David Cameron on a visit to a Manchester mosque in 2013. Photo: Darren Staples/WPA Pool/Getty
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Why is David Cameron using British Muslims as the scapegoat for his government’s failings?

The prime minister’s approach to radicalisation sees Muslims as somehow the pure product of their religion, not as British citizens, while also conveniently glossing over government failings.

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.

Myriam Francois is a writer, broadcaster and academic with a focus on current affairs, the Middle East, Islam and France. She currently works as a broadcast journalist for TRT world, a global news network, and was the presenter of documentaries including BBC One's “A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited”.

She is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at SOAS University, where her research focuses on British Muslim integration issues. She also undertakes the centre’s media outreach and research dissemination in relation to its work on British Muslim communities.
Myriam is currently a PhD (DPhil) researcher at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. 

She tweets @MFrancoisCerrah

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Nick Timothy’s defence of Theresa May raises more questions than it answers

It would be better for May’s reputation if she had known about those vans.

Nick Timothy makes an eyebrow-raising claim in his Telegraph column today: that Theresa May opposed the notorious “Go Home” vans that trundled through diverse parts of the country advising illegal immigrants to leave the country – actually claiming she went as far as to block them – but the scheme was “revived and approved” in a press plan while she was on holiday.

Some people are assuming that this story is flatly untrue, and not without good reason. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has dug out a written answer from Amber Rudd saying that while Mark Harper, a junior Home Office minister, approved the vans, he informed May of the scheme ahead of time. The timeframe also stretches credulity somewhat. This is the same government department that having decided to destroy the landing cards of Windrush Britons in June 2009, still had yet to locate a shredder by October 2010. Whitehall takes years to approve advertising campaigns and even the process of hiring a van is not simple: so it stretches credulity a tad to imagine that the Home Office would sign off a poster, hire a van and a driver, all without it either coming across the desk of the Home Secretary or her special advisor. That no official faced dismissal as a result stretches it further still.

However, it is worth noting that Mark Harper, the minister who approved the vans, was the only serving minister to have worked with May at the Home Office who did not continue on in government when she became Prime Minister – instead, she sacked him from his post. The Home Office acting off its own bat would support the belief, not uncommon among civil servants at other Whitehall departments, that Britain’s interior ministry is out of control: that it regularly goes further than its ministerial mandate and that it has an institutional dislike of the people it deals with day to day. So while it seems unlikely that the vans reached the streets without May or her advisors knowing, it is not impossible.

However, that raises more questions than it answers. If you take the Timothy version of events as true, that means that May knew the following things about the Home Office: that they were willing to not only hide the facts from ministers but to actively push ahead with policy proposals that the Secretary of State had dropped. Despite knowing that, she championed a vast increase in the powers and scope of the Home Office in the 2014 Immigration Act and at the peak of her powers in 2016 did the same as Prime Minister. She made no effort to address this troubling culture for the remaining three years she served as Home Secretary, and promoted three of her juniors, none of whom appear to have done anything to address it either, to big jobs across the government. It means that she had little grip over her department an no inclination to assert it. (Indeed, this is why the Secretary of State is held responsible even for decisions that they don’t sign off – as otherwise you have no democratic accountability at all.)

If those vans were sprung on May and her political team, that is even more troubling than the idea that they approved them.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.