God help us: race, religion and recruitment

Zeeshan Hashmi is a former soldier in the British Army. In 2006 his brother, Jabron, became the first, and so far only, UK Muslim serviceman to die in Afghanistan. Writing in the Telegraph recently Hashmi explained what was wrong with the current obsession with targeting faith minorities to join the armed forces:

Joining the Armed Forces is not about religion. You join a unit as a soldier and when you deploy you trust your comrades with your life. You fight for the man next to you, not for anything else.

Speaking from the unique position afforded by not just by his own record of service but the intense symbolism of his brother’s death, Hashmi rejected the suggestion that young Muslims should be encouraged to join the forces as an antidote to radicalization. In his opinion, racism and segregation in Britain were far greater problems than the reluctance shown by ethnic minorities to volunteer for the armed forces.

Faith in numbers

Recent pronouncements by army leaders show the deep historical connections between contemporary racism and militarism. First there were the amplified headlines about the absence of Muslim soldiers in the army. Then there were the flickering embers of the martial race doctrine fanned by the Telegraph: “British Army examines plans to create a Sikh regiment”, swiftly followed by: “Sikhs make our Armed Forces even stronger”.

These headlines can be knitted together to tell their own crude story, but they are also easy to miss as they flash by. It would be a mistake to dismiss them though. The idea that military service constitutes the ultimate proof of “belonging” in and to Britain cannot be left unchallenged.

The first point to note, however, is that the army is most interested in bodies, especially those that are young, fit, pliable and resilient, in the literal sense of the word. Finding a reliable supply of volunteers is a constant headache for recruiters, today more than ever. After much-publicized mass redundancies and devastating verdicts on the Third Afghan War, the army is experiencing a profound crisis as it tries to attract a new generation of young men and women into its ranks. Having contracted out the recruitment process to Capita two years ago, it recently launched a rebranding campaign after a survey by OnePoll found that 25% of those aged between 18 and 34 believed the army was less relevant now than ever before.

Leaving aside any political factors, there are demographic reasons why the UK armed forces need to recruit from minority ethnic populations. Then there are the legal obligations to conform to equality and diversity standards, post-MacPherson. Besides, in this day and age it doesn’t look good for a national organization to appear uniformly white. Before getting to the more contentious issue of Muslim soldiers (not to mention the chilling fantasy of resurrecting a Sikh regiment), we might consider a longer view of the army’s record in race relations.

Systemic failures

Looking back over the history of British Army recruiting practices post-1961, the institution has only ever appealed for minorities to join when it is in trouble. One of the most notorious campaigns was the 1998 Saatchi-designed poster featuring the faces of black soldiers inserted into the First World War poster with the text: your Country needs YOU.

In the late 1990s, when the campaign was launched, the MoD had narrowly avoided legal action after a catalogue of racist incidents in the army and a systemic failure to admit or deal with the extent of discrimination and bullying, particularly in certain regiments. The drive to recruit more black and Asian soldiers was part of a five-year plan to improve equality and diversity in the organization – the idea being that more minorities would help change the internal culture thereby making it more attractive for minorities. At that time they barely made up one per cent.

After 2001, when the Race Relations Amendment Act was passed, the armed forces had a statutory obligation to represent the ethnic diversity of the population as a whole, which only increased the pressure. However, in the meantime, the New Labour government had agreed to lift the five-year residency requirement for Commonwealth citizens, with an explicit recognition that this would increase the proportion of ethnic minority soldiers. Given that there was also a shortfall in numbers, recruiters needed no encouragement to haul in as many migrants as they needed.

Less than a decade later, the MoD was in trouble again, although this time it was because they were trying to negotiate a limit on the number of non-UK entrants, a move that would contravene equality laws. The sheer success in recruiting applicants from outside the country – some units in the Royal Logistics had as many as 80% soldiers from Commonwealth countries – was prompting the army leadership to worry about the ‘Britishness’ of the organization. By 2009 the Equality and Human Rights Commission had allowed them to cap certain regiments at 15%.

Over the next five years, the proportion of black and minority ethnic soldiers in the regular army stabilized at 10-11% – although the figure was much lower in the officer corps, and there were fewer minorities in the other two services. In the meantime, there were other issues relating to military culture that were attracting attention, such as the high levels of sexual abuse endured by female soldiers. The question of institutional racism had dropped out of sight since the army was able to promote a reasonable image of diversity in terms of ethnicity and faith.

Front page news

In 2015 the situation already looks very different. The reinstatement of the residency requirement in 2013 virtually ended all recruitment from outside the UK and as a result, the numbers of minorities are beginning to fall. The successful employment of migrants had been masking the fact that at least two thirds of minority ethnic soldiers – including those who were from minority faiths – were in fact from Commonwealth backgrounds. In other words, the proportion of UK-born BMEs had risen from one to roughly three per cent in fifteen years – meaning that the crisis can no longer be disguised.

The corporate response from the army is twofold: to admit failure on their part and to single out a particular minority for attention. In early February, the head of the Army, General Sir Nick Carter, admitted that: “Our recruitment from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities have been improving over the years, but it is nowhere near it needs to be, we have to do more.”

Insisting that the organization was mostly concerned with the quality of the individual recruit, he reiterated the now standard outreach line that “The values and standards we espouse resonate closely with these communities and there is much common ground that we can build on to broaden our recruitment base.”

Figures were released to show that there were “only” 480 Muslims in the army, out of a total of 88,500. Whereas in the past this figure was used to prove that there were plenty of Muslim soldiers in the forces, this time it was made clear that a good proportion of these were Commonwealth citizens and therefore didn’t count.

The media amplified the message right away with headlines like: “The British Army launches drive to recruit more Muslims”. Press coverage revealed that the army had been “trying to engage with communities in places such as Bradford and Burnley, where Muslims account for about 25% and 10% of the population respectively” and that recruiting drives were planned in those towns . Anecdotes about discovering the happy overlap between military values and Muslim ones were wheeled out, demonstrating how that the security services were perfectly able to embrace the rubric of equality and diversity for their own strategic purposes.

The report in the Independent spelled it out: “The British Army is making a determined push to recruit Muslims in an attempt to counter the rise in radicalisation which has seen hundreds of young men from this country join violent extremist groups like Isis and al-Shabaab”. The Mail reiterated the stock line that there were more Muslims leaving the country than there were in the forces: “Army drive for more Muslims after Paris massacre and rise of Islamic State as it’s revealed just 480 are currently serving”.

Martial lore

Meanwhile the Telegraph reported that the army chiefs were seriously considering the feasibility of a Sikh unit, including the possibility of a reserve company. Nicholas Soames, one of the key supporters, raised the topic in the House of Commons in a suitably bonkers fashion:

“Would you not agree with me that it’s high time to do away with the political correctness which infects some of this thinking and actually raise a Sikh regiment to serve in the country and make up a very serious gap in our Armed Forces?”

Mark Francois, Minister for the Armed Forces, told him that he was not the first person to suggest a Sikh-only contingent, saying that it “may well have merit” and confirming that it was being looked into. The prospect was also welcomed as “an excellent idea” by Rory Stewart, chairman of the Defence Select Committee.

Picking up the ball and running with it, Tom Tugendhat, military assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff and Tory candidate for Tonbridge and Malling, explained in the Telegraph why this time it would be different from the old days:

“This would not be the echo of a long-dead imperial past but an innovation worthy of a modern battle-ready army. Just as Irish, Scots, Welsh and English units attract men with regional affiliations, and sappers, signallers and logisticians draw men and women with specialist skills, a new Sikh unit would allow the common ethos essential to seeing strong fighting spirit develop.

While the fantasy of a Sikh regiment can be dismissed as a throwback to the ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the Indian Army, the suggestion that Muslims should be targeted in special recruitment drives evokes the same military history in ways that are ultimately counter-productive.

Zeeshan Hashmi was the only person to condemn the proposal. It was a “terrible idea”, he wrote shortly afterwards. “Likewise a Muslim regiment. It may look good on a PowerPoint slide but that is it. In reality, I fear it would only highlight differences, not promote unity”.

Hashmi is clearly right to state that singling minorities out on the basis of faith or ethnicity would be divisive and counterproductive. He spoke from his own experience that minority soldiers have to deal with racism and bigotry in the army, just as they do outside.

“Toxic brand”

But there is a more important point about the clumsiness of the military response to the recruitment crisis. When military institutions intervene in debates about integration, social cohesion and now, radicalization, they overstep their bounds. The fact that they are wedded to a wider security policy that has been shown to have been deeply flawed compounds the problem. The recent attack on the government’s Prevent strategy, made by a former police officer, proves yet again that the police too are both ignorant and uninformed when it comes to communicating with Muslim communities, with little “basic knowledge of race and faith issues”.

The reasons why so many young people are drawn to join groups like ISIS are both complex and little understood. But without acknowledging the racism, hostility and surveillance that Muslims face today, the army doesn’t have a hope in hell of increasing the proportion of minorities in its ranks, regardless of what faith they adhere to.