The Prime Minister's speech

7 Feb 2011 by CST

Prime Minister David Cameron gave a keynote policy speech on terrorism, extremism and multiculturalism on Saturday, which has already generated a huge amount of commentary, both agreeing and disagreeing with what he said. Some of the criticisms of the speech have accused him of saying or meaning things that he clearly did not say or mean, sometimes quite ridiculously so. He has been accused of not mentioning the far right; of failing to distinguish between Islam the religion, and Islamism the political ideology; and of wanting a monocultural Britain. None of these things are true, as you can see if you read the speech in full. Much of this criticism reflects party politics or entrenched interests, while typifying the bluster that often obscures intelligent discussion of this issue.

Some people blunder into this debate without thinking. Cameron quite rightly sets out two very important parameters: that this is about politics, not religion; and that the far right should be rejected at every step. Firstly, he distinguishes very clearly between Islam and "Islamist extremism":

We should be equally clear what we mean by this term, and we must distinguish it from Islam.  Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people.  Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority.  At the furthest end are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of Sharia.  Move along the spectrum, and you find people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist worldview, including real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values.  It is vital that we make this distinction between religion on the one hand, and political ideology on the other.

So Cameron identified this as a political challenge posed by a political ideology that has both violent and non-violent forms. Crucially, he then made the same point that Baroness Warsi recently made, that Muslim religious observance does not equate to political extremism:

Time and again, people equate the two.  They think whether someone is an extremist is dependent on how much they observe their religion.  So, they talk about moderate Muslims as if all devout Muslims must be extremist.  This is profoundly wrong.  Someone can be a devout Muslim and not be an extremist.  We need to be clear: Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing.

Cameron then rejected those on the "hard right" who conflate the two, and who argue for extremism to be opposed by suppressing Muslim religious activity:

On the one hand, those on the hard right ignore this distinction between Islam and Islamist extremism, and just say that Islam and the West are irreconcilable – that there is a clash of civilizations.  So, it follows: we should cut ourselves off from this religion, whether that is through forced repatriation, favoured by some fascists, or the banning of new mosques, as is suggested in some parts of Europe.  These people fuel Islamophobia, and I completely reject their argument.

Some people have said that Cameron should have explicitly condemned the English Defence League, who were marching in Luton on the same day that he made this speech. He could have done this, but then he did not name any specific extremist groups, Muslim, white or otherwise, in his speech. The above passage, though, is a thorough rejection of everything the EDL stands for.

Later on in the speech, Cameron tackles the policy of 'Lambertism', which tries to co-opt non-violent Islamists as partners to combat Islamist terrorism, even if those non-violent Islamists hold views which diverge from Western liberal democratic norms. Before addessing this point in detail, it is worth noting the comparisons Cameron uses to describe the flaw in this policy:

As others have observed, this is like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement.

And:

Well, I say, would you take the same view if these were right-wing extremists recruiting on our campuses?  Would you advocate inaction if Christian fundamentalists who believed that Muslims are the enemy were leading prayer groups in our prisons?  And to those who say these non-violent extremists are actually helping to keep young, vulnerable men away from violence, I say nonsense. Would you allow the far right groups a share of public funds if they promise to help you lure young white men away from fascist terrorism?  Of course not.

Cameron takes it as a given that everybody rejects right-wing fascist extremists. He assumes, rightly, that nobody  would use non-violent far right groups to counter neo-Nazi terrorism. In so doing, he sets right-wing fascism and white supremacism as his benchmark for extremism. This is why those people who have accused Cameron of parrotting EDL propaganda are so wide of the mark. The editorial in today's Guardian even claims that Cameron did not make "even a passing criticism of the EDL – instead confining his remarks to 'Islamist extremism'". It is as if the Guardian (and others) did not even read his speech.

The question of whether non-violent extremists are part of the problem or part of the solution lies at the heart of the policy debate regarding counter-terrorist policy. Lambertism argues that they are part of the solution; the Prime Minister clearly sees them as part of the problem:

As evidence emerges about the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called ‘non-violent extremists’, and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence ... instead of ignoring this extremist ideology, we – as governments and as societies – have got to confront it, in all its forms.  And second, instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone.

This does not just apply to Islamists: David Copeland, the neo-Nazi nailbomber, was a member of the British National Party before moving on to the more extreme National Socialist Movement.

But if non-violent extremists are part of the problem, then how should they be treated?

Governments must also be shrewder in dealing with those that, while not violent, are in some cases part of the problem.  We need to think much harder about who it’s in the public interest to work with.  Some organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism.  As others have observed, this is like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement.  So we should properly judge these organisations: do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths?  Do they believe in equality of all before the law?  Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government?  Do they encourage integration or separation?  These are the sorts of questions we need to ask.  Fail these tests and the presumption should be not to engage with organisations – so, no public money, no sharing of platforms with ministers at home.

An example of what Cameron is talking about occurred last year, when the Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik was excluded by the Home Secretary for "unacceptable behaviours". Naik challenged this ruling (unsuccessfully) in the High Court, and according to media reports received the support of some very senior civil servants in the Home Office.

I will not go into Naik's well known views in depth here. He does not directly incite terrorism in the way that, say, Anwar al-Awlaki does, but he has presented an ambiguous attitude to terrorism and expressed obnoxious, contemptuous views about people of other faiths. He supports the death penalty for people who leave Islam and preach other faiths, and also for homosexuals. His exclusion drew the following condemnation from the Muslim Council of Britain:

The Muslim Council of Britain deplores Home Secretary Theresa May's uncharacteristically intemperate move to ban the renowned Indian mainstream Islamic scholar Dr. Zakir Abdul-Karim Naik, from a speakers' tour in the UK, reported in the media (Daily Telegraph, 18th June 2010), apparently because of his `unacceptable behaviour' and that his visit `would not be conducive to the public good'.

The Home Secretary's action serves to demonise the very voices within the world ready for debate and discussion. The tour would have been a golden opportunity for young Muslims who are eager to hear the true messages of Islam which promote understanding between communities.

Inayat Bunglawala, on Comment Is Free, framed his opposition in free speech terms, while on his personal blog he described Naik as:

incredibly popular ... Naik has a huge international following and tremendous pulling power. If the UK authorities had any sense, they would utilise Naik’s talents to reinforce the anti-terrorist message.

This is the problem in a nutshell. Naik's contempt for non-Muslim faiths is clear. The idea that he could "promote understanding between communities" is ludicrous. Presenting him as a "mainstream Islamic scholar" is, if anything, likely only to generate more Islamophobia. Naik has previously argued that 9/11 was an inside job, so the idea that he could be an asset to anti-terrorist messaging is also a non-starter. There is an argument that, despite his vile views, Naik's exclusion is wrong on free speech grounds, but you can only make this argument if you are prepared to acknowledge just how much Naik's views contradict core liberal democratic values. This is not the argument that Bunglawala and the MCB chose to make. I do not suggest that the MCB or Bunglawala share any of Naik's views, but they clearly failed to empathise with how those on the receiving end of his rhetoric, and wider British society, would perceive him. When Cameron spoke of "organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community ... despite doing little to combat extremism", it is this kind of obfuscation that I suspect the Prime Minister had in mind.

Some people have criticised Cameron for mixing up counter-terrorism, extremism and multiculturalism; policy areas that, in their opinion, are quite separate. Mehdi Hasan argued that the EDL "are violent extremists and yet they are not a product of "multiculturalism", failed or otherwise". I'm not sure that's correct. The EDL acts in many ways as a traditional far right group, and has many followers with a track record of activity in the BNP, but it has reframed its activity in the language of culture, not race. Understanding how this has happened, and how it will play out, is very much a work in progress: Hope Not Hate and John Cruddas MP were amongst the first to recognise this, and Suzanne Moore's article in Saturday's Guardian summarises its questions and confusions well. The point is that identity and culture play a role in contemporary political extremism.

How this affects jihadi terrorism was addressed in a paper written last year by Thomas Hegghammer, which tried to answer the question why Muslim foreign fighters - mujahideen - had been an increasing presence in conflicts involving Muslim states or territories since 1980, but not before. This is a slightly different phenomenon from al-Qaeda's global jihad, but as Hegghammer points out, "most al-Qaida operatives begin their careers as war volunteers". After analysing a large number of conflicts and testing various factors, he concluded that the key factor was the development, in the late 1970s, of a pan-Islamic political identity, created by Muslim Brotherhood activists based in Saudi Arabia and exported via international Muslim organisations. He wrote:

To increase awareness of global Muslim affairs, these activists constructed a pan-Islamic identity discourse emphasizing the unity of the Muslim nation and highlighting outside threats. Like many other identity discourses, it was alarmist, self-victimizing, conspiratorial, and xenophobic. It was a victim narrative that highlighted cases of Muslim suffering around the world, paying particular attention to what Samuel Huntington called “fault line conflicts.”

No one ideologue can be credited with articulating the discourse; rather it developed gradually through incremental rhetorical escalation. Many of its themes echoed those of earlier pan-Islamists and anticolonial activists, but the Hijazi pan-Islamist discourse was more alarmist and more global in outlook than any of its predecessors.

This is a crucial refutation of Lambertism, because this "identity discourse" is not limited to violent Islamists. It is a narrative commonly found in the propaganda of non-violent Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamaat-e-Islami and their various followers and offshoots around the world, including many in Britain. It is an identity and a discourse often shared by the non-violent groups that Lambertism advocates partnering with, to prevent Islamist violence. This is deliberate: the theory is that they 'speak the same language' as violent Islamists, and this gives them a credibility they can use to turn around those thinking of joining violent groups. In reality, non-violent Islamists reinforce the very narrative and identity that, as Hegghammer explains, is the key component behind violent Islamist militancy, and without which it cannot take place. Rather than partnering with these groups, Hegghammer advocates strategies to undermine this identity discourse, including doing exactly what Cameron proposes:

First, those seeking to prevent foreign fighter recruitment need to recognize that the recruitment message relies not primarily on complex theological arguments, but on simple, visceral appeals to people’s sense of solidarity and altruism. Western governments should therefore worry less about the spread of ultraconservative Salafism than about populist anti-Western reporting by the television network al-Jazeera and the rapid spread of audiovisual propaganda on the internet. Moreover, a long-term policy to stem foreign fighter recruitment must include strategies to undermine pan-Islamism, for example, by spreading awareness of factual errors in the pan-Islamist victim narrative and by promoting state nationalisms and other local forms of identification. (my emphasis)

This is the theory behind the Prime Minister's demand that "we must build stronger societies and stronger identities at home." Multiculturalism is a much-disputed term, the meaning of which is very much in the eye of the beholder. The Chief Rabbi addresses the issue in the context of Cameron's speech in some depth in today's Times (£). I would only add that it is important not to confuse culture with values. Cameron is clearly not arguing that the many and varied cultures in Britain should disappear or be merged into one. Allegations that he desires a monocultural Britain are not serious. Rather, he makes two points. Firstly, that British identity should be be underpinned by a set of common values:

Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.

And secondly, that the state should actively promote these values as part of a strong British identity; something which, he argues, multiculturalism as practiced in the UK has not always done. I don't think either of these points are as contentious as others have argued; furthermore, they sum up the Jewish experience of successful integration into this country.

The test of this speech will be its implementation, and it is here that the Government needs to be fully joined up. To take one example, Cameron's desire "that immigrants speak the language of their new home" needs to be backed up by the provision of English classes for new immigrants. But the starting point for any new policy has to be a statement of principles, and as such this speech was an important and valuable step forward.


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