Receive our Behind the Headlines email and we’ll post a free copy of Byline Times
At the end of May, Communities Secretary Michael Gove commissioned an ‘independent’ review into the social unrest between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester late last summer.
The chair appointed to the review, who should be impartial to government policy to ensure a truly ‘independent’ investigation, was Lord Ian Austin. The Muslim Council of Britain raised concerns over this appointment, “given his divisive record and the serious allegations of Islamophobia against him”. It is difficult to believe that he will conduct an objective investigation.
But Lord Austin’s appointment appears to be part of a broader pattern whereby the Government establishes supposedly ‘independent’ enquiries, only to be led by individuals who seem to share its positions on the given social issue being dealt with.
Often, it appears that these individuals not only have dubious biases, but those very biases seem to reflect Conservative Party policy – arguably undermining any claim to impartiality.
Since the Conservatives came into office in 2010, a number of such independent reviews have been carried out, with the findings often met with controversy. These have included the Casey Review into opportunity and integration; the Sewell Report on racial and ethnic disparities; and the Shawcross Review into the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent.
One after the another, these reviews have heaped a great deal of the blame for social alienation upon the victims of structural discrimination, often relying upon Orientalist tropes about the cultural ‘backwardness’ and refusal to ‘assimilate’ of minority communities.
Thus, it is highly likely that the Austin Review into Leicester’s civil unrest will echo the positions of Conservative politicians – some of whom stand accused of entering into an “unspoken electoral alliance” with right-wing Hindu nationalist groups, known for their hostility toward Muslims. Indeed, such scepticism is arguably justified when we have a deeper look at some of the content of the aforementioned reviews.
In 2016, then Prime Minister, David Cameron appointed renowned civil servant, Dame Louise Casey, to lead what was billed as an independent review into encouraging social integration across the UK. Cameron accused Muslims of segregating themselves from British mainstream society, which he and his ministers claimed provided fertile grounds for extremism to grow. He paid particular attention to Muslim women, arguing that they needed to learn English and better integrate into the workforce.
Even prior to its release at the end of 2016, it was widely understood that the Casey Review was largely targeted at Muslim communities, coming at a time when concerns were high about British citizens leaving to join the terrorist organisation ISIS in Syria. Casey’s objective, according to one Conservative pundit, was to “press ahead with David Cameron’s mission to end the segregation of British Muslims, and thereby, it is hoped, the propensity of some of them to join ISIS”.
Upon the report’s publication, it became clear that many of Casey’s recommendations simply paralleled those of Cameron, throwing into question the review’s independence.
Like Cameron, Casey presented Muslim women in the light of victimhood and spoke of the need to “emancipate” them from “regressive cultural practices”. One Muslim female commentator at the time noted the Orientalist assumption behind the statement, noting that it was “merely a synonym for ‘Muslim women need saving’”. Casey’s recommendations for encouraging integration also included the promotion of “British values” and an “integration oath” for immigrants – both of which mirrored Cameron’s own arguments.
In July 2020, the integrity of government-requested independent reports was further thrown into question when then Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed education consultant Tony Sewell to lead a commission to look into racial inequalities. Many raised alarm bells at that time, including again the Muslim Council of Britain, which argued that Sewell had a history of being “keen on downplaying racial disparities”.
Sewell’s report was published in March 2021 to an avalanche of criticism owing to its conclusion that the problem of structural racism in the UK was wildly exaggerated. Sewell claimed that “put simply, we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”.
Unsurprisingly, it was widely condemned for its recommendations – which included attempts to try and present Africans as having benefited from British colonialism. What is most noteworthy is the fact that the recommendations appeared to reflect the ‘war on woke’ argument, prevalent among the right of the Conservative Party, that institutional racism is nothing more than a far-left fiction.
Numerous senior Conservative officials – including Johnson, his then advisor Munira Mirza and his Equalities Secretary Liz Truss – all dismissed the idea that institutional racism was a serious problem in Britain. Therefore, the Sewell Report was another so-called independent review, which in reality appeared to be nothing more than an effort to give a veneer of legitimacy to the positions of senior government officials.
The most recent example was the Shawcross Review into the controversial counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent. For years, human rights organisations have argued that Prevent has been used as a tool to spy on, and socially regulate, Britain’s Muslims, to the detriment of their civil liberties. The Government has long refuted this claim, arguing that Prevent is necessary in order to combat ‘Islamist extremism’.
Don’t miss a story
Yet, in 2021, Johnson buckled and agreed to conduct a review of Prevent, eventually appointing former journalist Sir William Shawcross to the task. Shawcross was, however, seen as a highly controversial pick for the position because of accusations of anti-Muslim prejudice and known support for Prevent. It was for this reason that 17 human rights organisations condemned Shawcross’ appointment.
Nevertheless, Shawcross remained in his position and, just as was the case with the other reports, his conclusions reflected the Government’s long-argued position on Prevent: that it is a “vital pillar” in the UK’s counter-terrorism toolbox; one which the country should “be proud of” despite the abundance of evidence that not only does it fail to achieve its objective of stopping terrorism but that it manages to grossly violate the rights of citizens – particularly Muslims – in the process.
So Shawcross proved to be yet another example of how the Government appears to be using politically appointed ‘reviewers’ to feed its own policy positions and favoured narratives into the public discussion.
The strategy being employed by the Government seems to be clear: using the veil of impartiality provided by ‘independent’ reviews to legitimise its agenda. Rather than appointing figures who already agree with its policies, the Government should seek out truly independent reviewers from across the legal profession, civil society and academia.
In the meantime, concerned citizens must watch closely for any signs of bias in the conclusions reached by Ian Austin in his upcoming report into 2022’s Muslim-Hindu tensions in Leicester. While we should remain hopeful that the report will reflect a genuinely impartial investigation, it looks likely that it will be yet another echo chamber for the Government – which likely means that, once again, Muslims will take the blame.
Adeeb Ayton is a senior policy analyst with Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND)