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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.