Fear and loathing in the Casey Review: How Islamophobia and scaremongering in mainstream British politics enable right wing populism

This morning Dame Louise Casey published the Casey Review, a “review into integration and opportunity”, which was ordered by David Cameron and Theresa May when Cameron was Prime Minister. The review rightly highlights issues of social mobility and gender disparity as “regressive” tendencies that curtail the potential of millions of British people. However, this specific content is much less important than the wider discursive framing of the review, and the sub-set of the population it makes its target. This review is really about British Muslims, and in this post I want to consider some reasons why we should be concerned about this.

Casey lays out the remit of her review in the following way in the foreword:

“I wanted to consider what divides communities and gives rise to anxiety, prejudice, alienation and a sense of grievance; and to look again at what could be done to fight the injustice that where you are born or live in this country, your background or even your gender, can affect how you get on in modern Britain”.

This might lead us to expect a thoroughgoing report, covering a wide range of different communities and the various class-based, religious, ethno-national and gender identities that constitute them. We might also, as social scientists, anticipate a range of complex and multi-causal tendencies to be identified at the root of these social problems. Instead, it is clear from the first few pages that the focus is really going to be on Muslims alone. In fact, in the entire report, which runs to fewer than 200 pages, Casey uses the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Muslims’ 249 times, with ‘Islam’, ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’ being used a further 100 times. By contrast, the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ garner a total of 22 uses and the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ a total of 23. ‘Christian’, ‘Christians’ and Christianity’, meanwhile, are mentioned a total of 35 times in the report.

What the constant, disproportionate[1] references to Muslims and Islam – averaging significantly more than one mention per page of the report – implies is that the author considers this religion a hugely important factor in the life chances and opportunities of Britons today. But this message is transmitted in the form of quiet ideological cues or a so-called “dog whistle”, where the articulated topic of the report is “opportunities and integration” in general, but the message we are meant to take away is that Muslims tend to be regressive in their attitudes towards women, families, education and work.

While specific references to other ethno-national identities, such as being of “Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage” are made, these are subordinated to the notion of “Muslims of…” said heritage. Casey’s view is, unambiguously, though implicitly, that Islam itself is the key variable here – that it is the Muslim-ness, rather than, say, the Pakistani-ness or the male-ness or the white-ness or the working class-ness, or any other characteristic, that drives social division and curbs the ability of, especially, girls and young women to realise their potential.

In keeping with themes established by the last Labour government’s ‘Prevent’ counter-terrorism strategy, and developed by David Cameron from his 2010 speech to the Munich Security Conference onward, Casey also implies that the sorts of “regressive” behaviour she attributes to British Muslims in terms of attitudes to women, education and work, are in some mostly unspecified ways linked to “Islamism” and “extremism”, and so, ultimately, to terrorism. And here we arrive at the real meaning of the Casey Review. This is a policy exercise that, relying on the background assumption that the existence of “Islamist” terrorism makes all Muslims to some extent suspects by default, seeks to tie together disparate strands or narratives about very real social problems (economic and gender inequality, sexism, homophobia, patriarchy, exploitation and coercive control) around an imagined figure of the British Muslim.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this use of ideological cues and “dog whistles” by mainstream political actors to weave together social anxieties about race, religion, immigration and gender – intersecting around the figure of the British Muslim and the barely acknowledged idea that all Muslims are at least potential terrorists – is the reactionary right wing politics it has enabled outside of that mainstream. UKIP’s referendum campaign played upon these anxieties about Muslims, primarily through the claim that refugees, many of whom are currently coming from majority-Muslim countries, include clandestine would-be terrorists. Similarly, Donald Trump’s repugnant pledge to “ban all Muslims” from entering the US won him greater support on the right, and was doubtless instrumental in his winning the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.

The fact that that word – Nazi – has become alive again in our political vernacular should be a cause of real terror. At a recent “policy” event in the Ronald Reagan building, the largest federal building in Washington DC, in the heart of the mainstream political machine, hundreds of suited young white men of the National Policy Institute gave straight-armed fascist salutes and screamed “hail Trump” in unison. This sort of neo-fascism will certainly seek to further marginalise and oppress many and varied already marginalised and oppressed identities, from all non-hetero sexual orientations and transgender identities, to all black people, immigrants and refugees. But it will also require, for its success, the same sort of singular, clearly identifiable figure that fascism 1.0 found in Jewish people – a hate figure to coalesce around, to politically obsess and fantasise over. The danger is that our mainstream politicians have already provided one through the systematic out-casting and demonization of Muslims and the ill-informed policy exercises targeting an imagined homogeneous “Muslim community”.

It is only by focusing public attention on a single group like this, that fascists can slowly win the acquiescence of (and thus suppress the opposition of) various other potentially resistant social groups. This is why Niemoller’s famous “first they came for…” poem perfectly captures the dynamic of fascism as a populist movement. Since 9/11, and especially after 7/7, an ever-increasing attention has been paid to the imagined threats posed by Muslims to British society. Confused and ineffectual counter-terrorism policy has contributed to this ramping up of tension, and to the singling out of British Muslims as a “suspect community”, but work like the Casey Review has also underwritten the accelerated social out-casting of British Muslims in recent years. In the guise of research into “what divides communities and gives rise to anxiety, prejudice, alienation and a sense of grievance”, this report feeds on and in turn reproduces the Islamophobic trope that ties socially conservative families, with their sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other bigotry, to extremism and terrorism and thus to an existential threat to “our values” or “way of life”. The non-Muslim, white British atheist, agnostic and Christian families practicing patriarchy, sexism, homophobia and coercive control get off scot-free in the Casey Review because it is not really about these issues at all. It is about finding the right kind of evidence to further ostracise British Muslims. In this sense, to borrow once more from Casey’s foreword, the report itself may be an object lesson in how to divide communities and give rise to anxiety, prejudice, alienation and a sense of grievance. This was a poorly conceived and executed review, published at the worst possible time, and seems likely to sow only further seeds of division.

[1] 59.3 per cent of British people identified as Christian at the last census, compared with 4.8 per cent who identified as Muslim.

Dr. Ben Whitham, Lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University, Leicester.

About Ben Whitham

Ben Whitham is Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University, Leicester.
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