Why David Cameron is wrong about radicalisation and multiculturalism

Under the pernicious influence of Michael Gove and other neoconservatives, the Prime Minister is sin

Michael Gove has won. Late last month, writing in the Spectator, the Telegraph's chief political commentator, Peter Oborne, drew our attention to the "neconservative" faction inside the Conservative-led government:

This section of the coalition also takes a hard line on domestic security arrangements, supporting control orders and the divisive Prevent strategy for confronting its special interpretation of the Islamic terror threat. Its key cabinet supporters include George Osborne, Liam Fox, Oliver Letwin, Michael Gove (whose book Celsius 7/7 sought to define the domestic war on terror with astonishing success) and, crucially, the Home Secretary, Theresa May. Baroness Neville-Jones, the one-time Whitehall spook who sits on the fancily named Security Council, is another well-placed though bone-headed supporter.

Oborne singled out Nick Clegg, the Conservative Party chairman, Sayeeda Warsi, and the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, as members of a smaller, rival faction of "One-Nation Tories and ineffectual Liberal Democrats". I would add Ken Clarke to this list.

But where does David Cameron, the Prime Minister, fit into all this? There have been reports over the years that the Tory leader has been torn between the neocons and the One-Nation types. In a much-discussed speech in September 2008, Cameron described himself as a "liberal Conservative, not a neoconservative". And a year and a half earlier, writing in the Observer of 13 May 2007 (in a piece entitled "What I learned from my stay with a Muslim family"), the then leader of the opposition rejected the Gove-esque obsession with "Islamism" and warned against the dangers of reckless rhetoric:

We must also be careful about the language we use . . . Our efforts are not helped by lazy use of language. Indeed, by using the word "Islamist" to describe the threat, we actually help do the terrorist ideologues' work for them.

But this morning's speech to the Munich Security Conference suggests that Gove has won the battle for the Prime Minister's heart and mind. In the middle of a speech that addressed segregation, radicalisation and "the doctrine of state multiculturalism", Cameron declared:

We need to be absolutely clear on where the origins of these terrorist attacks lie – and that is the existence of an ideology, "Islamist extremism".

He went on to argue:

Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism.

Strong stuff. To be honest, the content of Cameron's speech should have come as no surprise to us, as it has been trailed for weeks. And in recent days, I'm told, the Prime Minister has had meetings with Maajid Nawaz, the director of the "counter-extremism think tank" the Quilliam Foundation, which takes a hard line on engaging with so-called Islamists. (On a side note, Nawaz has a piece in this week's New Statesman on the revolt in Egypt and his own experiences as a prisoner in Hosni Mubarak's jails.)

Here are some of my thoughts on the speech, in no particular order:

1) How is this new, original or different? As I said, much of the Cameron speech fits in with a pre-existing, long-standing Gove/Quilliam/neoconservative agenda. And how is the "muscular liberalism" approach any different from the Tony Blair/John Reid/Charles Clarke/Hazel Blears approach? Cameron, for example, condemns those "soft-left" groups that "lump all Muslims together, compiling a list of grievances and arguing if only governments addressed them, this terrorism would stop". But so, too, did Blair. The former PM was as keen to hector Muslim groups about "integration" and "British values" as the current PM.

2) Perhaps Warsi should have a word with her party leader. Her recent speech on this subject may have been shown to No 10 in advance and Cameron's speech may have been shown in advance to the Conservative Party chair but Warsi and Cameron are now on different sides of this debate. The Tory peer, for example, condemned the media for dividing Muslims into "moderate" and "extremist" camps; the Prime Minister's provocative speech prompted this particularly odious headline in the Telegraph: "Muslims must embrace our British values, David Cameron says". (Why "odious"? Because it implies that the majority of Muslims don't embrace basic "British values" and aren't integrated, which, as Cameron knows, and I can attest, isn't true.)

3) We can have a debate on another day about whether a "doctrine of state multiculturalism" even exists, let alone whether or not it has "failed", but the key point here is to stress that the debate over multiculturalism has little to do with the debate over extremism and radicalisation. The two should be kept separate. Terrorism is a political problem; not a cultural problem. Extremists, violent or otherwise, come in all shapes and sizes, all colours and creeds. The English Defence League (see point five, below) is, in my view, made up of violent extremists and yet they are not a product of "multiculturalism", failed or otherwise. Some of the most high-profile terrorists in recent years have been "integrated" Muslims. Take Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ringleader of the London bombings in July 2005. He was a teaching assistant who impressed parents, colleagues and pupils at the school where he worked. As a teenager, he called himself "Sid" and spent most of his time playing football with white kids. Then there are the white, British-born people who convert to Islam and become terrorists, like Nicky Reilly or Oliver Savant – are they unaware of, or unfamiliar with, British values? Would teaching them to speak English help secure our airports or railway stations?

4) Cameron supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, as Prime Minister, is overseeing an ongoing, futile and brutal war in Afghanistan. He has said little about the devastating Israeli/Egyptian blockade of Gaza. These foreign policy issues tend to be drivers of extremism and radicalisation. Don't believe me? As I pointed out on the Guardian's Comment Is Free site last July:

At the 12th and final public hearing of the 9/11 commission on 16 June 2004 in Washington, DC, a phalanx of senior law-enforcement and intelligence officials from the US government arrived to offer their testimonies. "You've looked [at] and examined the lives of these people as closely as anybody . . . What have you found out about why these men did what they did?" asked Lee Hamilton, the former congressman and vice-chair of the commission. "What motivated them to do it?"

The answers to these questions were provided by supervisory special agent James Fitzgerald of the FBI. "I believe they feel a sense of outrage against the United States," he said. "They identify with the Palestinian problem, they identify with people who oppose repressive regimes and I believe they tend to focus their anger on the United States."

No mention of religion. No mention of Islam. No mention of virgins in heaven, 72 or otherwise. For the lead investigators into the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, politics, not faith, was the key motivating factor. Terrorism, as even that notorious Islamist-baiter Martin Amis once conceded, "is political communication by other means".

5) The timing of Cameron's speech is awful. It comes on a day on which the far-right English Defence League is marching in Luton in protest against Islam. As Nick Lowles, editor of Searchlight, writes, "What began as a street movement to oppose Islamic fundamentalism has broadened its target to the religion itself." He adds: "The EDL protest is likely to further alienate the Muslim community. Many Muslims will be more nervous; others are likely to be attracted by the extremist message peddled by Anjem Choudary and his Islam4UK group."

Yet Cameron did not spare a single one of the 2,476 words in his speech for the EDL – or for other far-right groups such as the BNP. He mentioned the word "Islamophobia" just once and that, too, in passing. As Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadan Foundation points out:

On the day we see fascists marching in Luton, we have seen no similar condemnation or leadership shown from the government.

Muslims and Muslim organisations, as the former Met police officer Robert Lambert argues on the Staggers blog, have a crucial role to play in the struggle against home-grown extremism and in the battle for the hearts and minds of young, angry, alienated Muslims. Cameron's simplistic speech has done more harm than good, and so have the predictable and depressing newspaper headlines that it provoked. It is a step backward rather than forward.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.