PM Cameron goes two for two today following up Ramadan greetings last month with a speech in Bratislava accusing British Muslims of “quietly condoning” extremism, and Eid greetings issued last Friday followed up with a wide ranging speech in Birmingham that demurs little from the ideas articulated in Munich in 2011.
Indeed, James Forsyth, the Daily Mail’s political commentator gave indication of Cameron’s impending speech late last month noting, “Tellingly, this speech is being referred to in Downing Street as ‘Munich 2’.”
British Muslims will be forgiven for reliving a déjà vu moment. Truth is, much of what Cameron had to say today is not ‘new,’ which is perhaps the most disturbing part of the speech delivered. After a term in office, the Government is no better informed about tackling extremism than it was five years ago. Despite promises made in opposition to review the Prevent programme and to ensure that security legislation did not impinge on hard won civil liberties, the Government is beginning to look distinctly like the Blair Government before it: in denial about foreign policy and other factors impacting on radicalisation while using the power and resources of the state to, as former Labour MP Phyllis Starkey put it in her scathing review about the earlier Prevent strategy, “engineer a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, promoting and funding only those groups which conform to this model.”
To be sure, the PM’s insistence on democracy, the rule of law, equality, mutual respect and tolerance of difference and freedom of speech being virtuous values is an argument few will dismiss. Such values do demarcate open, flourishing societies from those, like Egypt and Bahrain, where fear rules and political opposition is eliminated. Perhaps the PM was thinking of these comparisons when composing his thoughts having recently invited leaders of the repressive regimes of Egypt and Bahrain to the UK?
More to the point, few who challenge the “British values” that Cameron is so keen to champion in his Munich 2-era can escape the panorama presented by legislation enacted under this and the previous Tory-led Government which gives the lie to any suggestion that these values have been “uniformly applied” or trenchantly championed by the Government itself. The introduction of secret courts, undermining the very concept of open justice, the revocation of the power of magistrates to invoke arrest warrants against those who travel to the UK and are suspected of war crimes, as inducted with the revision to the Universal Jurisdiction legislation, making a mockery of the rule of law, and the near exclusion of targeted policies to tackle the “sickening Islamophobia” while Government departments have rigorously engaged with hatred and intolerance affecting other minority communities, are just some examples.
The PM is absolutely right. Our commitment to upholding “British values” has been half-hearted at best.
There are some very specific contentions which arise from the PM’s speech today which deserve to be looked at more closely:
- The PM reiterated that the new statutory duty on Prevent introduced as part of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act is not about “spying on Muslim schoolchildren” and yet, evidence from the Waltham Forest questionnaire scandal and the bias against Muslim pupils evident in a school in Barnsley would suggest the implementation is not far off the perception of “spying”. And if past experience of Prevent being implemented is anything to go by, perceptions of “spying” would be closer to the truth than the obverse. The PM may be trying to make the point about safeguarding children from “all forms of extremism” but the examples cited above are not likely to sway the sceptic.
- The PM reiterated his claims to a “muscular liberalism” which does not shy away from confronting difficult issues for fear of causing “offence” and raised the subjects honour based violence, female genital mutilation and forced marriages. The PM commended his Government’s record on tacking these problems and yet one has to wonder why they find themselves woven into a speech about “Islamist extremism”? Does the PM regard these issues to be specific to Muslim communities and if so, does that not reinforce the sort of essentialist opinions about Islam bandied about by far right groups like Britain First and the English Defence League who have taken their “Muslim grooming” protests around the country?
The PM objected, again, to the “passive tolerance” that allows such criminal behaviour to go unchallenged and brought up the child sex scandals in Rotherham as exemplary of this sort of problem. For anyone reading about the Westminster paedophilia scandals that the Child Abuse inquiry is determined to cover, the claims of “passive tolerance” are almost laughable. If this is yet another instance of “British values” not being “uniformly applied”, the PM is sadly right.
- The PM’s speech largely rests on what he has oft-repeated despite empirical evidence proving the contrary, that “Islamist extremism” is about an “extremist ideology” and it is the “ideology” that needs to be fought because “grievance justifications” such as foreign policy or poverty do not explain the motives of terrorists some of whom have come from middle class backgrounds. He also rehearses the “conveyor belt theory” about “non violent extremism” creating “the climate in which extremism can flourish”.
The conveyor belt theory has been authoritatively debunked as twaddle pumped by neo-con actors but it is reinforced in Cameron’s speech to justify policy interventions such as “targeted powers to tackle facilitators and enablers”; guarding against “creeping extremism” on university campuses where “non violent extremists” are allegedly running amok due to some misplaced notion about liberalism; and “emboldening moderate voices” with the power and resources at the disposal of the state.
- The PM also spoke about establishing a “community engagement forum” to marginalise “non violent extremists” and allow “moderate” voices to be heard. Few who can forget the shambles that was Hazel Blears’ tenure as Blair’s Communities Secretary can fail to remember the small circus she set up with a Muslim Women’s Advisory Group and a Young Muslims Advisory Group, ad nauseum, all with the intent of supporting “moderate voices.” The truth of the matter was that these “forums” as with the financial backing given to the British Muslim Forum and the Sufi Muslim Council was nothing more than an exercise in “engineer[ing] a ‘moderate’ form of Islam, [by] promoting and funding only those groups which conform to this model.”
It failed in the past and it will fail in the future. Not just because British Muslims are not fooled by the musical chairs engaged in by so-called “counter extremism experts”, with members hopping and leaping from one shiny new organisation to another, but because no strategy on Muslim engagement will succeed where the community are, as the PM put it, “loathe to the damage that they [interlocutors] do”.
- On the subject of radicalisation and the PM’s insistence about the “futility” in dismissing the “religious aspect” of extremism, it should be pointed out that few researchers have pinpointed a single variable as contributing to radicalisation. Most refer to a basket of variables with Professor Anne Aly noting, “Factors such as anger at injustice, moral superiority, a sense of identity and purpose, the promise of adventure, and becoming a hero have all been implicated in case studies of radicalisation.”
What Aly is clear about is this: “The role of Islam in radicalisation is grossly overestimated.”
This obviously doesn’t chime with the PM’s perspective or the Quilliam Foundation’s new soundbite about the “Voldemort effect” – or “that which shall not be named”. At the conference hosted by the Jewish News last month, QF were repeating the same on every panel: “Islamist extremism” is its name, and terrorism is its game.
Except, empirical evidence doesn’t bear out the claim about ideology being the sole or most significant driver of radicalisation so why the emphasis? Well, if Nafeez Ahmed’s claims of the QF’s founding credentials being “effectively ghost written in Whitehall” are to be believed, and the biggest obstacle to QF’s credibility in the field of tackling radicalisation is the fact that neither Ed Husain nor Maajid Nawaz were ever “jihadists,” banging the “it’s ideology, stupid!” drum plays a very specific purpose.
And then on the issue of “extremism” itself. One would think from the PM’s speech today and the speech delivered in Bratislava last month, or even the speech made by the Home Secretary in March outlining the new counter extremism strategy that the Government would be pretty clued about what it means when its talks about “extremism”.
And yet, there is a little nugget of information that is so useful to reflect upon. A Freedom of Information request lodged to query the remit and work of the Extremism Analysis Unit which Theresa May disclosed existed in March and was already “up and running” has yielded the following by way of response:
“The Extremism Analysis Unit is a new and evolving organisation and although “up and running” at the time of the FOI request, their remit was (and remains) subject to ongoing policy discussions and thus relates to Government policy which has yet to be formulated.”
One cannot help but get the feeling the Government is, like the Labour Government before it, determining which British Muslim organisations will feel the weight of the Extremism Analysis Unit bearing down on it and which will be supported as “moderate” voices. The effect, as before, will be largescale alienation of Muslim communities and distrust of a Government that talks about democracy while subverting the independence and autonomy of civil society.
- There are small signs of optimism in the PM’s speech about tackling social mobility, fostering bonds of solidarity in the face of residential segregation and improving equality of opportunity. The rebuke to broadcasters about giving airtime to non-representative bodies is well earned but diminished by the prospect of Ofcom’s powers being strengthened to, in effect, engage in “censorship”.
- And then there is the upbraiding of those who foment talk of a “secret Muslim conspiracy to takeover Government”. It is funny Cameron should mention it since champions of this sort of thinking lurk in the right wing press with their talk of “Islamists establishing a bridgehead in parliament” and Muslim organisations being “fronts” for Islamists and their “entryist” approaches.
- The ‘One Nation’ message was perhaps best captured in the PM’s remarks about “identity” and British Muslims growing up in the UK having “little or no attachment to the people here”. The PM spoke about IS having an appeal to those young people in search of a “sense of belonging” which when absent in the domestic context leaves them “more susceptible to radicalisation and even violence against other British people to whom they feel no real allegiance.”
He went on to outline ways in which bonds of solidarity could be supported, not by bussing kids from one school district to another, but by means of transcending the divides caused by unintended social segregation. It will pose tough questions for housing policy, but can be as simple as, for example, twinning schools as evident in the “shining example” set by a Muslim school, Tauheedul Islam in Blackburn.
But the one dimension the PM overlooked which certainly deserved close attention is the level of prejudice against Muslims prevalent in British society. Whether taking data from the YouGov poll of May 2015 which found Muslims were second only to Roma groups in the UK and Europe in terms of intolerance, or the findings of the British Social Attitudes survey, which related the persistence of anti-Muslim prejudice in the UK, or even the BBC poll earlier this year in which nearly 1 in 2 British Muslims said prejudice against Islam makes it harder to be a Muslim in Britain.
For a PM who has spoken frequently about “Islamist extremism” merely describing Islamophobia as “sickening” will not go anywhere near far enough to convince Muslims that Cameron’s One Nation vision or his five year plan to win this “struggle of a generation” is something they can comfortably embrace.
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