On 20 July 20 David Cameron spoke to a selected audience at an academy school in Birmingham about tackling violent extremism in Britain.
While there were fleeting references to the far right and Islamophobia, the main focus of his speech was the extremism that led, among other things, to hundreds of young people leaving their homes in Britain to join Daesh (Islamic State). The speech was fundamentally about Islamist extremism.
Cameron’s approach to tackling extremism was, as he claimed, based on four core principles. His government would confront the ideology, tackle non-violent as well as violent extremism, embolden and empower reforming and moderate Muslims and build a more cohesive society.
Confronting the ideology means challenging the mythologies perpetuated by extreme Islamists (whether violent or not). For instance, the idea that western foreign policy amounts to a war on Islam or that there is a Jewish/Zionist conspiracy against Muslims.
It was while talking about this first principle, however, that Cameron raised the need to champion what he called “alternative values”, defining them as free speech, freedom of the press and sexual and other equalities.
But his commitment to free speech as a value seemed to be in tension with the determination to tackle non-violent extremism (“groups that may not advocate violence but which promote other parts of the extremist narrative”).
To embolden the moderates he promised to work with those within Muslim communities who wanted to promote a mainstream, tolerant, liberal narrative.
On building a more cohesive society, the Tory leader promised actions to boost employment opportunities, especially for women and support for learning English.
How any of this would be done was left unexplained except for a vague commitment to avoid the mistakes of the past when “funding was simply handed over to self-appointed community leaders who sometimes used the money in divisive ways”.
The initial reaction to Cameron’s speech was fairly predictable. And a central problem with most contributions to this debate is that they emerge from their own preconceived ideas and prejudices. Hence a lot of the hostile reaction didn’t engage with the speech at all, preferring simply to recycle generic responses to any attempt to critique Islamist terror.
The “root causes” brigade put forward once again the idea that the Iraq War explained jihadism.
A number of Muslim commentators accused Cameron of stigmatising their religion and thereby adding to the threat of alienation and radicalisation.
Clare Fox of the Institute of Ideas (descended from a weird sect, the Revolutionary Communist Party) complained that Cameron was allowing the terrorists to win by threatening free speech on campuses. Cameron suggested colleges ban extremist speakers.
There is something to be said for all these reactions but, for the most part, they are beside the point. The central atrocity in modern jihadism, 9/11, predated Afghanistan and Iraq. And of the millions of people vehemently opposed those wars, all but a tiny handful have managed to avoid the impulse to murder innocent fellow humans.
Cameron was actually careful to distinguish between the extremists and mainstream Islam (“it cannot be said clearly enough: this extremist ideology is not true Islam. I have said it myself many, many times, and it’s absolutely right to do so. And I’ll say it again today”). And he at no point called for the banning of non-violent extremist speakers.
The comparison he made was with Holocaust denier David Irving. When he is invited to speak at university campuses, said Cameron, “they (the university authorities) don’t deny his right to speak but they do challenge what he says”. The implication being that we need a more robust approach to these people, seeing them as morally and politically analogous to the far right and denouncing them.
Even if it is Cameron saying it, that appears to me to be entirely right.
So the well-rehearsed reactions to Cameron miss the real problem with his speech and his approach, which is its hypocrisy and lack of seriousness.
One week after the speech, for example, the Runnymede Trust reported that the first budget of the new Tory government would make millions of minority ethnic people poorer at a faster rate than their white counterparts.
The report also found that one of the worst affected groups would be British Muslims. There is not the slightest chance that the economic and social policies of Cameron’s government will “build a more cohesive society”.
Cameron says in his speech that “It cannot be right that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths”. Meanwhile his government continue with their obsessive promotion of free schools which has seen the number and proportion of religiously-controlled schools expand dramatically.
His promises to help women from minority communities to learn English must have had teachers of English as a Second Language tearing their hair out. ESOL courses have seen the worst and deepest cuts in education spending. As has the whole adult and further education sector. The financial and ideological assault on local authorities undermines at a stroke any possibility of creating this more cohesive society Cameron cynically promises.
And the hypocrisy doesn’t stop with domestic policy. In the section of his speech on confronting ideology, Cameron promises to give a platform to “the UK’s Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish communities, so they can ....speak out against the carnage ISIL is conducting in their countries”. Less than a week later his government is supporting (or complicit in) the Turkish government’s ruthless bombing of the very Kurds who are in the frontline of the fight against Daesh.
The results of this hypocrisy for Muslim communities will be bad. It is likely that they will experience the government’s new approach to extremism as a security clampdown that targets their young people.
The promised support and empowerment is unlikely to be delivered but the surveillance and repression will. The recent pattern of local agencies (schools, councils) overreacting under pressure to avoid the blame for the next atrocity will continue.
Cameron is not wrong to see Islamist terror as a problem, or to see the links between the violent and the non-violent form. He is also not wrong to say that a more cohesive and integrated society would help undercut the attraction of simple but reactionary cults. But the neo-liberal economic and social policies which are at the absolute core of his government are incapable of creating such a society. On the contrary they magnify and exacerbate the levels of inequality and alienation we already endure.
It’s the job of the socialist left to create that society but we can only do it if we too challenge religious fundamentalism and violence and take the side of democratic, secular forces within Muslim and other communities.