David Cameron’s much-trailed speech in Birmingham this week about “the struggle of our generation” failed miserably to live up to its billing. Instead of tackling genuine concerns about terrorism, the prime minister displayed a worrying level of misleading rhetoric and what might best be described as wilful ignorance.
To the majority of Muslims, the speech probably reinforced the impression that the political classes in Britain are very remote from the lives of the people they are governing. If the government’s austerity measures look to be ideologically-driven, its programme for tackling terrorism looks nothing short of conspiracy-led propaganda.
Mr Cameron, apparently, has basically taken the flawed theory of an ex-Islamist with no grassroots credibility and placed it at the centre of a five-year anti-extremism strategy, while ignoring reputable academic studies, opinions and recommendations from leading security agencies and the experience of the vast majority of Muslims. This is both wrong-headed and counterproductive, to say the least.
A defining characteristic of extremists is that they are unwilling to listen to an alternative opinion; they only see their view as correct and they have a vested interest in maintaining their extremist position. Sadly for Britain, and British Muslims in particular, the prime minister has displayed the same characteristics as the aforementioned extremists.
David Cameron claims to be desperate to win over British Muslims, so it is ironic that he is being advised, it seems, by individuals on the fringes of the community and located politically on the extreme end of the neo-con spectrum. His evangelising gesture will not, therefore, be viewed by the vast majority of Muslims as an attempt at dialogue between partners; it will be seen as a fight between two extremes; between ultra-right neo-conservatives who want to maintain Western hegemony over the world, especially the Middle East, versus ultra-militant elements who make up a tiny minority of the world’s 1 billion Muslims.
Unwittingly or otherwise, by echoing the message of neo-cons and Islamophobes alike (who conceal their hatred for Islam and Muslims through politically-concocted terms such as “Islamism”), Mr Cameron’s plan looks set to fail even before it’s got off the ground. His ideological positioning, which is bereft of facts and any appreciation of Muslim sensibilities, limits his capacity to offer a credible plan that the majority of British Muslims — his target audience — will feel able to support. This will weaken the broad partnership that is essential if we are indeed to undermine, discredit and ultimately destroy militant organisations like Daesh/ISIS.
The overall message that he gave out swamped the minor positive gestures; it was more than disastrous. Speaking at, not with, the Muslim community he said that success in Britain “is achieved not in spite of our diversity, but because of our diversity.” His four-point plan, however, speaks triumphantly of the perceived failures of multiculturalism, the need to promote “muscular liberalism” and the assertion of “British values”. He spoke as if British Muslims, the majority of whom were born here in Britain, are somehow aliens with no vested interest in seeing the United Kingdom and our society thrive.
Amazingly, Cameron adopted some of the rhetoric more typical of serial Islamophobes. To give him the benefit of the doubt, this was probably unintentional as he seems to have been terribly misinformed and briefed. He came across as the head of our government who is totally inept at tackling a problem that is foreign to someone from his privileged background. He pitted values which are universal by nature against cultural practices that are narrow by definition, which is a very peculiar way of trying to form alliances. His speech, moreover, was laden with chauvinistic assertions about the superiority of “British values” over “Muslim practices”, which were cited as female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriages and sexual grooming. None of these, of course, have anything to do with Islam and are found in the cultural practices of other faith and non-faith communities as much as among Muslims.
Parts of his speech were reminiscent of infamous Islam-haters and Muslim-bashers like America’s Pamela Geller, someone who might well be refused entry to the UK on the grounds that her rhetoric incites racial and religious hatred. Who needs Geller, though, when our own prime minister overstates exactly the same binary worldview which promotes the West as an embodiment of universal values while denigrating Islam and Muslims as the embodiment of dreadful, uncivilised practices.
Most reasonable people would have been surprised by David Cameron’s acceptance of such a fallacy. Islam, it has to be stressed, also aims to uphold universal values and principles, but just as the vast majority of people in the West would surely refuse to be defined by the West’s disastrous foreign policies that have led to the killing of four million Muslims since 1991, Muslims have a right not to be defined by the brutality of ostensibly Muslim militants and barbaric cultural practices.
This was one of the most disappointing parts of the prime minister’s speech because he successfully reinforced the overwhelming perception among British Muslims that they are seen as a problem community requiring special measures. Such a view vindicates the bigotry of far-right extremists, including Europe’s growing numbers of neo-Nazis, thus undermining the fight against all extremism; tackling Islamophobia and the alienation of Muslim youth have to be at the core of this struggle. One expects more from a British prime minister and it would have saddened millions to see him demeaning the status of his position by more or less repeating the bigoted rhetoric of people like Douglas Murray and Robert Spencer.
It could have been so different if only he had taken his own advice and “correctly identified the problem”, given that he believes this to be “the struggle of our generation” which presents an “existential threat to the UK”. Perhaps it was his lack of experience or his woeful ignorance, or a combination of both, that produced such a speech. Whatever it was, it could and should have been very different.
We should have seen the prime minister communicating with the Muslim community, which is, by the way, far more motivated than David Cameron will ever be to tackle the scourge of extremism; not just because it’s a religious obligation but also because Muslims are British citizens.
Mr Cameron should have paid serious attention to academic studies and advice from experts around the world. For a start, his advisers should have done some basic research about Britain, from which they would have gleaned that Muslims are actually amongst the most loyal of citizens who identify with Britain more than many of their non-Muslim neighbours. Instead, his advisers, and thus the prime minister, attacked Muslims for their lack of integration and loyalty, even though most insist that they should obey British laws and would not leave Britain to go and live in a Muslim-majority country. That being the case, his choice of words again highlights the serious disconnect that this government appears to have with the people it is governing.
If the speechwriters had done their homework, attention would have been paid to studies that show the link between terrorism and ideology to be tenuous, at best. If he could only see beyond his narrow worldview that refuses to learn from others, David Cameron would understand that the conveyor belt theory from religion to terrorism does not stand up to academic scrutiny; that a growing body of academic work holds this position to be fundamentally flawed. Policy based on such a narrative, therefore, is at best partial and at worst counterproductive. His strategy will almost certainly fail because he has failed to take his own advice and misdiagnosed the problem.
The prime minister should also have availed himself of the experts within government agencies tasked with protecting this country. Among them is Charles Farr, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, who has warned against portraying Muslims as “intrinsically extremist”, something that Mr Cameron clearly does by incriminating traditional Muslim views. Home Secretary Theresa May’s most senior counter-terrorism mandarin, who last month repudiated the prime minister’s ill-conceived rhetoric implying that extremism is “quietly condoned” by British Muslim communities, also advised that we need to be careful with our metaphors and statistics.
Farr noted that only seven hundred Britons have joined Daesh/ISIS out of 2.7 million Muslims in this country. Rather than insinuating that a threat is hiding amorphously amongst British Muslims, he suggested, we must recognise that, in reality, Muslim communities on the whole have proven to be quite resilient to extremism.
There is a sense that the British government is undermining efforts to tackle terrorists groups like Daesh/ISIS; this feeling is growing stronger partly because of the government’s narrow, misguided and misinformed approach to tackling terrorism at home, and partly because of its hypocrisy in foreign policy. It preaches that respect for human rights and democracy are essential “British values” whilst simultaneously condoning and giving material support to despots in the Middle East, for example, with appalling human rights records and little, if any, democracy.
If David Cameron is serious in his intent to fight radicalisation he needs to build ties with the Muslim community and not paint it as a fifth column in Britain. He needs to establish some genuine credibility by surrounding himself with people who understand the problem of radicalisation; who are competent in developing a strategy based on sound academic and scholarly research, with expert advice supported by the broadest Muslim coalition, not sycophants claiming to represent “moderate Muslims” and the other so-called experts that he’s surrounded himself with.
Equally, he should remain true to the British values of democracy and the rule of law by marginalising murderous leaders like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi instead of inviting him to visit Britain. He could also insist on working to end Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestine, instead of giving his “staunch” support for its brutal military offensives which have killed thousands of civilians in the Gaza Strip. In short, he could lead by example and start to put much much-vaunted British values into action instead of the current “do as I say, not as I do” approach.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.