We shouldn’t abandon the label “extremist” for extremists

To mount an effective challenge to the casual bigotry of the dinner-table as well as the EDL and al-Muhajiroun, Baroness Warsi needs to explain who an extremist is.

According to a heavily trailed speech that Baroness Warsi is due to give later today, anti-Muslim prejudice has “passed the dinner-table test” and is now seen as normal and uncontroversial in some circles.

She will also make the interesting observation that describing Muslims as either “moderate” or “extremist” fosters growing prejudice.

Although statistics are hard to come by and anti-Muslim incidents are thought to be under-reported and under-recorded, there can be little doubt that she is correct that anti-Muslim views are becoming more widespread and more accepted in ‘polite society’.

For example, novelist Martin Amis has suggested (although he later claimed that this was a “thought experiment”):

“There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.'”

Similarly, sometime Mail and Independent columnist Ruth Dudley Edwards has written:

“It’s time for the truth. Yes, most religions have some dangerous fundamentalist adherents, but Islam has them in enormous numbers…

“It’s time British Muslims were told unequivocally that they have responsibilities as well as rights.”

It is not hard to find examples of similarly divisive attitudes about Muslims from the likes of Rod Liddle and Melanie Phillips, doyens of the dinner party set. Yet these figures would no doubt  argue that, far from attacking all Muslims, they are only opposed to ‘extremists’, just without defining what they mean by this term or by its opposite, ‘moderates’. Even the EDL claim to be opposed only to ‘Muslim extremists’, a claim undermined by their own actions and words.

To Melanie Phillips:

“… the issue that defines true Muslim moderation is the absence of hostility towards Israel.”

This is not a measure that many would accept. The term “moderate” has also been criticised by many Muslims who object to the idea that, to avoid being extreme, Islam must somehow be adulterated, moderated or toned-down. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a tendency to consider any conservatively-dressed Muslim to be an ‘extremist’. Again, hardly a measure likely to give accurate results.

As such, Warsi’s concerns about the terms ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ are justified. But Warsi must beware of throwing the baby out with the bath water. The failure to accurately identify extremism and distinguish it from mainstream Muslim beliefs is also a cause of anti-Muslim bigotry.

For example, the Express ran a story about the antics of the tiny group al-Muhajiroun/Islam4UK/Muslims Against Crusades under the headline:

“Now Muslims demand full sharia law”

Even worse, this provocative headline was illustrated by a stock photograph of Muslims praying, further suggesting that “full sharia law” is the goal of all Muslims, not just a handful of extremists.

This conflation of mainstream Muslims with extremists is also seen in the ongoing tabloid commotion about the purported ‘Islamisation’ of the UK. Fuelled by rhetoric of ‘demographic time bombs‘, the argument is made that an increase in the number of Muslims (NB, not ‘extremists’, just Muslims) in the UK is having terrifying consequences for Britain’s culture, freedoms and security.

In October 2010, an editorial in the Express warned:

“This senior Muslim cleric, in charge of a large network of sharia courts, insists that men who force themselves upon their wives should have immunity from prosecution for rape.

“Perhaps this outburst will destroy once and for all the foolish notion that opposition to the creeping islamification of Britain can only be motivated by bigotry and prejudice.”

The Telegraph recently ran an editorial headlined:

“David Cameron must face the challenge of Islamisation”

And even a church magazine in Kent has stirred up controversy with an article about the ‘Islamisation’ of the UK. Such articles are grounded on the base assumption that Britain faces a threat from an increase in the country’s Muslim population, not just from extremists.

Therefore, Baroness Warsi is absolutely correct to warn about the increasing normalisation of anti-Muslim prejudice, but rejecting the term ‘extremist’ is not the solution. To mount an effective challenge to the casual bigotry of the dinner-table as well as the EDL and al-Muhajiroun, she and other politicians need to be able to explain who an extremist is and why they are unrepresentative of mainstream British Muslims.

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