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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There are two sides to the Muslim segregation story

White families must also be prepared to have Muslim neighbours. 

Dame Louise Casey finally published her review on social integration in Britain. Although it mentions all communities, there is a clear focus on Muslim communities. However, the issues she raises - religious conservatism, segregation in some areas and Muslim women experiencing inequalities -  are not new. In this case, they have been placed in one report and discussed in the context of hindering integration. If we are truly committed to addressing these issues, though, we have a duty of care to discuss the findings with nuance, not take them out of context, as some tabloids have already done.

The review, for example, highlights that in some areas Muslims make up 85 per cent of the local population. This should not be interpreted to mean that Muslims are choosing to isolate themselves and not integrate. For a start, the review makes it clear that there are also certain areas in Britain that are predominantly Sikh, Hindu or Jewish.

Secondly, when migrants arrive in the UK, it is not unreasonable for them to gravitate towards people from similar cultural and faith backgrounds.  Later, they may choose to remain in these same areas due to convenience, such as being able to buy their own food, accessing their place of worship or being near elderly relatives.

However, very little, if any, attention is given to the role played by white families in creating segregated communities. These families moved out of such areas after the arrival of ethnic minorities. This isn't necessarily due to racism, but because such families are able to afford to move up the housing ladder. And when they do move, perhaps they feel more comfortable living with people of a similar background to themselves. Again, this is understandable, but it highlights that segregation is a two-way street. Such a phenomenon cannot be prevented or reversed unless white families are also willing to have Muslim neighbours. Is the government also prepared to have these difficult conversations?

Casey also mentions inequalities that are holding some Muslim women back, inequalities driven by misogyny, cultural abuses, not being able to speak English and the high numbers of Muslim women who are economically inactive. It’s true that the English language is a strong enabler of integration. It can help women engage better with their children, have access to services and the jobs market, and be better informed about their rights.

Nevertheless, we should remember that first-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who could not speak English, have proved perfectly able to bring up children now employed in a vast range of professions including politics, medicine, and the law. The cultural abuses mentioned in the review such as forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation, are already being tackled by government. It would be more valuable to see the government challenge the hate crimes and discrimination regularly faced by Muslim women when trying to access public services and the jobs market. 

The review recommends an "Oath of Integration with British Values and Society" for immigrants on arrival. This raises the perennial question of what "British Values" are. The Casey review uses the list from the government’s counter-extremism strategy. In reality, the vast majority of individuals, regardless of faith or ethnic background, would agree to sign up to them.  The key challenge for any integration strategy is to persuade all groups to practice these values every day, rather than just getting immigrants to read them out once. 

Shaista Gohir is the chair of Muslim Women's Network UK, and Sophie Garner is the general secretary and a barrister.