Toby Greene on Londonistan by Melanie Phillips

, October 20, 2009

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)

Since its first publication in 2006, Londonistan, Melanie Phillips’s forceful case against Britain’s failure to address the Islamic extremism in its midst, has drawn hearty praise and fervent criticism. However, the issues she raises show no sign of dissipating. Phillips central argument is that because Britain has lost sight of its culture, identity, and values, it has been left utterly ill-equipped to deal with the radical Islam fermenting within its borders.

She casts the net of blame far and wide. Judges are culpable for promoting a human rights culture. This culture, she claims, has been strengthened by New Labour, which left Britain’s doors open to dangerous extremists from the Arab world who enjoy UK hospitality under the guise of asylum seekers, all the while working to radicalize British Muslims. The security services are accused of having wantonly ignored appeals from foreign intelligence agencies to clamp down on these extremists, believing their soft approach would keep Britain immune to attack. At the same time the police have been hampered by the fear that if they focus their attention on Muslims it will fuel accusations that they are “institutionally racist.”

Meanwhile, according to Phillips, British multiculturalism, avoiding the imposition of a dominant culture and steering away from criticism of minorities, even when their values vary greatly from the norm, has led to active prejudice against the majority culture, leaving it hollowed and weakened. This void, Phillips argues, has left second generation Muslim immigrants wide open to the persuasions of the Islamists. The reaction of British Muslims to the London bombings of July 2005 was, she claims, an illustration of how alienated many of them were from the rest of society. Whilst the vast majority condemned the violence, sizeable numbers shared the bombers’ disdain for Britain and for western society. This was not a function of their socio-economic disadvantage. Nor was it caused, as many Muslim leaders claimed, by anger at British foreign policy. Contrary to the denials of British Muslims and frequently also from the government, the root of the problem, according to Phillips, is Islamic religious culture itself. Born into a Britain devoid of values, young Muslims have absorbed the radical strain of their faith that spread from the teachings of Qutb and Maududi. British Muslim Institutions steeped in Islamist ideology have been “teaching sedition to British Muslims” for decades, Phillips states.

To make matters worse, so-called “mainstream” Muslim representatives such as the Muslim Council of Britain were in fact sympathetic to the ideology of the extremists. Denying that the violence had anything to do with Islam or Islamic culture, they succeeded, Phillips claims, in convincing most people that the real cause of terrorism is anger at British foreign policy and Israel. In this respect, they found ready allies in the British left, in demonizing Israel and making the Palestinians “the cause of choice for every heart that bleeds.” The Church of England, which Phillips believes ought to be the bastion of British values, has, she asserts, fallen into this trap.

Even after the London bombings, when Tony Blair seemed to realize the need to confront the “evil ideology,” Phillips claims that ministers fell over themselves to appease the extremists by mollifying British Muslims. This she concludes, has been a tragic error, based on a failure to realize that tackling violent extremism is not just about breaking up terror plots or about addressing so-called “grievances.” Islamism is, in her opinion, an ideology that must be confronted and cast out, whilst simultaneously reaffirming “British culture.”

In her foreword to this edition, added in July 2008, the author suggests even more strongly than in her original text that radical Islam is in fact based on the authentic tenants of the religion, and that the apolitical, more spiritual version practiced by older Muslims in Britain is a tamed version deriving from centuries of colonial rule. For this reason, Britain’s attempt to empower “mainstream” Islam is simply making the problem worse, and contributing to the greater islamisization of British society.

This assessment of Islam is, of course, highly controversial. Whilst scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington have made the idea of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West a feature of popular political discourse, critics such as John Esposito have challenged what he has called “‘the pan-Islamic myth” of a unified anti-western Islamist ideology.

Londonistan is not a book that focuses primarily on academic research. It is a passionately written, heart-felt and engaging polemic against what the author perceives to be an immediate and misunderstood threat not only to British society, but ultimately to western civilization. Whilst the author references a number of first hand interviews, it is heavily reliant on examples and quotations culled from newspaper reports, with all their associated fallibilities. Phillips has a habit of stringing together individual examples of islamisization in Britain, and then using them to imply that they typify the situation, when often they represent only a selective picture.

Nevertheless, there are issues on which the author hits home. Phillips very effectively highlights many of the paradoxes that are now plaguing western democracies and their value systems. The case is well made that post-colonial Britain has lost touch with its own national culture, history, and identity. The tension between tolerating cultural difference and asserting common values which unify society as a whole remains unresolved. The conflict between preserving individual human rights and defending national security is equally problematic.

The central weakness of this book is that too often the alarmist tone, and a tendency to overstate the case, damage the credibility of the argument, and get in the way of the important problems she is trying to highlight. The author has a tendency to make gross generalizations. It is unconvincing when a writer who is neither a Muslim, nor a specialist scholar, writes in such definitive terms about Islam, a faith that has a billion adherents from a wide range of cultures and societies. Islam cannot be defined as easily as Phillips suggests.

Similarly, her characterization of the strands of Islamism and the chronology of its development is over-simplified. Whilst Phillips recognizes the distinction between Islam and Islamism, she implies that Islamism is a single ideology on a continuum between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda. It is reasonable to speak of Islamism as a general phenomenon with common traits throughout the Islamic world, and even common ideological roots. However, glossing over the major ideological differences between different strands of political Islam, and divorcing its various diverse manifestations from the distinctive surroundings in which they emerge ignores significant facts. Likewise, to imply that the ideology is unchanging, and somehow divorced from developments in the broader political or social context, omits important evidence.

With regard to anti-Semitism, whilst a growing hostility toward Israel is making British Jews feel increasingly isolated, Phillips’ characterization of the situation seems exaggerated. To state, as she does, that there is “a climate in Britain that has alarming echoes of Weimar in the 1930s” is as hard to swallow as the comparison of Gaza with the Warsaw Ghetto, which she rightly criticizes in the same chapter. Left-wing British politicians such as George Galloway and Ken Livingstone, distasteful as their alliances with Islamism may be, are isolated figures in the political establishment. Phillips is right to highlight the problematic relationship between the left and the Jews. Strains of anti-Semitism too often permeate liberal-left discourse on Israel, the U.S., and the Middle East. There are also clear examples of leftist groups undertaking organized anti-Semitic acts, such as the pernicious boycott campaign within certain British trade unions. But at the same time, leading British politicians of the mainstream are alive to the dangers of anti-Semitism, hence the high profile parliamentary report published on the issue in 2006, and the international parliamentary conference on anti-Semitism hosted by the British government in February 2009.

Phillips makes valid and important points about the need for Britain to create a sense of common national identity, with common values, for all of its diverse citizens. However, some of her specific proposals betray a desire to rebuild a Britain that has long since passed, if it ever existed at all. Her general call, for example, to bring back Christianity to British school assemblies, is unrealistic in a society in which there are schools all over the country without a single Christian pupil. It is worth recalling that the desire to recreate a society from the past is itself a trait of fundamentalism. The clock cannot be turned back, nor would it be right to do so. We are only 150 years on from a time when Nathan de Rothschild was unable to take his seat in parliament because, as a Jew, he was unwilling to take an oath expressing his true Christian faith. The effort to assert common values must be framed to meet the needs of a society which is far more diverse than it was at any time in the past, and to address an internet generation for whom narrow national identities are bound to be challenged by global movements and ideologies.

However, a more measured book on this issue would most likely not have aroused such interest, or sold as many copies, as this one has done. This is a fast evolving issue, with which politicians and society in general are still struggling. So despite its shortcomings, Londonistan is likely to remain a popular touchstone for many in Britain who fear the advancement of radical Islam, even though subsequent works by politicians and journalists covering some of the same ground have followed it. These include Michael Gove’s Celsius 7/7 (2006), Denis MacShane’s Globalising Hatred: The New Antisemitism (2008), and Nick Cohen’s sharp and articulate What’s Left? (2007).

More academic treatments of the subject of islamisization in the UK are provided, for example, by Quintan Wiktorowicz in his Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (2005), and by Anthony McRoy in From Rushdie to 7/7, The Radicalisation of Islam in Britain (2006). Those interested in ongoing developments, including analysis of the UK government’s response to this issue, would do well to read the output of the UK think-tank Policy Exchange. Particularly revealing is the pamphlet by Martin Bright, “When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries” (2006). Examples of recent scholarly works addressing the Europe-wide perspective include Gilles Kepel’s The War for Muslim Minds (2004), Bassam Tibi’s Political Islam, World Politics and Europe: Democratic Peace and Euro-Islam Versus Global Jihad (2008), and Olivier Roy’s Globalised Islam; The Search for a New Ummah (2004). Yet perhaps most revealing are the firsthand accounts of radicalization by Ed Husain – The Islamist 2007 – and Maajid Nawaz. These two former British leaders of the global Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir have now renounced Islamism and established The Quilliam Foundation in London, which they describe as the “world’s first counter-extremism think tank.” Their remarkable work is perhaps the most striking illustration of the ongoing struggle over the identity of Muslims in Britain.

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TOBY GREENE is a researcher and analyst specializing in UK-Israel relations. He is completing his PhD on British policy in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, pre and post 9/11.

Toby Greene

Toby Greene is a researcher and analyst specializing in UK-Israel relations. He is completing his PhD on British policy in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, pre and post 9/11