The cold war on British Muslims

Conservative think-tanks help fuel a culture of fear, allowing far-right groups to prosper.

Inside Story - Europe''s rising anti Islam trend
The right-wing English Defence League has grown in strength and numbers, as conservative think-tanks help whip up a climate of fear in Britain, and across Europe and the US [GALLO/GETTY]

In justification of his attacks in Norway, killing more than seventy civilians, mostly teenagers, Anders Breivik issued a manifesto: 2083 A European Declaration of Independence. It has been widely reported that he cited a long list of Islamophobic and “counterjihad” writers such as the Americans Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes, Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy – and the Egyptian-born, Swiss-based Bat Ye’or who has popularised the concept of “Eurabia” – the supposedly secret conspiracy for the Islamic takeover of Europe. Less prominent, but also cited, was a UK think-tank that is close to the UK government and credited with influencing UK anti-terrorist policy. Policy Exchange is one of two conservative think-tanks we examine in our new Spinwatch report [PDF], that attempts to understand the current climate of fear being whipped up against Muslims in Britain – and indeed across Europe and the US.

The citation of Policy Exchange seems innocent enough, as Breivik simply cites public opinion data published by the think-tank. However, as it happens, this precise data is highlighted in our report as an indication of the potential for bias and ideology in the way think-tanks such as Policy Exchange operate. Our report also examines another key conservative think-tank that has been prominent in arguing for a counter-subversion approach to Islam, the Centre for Social Cohesion.

The Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) was founded in 2007 as a project of the conservative think-tank Civitas. Its emphasis was in line with Civitas‘ previous work on the subject. A key example was The “West”, Islam and Islamism: Is ideological Islam compatible with liberal democracy? – a 2003 pamphlet [PDF] whose authors Caroline Cox and John Marks would later become directors of the CSC. They argued that “Islamist terrorism” was only part of a broader ideological challenge comparable to communist propaganda efforts during the Cold War. This vision was reflected in the appointment of Douglas Murray as the centre’s director; the author of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It. By the time he joined the CSC, Murray had already established a reputation as a critic of Islam, most notably in a 2006 speech in which he argued that “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board”.

The CSC’s first full length report was Hate on the State: How British Libraries Encourage Extremism [PDF].  It criticised the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for stocking “several hundred books and audio tapes by radical Islamists” in its libraries  and criticised the failure to include Stephen Schwartz and Ibn Warraq, two writers associated with the counterjihad perspective.

Downplaying the rise of the right

The CSC has not focused solely on Islam and has produced two reports on the British far-right: The BNP and the Online Fascist Network (2009) and Blood & Honour: Britain’s Far-Right Militants (2010). The British National Party (BNP) report underplays the extent to which the BNP has been influenced by other Islamophobic currents. The BNP’s alliance with the counterjihad movement and the subsequent emergence of the English Defence League were among the most significant developments on the British far right in recent years. Yet neither of the CSC’s reports on the far right addressed them. This is perhaps not surprising in the light of the CSC’s own contacts with the counterjihad movement.

In August 2009, CSC’s director Douglas Murray met with leading counterjihad activist Robert Spencer, and Martin Mawyer of the US Christian Action Network. The event would later spark controversy because of the attendance of three members of the far-right English Defence League. In marked contrast to the CSC’s analysis of other forms of political extremism, Douglas Murray has characterised the EDL as a predictable response to political failure and recently commended the EDL as “a grassroots response from non-Muslims to Islamism”. This must raise fundamental doubts about the CSC’s ability to fulfil its self-proclaimed mandate. Can it really offer a serious analysis of threats to social cohesion in Britain, when one of the biggest emerging threats has its roots in a counterjihad ideology that the CSC shares to a significant extent?

Policy Exchange has a much broader remit than CSC and publishes research on a range of political issues. It was established in 2002 by a group of Conservative MPs who called for the Tories to position themselves to the right of New Labour not by focusing on divisive issues like immigration or the EU but by developing a critique of the state.

Policy Exchange’s first chairman was Michael Gove – now Britain’s secretary of state for education. In July 2006, the same month Policy Exchange published its first report on Islamism, it hosted a book launch for Gove’s neoconservative polemic Celsius 7/7.  In the book, Gove argued that what he called “fundamentalist terror” had been facilitated by the “sapping of confidence in Western values, encouraged by the radical Left since 1968”. He thanked a number of people for helping to shape his thinking, amongst whom were Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion and Dean Godson, who that year was appointed head of Policy Exchange’s Foreign Policy & Security Unit. Godson comes from a family with a history of involvement in propaganda and covert action. Under his leadership, Policy Exchange’s major preoccupation has been with a perceived need to reassert “western values” against “extremism” and the liberal political climate in which it is thought to thrive.

Godson’s unit published a number of reports calling on the government to sever its links with particular individuals or groups and to expand its surveillance of Muslim communities. The most notorious of these reports was published in October 2007 and entitled The Hijacking of British Islam. The report was written by Denis MacEoin – an author of crime thrillers and ghost stories. It claimed to “demonstrate unequivocally that separatist and hate literature, written and disseminated in the name of Islam, is widely available in the UK”, and called for mosques to be made to “clean up their act”. It was subsequently removed from Policy Exchange’s website after the BBC discovered evidence suggesting that its findings had been fabricated.

Leftists and immigrants to blame

An earlier report entitled Living Apart Together, blamed multiculturalism for a rise in “anti-Western ideas” among Muslims and non-Muslims. It sought to downplay experiences of Islamophobia and discrimination faced by Muslims in Britain, which are described as “myths” and attributed to a “victim mentality”. The idea that Islam presents a political or cultural threat has been most explicitly developed in Policy Exchange’s 2009 pamphlet Choosing Our Friends Wisely. The authors criticised the Labour government for “stress[ing] law enforcement and strict security concerns over and above everything else”, and argued that government policy should expand its focus from “preventing violent extremism” to countering what it calls “non-violent radicals”, who it is claimed are “indoctrinating young people with an ideology of hostility to western values”. The report explicitly calls for the British state to engage in large-scale political counter-subversion. 

We wrote to Policy Exchange and the CSC requesting, in the interests of transparency, that they disclose its sources of funding. The CSC stated in its response only that it was funded by private donations and has “neither sought nor received public funds”. Policy Exchange failed to respond. Nevertheless, our report reveals for the first time the network of individuals and foundations that are bankrolling both think-tanks. Donors identified in the report include the neoconservative Rosenkranz Foundation in the United States, and hardline Zionists such as Stanley Kalms and the late Cyril Stein in the UK. It reveals that both think-tanks share major donors with a number of controversial organisations – including the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, the Israel-Diaspora Trust (an organisation founded by the late Rabbi Sidney Brichto, a passionate supporter of Israel and scourge of its critics inside and outside the UK Jewish community) and the Anglo-Israel Association, founded in 1949 by the Christian Zionist Sir Wyndham Deedes. His nephew William Deedes became an editor of the Daily Telegraph and, in 2006, wrote an opinion piece entitled: “Muslims can never conform to our ways“.

The policies advocated by the Centre for Social Cohesion and Policy Exchange, and apparently endorsed by Britain’s coalition government, will have grave consequences for British politics if they are not challenged. Such an approach will inevitably mean the curtailment of civil liberties and the narrowing of political debate. For British Muslims, the consequences may be even more serious. Furthermore, the Islamophobic undercurrent of such policies simultaneously risks further fuelling the racist violence against Muslims perpetrated by groups such as the British National Party and the English Defence League – ironically the very extremism that organisations like the Centre for Social Cohesion and Policy Exchange claim to oppose.

David Miller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Strathclyde. He is a director of and editor of Recent books include A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power (Pluto Press, 2008).

Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London and a doctoral candidate at the University of Strathclyde. He is a contributing editor of the New Left Project and Portal Editor for Powerbase’s Terrorism Spin pages.  

Tom Griffin is a freelance writer and researcher. He is a contributing editor of openDemocracy’s OurKingdom blog and writes for Spinwatch. He is a former executive editor of the Irish World.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.