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UK extremism: Michael Gove is turning British Muslims into an enemy within

Over the past 14 years, the Tory government has established a coercive architecture of control and surveillance over British Muslims and Gove has played a defining role in shaping this policy
Britain's Housing Secretary Michael Gove arrives at 10 Downing Street in central London on 15 June, 2022 (AFP)

Michael Gove, the Conservative politician who last week announced Britain’s new counter-extremism policy, is an admirer of the revolutionary Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci.

One phrase attributed to Gramsci especially entrances Gove. This is his well-known aphorism about the need for a “long march through the institutions”.

Gramsci meant that political victories were not enough. He believed that the left would only effect lasting change by challenging the institutional dominance through which, so he maintained, the bourgeoisie maintained power in capitalist societies. 

Gramsci, who died aged 46 in a Rome clinic after a spell in one of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s prisons, called this form of domination "cultural hegemony".

Gove and his allies on the neoconservative right of the Tory party have adapted this idea - and turned it on its head.

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They became convinced that while it is quite easy for the Conservative Party to win a general election, it could not transform Britain because civil society had been captured by the left.  

According to the Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley, writing in 2014, the Conservative government was faced with a “wall of institutionally embedded, mutually supportive ideological enemies, snugly ensconced in virtually every arm of the country’s social, educational and cultural apparatus”. 

As a result, wrote Daley, the Conservatives were “forced into an apparent war of political patronage”. Translation: public appointments should be chosen according to party loyalty rather than merit.

Sustained attack on UK Muslims

This mission explains much that has happened since: a war on civil service impartiality, BBC independence, the assault on the National Health Service, and even attacks on the rule of law. 

It has also involved a sustained attack on one British minority: British Muslims. 

Gove last week presented a list of civil society groups which now face ostracism from British public life - as a defence of British democracy against hostile institutions. In fact, he was doing the opposite. 

Gove is turning British Muslims, to use Margaret Thatcher’s dreadful phrase about the coal miners, into an enemy within. Gove’s project to demonise Muslims is not new. His ideas were set out in his hugely influential book Celcius 7/7, published when Gove was a fresh-faced MP in 2006.

Gove distinguished Islam from what he called Islamism, asserting that the latter was a form of "totalitarianism" hostile to western liberal values. 

Gove stated that a 'sizeable' minority of the British Muslim population held 'rejectionist Islamist views' which, he claimed, presented a threat comparable to Nazism or communism

Gove stated that a "sizeable" minority of the British Muslim population held "rejectionist Islamist views" which, he claimed, presented a threat comparable to Nazism or communism. 

Gove’s knowledge of Islamist history and theology was then, and remains, negligible. He was relying on the work of British-American orientalist Bernard Lewis, the inventor of the "clash of civilisations" thesis, according to which western civilisation and Islam were at war. 

Like Gove, Lewis was an ardent supporter of the Iraq invasion.

I have not got nearly enough space here to set out the many egregious errors of fact and judgment contained in Celcius 7/7. Those wishing to do so should read William Dalrymple's contemporary review

The great historian of India, who knows the Middle East well, called Gove’s book “a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension, riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any other text I have come across in some two decades of reviewing books on this subject".

Islamophobic British press

Ignorant and bigoted though he is, Gove has played a defining role in shaping Conservative government policy towards British Muslims. 

As education secretary, Gove promoted a state-sanctioned attack on a vulnerable Muslim community in inner-city Birmingham, destroying the careers of many Birmingham teachers, as well as wrecking the education prospects of thousands of largely Muslim children.

This was the discredited Trojan Horse affair of 2014, a fabricated story, based on a fake letter, that British "Islamists" were plotting to "take over" Birmingham schools.

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Gove, as always, was aided and abetted by the Islamophobic British press.

In a separate part of government, another case study in Gramscian institutional capture was underway.

The Conservatives had long been suspicious of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), whose task was to protect minority groups from oppression and articulate Britain's post-war vision of a generous and open multi-cultural society.

As such it was crucial for the protection of the rights of British Muslims.

The Conservative government set about wrecking it. Funding was slashed, while (as I documented here) the EHRC failed to stand up for British Muslim communities under attack. 

It remains a mystery why the EHRC has failed to investigate allegations of Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, despite widespread, authenticated evidence from reputable sources of anti-Muslim prejudice, stretching from party activists and councillors, to MPs and cabinet ministers, to the very top of the party.

New appointments to the EHRC in 2020 drew scrutiny - one was David Goodhart, who has called complaints of systemic racism “statistically naive” and said “white self-interest is not the same thing as racism”. 

In 2021, David Isaac, former chair of the EHRC, said the watchdog was being undermined by political pressure to support the government's agenda. The following year, it was reported that EHRC staff were quitting the watchdog, calling it “the enemy of human rights”.

Partisan appointments

Today the EHRC seems to echo government talking points on pro-Palestinian protests and multiculturalism, with its chair, Baroness Falkner, saying in March that the “discord” on the streets since 7 October shows that “we seem to be failing to integrate”.

At the same time, the Shawcross review of Britain’s Prevent counter-extremism programme has had massive consequences, shifting the focus of counter-extremism policy toward so-called Islamist radicalisation - and away from the extreme right.

Britain's former Home Secretary Suella Braverman joins pro-Israeli supporters as they gather for a demonstration in central London, 14 January 2024 (Henry Nicholls/AFP)
Britain's former Home Secretary Suella Braverman joins pro-Israeli supporters as they gather for a demonstration in central London, 14 January 2024 (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

Explaining the new focus in the Commons, then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman praised the far-right polemicist Douglas Murray for his “mainstream, insightful and perfectly decent political views”. Braverman added that “in no way” was Murray an extremist.  

The Muslim Council of Britain took issue with the then-home secretary’s judgement, with an MCB spokesperson saying: “Let there be no doubt that Murray's views are anything but mainstream; they are extreme and violently Islamophobic.”

The spokesperson cited a 2006 speech in which Murray called for conditions to be made “harder across the board” for Muslims in Europe, and comments in which he described Muslims as a “demographic time bomb” and called for mosques to be pulled down.

Individuals on what used to be regarded as the far-right have been 'normalised', while previously accepted Muslim organisations risk being cut off from the public sphere

“Douglas Murray’s record of hate is well documented,” the MCB said after Murray had faced accusations of trivialising the Holocaust in a speech in which he said there was nothing wrong with “nationalism in a British context” and suggested that Germany had “mucked up” twice in the 20th century.

The mainstreaming of Murray illustrates a central feature of the new definition of extremism. Individuals on what used to be regarded as the far-right have been "normalised", while previously accepted Muslim organisations risk being cut off from the public sphere. 

To help this process along, the Conservative government has made a long series of partisan appointments to key public roles. One significant example was the choice of William Shawcross to carry out a review of Prevent. 

Shawcross did not enter this contested and delicate area as an impartial observer. As with Murray, Shawcross’s views on Islam would be regarded by many observers as extreme. 

In January 2012, he told an American audience: “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future. I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.”

He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq war, both before the 2003 invasion and in its bloody aftermath. His 2012 book Justice and the Enemy defended the American use of interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that are widely regarded as torture, as well as the detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

He was a director of the Henry Jackson Society, which has been accused of an anti-Muslim agenda. Today he is a senior fellow at the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange. These are the two organisations which have perhaps done more than any other to frame official thinking about how Islam is perceived in the UK.

'Monstrous animal'

Meanwhile, the individual tasked with overseeing the government’s implementation of Shawcross’s report is Robin Simcox, Britain’s commissioner for countering extremism. 

Until recently it would have been axiomatic that a British government would choose a figure who could be widely accepted as impartial and fair-minded on the question of what constitutes extremism. 

All the more so given the Commission for Countering Extremism has the power to designate groups as extremist. It operates without a public charter and publishes neither its membership nor the minutes of its meetings. 

From 2008 to 2011, Simcox worked at the Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC), which merged with the Henry Jackson Society (HJS); the latter was described by one of its founders, Matthew Jamison, as a "monstrous animal" and a "deeply anti-Muslim racist organisation".

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In a 2019 article for the Heritage Foundation, Simcox described Islamophobia as a "slippery concept". In October 2023, Simcox wrote in The Times that Britain was paying the price for a "three-decade-long failed policy mix of mass migration and multiculturalism".

Many would argue that if Simcox was taking his role seriously he should have focused on former Home Secretary Suella Braverman - who appointed him - after she said “Islamists are in charge of Britain now”.

Meanwhile, Lee Anderson MP, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, recently declared that London Mayor Sadiq Khan was under the control of Islamists. Simcox has not condemned these comments as extremist. 

Nor has the Conservative MP Paul Scully been condemned for repeating the far-right conspiracy theory that parts of London and Birmingham were “no-go areas” for non-Muslims.

Middle East Eye wrote to Simcox asking whether the cases of Braverman, Anderson and Scully were being investigated as potentially extremist. There has been no answer. 

And Simcox has not yet uttered a word in public about the Conservative Party’s largest donor making an unambiguously racist comment about Labour MP Diane Abbott.

'Woke aristocracy'

So who is extremist, according to the commissioner for countering extremism? 

In October, Simcox described the popular slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as “genocidal in nature”. But he strikingly made no reference to the Likud Party’s official "Platform", which declares that “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty”. 

He argued - before the bill opposing it was passed - that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement “contributes to a toxic and permissive environment for antisemitic, and at times extremist, narratives”, and intervened in parliamentary democracy, urging the government to “get on with ensuring the BDS bill is passed”.

Simcox has laid himself open to the charge that he is not a neutral arbiter of extremism - as should be expected in such a role - but rather as a partisan figure within the landscape over which he has been appointed to cast scrutiny. 

There has been a pattern of such appointments.

Professor Matthew Goodwin, a regular guest on GB News who complains about a “woke aristocracy” and recently wrote that the “woke Left and extreme Islamism have joined forces to try to reshape society”, was made a social mobility commissioner by the government in 2022.

Woodcock visited Israel with a parliamentary delegation on a trip paid for by the European Leadership Network, which condemned South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ as 'politically motivated' 

Another example is John Woodcock - the former Labour MP who now sits as Lord Walney, a cross-bench peer - the government’s independent adviser on political violence and disruption since 2020. 

He has urged the Conservative and Labour parties not to engage with anyone from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign “until they get their house in order and cut the hate from their marches”.

Woodcock also proposed that pro-Palestine protestors be forced to pay towards the costs of policing their protests and be treated like “sectarian parades in Northern Ireland”.

His particular expertise on political violence and disruption is unclear.

In January, during Israel’s current war on Gaza, Woodcock visited Israel with a parliamentary delegation on a trip paid for by the European Leadership Network, which condemned South Africa’s case against Israel at the ICJ as “politically motivated”. 

Coercive architecture of control

Then there is Lord Ian Austin, appointed by Communities Secretary Michael Gove in September to lead an independent review into the 2022 Leicester riots, which involved clashes between Hindus and Muslims. 

It is baffling that the Rishi Sunak government considers Austin the appropriate choice to lead the review into the Leicester riots, which requires an expert and sensitive eye, as well as broad credibility. As far as we can tell, Austin has had no experience working on issues related to either extremism or community cohesion. 

Austin faced allegations of Islamophobia in 2021 after tweeting a photo of a fake Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavour called “Hamas Terror Misu” - in response to the company deciding to stop selling its ice cream in illegal Israeli settlements. 

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In 2012, Austin had to publicly apologise after he falsely claimed that Friends of Al-Aqsa, a pro-Palestine campaign group, were Holocaust deniers. 

Austin was recently suspended as chair of Midland Heart housing association after posting on social media platform X (formerly Twitter): “Everyone, better safe than sorry: before you go to bed, nip down and check you haven’t inadvertently got a death cult of Islamist murderers and rapists running their operations downstairs. It’s easily done.” He has since deleted the post.

Yet he is still leading the Leicester review. It is not surprising that over 100 Leicester-based Muslim organisations and individuals have committed to not engaging in the process.

Meanwhile, the journalist Nafeez Ahmed has reported for Byline Times that Haras Rafiq, former CEO of the now defunct Quilliam Foundation, is being lined up as the next government adviser on anti-Muslim hatred. The appointment would be unlikely to inspire widespread confidence across the Muslim community.

The same applies to Gove’s appointment of Sir John Jenkins, author of an article in the Spectator stating that “there’s nothing wrong with [French President Emmanuel] Macron’s view on Islamism”, as community cohesion lead in the ongoing inspection of Tower Hamlets council. 

Over the past 14 years, the Tory government has established a coercive architecture of control and surveillance over British Muslims, while granting legitimacy to what would traditionally have been regarded as the far right. 

There are no signs that Keir Starmer’s Labour will seek to reverse the hostile environment.

Last week, Middle East Eye asked Gove whether he believed that the Tory Party had an Islamophobia problem. No answer. We also asked how he responded to the charge that Tory policies have turned British Muslims into an "enemy within". No answer.

The silence speaks volumes. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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