the debate over Halal meat.
'Caught in the crossfire'
In February 2015, UKIP announced that it would ban the ritual slaughter of animals for religious reasons. But speaking to the Jewish Chronicle, responding to concerns that this would affect Jews, the party’s agricultural spokesman said: "This isn’t aimed at you - it’s aimed elsewhere - it's aimed at others. You’ve been caught in the crossfire; collateral damage. You know what I mean." In other words, UKIP was saying that this was a policy directed at Muslims only.
Everyone interested in the manipulation of the term extremism should carefully study the research note circulated by Cage. In this context, I want to highlight the following passage:
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“‘Extremism’ is a term that is not legally defined. Despite this, the work of the CCE will seek to incorporate a second definition. This, at a time when already the notion of Fundamental British Values has been embedded within counter-terrorism without any clarity. The terms are not and cannot be legally defined because notions of what they constitute vary between people and within communities, across society and change from time to time.
"In the absence of clear legal definitions, we are left with subjective opinions of individuals and think-tanks of the most powerful groups in society being able to impose their views and opinions on minority groups.
"This will simply lead to more discrimination and criminalisation against Muslim communities and further erosion of rights. Muslims who support the CCE will be effectively supporting self-criminalisation of their own community and unequal treatment."
I have taken issue with Cage in the past. However, this latest paper makes sense to me. It demonstrates that under the new extremism strategy, Muslims in Britain are going to be singled out for unfair treatment. If there is any one British value we can all agree on, it's the importance of fairness. When it comes to extremism, it's the May government, and not Muslims, that has a problem with British values.
- Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: One of one of Prime Minister Theresa May’s core objectives is ‘confronting the menace of extremism’ (AFP)