Prime Minister David Cameron has outlined a new five-year plan to fight Islamic extremism in Britain.
The strategy — the specifics of which will be unveiled in the coming months — rests on four pillars: challenging the ideology of Islamism; confronting those who promote Islamic extremism; encouraging moderate Muslims to speak up and be heard; and improving Muslim integration.
Cameron, however, has not offered a precise definition of "extremism," and it remains unclear how his government will balance efforts to silence Islamic extremists with the right to free speech.
Muslim reaction to the plan has been mixed: some have hailed it as "brave," "bold," "overdue," and "an important first step," while others have criticized it as "confusing," "contradictory," "over-simplified," and "Islamophobic."
In a landmark speech in Birmingham on July 20, Cameron called the fight against Islamic extremism the "struggle of our generation." Following is an abridged version of Cameron's comments (his speech extended to more than 5,500 words):
"What we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology. It is an extreme doctrine. And like any extreme doctrine, it is subversive. At its furthest end it seeks to destroy nation-states to invent its own barbaric realm. And it often backs violence to achieve this aim — mostly violence against fellow Muslims — who don't subscribe to its sick worldview.
"But you don't have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish. Ideas which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality. Ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation....
"And ideas also based on conspiracy: that Jews exercise malevolent power; or that Western powers, in concert with Israel, are deliberately humiliating Muslims, because they aim to destroy Islam. In this warped worldview, such conclusions are reached — that 9/11 was actually inspired by Mossad to provoke the invasion of Afghanistan; that British security services knew about 7/7, but didn't do anything about it because they wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash.
Cameron said the government had to do a much better job of challenging false narratives about why so many young people are attracted to Islamic extremism.
"Some argue it's because of historic injustices and recent wars, or because of poverty and hardship. This argument, what I call the grievance justification, must be challenged.
"So when people say 'it's because of the involvement in the Iraq War that people are attacking the West,' we should remind them: 9/11 — the biggest loss of life of British citizens in a terrorist attack — happened before the Iraq War.
"What I call the grievance justification, must be challenged.... When they say that these are wronged Muslims getting revenge on their Western wrongdoers, let's remind them: from Kosovo to Somalia, countries like Britain have stepped in to save Muslim people from massacres — it's groups like ISIL, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram that are the ones murdering Muslims.
"Now others might say: it's because terrorists are driven to their actions by poverty. But that ignores the fact that many of these terrorists have had the full advantages of prosperous families or a Western university education.
"Now let me be clear, I am not saying these issues aren't important. But let's not delude ourselves. We could deal with all these issues — and some people in our country and elsewhere would still be drawn to Islamist extremism.
"No — we must be clear. The root cause of the threat we face is the extremist ideology itself.
Cameron said young Muslims are drawn to Islamic extremism for four main reasons:
"One — like any extreme doctrine, it can seem energizing, especially to young people. They are watching videos that eulogize ISIL as a pioneering state taking on the world, that makes celebrities of violent murderers. So people today don't just have a cause in Islamist extremism; in ISIL, they now have its living and breathing expression.
"Two — you don't have to believe in barbaric violence to be drawn to the ideology. No-one becomes a terrorist from a standing start. It starts with a process of radicalization. When you look in detail at the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offenses, it is clear that many of them were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists. It may begin with hearing about the so-called Jewish conspiracy and then develop into hostility to the West and fundamental liberal values, before finally becoming a cultish attachment to death. Put another way, the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination.
"Three — the adherents of this ideology are overpowering other voices within Muslim debate, especially those trying to challenge it. There are so many strong, positive Muslim voices that are being drowned out.... When we allow the extremists to set the terms of the debate in this way, is it any wonder that people are attracted to this ideology?
"Four — there is also the question of identity. For all our successes as multi-racial, multi-faith democracy, we have to confront a tragic truth that there are people born and raised in this country who don't really identify with Britain — and who feel little or no attachment to other people here. Indeed, there is a danger in some of our communities that you can go your whole life and have little to do with people from other faiths and backgrounds.
Cameron then outlined a four-pronged strategy to address each of the four points just mentioned:
First, the government would aggressively confront "the cultish worldview" of radical Islam with "our strongest weapon — our own liberal values." Cameron said:
"We should expose their extremism for what it is — a belief system that glorifies violence and subjugates its people — not least Muslim people. We should contrast their bigotry, aggression and theocracy with our values. We have, in our country, a very clear creed and we need to promote it much more confidently. Wherever we are from, whatever our background, whatever our religion, there are things we share together."
Second, Cameron said the government would work harder to halt the process of radicalization, which has "often sucked people in from non-violence to violence," by confronting anyone who promotes any part of the "extremist narrative," even non-violent extremists.
"We've got to show that if you say 'yes I condemn terror — but the Kuffar [unbelievers] are inferior,' or 'violence in London isn't justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter' — then you too are part of the problem. Unwittingly or not, and in a lot of cases it's not unwittingly, you are providing succor to those who want to commit, or get others to commit to, violence.
Third, the government would "actively encourage" moderate Muslims, especially those who are working toward a "reformation" of Islam, one that would be "free from the poison of Islamist extremism." Cameron said:
"These reforming voices, they have a tough enough time as it is: the extremists are the ones who have the money, the leaders, the iconography and the propaganda machines. We need to turn the tables. We can't stand neutral in this battle of ideas. We have to back those who share our values. So here's my offer.
"If you're interested in reform; if you want to challenge the extremists in our midst; if you want to build an alternative narrative or if you just want to help protect your kids — we are with you and we will back you — with practical help, with funding, with campaigns, with protection and with political representation."
Fourth, Cameron said more needed to be done to improve integration, including the desegregation of schools and communities. He said:
"Now let me be clear. I'm not talking about uprooting people from their homes or schools and forcing integration. But I am talking about taking a fresh look at the sort of shared future we want for our young people. In terms of housing, for example, there are parts of our country where segregation has actually increased or stayed deeply entrenched for decades.
"So the government needs to start asking searching questions about social housing, to promote integration, to avoid segregated social housing estates where people living there are from the same single minority ethnic background."
Cameron announced several concrete measures aimed at stopping the spread of Islamic extremism in Britain. He said that parents who are worried that their children may be about to travel to Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State would be able to apply for their child's passport to be cancelled.
Image source: No. 10 Downing Street.
In an effort to increase reporting of forced marriage, Cameron pledged to draft a new law that would provide lifetime anonymity for victims of such crimes, and he promised new "measures to guard against the radicalization of children in so-called supplementary schools or tuition centers."
Cameron also said that Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, should be given new powers to close down access to the UK for foreign television channels that broadcast "hate preachers" and extremist content. He also urged broadcasters and Internet companies to stop giving platforms to Islamic extremists.
The Cameron government intends to publish its official Counter-Extremism Strategy this fall.
Reaction to Cameron's speech has been varied. In an essay for the Gatestone Institute, British commentator Douglas Murray wrote that Cameron had outlined the problem of Islamic extremism "better than perhaps any other Western leader to date." But Murray also pointed out the glaring contradiction between Cameron's words and deeds: while pledging to confront Islamic extremism, he is also seeking to lift sanctions on Iran, the "most extreme, anti-Western nation-destroyer of them all."
In an editorial, the Guardian wrote about the free speech aspects of Cameron's plan:
"You cannot convincingly claim, as Mr. Cameron did, that free speech is a core British value, if you then go on to explain that you are going to 'put out of action the key extremist influencers who are careful to operate inside the law but who clearly detest British society and everything we stand for ... and stop them peddling their hatred.' Again, it might be a defensible policy, assuming it were technically feasible, to strengthen the powers of Ofcom to censor foreign channels that 'broadcast hate preachers and extremist content,' but it can't be sold as a defense of free speech....
"With all that said, the speech gets the central point entirely right. We are engaged here in a great ideological and even spiritual struggle with violent jihadism: a battle of ideas and values, which will be fought in the imagination as much as by police work or military force."
According to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal:
"Mr. Cameron isn't infallible when it comes to speaking about Islamism. He recently called on the BBC to stop using the term 'Islamic State' to refer to the group violently constructing a new caliphate across the Middle East, on the theory that using the group's own name for itself creates the impression it's a legitimate Islamic entity. But playing these name games evades the very problem Mr. Cameron is trying to address."
Middle East scholar Ranj Alaaldin wrote:
"The government's dedication to fighting radical Islam through its words and its deeds must be welcomed. For much too long, groups like ISIS have been exploiting an ideological vacuum that has resulted from the absence of conviction and narrative from the government, one that should be defining the country's values and principles and challenging ISIS's brand of radical Islam."
Hazel Blears, the Labour Party's former Secretary of State for Communities, praised Cameron's proposals as "welcome and necessary wake-up call for all of us." But she warned that the road ahead will not be easy: "There will of course be voices who will denounce his proposals as an attack on Islam."
The Chief Executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, Mohammed Shafiq, said:
"I am concerned that yet again Cameron is conflating the issue of extremism and terrorism with those of cohesion and integration. He says that Muslims are not doing enough to integrate and that risks fostering extremism — but just what is enough and how do you measure it?
"There is also a contradiction between Mr Cameron extolling British values such as free speech and then suggesting that Muslims who object to gay equality are somehow extremist and their views should not be tolerated. Everyone in this country, Muslims included, must have a right to express their views, no matter how intolerant they are."
The assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Miqdaad Versi, said:
"The worry is that the focus is on ideology as the primary cause of terrorism and radicalization and that does not seem to tie very well with the academic research that seems to suggest that, in actual fact, the causes of terrorism are multifaceted. There is a risk of over-simplifying the issue.
"I think it's very important to ensure there is a clear and unambiguous understanding of what is meant by extremism: what forms of free speech are going to be tailored and stopped."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.