State Management of Muslims

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Since the mass immigration recruitment that followed World War II, “othered” immigrants to both the UK and Australia have faced “mainstream” cultural expectations to assimilate, and various forms of state management of their incorporation into the receiving society. Perceived failure or refusal to integrate has historically been constructed as deviant, though in certain policy phases this tendency has been mitigated by cultural pluralism and official multiculturalism.

In the UK and Australia, hegemonic racialization of immigrant minorities has, at critical times, entailed their criminalization, especially that of their young men. In the UK, following the Rushdie Affair of 1989 and in both Britain and Australia following these states’ involvement in the 1990-91 Gulf War, the Muslim Other was increasingly targeted in cycles of racialized moral panic and attendant state crackdowns. This has of course intensified dramatically since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing War on Terror.

Muslim immigrant communities in both these countries have, over the subsequent period, been the subject of heightened popular and state Islamophobia in relation to: perceived ethnic gangs; alleged deviant, predatory masculinity; and paranoia about so-called Islamist radicalization and its supposed bolstering of terrorism. In this context, the earlier, more genuinely social democratic and egalitarian aspects of state approaches to integration have been supplanted, briefly glossed by a rhetoric of social inclusion, by reversion to increasingly oppressive assimilationist and socially controlling forms of integrationism.

From about 1990, Australian multiculturalism and the somewhat weaker form in Britain were undermined by right wing attacks that characterized it as a politically correct imposition by cosmopolitan elites with disregard for the disadvantaged strata from the dominant national culture who were supposedly most disrupted by it. In fact the real insecurities suffered by those socially marginalized groupings, who projected them onto immigrants as an imagined cause, were largely collateral damage of neoliberalism.

This happened to coincide with the First Gulf War of 1990-91, in which both countries were part of the US-led “coalition of the willing.” Racist enemy-images were propagated and a surge of hate crime ensued in both countries. In the UK, as in Australia, Muslims of all ethnic backgrounds, not only Iraqis, had their allegiance to Britain questioned and demonstrations of loyalty were demanded. The logic of this positioning is that no token of loyalty, no proof of integration and willingness to belong, can ever be enough. The year before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Salman Rushdie affair had exposed British Muslims to widespread accusations of a failure to integrate, a charge by which they were othered as Muslims rather than as Asians or other minority ethnicities such as Arab or African.

In Australia over the 1990s, there was a transition in othering from “Arab Other” to the “Muslim Other.” We can see these terms of demonizing shift dramatically in the period from the 1998 killing of teenager Edward Lee in Western Sydney and the associated furor over so-called “Lebanese gangs” to a series of group sexual assaults in Sydney in 2000 and 2001 and popular outrage over what was widely labelled “ethnic gang rape.”

During this shift, the increasingly anti-Muslim aspect of this racism becomes associated with an ideology of incapacity, unwillingness, or refusal of Muslim immigrants to integrate into British or Australian society. We find here a shift in the meaning of “integrate” towards a blaming, supervising, and even punitive one, in which the state becomes involved. This was especially apparent after 2001 and even more so in these countries after the 7 July London transport bombings in 2005, with public worries and racialized moral panic over so-called homegrown terrorism.

We can see even in 2001 how Islamophobia predated 9/11 in both Britain and in Australia, through the reaction to some key events. The causes of the riots in Northern England in the summer of that year were attributed both in the popular media and in discussions surrounding official reports—such as the Ouseley (2001) and Cantle (2001) reports—to the lack of integration, in particular among Muslim communities in the areas concerned. It is fair to point out that both the transitive and intransitive senses of integrate are used in the official reports, but the blaming sense was used by the accredited experts, not to mention right-thinking media and political commentators.

After 9/11 and the declaration of the so-called War on Terror, the Muslim “enemy within” was again raised as a racialized folk devil, in Britain and in Australia, as during the Gulf War. Ironically, for countries in a coalition that had discovered oppression of women in Afghanistan as a late justification for the war there to secure regime change, many of the victims of the accompanying upsurge in anti-Muslim hate crime were women wearing the hijab. As the media and populist politicians in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere in the west fetishized the Muslim veil as a symbol of non-integration in the West, women wearing it were vilified and assaulted in public places. At this time, lack of integration in the form of deviantly excessive Muslim devoutness or religiosity became a marker for targeting by the state for surveillance and harassment.

The state targeting was heightened by the London transport bombings of July 2005 and popular worrying about homegrown terrorists. What had moved the perpetrators, who were British born and raised, to their acts of terrorism? The popular answer, contrary to the facts which became known about their lives, was lack of integration. Integration therefore must be demanded by the state in order to prevent so-called radicalization which nurtures terrorism.

Whereas British foreign policy, from the latest Iraq war to Palestine, was stated by the London bombers as their motivation, this was implacably denied by the Blair government. What happened from this time, however, as Shane Brighton has pointed out, is that an oppositional stance on such foreign policy issues is taken by the state and its apparatuses of hegemony as evidence of a dangerous lack of integration—but only in Muslims.

In the UK, the response from New Labour to the perceived integration problem was less political correctness, ensuring conformity to these values, tying funding to community cohesion and integration, policing forced marriages, revisiting immigration rules regarding arranged marriages, intervening in discrimination against women by mosques, vetting visiting preachers for English competency, vetting visiting speakers for radicalism, stressing integration in the national curriculum, regulation of faith schools and madrassahs to ensure tolerance and respect, and English tests for permanent residency.

This is integration of a coercive, assimilatory sort, aimed pointedly at Muslims, and populistically articulating with anti-Muslim rhetoric about separatism, Shar’ia law, lack of respect for British law, misogyny, and linguistic self-segregation. Neither the succession to Brown as prime minister, nor the subsequent change of government made substantive difference to the British state’s approach to these matters: those measures are virtually all now in place, with perhaps the most intensified and oppressive attention being the surveillance and policing of so-called radicalism.

These coercive approaches, it is true, were accompanied by more consensus-building approaches couched in the rhetoric of social inclusion from the earlier New Labour emphases. Yet these were often transparently manipulative and used ham-fistedly for surveillance and suppression of radical opposition. New Labour, in government from 1997 to 2010, had largely emptied Labour’s ethnic affairs policies of their equity and access imperatives, instead attempting to undercut the far right in populist scapegoating of immigrants and minorities, while propagating “clash of civilizations” ideology to prosecute the War on Terror.

State demands for Muslims to integrate demonstrate no signs of abating. Indeed in late 2016 the government commissioned Casey Review was delivered and re-affirmed the requirement for British Muslims in particular to take a more active role in integrating themselves into wider society. The suggestion from Casey is that for too long the “regressive” cultural practices of British Muslims have been tolerated or ignored, partly because of political correctness. Furthermore, it is contended that these practices contravene British values—a concept that has been championed in recent years and which is now a staple feature on school curriculums and which organizations mandated to comply with the counter-extremism Prevent Duty are required to promote.

Missing from the Casey Review was any acknowledgement that many British Muslims live within deprived communities experiencing severe socio-economic problems primarily due to decades of state neglect. Also missing is any engagement with or recognition of the surge in virulent Islamophobia, particularly in a post-Brexit landscape where the far-right within and beyond Europe have recently been emboldened. For as long as politicians in the UK and Australia are happy to pander to the populist right in singling out Muslims as a problematic population, it is incumbent on Muslim civil society groups and other anti-racist progressive actors to robustly challenge policies and rhetoric that foment racist and violent consequences.

A version of this article first appeared in the International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy

Dr. Waqas Tufail is a scholar activist and Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Leeds Beckett University. His research primarily concerns the policing, racialization, and criminalization of marginalized and minority communities and he has published several peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on these topics. Waqas is currently engaged in a number of research projects including an ongoing collaboration with Professor Scott Poynting examining the criminalization of Muslim minorities in the UK and Australia. Waqas is also currently researching the history of grassroots, community based police monitoring groups in the context of anti-racism campaigns in the UK and is co-editing a book titled ‘Media, Crime, Racism’ due for release in 2017 with Palgrave Macmillan.

Scott Poynting is Adjunct Professor in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at Western Sydney University and the School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology. He is co-author of Bin Laden in the Suburbs (2004) and co-editor of Global Islamophobia: Muslims and Moral Panic in the West (Ashgate, 2012) and Counter-Terrorism and State Political Violence: The War on Terror as Terror (Routledge, 2012).