In a video message to British Muslims to mark the beginning of the Muslim month of fasting yesterday, David Cameron drew a parallel between Muslim values and British values, as he affirmed the important contribution of Muslims to society, as part of “one nation”. His point about Muslim values and British values overlapping seemed a timely and important one, particularly considering recent tensions in Birmingham and elsewhere.
But just 24 hours later – and in a perfect illustration of government doublespeak – the PM has decided that Muslim communities apparently aren’t part of the “one nation” as much as they are quietly complicit in support of Islamic State (IS), guilty of normalising hatred of “western values” and, despite radicalisation happening primarily covertly online, primarily to blame for that too.
In brief, Muslims – not just the violence-preaching minority – are a problem community. Ramadan Mubarak to you too, David.
The PM’s speech at a security conference in Slovakia today has echoes of his 2011 Munich speech, in which he announced a shift in counter-terrorism strategy to an assertion of “muscular liberalism” as a means of challenging ideas, not simply violent acts, deemed to be in contradiction with the ever nebulous “British values”. Despite much critique of the strategy and little in the way of success, it has endured, largely down to an ideological commitment to its survival among some of Cameron’s more hawkish advisors.
Today’s speech comes in the light of serious questions being posed over the departure of 17-year-old Talha Asmal and an entire family for IS controlled-territory. According to the Munich-style rhetoric repeated today, the root of their departure is to be located nowhere in Britain or its policies (domestic or foreign) and entirely within the realm of “ideas” – or “islamist ideology”. Because Muslims don’t live in Britain, they live in Islam. Or Islamism. Or whatever.
The truth of course is that while ideas play their part, material conditions have far more influence in determining people’s behaviour than ideas per se – something the government seems determined to ignore.
In his speech, Cameron stated that “we are ignoring the fact that the radicalisation starts with the individual” – but the reality is that individuals are enmeshed in structures. They are not floating atoms, they are part of a broader fabric that contributes to their sense of self and belonging – or lack thereof. That is partly the fabric of their local communities, but also, the fabric of broader society. To focus purely on individual motivations – or ideology – is to try and disculpate broader society from its responsibility to its citizens. It essentialises Muslims as somehow the pure product of their religion and conveniently glosses over government failings, not least most recently in how a family known to the security services, with a close relative already fighting in Syria, was allowed to leave the country with young children in tow.
“The cause is ideological”, Cameron repeated, adding that non-violent views – or a pervasive “extreme Islamist narrative weight” – a phrase so poorly constructed it could only have been designed to obfuscate – paves the way to violent radicalisation. Those familiar with the defunct, yet decidedly resilient in Westminster circles “conveyor belt theory”, will recognise its hallmark. An indication that Cameron continues to be taken by narratives of radicalisation which have been debunked by everyone from former MI5 officers to leading terrorism experts.
And the reason the government is so poorly informed is that it has made the ill-advised decision to ignore local communities in favour of unrepresentative and ideologically-driven think tanks with little claim to authority beyond the fact their founders were naïve enough to join a pseudo-revolutionary Islamic group at university. Credentials indeed. The consequences are dire – a misplaced counterterrorism policy and a growing chasm between government and the very communities it should be working to build trust and cooperation, further alienating the very pool from which recruiters seek out marginalised youngsters. Hole in one!
But it gets better – or worse, as it were. It is those same communities that then become targets for hate as a consequence of the PM’s claim that they somehow quietly support IS. A study released just two days ago by Teesside University shows that Muslims in Britain are becoming the target of hate crimes in retribution for terrorist attacks around the world. You couldn’t design state-sanctioned prejudice better than to tar an entire community with alleged complicity in the “evil” of our time. Who exactly, in the mainstream Muslim community, condones IS? Name and shame them. There is nothing more insidious than an unfounded generalisation, which sows seeds of doubt without ever naming the culprits.
The allegation is all the more dumbfounding when you consider the sheer number of Muslim-run initiatives to try and tackle IS propaganda, such as the campaign launched last year by leading UK-based Shia and Sunni imams who united over sectarian divides to film a video message urging young British Muslims against fighting in Iraq and Syria. Or the recent open letter by 120 of some of the world’s most senior Muslim scholars to IS, in which they meticulously blew apart its ideology through recourse to mainstream Islamic theology. The initiatives are there for those who bother to look.
It isn’t just the 24-hour disparity in government tone that makes today’s speech so jarring. With what moral authority does the government lambast Muslims about British values, when it ignores them in our international dealings? The PM was right to denounce IS as a group encouraging child marriage and women’s servitude (“to live in a place where marriage is legal at nine and where women’s role is to serve…”), but he seemed to miss the irony of the statement given Britain’s key ally Saudi Arabia’s propensity to condone those very same actions. Not to mention their shared love of beheadings. What weight is to be given to a discourse on human rights, the rule of law and tolerance as “British values” when the man embodying their official representation recently invited General Sisi, responsible according to Human Rights Watch for the “most dramatic reversal of human rights in Egypt’s modern history” to the UK? Or when the same government pushes for policies which result in refugees fleeing war being left to drown?
These inconsistencies aren’t lost on those who see in the discourse on “British values” just another means to cement an increasingly official form of prejudice. One aspect of discrimination is double standards, whereby expectations are higher of stigmatised groups than of dominant groups. The “British values” Cameron advocates are – polls indicate – widely shared by British Muslims. Accountability, fairness, the rule of law. Which means Muslims won’t settle for a patronising Ramadan message slipped under the table, while the same community is rendered a national scapegoat.