In the decade since the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, the British government’s response to the threats posed by Islamist extremism has too often been haphazard and disjointed. These failings – as well as what David Cameron called the “failures of integration” in a speech in Birmingham on 20 July – have contributed to many hundreds of Muslim Britons, young and old, travelling to Iraq and Syria to live under the self-declared Islamic State (IS), perhaps the most malignant force in the world today. Something is seriously wrong if British citizens would rather join IS than live in an open, plural society.
In opposition, Mr Cameron gave an important speech to the Community Security Trust in which he first identified the dangers of non-violent extremism. He reiterated this in his speech in Birmingham but went much further. If “non-violent” extremists – preachers, teachers, community leaders – create the moral imperatives for violence, he said, government must engage in the “battle of ideas” informing their world-views. Too many politicians have shied away from doing so, considering it a problem that only Muslims could deal with. There is some truth in this – after all, Muslim liberals and reformers will have to take the lead in confronting extremist interpretations of their faith. Yet the Prime Minister is right to offer them his explicit backing and support.
Because these Islamist extremists are British and their narratives of grievance and struggle are informed by this country’s policies, the Prime Minister is correct to argue that the government cannot be a passive onlooker as British Muslims contest the varying constructions of their faith.
Mr Cameron’s rhetoric about a “five-year plan” has been backed up by what has the makings of a coherent and nuanced strategy, countering “warped” extremist ideology and radicalisation by empowering the government to take action against individuals or groups considered to be espousing such views. Accompanying this strident approach will be attempts to address the “drowning out” of moderate voices, aiming to isolate extremists from the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims in Britain. It is a powerful and necessary step forward in the UK’s anti-extremism strategy. Perhaps most significant is the promise to adopt an “inclusive” approach to the problem: working with British Muslims rather than alienating them. “The extremists are the ones who have the money, the leaders, the iconography and the propagandamachines,” Mr Cameron said. “We have to back those who share our values.”
As the Muslim Council of Britain stressed, it is now incumbent on the Prime Minister to engage with “all sections of the community, including mainstream Muslim organisations and those who have differing views”. Too often, Mr Cameron has failed to do so: he has visited a mosque only once in five years in office. Now would be a good time to rectify that lamentable record. He should also pay heed to the review by the civil servant Louise Casey into boosting opportunities and integration for minority groups.
When Mr Cameron refers to Islamic extremism as the “struggle of our generation”, it is hard to accuse him of hyperbole. The urgency is undoubtedly overdue and brings with it the promise of mending the government’s fraught relationship with significant sections of the Muslim community.