A new political landscape: who's afraid of the respect party? Dissent and cohesion in modern Britain.

Author:Briggs, Rachel
Position:Features

For a demographic group that makes up approximately 3 per cent of the UK's population, the Muslim community manages to command more than its fair share of newspaper headlines. Rarely does a week pass without controversy, whether it be veil-wearing women in MP's surgeries, demands for sharia law, young men burning flags outside the Danish embassy or fundamentalist clerics preaching hatred of the West. Not to mention the would-be suicide bombers hiding within our communities.

The latter point is of course critical; the threat from terrorism provides the backdrop onto which the actions of the Muslim community are projected and then re-interpreted. British Muslims may have many legitimate reasons to mobilise, and as Statham reminds us, people do not mobilise without just cause (Statham, 2003). They experience some of the worst levels of educational attainment and unemployment, and suffer below average standards of health and housing. They are angry about the war in Iraq and Britain's foreign policy towards the Islamic world. And they are also trying to negotiate their place in modern British society. But the security issue is ever present and causes many of their actions to be misinterpreted--sometimes knowingly, often through ignorance.

Mobilisation within Muslim communities takes a variety of forms. Many have thrown themselves into community work to change conditions at the grass roots level. Some have entered mainstream politics, either through the three main parties and the Respect Party or fringe movements, like the Stop the War Coalition. Others work through representative bodies, such as Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Federation of Muslim Organisations (FMO). And on an individual level, many are making deeply political interventions--consciously or not--through their dress, behaviour, and interactions with non-Muslims, which are raising questions about what it means to be British.

Ismail Patel divides Muslim activism into three categories. First there is the largest group who are engrossed in their daily lives and show only occasional verbal support for fellow Muslims, perhaps through participating in demonstrations. Second, there are those who strongly associate with the establishment and believe that the only way to change the system is from within. And finally, there are those who tend to be labelled as 'radicals' who push to the limits democratic principles to get their voice heard (Patel, 2007).

So, why are we so concerned about the Respect Party and all these other non-violent forms of mobilisation? Why does the emergence of a new political activism cause such alarm? After all, so many of the interventions fall into Patel's second group, people who are working through the system to bring about change from within. And they come at a time when the government is stressing that it is strong communities--presumably as opposed to weak ones--that defeat terrorists and have the confidence to conduct important but difficult negotiations about difference. Why are we so scared of dissent?

There is no straightforward answer. The actions and intentions of Britain's two million Muslims are misinterpreted for a variety of reasons: a lack of understanding about Islam and cultural differences, the 'Daily Mail factor' which makes politicians run scared of taking on conservative and reactionary forces, the left's historical fear of dissent after a generation out of power partly due to the factions within, and the lingering presence of many unanswered questions about the place of faith in public and private spheres.

What is clear is that this mobilisation is causing friction; buttons are being pushed and boundaries crossed, which plays on deeply-held uncertainty about life in Britain. It is easy to interpret the fallout as evidence of the failure of our integration policies. While those policies are far from perfect, the waves being made are in fact a sign that we are finally beginning to negotiate our differences and work out how to live alongside one another peacefully. Politicians must avoid the temptation of trying to tame them, and instead learn to ride them and live with the new uncertainties they bring.

The Britain of today is unrecognisable to that of 30 years ago: immigration, technological revolution, the end of deference, labour market reforms, globalisation and the wholesale emancipation of women in the public sphere have all played their role in changing the face of the UK. It is unrealistic to expect this to happen without problems along the way. As Saul Alinsky said, 'Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict' (Alinsky, 1971).

Things may get worse before they get better, but as we face the prospect of a new era in British politics, it is time to embrace dissent for what it is--our best hope for negotiating difference and change and building a mature and cohesive society that finally feels comfortable in its own skin.

Distinguishing violent from non-violent radicalisaton

Security is the elephant in the room in almost all discussions about British Muslims. The threat from Al Qaeda is real: our domestic intelligence agency is tracking 200 groupings or networks in the UK, totalling over 1600 identified individuals, plus there are many more they do not know about (BBC website, 2006); and the Metropolitan Police Service spends 75 per cent more time on counter-terrorist operations since the London bombings in 2005 (Cowen, 2005).

Any community that feels deprived, victimised or threatened will produce members who express their frustrations in a variety of ways. Some will look for positions of power to address injustices...

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