According to Mark Townsend and Hannah Olivennes writing in the Observer, David Cameron is set to emerge this week as the victor in a long and “bitter cabinet battle” with Nick Clegg by unveiling a “hardline approach to tackling Islamist extremism”. Home Office sources say that Cameron has “quashed Nick Clegg’s argument for a more tolerant attitude to Muslim groups” by confirming the analysis he made in his Munich speech in February.
Writing in the Guardian, Allegra Stratton also predicts that “the government will make good Cameron’s pledge to ban foreign hate preachers and will bring in a new link between extremism and violent extremism”. Then, her Westminster sources suggest, there will be proper scrutiny of groups “to make sure they are effective, not extremist, and reflect mainstream British values”.
Clegg’s calculation seems to be that he will lose the argument but at least win credit amongst his party for articulating an alternative analysis and standing up to Cameron. Understandably and regrettably, Clegg has been overly cautious, merely objecting to Cameron’s posturing against multiculturalism while declining a perfect opportunity to defend specific Muslim organisations and individuals that have been unfairly labeled extremist by Cameron.
To illustrate, if the Observer is right that the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board has had its annual public funding withdrawn because it “has links to the hard-line Muslim Association of Britain” then Clegg has missed a golden opportunity to challenge a fundamentally flawed policy. In fact the MAB has an outstanding track record of tackling violent extremism in the UK as I describe in my new book .
It is also on this point that Clegg might qualify the argument Stratton ascribes to Charles Farr, head of OSCT at the Home Office “that to get to the really nasty guys, you have to engage with the not-so-nasty guys”. In certain cases that may indeed be the case but what is needed right now are more brave politicians on the front bench like Jeremy Corbyn on the back benches who are prepared to stand up for their Muslim partners against unfounded allegations of extremism.
In labeling many mainstream Muslim organisations as “extremist”, Cameron reveals his affinity with Tony Blair, not Clegg. Cameron has always admired Blair’s populist instinct throughout the war on terror – even though he tries to distance himself from its worst excesses now. Blair’s genuine special relationship with George Bush, a Republican, and Cameron’s superficial special relationship with Barack Obama, a Democrat, are both premised largely on the war on terror and an analysis that conflates many of their own Muslim citizens who oppose US / UK foreign policy in the Muslim world with a handful of violent and non violent extremists and terrorists.
While waiting a long time for Barack Obama to shake hands with hundreds of admiring parliamentarians in Westminster Hall David Cameron turned away from Clegg and stood listening attentively to Tony Blair. Blair was familiarly animated and passionate and Cameron appeared genuinely interested in what he had to say. While it was purely idle speculation on my part it did strike me that Blair may have been talking about violent extremism as this is perhaps the one topic where the two prime ministers’ views are fundamentally inseparable.
Indeed, although Cameron was at pains in his Munich speech in February to create the impression that he was breaking with the past he was in fact completing the policy Blair had begun to implement himself. According to Townsend and Olivennes, Home Office sources say that “Cameron has quashed Nick Clegg’s argument for a more tolerant attitude to Muslim groups by insisting on a strategy centred upon the notion that violent extremism is incubated within the ideology of non-violent extremism”.
This is a policy first prescribed by Michael Gove and his friends at Policy Exchange and set now to become Home Office policy. It is also an extension of the policy that the arch Blairites, Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears first began to implement when they enjoyed brief control at the Department for Communities and Local Government.
In fact, the popular notion that there is a conveyor belt from non-violent ideology to violent extremism or terrorism has been utterly discredited by academics and counter-terrorist practitioners. It always was a triumph of New Labour spin over reality. It seems extraordinary that Cameron will be allowed to consolidate such a misguided policy this week without at least one cabinet voice being raised in defence of the many Muslim organisations and individuals that will be falsely labeled extremist by it.
In 2008 Clegg tackled Policy Exchange head on when he defended the annual London Muslim event Global Peace and Unity against unfair allegations and pejorative back door briefings. Clegg is less inclined to show such bravery now as deputy prime minister. Not only is he up against Tory hawks but he also has to contend with a pro-active Blairite rump that continues to hold sway on this topic in the Labour Party. In effect, Clegg is the outsider up against an undeclared Cameron-Blair /Tory-Labour counter-terrorism coalition.
Robert Lambert is the co-director of the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter.