The Prime Minister is determined to redefine the debate on radicalisationby John Ware / July 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
David Cameron’s speech on extremism this week was a clear attempt to redefine the terms of the debate over radicalisation in Britain. He called upon the entire public sector (especially schools and universities, the police, prisons, and broadcasters) to join what he calls the “struggle of our generation”—to identify and confront what it is that attracts young British Muslims to extremist ideology.
Cameron’s speech defined non-violent extremism as a combination of a hostility towards mainstream Britain’s liberal values such as gender and sexual equality, a disdain for parliamentary democracy and a simmering animosity towards the west. It’s a mindset among Muslims in this country that he believes is more prevalent than society cares to admit.
It was “an exercise in futility to deny there was no connection” between the almost daily acts of violence carried out around the world in the name of Islam and the Islamic faith, said Cameron. Not with mainstream, or classical Islam perhaps, but with the religion’s increasingly popular offshoot, Islamism—a fusion of politics and religion.
Cameron is the first British Prime Minister to state that cultural sensitivities shouldn’t stand in the way of trying to take control of the conversation—contrasting the regressive right wing values of Islamists against British liberal values of tolerance, equality, and democracy. Islamists divide the world into “Them” and “Us”. Cameron wants to encourage civic society to decide where that line is drawn, taking the power away from the Islamists.
Hailed as the most significant of his speeches on the subject of non-violent extremism, it had some eyebrow-raising moments such as the warning that people who go to join Islamic State will be “cannon fodder”—a stark change in tone which illustrates the Prime Minister’s determination to make his message heard.
Those of us, such as myself, who have spent the last decade identifying and confronting the individuals and the organisations who feature on the Prime Minister’s non-violent extremist spectrum are aware of the degree to which their perspective has dominated the debate in the media. In their worldview, radicalisation is all the fault of Western foreign policy, with the West scheming against the Islamic world helped by nations such as Israel, and compounded by issues such as identity, poverty—everything in fact, except Islamist ideology. Terrorism doesn’t exist in an ideological vacuum and it is the ideology of radical Islamism that keeps some young British Muslims angry.
So, how did Cameron, and the Conservative party, get to this point? Those close to the Prime Minister, say a turning point was a visit to Birmingham’s central mosque in 2007 where he met the Chairman, the late Dr Mohammed Nassem. The elderly GP told Cameron that he questioned the established account of the 7/7 London bombings. This was not some teenage hothead. Dr Nassem had been billed to Cameron as a “moderate community leader” with whom he should engage. Eyes rolling, the future prime minister left in disgust.
Cameron soon discovered that preachers with a similar mindset were coming and going to this country as they pleased, the symptom of an “anything goes” society that had been too passively tolerant for too long and which had suffered a catastrophic collapse in the confidence of its values. A multitude of foiled plots, the daylight beheading of drummer Rigby in Woolwich and the growing numbers of those leaving liberal Britain to fight for Islamic State (which now stands at an estimated 700) has persuaded Cameron of the need for a formal government strategy to counter the Islamist narrative. Those who promote non-violent extremist views—even though such views are currently lawful—could soon be banned from expressing them in public. This may be a step too far for it seems to me to be a tacit acknowledgement in the government’s values-driven battle of ideas that argument cannot be defeated by argument.
But it would be a mistake to see Cameron’s speech as an overreaction, a “total collapse of perspective” as the Guardian’s George Monbiot put it. Instead, it should be seen as a genuine attempt to address the segregation that is now all too evident in many of our towns and cities such as Birmingham, where Muslim children go to school with no meaningful social interaction with those from other backgrounds, and to reach those who are most susceptible to non-violent extremist ideology who, as Cameron says “don’t really identify with Britain—and who feel little or no attachment to other people here.” Forging a common life is indeed the struggle of our generation.
John Ware was the presenter of a Radio 4 documentary “Should Extremism be a crime?” http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b062khlh