Britain’s Beleaguered Muslims: a review of Nadya Ali’s The Violence of Britishness

John Chowcat

The repellent othering and harassment of British Muslim citizens and communities over recent years, precipitated by successive government initiatives, is brought to light in writer and researcher Nadya Ali’s new book, The Violence of BritishnessA useful outline of the related legislative measures and their baleful combined impact is central to this short volume, which draws on related academic analyses and media commentaries to furnish political context.  Ali endorses the concept of resultant racial ‘borders’ of acceptable Britishness, embedded within everyday life and supplementing physical border controls, elaborated by such authors as Luke De Noronha and Nadine El-Enany.  She deploys the term ‘violence’ to convey the negative consequences of a range of state policies, from the Prevent project’s de facto codification of the racial alterity of Muslims to individual deportations and removal of British citizenship under new immigration laws. The book makes an excellent contribution to our understanding of the politics around who counts as sufficiently ‘British’, revealing a sustained and steadily tightening constriction of Muslim communities.

The book recalls how the controversial Prevent programme was initiated by the Blair government when the post 9/11 ‘war on terror’ was raging, as part of a broader domestic counter-terrorist strategy.  New Labour promised to address the issues of poverty in Muslim communities and far-right provocations demonising Islam, but the Prevent scheme instead prioritised a perception of British Muslims as a homogenised population collectively responsible for combatting internal Islamist extremism.  This assumption, together with Britain’s participation in the calamitous Iraq war and eventual governmental failure to resolve the UK’s structural inequalities undermined its projected ‘partnership’ approach to the country’s Muslims. 

We know that British and other Western Muslims uphold a range of viewpoints and increasingly diverse interpretations of their faith.  Islam, in common with other world religions, long ago generated important dissenting movements, exemplified by the independent appeal of Sufi ascetic anti-intellectualism.  Today, television and the internet have significantly widened Muslim debate over the teachings of the Quran, which is now translated into many languages beyond its traditional Arabic text.  The centuries-old authority of the Sunni scholars of al-Azhar University, and of the Shiite Ayatollahs devoted to the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, has weakened.  The 2010/11 ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings across swathes of North Africa and the recent mass protests by women in Iran have demonstrated that the strong support of young Muslims for democratic values and freedoms is not confined to those in the West.  Ali describes Prevent’s presumptions of traditional structures and culture within Muslim communities – for example, viewing Muslim women stereotypically as largely excluded from local community activity and therefore as potential pliable ‘peacemakers’ – which contributed to a breakdown of relations with national Muslim organisations.  The 2010 report of the House of Commons Local Government Select Committee described the project as stigmatising Muslim communities by “failing to address the fact that no section of the population exists in isolation from others”.  This failure persuaded subsequent Tory administrations to reorientate the Prevent strategy.

Assisted by Michael Gove’s much-publicised ‘Trojan Horse’ investigation into local Birmingham schools (which eventually found no evidence of radicalisation let alone links to terrorism), the Tories redirected considerable Prevent resources into three channels.  The book recounts how top-down pedagogical programmes sought to influence Muslims in interpreting their own religion, regulatory measures encouraged mosques to register under charity legislation requiring new governance systems, and the Prevent Duty required education, health, municipal, police and criminal justice authorities, at senior and front-line service levels, to intervene locally with individuals deemed susceptible to radicalisation.  These initiatives imposed a more formalised internal UK ‘border’ on Muslims, especially where front-line workers with racialised perceptions, acting without clear criteria as to who might be ‘at risk’, mistakenly formally referred children and older people untainted by Islamist ideology.  This made other Muslims fearful of expressing political opinions, even though the overwhelming majority of referrals were later found not to require ‘deradicalisation’ activity.  Although the Cameron government extended Prevent’s scope to embrace all forms of political extremism, including the more serious threat levels from the British far-right, subsequent Tory governments restored its concentration on Islamist extremism.  Ali’s book appeared earlier this year shortly after Home Secretary Suella Braverman officially endorsed all 34 recommendations of the “Independent Review of Prevent” conducted by Sir William Shawcross, who was appointed to this role despite his previous controversial remarks about Islam which had led Amnesty International and 16 other organisations to boycott his review.  His report criticised an alleged “cultural timidity” which had allowed Prevent to adopt too narrow a definition of Muslim extremism, and predictably proposed new security threat checks to correct this.  The strategy was castigated for focussing too much on safeguarding vulnerable people and on threats from white hard-right extremists, with Shawcross insisting that Prevent should counter Islamist terror as its ‘core mission’.

Ali explains how recent Tory governments have reinforced this pressure on British Muslims by introducing a “hostile environment” for migrant workers through tighter immigration controls.  The Tory Immigration Acts obviously restrict the rights of migrants from different cultures and nations, but Ali details their distinct role in strengthening the othering of Muslims already underway in the UK, through the informal impact of everyday racial borders shaping British Muslims’ “conditional citizenship”.  The book describes this legislation as a “quantitative shift” in state policy, alongside other ‘culture wars’ targeting welfare benefit ‘scroungers’, ‘health tourists’ and ‘Brussels bureaucrats’.  It provides helpful summaries of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, which imposed new obligations on employers, private landlords, banks and building societies to identify and cease involvement with “persons unlawfully in the United Kingdom”.  These Acts also made it harder to mount individual appeal cases against these restrictions and were followed by the Borders and Nationality Act 2022 which allows for withdrawal of British citizenship from individuals without notice where deemed “conducive for the public good”.  Ali highlights the implicit racial coding behind declared ‘British values’ as these measures effectively reinforced the policing of suspect Muslims through intensified status checks. 

The Violence of Britishness refers to the continuing poverty of many British Muslims, caused by low pay and effective barriers to adequate public resources, continuing the post-colonial practice of the UK depriving its non-white minorities of their fair share of the national wealth derived from its accumulated colonial spoils. However, an in-depth exploration of these economic problem’s is beyond the book’s scope. Yet it is worth noting that a detailed Social Mobility Commission report has identified that widespread islamophobia and discrimination have resulted in almost 50% of British Muslim households living in poverty, compared to under 20% of the overall UK population.  It also noted that, despite Muslims performing well in terms of educational achievement, they were approximately half as likely as others to hold higher managerial and professional posts.  These severe economic disadvantages have been cemented by the ongoing process of othering exposed in this volume.

Ali underlines the continuing legacy of Britain’s imperial ideology and colonial exploitation in influencing today’s unwritten but persistent racial hierarchies and rightly notes the historical significance of the British Nationality Act 1981 in creating a new legal status for mainly white UK citizens, separate from the British Subject status applicable to most Commonwealth citizens, as the old Empire finally faded.  She cites the brutal suppression of Muslim and other insurgents during the Indian National Revolt of 1857 and consequent British fears and negative perceptions of Muslims.  There is, of course, a long history of strident European hostility to Muslims dating back to the medieval Crusades against the Mohammedan ‘infidels’ blocking Europe’s trade expansion with the East, in which England participated, and the earlier destruction of Moorish Spain by Christian monarchs.  Today’s denigration and distortion of Islam have grown from these very deep roots in European history. 

Some might argue that the book’s regular references to British imperial racism, while justified in themselves, do not fully capture the more complex nature of modern ‘Britishness’, which encompasses a slowly developing majority tolerance of racial and religious diversity as well as entrenched minority prejudices and desperate Tory ‘culture wars’.  Contemporary British identity and assumptions are more nuanced than this book might imply through its specific focus on recent restrictive legislation.  This does not detract, however, from Ali’s invitation to anti-racists to view Islamophobia and the wider impact of stronger immigration controls in the UK as cumulative threats informed by cultural legacies of the country’s past.  Ali also certainly acknowledges the “diminishing wages of whiteness” as the present cost-of-living crisis and government austerity measures erode the relative economic privileges of the white working class, as its share of national income declines. 

The Violence of Britishness chiefly succeeds in uncovering how borders, both formal and informal, constitute powerful public reminders of a surviving quotidian racial hierarchy still constricting the beleaguered lives of those deemed less ’deserving’. It is an important book that will aid our understanding and, I hope, provide the tools to challenge the problems it details.