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From Margaret Thatcher’s paternalistic Christianity used to justify ever-intensifiying neoliberalism, to the ethnonationalist and economic protectionist Christianity of Theresa May and Brexit, religion is often used to legitimise ideological positions and parties.

In this blog, James Crossley, author of Cults, Martyrs and Good Samaritans, reveals how Muslims and the ‘perversion of Islam’ is mobilised in English politics.

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One way to understand ‘religion’ and related concepts in English political discourse (e.g., Christianity, Bible, Judaism, church, cult) is to focus on how such language, popularly understood, has been used to legitimate the development of, maintenance of, or opposition to, various ideological positions in English political discourse. This is not to make judgments about what ‘true’ or ‘false’ religion or a given religion might be. That is for a different discourse, perhaps more for insiders rather than historians. Instead, we can say that among mainstream political leaders from Thatcher through Blair to Cameron, Christianity and related terms have been developed to legitimate neoliberal economics, social liberalism, and liberal interventionism. This understanding has only recently begun to be challenged in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, notably in the return of an overtly socialist understanding of such language under Corbyn.

The New Labour era, particularly after 9/11, also foregrounded Islam and Muslims in their rhetoric about religion. As with his understanding of the Bible, Blair saw the Qur’an as another source of, or at least broadly compatible with, liberal democratic values. For Blair, texts like the Qur’an and the Bible, or their first respectable interpreters, represented a purer form of tolerant, liberal, rational, principled, moralistic, and democratic religion which are ultimately recoverable from what are assumed to be later corruptions. Blair has consistently employed the tropes of ‘false’ or ‘perverted’ Islam as an ahistorical aberration which must be attacked to prevent its growth and used to avoid any complicity of Western states in the emergence of ‘rogue states’, domestic terror or groups like al Qaeda. This distinction between a pure, liberal Islam and an illiberal ‘perversion of Islam’ or a related term is now common in mainstream English political discourse and is invoked in relation to domestic terror attacks claimed by ISIS, as well as being integral to the Preventing Violent Extremism programme (aka Prevent).

Cameron intensified these ideas when dealing with ISIS. For Cameron, ‘true’ Muslims were likewise assumed to be good liberal democratic citizens whereas groups like ISIS were ‘not Muslims’ but rather ‘monsters’, a ‘fanatical organisation’, a ‘warped ideology’, a ‘warped interpretation of theology and scripture’, ‘extremists who want to abuse Islam’ and who provide a ‘perverted, illiberal and hostile interpretation of this great religion’ which is ‘a religion of peace’. The function of Cameron’s use of such language in context is striking. When using such understandings of Islam, he could simultaneously deny that the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath was the ‘source’ or ‘root cause’ for the rise of ISIS, and by doing this he masked the complex histories and geopolitics involved in the emergence of ISIS and in localized terror attacks in, for instance, Britain, France, and Belgium, as well as ruling out any complicity of the British state. But the myth of innocence went further still in staking a claim to being peaceful and necessarily violent at the same time. To deal with this assumed distortion of Islam, Cameron (like Hilary Benn after him) alluded to the Good Samaritan of the famous parable (here assumed to be a liberal interventionist in his foreign policy) to justify potential military action in Middle East.

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At first sight, this understanding of a ‘perversion of Islam’ seems in sharp contrast to some of the most infamous understandings of Muslims and Islam among some recent far-right groups and individuals (e.g., EDL, Tommy Robinson, Britain First, Pegida). Historically, English and British far-right movements have focused on classifying despised groups in terms of biological, racial and ethnic difference. However, among the newer, more prominent groups there has been a rhetorical focus on ‘religion’ and ‘ideology’ in their choice of public enemy which has been narrowed down to Muslims and Islam, a generalising view shared with parts of the British press. What is overwhelmingly clear from the analysis of data available on such far-right groups is that the dominant position on Muslims and Islam is not that ISIS, ‘jihadism’, ‘Islamism’, or terror are constructed as a perversion of purer Islam, but that such violence and illiberalism is integral to Islam with the popular notions of ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ and ‘moderate Muslims’ rejected. One repeated online view was that ISIS or their sympathisers were snakes in the grass—with the grass being Islam or Muslims generally.

There has even been an official distancing from what was conventionally deemed racist and, in certain quarters, the new far right even took a pro-Israel turn, seemingly in sharp contrast to their antisemitic past. Because they claimed to be hostile to an ‘ideology’ or ‘religion’ rather than a race, they could, in their public rhetoric, claim to welcome people from any ethnic background, including the promotion of Jewish and Sikh divisions in the case of the EDL, no matter how sparsely populated they have unsurprisingly been. In doing all this, the new far right are trying to play the liberal game and likewise belong to wider Orientalist interests in Islam and Muslims in western political discourse since the 1970s and which intensified after 9/11 and the War on Terror.

But some of the more familiar racialised language and slurs soon emerge after an extended (or indeed brief) look through interviews, their online activity and Facebook groups, particularly in comments sections. Some of this involves distinguishing Muslims and Islam in subtle but historically familiar ways. Muslims could be seen as anti- or non-British in terms of food, language, dress sense, and religion, despite Britain First-style attempts at taking on an oppositional ethnonationalist Christian identity being met with indifference. Other instances are more overtly familiar in terms of racializing. Muslims and Islam are often synonymous with ‘Asians’, ‘Arabs’, and occasionally the old racist slur, ‘Paki’. Such unchallenged comments probably highlight what is present throughout such an obsession with Islam and Muslims, namely that it is not easily disentangled from inherited racialized categories despite the liberal veneer. Indeed, there are regular assumptions about ‘our race’ which could be constructed in opposition to ‘Muslims’. One repeated meme asked, ‘what happened?’, and was accompanied by a picture of London in 1950 (featuring white people) and a picture of London in 2016 (featuring non-white Muslims).

Occasional mavericks aside, mainstream politicians will not publicly push the idea of Islam or Muslims per se being a problem, even if the mask sometimes slips. Nor are they likely to endorse publicly far-right groups too closely associated with racial politics. Indeed, mainstream political leaders (e.g. Blair, Cameron, May, etc.) strongly emphasize how much they dislike groups such as the EDL. But there is reason to be suspicious of such regular denunciations. As Slavoj Žižek recognised, an ideological function of the so-called popular Right is to supply the ‘negative common denominator of the entire established political spectrum’ and ‘furnish the proof of the benevolence of the official system’. This can legitimise the international liberal consensus while strangling any radical alternative, particularly anti-capitalist movements and class-struggles, which become de-legitimised through association with similar concerns among the populist Right.

While emphatically not denying that various political leaders are correct about the EDL (indeed, the fact it is so agreeable is crucial), the reason why we should be simultaneously suspicious is because of what studies of EDL sympathisers have shown in relation to class: reference to social and economic dislocation, poverty, unemployment, precarious employment, low pay, community neglect, hatred of politicians, perceptions of being betrayed by the Labour party of their parents, etc., all set against a backdrop of a loss of a once comparably stable employment in industry. Indeed, we might follow Winlow, Hall and Treadwell in noting how EDL sympathies are partly a product of liberal complicity with the neoliberal settlement and accompanying (largely exclusionary and entrenched) class interests and representation in politics, popular culture, education, universities (etc.). For someone like Blair or Cameron to admit this too much would effectively mean admitting that the neoliberal political consensus failed the working class, though this is beginning to shift in post-Referendum politics.

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Nevertheless, centrist and centre-right political discourse overlaps and even feeds off some of these concerns (see now Boris Johnson) in its demarcation of different groups with reference to religious and (sometimes) more ‘civilized’ language. Before the 2017 Election, and with reference to Christmas and Easter, May strikingly contrasted ‘our traditions’, like Christmas, with traditions distinctive to ‘minority communities’ (and associated with Asian groups), like Eid, Vaisakhi, and Diwali. Additionally, the 2017 Conservative Manifesto added surprising criticisms of ‘untrammeled free markets’, an offer of protection for those working in the ‘gig’ economy, and the rejection of the ‘cult of selfish individualism’. This combination of soft ethnonationalism and apparent concerns for victims of free-market capitalism was partly an attempt to attract the concerns of the working-class Right who might otherwise have turned to UKIP. All the while, of course, the Conservatives were simultaneously not wanting to be associated with the far right which could be done by criticizing the relatively uninfluential but culturally notorious EDL.

In a move typical of neoliberal assumptions about race, such discourses have also allowed the implicit perpetuation of what we might otherwise call racialized policies while simultaneously claiming the opposite through the language of a ‘perversion of Islam’. Cameron still targeted Muslim groups and communities for tolerating, or lacking resilience to, extremism and for embracing cultural segregation. In the aftermath of the Woolwich murder, Blair and Boris Johnson presented the image of a diseased or poisoned Muslim or Islamic body infected by this impure strain of Islam and which posed a societal threat. After stepping down from parliamentary politics, Blair argued that extremism in Islam ran deeper in Muslim communities than is usually admitted. He used the phrase a ‘problem within Islam’ and even had Tommy Robinson suggesting that they both shared similar views (which Blair denied). Blair’s wording even provoked a rebuke from the Conservative MP Gavin Barwell who, to add to the potential blurriness of the categories ‘Islam’ and ‘distortion of Islam’, claimed Blair’s wording was problematic even though he agreed with what he said. For all the positive rhetoric leading politicians have employed about Islam and Muslims, is any of this that far removed from the far-right comments about extremist snakes in the Islamic grass?

The emphasis on specific perpetrators of violence or those matching definitions of ‘terrorism’ as especially problematic means that Muslims and Islam attract intense political and media attention, state surveillance, and discussions of difference and distinction. The ‘perversion of Islam’ and ‘true Islam’ tropes have been part of this creation of essentialist identities and boundary- and difference-making in relation to the construction of the state, Europe, the West (etc.) that was once typical of the construction of more familiar racialized distinctions. And this liberalising move does roughly the same ideological work: we know what they are supposed to look like, what clothes they are supposed to wear, which group they belong to, and even what skin colours they are supposed to have.

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Cults, Martyrs and Good Samaritans: Religion in Contemporary English Political Discourse by James Crossley

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James Crossley is Professor of Bible, Society and Politics, at St Mary’s University, London. His recent books include Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968 (Bloomsbury, 2016) and Jesus and the Chaos of History (Oxford University Press, 2015). If you enjoyed this blog, don’t miss James Crossley’s article for the LSE blog, which summarises the themes of his new book and traces the history of such language over recent decades, he demonstrates how real-world events and political developments can influence how and why politicians employ religious language.