The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that the government must engage with organisations and individuals “with whose views we disagree vehemently.”
Hazel Blears said that this did not include groups who advocate terrorism, but will include those who have “unacceptable attitudes towards women, Jews, or gay and lesbian people.”
Ms Blears was speaking at the London School of Economics on the need for deeper dialogue with the Muslim community.
“Talking about violent extremism does not come easily to any of us. It is laden with potential traps, clouded with emotion, confused by contested terminology, ignorance and prejudice,” she said.
“But George Orwell in Politics and the English Language warned us against using confusion over words and their meanings as the excuse for what he called ‘political quietism’.
“It may be tough, but it is a conversation we have to have.”
Ms Blears said that a “far-reaching network of violence and hatred” that attacked the USA on 9/11 and bombed London on 7/7 must be tackled but “security measures are not the whole solution.”
“Some seek to define this mosaic of organisations and philosophies as ‘Islamism’ or sometimes ‘Political Islam’. But here we run into real dangers,” she said.
“There is the obvious danger that we say ‘Islamism’ but people hear ‘Islam’ or ‘Islamic’, especially as the word translates poorly into other languages such as Arabic.
“Even in English, where the two words are distinct, many people lack the political literacy to distinguish between a political ideology dubbed by some as Islamism and Islam itself.
“There are plenty of people, for example the far right in this country, or Geert Wilders’ outfit in Holland, who would wish to conflate the two in order to stir up race hate.
“A second trap is that to talk of ‘Islamism’ suggests there is a unified, single movement. But there is no more a unified Islamism than there is a single socialism, or a single conservatism, or a single liberalism.
“As with every single political creed, from Marxism to fascism, there are internal factions, theoretical disputes, acrimonious splits, personality clashes, revisionism and evolution of thought and organisation.
“For example, Al-Qaeda is in conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood over fundamental questions such as the nature of the state, and the duty of the individual to fight the perceived enemies of Islam.
“A third trap is to assume that all Islamists are terrorists. Some groups specifically oppose violence but have religious views which are very conservative and can conflict with other values we share in society.
“Hizb ut-Tahrir, for example, is a party which overtly anti-democratic, is against the existence of Israel, wants an end to the British state and its replacement by a theocracy, but which nonetheless falls short of openly advocating violence or terrorism.
“To lump Hizb ut-Tahrir in with Al-Qaeda is to fail to understand the differences between the two, just as it would be intellectually lazy to lump the BNP with Combat 18, or the Socialist Workers’ Party with the Red Army Faction.
“But the question is the extent to which politically-extreme groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir contribute to an environment which makes violence more acceptable or justifiable, makes individuals more susceptible to committing acts of violence, and whether there is a symbiotic relationship between groups whose hate is expressed in words, or whose support for terrorism or suicide bombing is confined to the Middle East but not Britain, and those whose hate is expressed in violent actions.
“Notwithstanding my plea for an enhanced literacy when it comes to discourse about the nature of what we might call political Islamisms in the plural, it is also clear that we can discern some common threads in that ‘far-reaching network of violence and hatred’.
“A belief in the supremacy of the Muslim people, in a divine duty to bring the world under the control of hegemonic Islam, in the establishment of a theocratic Caliphate, and in the undemocratic imposition of theocratic law on whole societies: these are the defining and common characteristics of the disparate strands of this ideology here and around the world.
“You can’t ignore the facts that this ideology is rooted in a twisted reading of Islam. The academics, scholars and imams I meet to discuss these issues tell me that the message of Islam is one of peace; and the followers of Islam I meet oppose the single narrative promulgated by Al-Qaeda, and certainly oppose violence.
“Indeed, the vast majority are proud of their faith and their nationality, see no conflict or contradiction between being British and being Muslim, and are an integral part of the economic, cultural and social life of their neighbourhood and the country, giving the lie to the ideas of division and difference that lie at the heart of extremist ideology.”
Ms Blears also spoke out against the tone of debate around religion in the UK.
“There are some who say that it is a form of racism or imperialism to disagree with what they see as cultural attitudes and practices,” she said.
“I say: the values which put all humans on an equal footing, with equal rights for all, are not western values, they are human values.
“Therefore it is right that we stand up against violence towards women, for example, whether it is sanctioned or encouraged by religious and cultural leaders or not.
“There is a line when respect for other cultures is crossed, and a universal morality should kick in.
“Let me put it another way. This country is proud of its tradition of fair play and good manners, welcoming of diversity, tolerant of others. This is a great strength.
“But the pendulum has swung too far. The quality of debate about religion in contemporary life – and by religion, I mean all faiths – is being sapped by a creeping oversensitivity.
“Three quarters of the UK population describe ourselves as belonging to one of the major world religions.
“A survey for the BBC this week found that nearly more than three in five people believed that national laws should be influenced by traditional religious values; and that faith should have a bigger role in the public sphere.
“Yet there is an astonishing amount of squeamishness about the subject.
“It seems that every week we hear a new story – the nurse suspended because she offered to pray for a patient, or the school banning Christmas decorations – about people getting into a panic because someone, somewhere, might get offended.
“Worse, at times leaders have been reluctant to challenge absolutely unacceptable behaviour – forced marriage, female genital mutilation, or homophobia – because they are concerned about upsetting people’s cultural sensitivities.
“This flies in the face of another of our traditions – open debate, rational inquiry, and plain old common sense.
“We would do well to be a little less anxious and a little more robust.
“And just as we are confident about speaking up against the race hatred of the far right, we should be confident about condemning the intolerance of Christian extremists such as Fred Phelps, and we should be confident about saying ‘no’ to unacceptable practices that have their roots in different cultural traditions.”
Mr Phelps, the leader of a homophobic American religious sect that targets gay people, and Dutch MP Geert Wilders were both banned from the UK by the Home Secretary this month on the grounds they would hurt community relations.
Ms Blears’ comments come just a week after it was reported that the government plans to widen the definition of who is an extremist in terms that could include Muslims who object to homosexuality.
A revised counter-terrorism strategy is to be published next month.
The Guardian reported that a range of beliefs held by many Muslims could be classed as extreme under the new definition, among them the promotion of Sharia law, which punishes homosexuality with the death penalty, advocating a pan-Islamic state or supporting jihad.
The new strategy “would widen the definition of extremists to those who hold views that clash with what the government defines as shared British values,” the paper reported.
“Those who advocate the wider definition say hardline Islamist interpretation of the Qur’an leads to views that are the root cause of the terrorism threat Britain faces.”
An in-depth survey in 2007 into the attitudes of Muslims living in London revealed that less than 5% thought homosexual acts are “acceptable,” compared with more than 65% of the general population.
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