David Cameron visiting a mosque in Manchester, in 2013. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

State-sanctioned prejudice is at the heart of David Cameron's approach to countering extremism

Behind the Prime Minister's self-serving speech about fighting extremist views is an illiberal attack on our freedoms.

Last year, Olive Tree Primary School in Blackburn was being investigated because a teaching assistant had allegedly discussed, “stoning for gay people” and “condemned music and clapping as satanic”.

As a consequence, Olive Tree primary, as well as other schools within the Islamic trust, Tauheedul Education, were visited by Ofsted. Although no evidence of extremism was found, suspicion here – like elsewhere in the case of schools affected by the so-called Trojan Horse scandal – has lingered.

Unlike the front page headlines parading schools as hotbeds of Islamic extremism, news that Olive Tree primary and three other schools run by the trust have since been classed as “outstanding” in every category by Ofsted has been much less prominent.

Yet accusations of extremism have seen schools struggle to recruit and retain staff – a reality that Sir Mike Tomlinson, Birmingham's Education Commissioner, has described as “the biggest issue facing schools” in the area.

Cameron’s decision to deliver his big address on how to tackle extremism from within a school in Birmingham was entirely calculated to set the stage for schools as the battleground for counter-extremism.

The choice of location speaks to the recent so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, which, despite being debunked by at least five official investigations that found "no evidence of a conspiracy" nor of "a sustained plot", continues to be used as the basis for seemingly never-ending state encroachment into the private sphere of Muslim citizens – now including Muslim children.

All this is despite a huge backlash from educationalists, teachers, as well as academics against the increasing securitisation of education and the perils this poses to the very objectives of education – namely, a frank exploration of knowledge, within a trust-based environment.

David Lundie, a senior lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope university, who has actively opposed the new powers of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, points out that the statutory duty now incumbent on teachers to report suspected “extremism” did not apply to educators in the prison system in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, when educators understood the importance of open dialogue in “de-radicalising” the adherents of violent ideology.

But learning lessons from the past isn’t this government’s forte.

The Prime Minister’s address this week was meant to set out a new vision for counter-extremism, but for keen observers of the government’s befuddled strategy (or lack thereof) it sounded decidedly familiar.

But there were a few caveats – the saving graces of an otherwise patronising and ill-advised speech. For a start, the PM recognised the “profound contribution Muslims from all backgrounds and denominations” “in every sphere of our society” and, most significantly, recognised that extremism is a threat first and foremost to Muslims – to Muslims in regions where they hold sway and those in the UK who may be targeted for grooming, or who may come under attack from far-right extremists.

The reality of the latter situation is stark, what with a bomb being left outside mosques as recently as last month, and an Asian man recently hacked at with a machete by a man shouting white power slogans.

Acknowledging Muslims as partners, not a “swamp” harbouring terrorist crocodiles, to paraphrase the rather gauche Michael Gove, is certainly progress.

Some of the initiatives laid out for countering the appeal of Daesh – such as giving a platform to its victims or empowering those communities most affected to speak out – are important in countering its propaganda.

Tackling segregation and discrimination, improving social mobility, and even the proposal to establish a new community engagement forum are constructive ideas.

But while there was some encouraging talk of working with communities, the government’s key failure has been its inability to identify extremism and its causes correctly, a misgiving that can be more than partially attributed to its selective hearing.

Cameron has once again laid out – as in Bratislava last month, and Munich before – a definition of the threat being faced that perpetuates the same tired, misplaced and critically, unsubstantiated notion that “what we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology”.

Ideology – or ideas – do not exist in a vacuum. They are the product of material factors, which, when ignored, reduce the battle against extremism to a cosmic battle of ideas. This is exactly the terrain upon which the terrorists would like it to be played out, rather than in the real world circumstances producing anger and disaffection.

Ideology plays its part; it is the packaging of political concepts to render them accessible and attractive. But it’s hardly the core.

The issue of defining the nature of extremism has been a longstanding government struggle. Most recently, a working definition was set out, the brilliant irony of which was typified by a now classic interview with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who, when asked to provide an example of the kind of behaviour from a pupil that should trigger an anti-extremism intervention, wriggled nervously before responding – homophobia.

Her intervention might of course have proven more compelling had she not voted against gay marriage twice herself, at least on one occasion in reference to her own religious views as a Christian.

And why not? There are plenty of folk whose views, religious or otherwise, might prompt them to vote against gay marriage, but to suggest this is the basis upon which children – and let’s be honest, Muslim children specifically – ought to be investigated is where comical policy blunder switches to dangerous criminalisation of children.

The speech also reiterated the notion that some ideas, although not calls to violence, are too subversive to be allowed expression. Think carefully about that statement. There are ideas which need criminalising.

Now, I write as someone who frequently denounces what I regard to be institutionalised forms of prejudice – racism. But I have never once suggested that racists should be jailed, unless, of course, they are inciting violence.

I do, however, believe communities and society as a whole have a responsibility to challenge prejudice. Anti-Semitic jokes aren’t funny. Sexist innuendos don’t deserve lockdown, but they should be shut down. The suggestion that we should regard the expression of critical views of anything from liberal democracy to foreign policy as harbingers of extremism should make us all shudder.

In a free society, citizens must be able to express unpalatable views: subversive ideas, counter-cultural perspectives that contribute to challenging the status quo. Shutting down the fringes is counterproductive at every level – it forces such voices underground, limits free speech and fosters a climate of fear in which certain ideas are deemed not simply bad taste, but worthy of police intervention.

The great hypocrisy of Cameron’s speech is of course that the far-right has for generations expressed the sorts of ideas that bear considerable continuity with those who then go on to attack minorities. But groups from Britain First and the EDL, far from being shut down, are permitted to march through some of our most diverse cities in an act of clear provocation.

The parallels being drawn between Muslim extremists and far-right extremists are themselves questionable, not least because Muslim extremists – the limelight-aspiring Al-Muhajiroun aside – don’t tend to be very public. They function underground, often online and, contrary to popular belief, out of sight of the community that has shown itself prepared to ban speakers from premises and flag violent concerns from co-religionists to the police.

The ideals of violent Muslim extremists are not tolerated in your local mosque, nor are they accepted in schools or local community associations. Their voices are not regular contributors to flagship programmes that shape public opinion, such as that of Douglas Murray, from the Henry Jackson Society, who puts a plummy twist on a fascist classic with his view that “all immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop" and who has previously argued that the EDL should be “given the benefit of doubt”.

This brings me to the next trope in Cameron’s woolly speech: the idea that Muslims are somehow in the grip of mad conspiracy theories. Who are the overpaid incompetents who convinced the PM that conspiracy theories should top the list of concerns regarding British Muslims? And why only Muslims? Is David Ike about to become a banned entity?

And how about the decision to throw in a host of social ills with no connection to extremism – from FGM to religious councils to forced marriages – none of which are the exclusive purview of the Muslim community.

Nor do they have any discernible link to radicalisation, unless you count the far-right trope that Muslim communities bring with them an array of “problems” – a stereotyping and essentialising of Muslims for which Tommy Robinson himself couldn’t have dreamt up a more prominent platform.

But the most galling aspect of David’s monologue was the attempt to undermine the most academically-grounded, widely-recognised notion that foreign policy grievances play a significant role in motivating attacks by Muslim extremists; what he attempts to recast as “the grievance justification”.

He spoke as if anger at the death of innocent men, women and children in invasions of sovereign nations, or support for brutal autocracies, could simply be rebranded as an “excuse” to cover up that the true source of anger – recast as “hate” – is something within Islam itself.

Cameron also seeks to undermine the very significant concept of alienation, with attendant concepts such as relative poverty, or the disconnect between aspirations and real world expectations. This feeling can, in fact, be greater in highly-qualified individuals who fail to see their hopes matched by reality, and are consequently more open to counter-cultural messages of self-assertion. A Western education and a flat screen TV are hardly a preserve against a sense of discrimination or thwarted dreams.

It is a sad indictment of the government’s attempts to tackle extremism properly that it continues to peddle the same, unsubstantiated, widely-debunked and frankly self-serving “conveyor belt” theory of extremism. This theory somehow holds that anyone with socially conservative views is merely a few steps away from blowing us all up.

The truth is, the profile of those engaging in terrorist activists, those ordering Islam for Dummies online, is less befitting of the notion of pious devotees, and much closer to the classic model of a political radical enamoured by the latest articulation of subversion.

The notion bandied about in Cameron’s speech that “the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination” would be true if the definition of extremism wasn’t so broad as to encompass opponents to gay marriage, monarchists, anarchists, communists, Nigel Farage – we’ve now reached a stage where it is no longer possible not to be a liberal within a liberal democracy. Or, more accurately, it is no longer possible to be a socially conservative Muslim within liberal Britain.

Cameron of course would deny that the policies outlined are Muslim-specific, even if, as the Tory insider Paul Goodman clearly indicates on his blog, the speech was “mainly addressed to Britain’s Muslims”.

It is Muslim children being targeted through intrusive questionnaires. It is Muslim majority schools that have become the focus of a witch hunt dressed up as a “neutral” Ofsted inspection. It is Muslims who are primarily affected by our decision to sign away some of our most cherished civil liberties, under the guise of the protection of “British values”, all the while upbraiding those who challenge their “suspension” –  the stripping of British citizens of their nationality, the introduction of secret courts, undermining open justice, and a raft of proposals under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 that civil liberties campaign group Liberty describes as “as unsafe as they are unfair”.

The PM spoke of establishing a “community engagement forum” to marginalise “non-violent extremists” and allow “moderate” voices to be heard, which seems like a perfect antidote if the government weren’t determined to engineer the nature of the discussion by selecting only the types of voices likely not to rock the boat.

We need not look too far back in recent political history to recall the disastrous attempt by Hazel Blears, then Tony Blair’s Communities Secretary, to set up various groups with the intent of socially engineering a politically acceptable form of Islam.

We definitely don’t need more of that, thanks.

For all the berating of community leaders as little more than “professional Muslims”, the fact is their replacement with Whitehall-manufactured voices, dressed up for the sake of legitimacy in half-baked think tanks, is no improvement. Bring back the Mr Khans, I say. At least they actually know where the community centre is.

The notion that government is going to “actively encourage the reforming and moderate Muslim voices” should make any self-respecting secularist shudder. Why is the state meddling in the religious practices of its citizens? And do we really aspire to a state that seeks to dictate the nature of “correct” religious praxis?

This sounds less liberal democracy and more religious autocracy. Unless you’re not Muslim of course, in which case your religious freedom isn’t under threat. And that, I believe, is quite possibly the definition of state-sanctioned prejudice.

“This extremist ideology is not true Islam,” added Cameron – a statement that might have been met with relief were the implication of it not that the government is somehow beholden to the meaning of “true Islam” and prepared to try and enforce it.

“We can’t stand neutral in this battle of ideas. We have to back those who share our values,” he continued. But standing neutral is exactly what the secular state should do.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist and broadcaster (France, Middle East and North Africa, Islam) and a DPhil candidate in Middle Eastern studies at Oxford University.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.