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UK — a tale of two extremes

Fly on the wall

Zafar Khalid Farooq

Whilst here in Pakistan, as the army wages war against militants in its backyard, the British establishment is rolling out the red carpet for extremist and xenophobes of its own kind. Tonight, on BBC television, the British National Party (BNP) leader, Nick Griffin, will take his place alongside members of the UK political establishment, including Justice Secretary and former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, as a guest on the most revered political platform in British television – BBC 1’s ‘Question Time’.

For those unfamiliar with this breed of repugnant racists, the BNP are a far right-wing fringe party who, until recently, had thankfully always remained on the periphery of British politics. The BNP, with policies that advocate voluntary resettlement to those ‘immigrants’ (that is, non-whites) who are legally in the UK, and who, only this month agreed to change its constitution to allow non-white members for fear of legal proceedings, have rarely attracted much popular support in the past. At the last general election, in 2005, they managed to win a paltry 0.7 per cent of the electoral vote.

So why the sudden high-profile invitation from the BBC’s flagship political programme? Because since 2005, the party’s electoral fortunes have improved. Earlier this year they won six per cent in the European elections, resulting in two seats for the party in the European Parliament, including one for Griffin. BBC editorial guidelines state that “significant minor parties should also receive some network coverage” and under the terms of its charter, the BBC is also legally obligated to ensure ‘due impartiality’. Hence, the presence of Mr Griffin under the studio arc lights tonight.

But what has prompted this upswing in popularity of this most odious of political parties? The economic downturn has certainly played a part. The last time far right politics enjoyed anything close to popular appeal was during the economically stagnating 70s. Then, it was the BNP’s predecessor, the National Front, who enjoyed some electoral support whilst the country succumbed to a three-day week and industrial unrest. It took the Thatcher government’s tough line on immigration and the economic boom of the mid-80s to crush the extreme right’s electoral ambitions.

Another reason for the BNP’s success this year may have been due to voter disaffection with the mainstream political parties. The expenses scandal, which saw British politicians from across the political spectrum fraudulently claiming expenses for personal gain, blew up weeks before the European election in June. Voter anger at the corruption of MPs, compounded by the fact that the country was in the midst of a recession, drew voters to the political fringes.

However, another explanation for their renewed popularity — and one that few mainstream politicians are reluctant to admit or even acknowledge in the UK for fear of being deemed insensitive to ethnic minorities, especially the Muslim community — is the rise of militant Islamism in the UK.

Ironically, radical Islamism, of which there are a number of groups, and the BNP share a similar political wardrobe. Both are avowedly anti-Semitic (although the BNP stance towards Jews has softened now that they view Muslims as the greater threat), both enjoy a good conspiracy theory and revel in grievance narratives and victim politics, oh, and both spawn a reactionary, illiberal, intolerant ideology. The BNP want a return to a pristine white homeland and the Islamists want shariah law and a pan-Islamic theocracy, or, as it’s better known — a caliphate. The BNP snarl at multiculturalism and blame it for white alienation and exclusion. The Islamists divide the world into two spheres: Muslims, and ‘the rest’.

The British Government has failed woefully at curbing Islamist radicalisation. Muslim alienation, especially amongst the youth is on the rise in the UK. A recent paper by the UK think tank, Policy Exchange, highlighted the growing divide. Of all the categories, the 16-24 year-old Muslims were the most estranged from mainstream Britain, especially compared with their parents’ generation. Thirty eight per cent of them felt they have more in common with Muslims than with non-Muslims. Thirty five per cent would prefer to send their child to an Islamic school, 37 per cent would prefer shariah law and 13 per cent “admired organisations like Al Qaeda”. This is worrying for Britain’s liberal democracy.

Even more worryingly, a new generation is being radicalised, often with the very government funds that are supposed to be countering radicalisation. The British Government’s counter-terrorism strategy is called Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE). In the past three years, 90 million pounds have been spent on PVE. However, by focusing on ‘violent extremism’, as opposed to all extremism, the government has allowed itself to hop into bed with organisations and groups deeply opposed to liberal, democratic values. These groups have ties with the Muslim brotherhood, and our very own Jaamat-e-Islami. Perhaps by joining hands with non-violent extremist groups, the government hopes to provide a defence, a pressure valve if you like, against violent extremism among the angry Muslim youth. But by collaborating with these groups, the government is effectively supporting and funding the Islamist ideology that spawns an illiberal, intolerant and anti-western view.

In any liberal democracy, there are constant tensions. How can one protect the rights of the few from the tyranny of the majority? How il-liberal should the state become in order to protect the liberal values it professes to uphold? These questions always need debate and vigilance. The BBC is right to invite the BNP leader on ‘Question Time’. However abhorrent and racist his views, the electorate has given him a mandate. If the Jaamat-e-Islami were to obtain a similar mandate, they too should be invited on the show. However, allowing freedom of speech is one thing — actively funding and supporting that speech is quite another. The British government must stop all public money to Islamist groups whose views are in conflict with liberal democracy — however non-violent or representative of the community they purport to be. If a liberal, democratic government continues to fund these groups it will become the political equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas. Or should that be goats for Eid.

The writer is a lawyer and human rights activist who divides his time between Pakistan and the UK. Email: zkfarooq@gmail.com

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