This article was published on Wednesday 22nd July 2015 in ‘Huffington Post’. It can also be read here.
I was at David Cameron’s big speech unveiling the Government’s counter extremism bill in Birmingham, and there’s no doubt about it – he is a brilliant speaker. Accomplished, commanding and convincing.
It was impressive in content too, detailing the abhorrent reality of ISIS, causes of radicalisation and action required to defeat dangerous narratives.
The Prime Minister talked about the need to “build a more cohesive society” and “multi-faith democracy” that celebrates cultural and religious diversity, and doesn’t “demonise people of a certain background.” He emphasised that Islam is a religion of peace and rubbished suggestions that there is a global conspiracy against the faith. He was hitting some very good notes.
But that’s typical political rhetoric, you might say; a way to sweet-talk ‘moderate’ Muslims into supporting the next phase of the war on terror against the latest lot of nutjobs who share the same faith (though not worldview) as them.
I am no cynic or conspiracy theorist, and will give credit where it is due. I do not doubt for one second the Prime Minister’s intentions, and there is much in the proposed five-year plan that is to be welcomed: the setting up of a community engagement forum, reform of social housing, and commitment to working more closely with “strong, positive Muslim voices” to help counter a deadly ideology.
These are sensible and practical measures to address some of the proven causes of radicalisation – among them social segregation, economic deprivation and attraction to warped interpretations of jihad.
However, it was startling and disappointing how casually Mr Cameron dismissed foreign policy as a valid grievance, particularly as this was the one factor the ring leader of the 7/7 bombings and murderers of Lee Rigby cited as the motivation for their acts.
According to the Prime Minister, it isn’t Britain’s unconditional support for Israel, or military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, that are responsible for young people turning to extremism; criticism of these things are. And as political dissent is the first step towards protest, action and then possibly violence, it’s the dissent that needs nipping in the bud.
It was here that he appeared less convincing and impressive. The Government is in overdrive actively promoting ‘British values’, such as individual liberty – but aren’t these values (which he described as “our most powerful weapon”) in danger of being compromised?
Indeed it is ironic that the very virtues the Government preaches are ones they are themselves barely able to uphold. The Prime Minister said he was not clamping down on freedom of speech; only that we should all be applying it “uniformly.” That’s not really free speech then, is it?
And how are British airstrikes in IS-controlled Syria without parliamentary backing, honouring the principles of democracy and the rule of law?
The only way to protect ‘British values’, it seems, is to undermine them.
The refusal of Mr Cameron to acknowledge foreign policy as a contributor in radicalisation is unhelpful, and seeks to absolve the Government of any responsibility for its own or its allies’ part in creating and funding terrorist groups.
Surely, it is decisions made at the highest level about what we do and don’t do abroad that also need a serious rethink, not just the action we take with our schools, universities, prisons and the internet.
When laws were introduced requiring teachers to play their part in spotting signs of radicalisation, many in the profession like myself expressed concerns this would stifle pupils’ freedom to speak openly in the classroom, to ask challenging questions and discuss issues affecting them (essential for their personal development), for fear of being reported. Surveillance is the new safeguarding, and despite the Prime Minister’s assurances that Prevent “is not about criminalising or spying on Muslim children”, many are unconvinced.
Mr Cameron’s speech was never going to please everyone, but has made a good number of those he was reaching out to feel even more alienated.
Therefore, in trying to root out the causes of extremism, just as he expects Muslim communities to recognise and address the link between ISIS and Islam, he could demonstrate a similar willingness to accept the evidence-based connection with national foreign policy.
This would take courage, but earn him much greater respect and trust as a leader than he enjoys at the moment. Otherwise it is difficult to see how we as ‘One Nation, One United Kingdom’ can really move forward together.
The “struggle of our generation” needs a suitable strategy for our generation. Prevent in its current form sadly is not.