In defence of David Cameron’s speech on multiculturalism

Yesterday’s voices are increasingly becoming boring, and I for one am glad that the ground is shifti

Some reactions to the Prime Minister's speech yesterday have been the best evidence for the point he was trying to make.

Let us put aside the use of contested terms. As if bandying about the term neoconservativism – in a rather "muscular liberal" way, may I add – were any less emotionally charged than the term "multiculturalism". Let us put aside the coincidence (and the subsequent unrealistic demand arising from it) that the speech was made on the day of an EDL march in Luton. As if the machinery of an international conference of heads of state and a prime minister's agenda were that easy to move around. Let us put aside the way that media pundits have reported it, as if sensational reporting were ever controllable by anyone, let alone the government. Let us put aside the typical sidestep (regularly resorted to by people who have themselves received government grants) that Quilliam, my think tank, "receives government grants" and hence will naturally "defend" the speech. In case you missed it, Quilliam has had its public money completely cut under Cameron's coalition government. And I am rather known for challenging and debating government representatives on a range of matters, such as my opposition to banning Hizb ut-Tahrir, to censorship and to profiling – just search the web.

Indeed, let us stop clutching at straws, and for once actually focus on the content of the speech itself. And that is possible if we read it rather than automatically adopt the victimhood caricature that has embarrassingly come to be associated with so many Muslim commentators. I for one find it hard to conclude that this time the Prime Minister's speech is anything but balanced, nuanced and reasonable. Some ideologues will never be happy, and for them it is this very nuance that has now become the problem.

Here we have, finally, a speech which recognises that there are more than Islamist forms of extremism. Here we have a speech that acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between two extremes: of Islamism and anti-Muslim fascism. Here we have a speech that criticises minaret and headscarf bans, and asserts that conservative practice of the Islamic faith is not the same as extremism.

I say to my fellow Muslim commentators, seriously, what more could you want from a Conservative prime minister? Coming out wholeheartedly against this speech, in an atmosphere of increasing community polarisation, is a self-defeating form of victimhood that only serves to further the very polarisation Cameron is worried about.

The fact is that there is a serious problem of extremism with minority groups within Muslim communities. The fact is that there is a similar level of far-right fascism on the rise. The speech addresses both, and the EDL march only reinforces this point. The fact is that our communities are growing together and apart. Visit Tower Hamlets, and then visit Dagenham, preferably in the course of the same day. Aside from the socially mobile urban elite, are Britons really living together, or are we living in mutually suspicious monocultural enclaves? And yet surely that is exactly what multiculturalism was supposed to bring to an end, whatever one's interpretation of the term?

As with Egypt, we are living in a world where comfortable parameters steeped in colonial assumptions are shifting very fast. Gone are the old frames of reference, Islamism or secular dictatorship, multiculturalism or fascism. Yesterday's voices are increasingly becoming boring, and I for one am glad that the ground is shifting.

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?