David Cameron’s speech yesterday in Birmingham on extremism was rightly heavily trailed. Given the death toll from violent Islamist extremism in the Middle East, and the threat to our own citizens at home, few subjects can be more important. It was a long speech, over 5,500 words, as there was much ground to cover.
Reactions to the speech from British Muslims, both before and after its delivery, have been predictably polarised. Some of us see a round world, with Britain being one of the best countries in the world in which to be a Muslim as Baroness Warsi has said, while recognising that no country is incapable of improvement. Conversely others see a flat world in which the British Government seeks every opportunity to do down its Muslim citizens and to denigrate Islam, and have almost nothing positive to say about the country.
Taken together the beliefs and values that the PM mentioned both positively (such as supporting basic liberal values like democracy, freedom and sexual equality) and negatively (such as ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation and believing conspiracy theories about 9/11 or 7/7) provide a clear dividing line.
If someone is on the wrong side of the dividing line, in my view they are not a fit and proper person to be a teacher, the governor of a school or the trustee of a charity. I have served in many governance roles over the years, and none of the bodies I served on would ever dream of having a governor who held neo-Nazi views. We should be just as intolerant of non-violent Islamist extremists.
This is not about criminalising beliefs or limiting freedom of speech. For several years I have owned a copy of “Mein Kampf” which I bought while attending a university seminar on the implications and policy issues arising from the expiry of its copyright. While writing this piece, I bought a copy of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to demonstrate that it is possible, and that innocent purchasers of books which, while abhorrent, are freely available for sale, have nothing to fear from our security services.
Combating the religious aspects of Islamist extremism
I regard this as the most delicate part of David Cameron’s speech, but one which is necessary. The extremists put forward a view of Islam which is as monolithic as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s vision of socialism during Stalin’s reign. According to ISIS if you don’t believe exactly as they believe, you are not a Muslim, which is why they have no qualms about murdering large numbers of Shias, or even Sunnis who don’t agree with them.
Other Muslims are speaking up to counter this monolithic interpretation of Islam. It is a task for them; not for the Government. However the government can help; as the PM said the most basic thing it can provide is protection, so such Muslim voices are not silenced by threats or by actual violence.
The Government can do more. As a simple example it can fund more posts in Islamic studies at British universities to promote more scholarship about the history of Islam and of the diversity of thought that has always existed amongst Muslims.
Reactions to the speech amongst Muslims have varied, as one would expect. The Muslim Council of Britain’s initial response is at this link. I was struck by the following extract:
“We worry, however, that these latest suggestions will set new litmus tests which may brand us all as extremists, even though we uphold and celebrate the rule of law, democracy and rights for all. Dissenting is a proud tradition of ours that must not be driven underground.
Challenging extremist ideology is what we all want, but we need to define tightly and closely what extremism is rather than perpetuate a deep misunderstanding of Islam and rhetoric, which inevitably facilitates extremists to thrive.”
I don’t think there is any risk of the government setting “new litmus tests which may brand us all as extremists” because it is not stupid and it understands that a litmus test which branded all Muslims as extremists would be worse than useless.
If the MCB wants to help our country, one of the most useful things it could do is to publish its own criteria for distinguishing between non-violent Islamist extremists (who are beyond the pale) and the overwhelming majority of non-extremist Muslims.
George W Bush was no favourite of mine, and possibly an even more disastrous president than Warren Harding (long regarded as holding the wooden spoon amongst US presidents). However when he said after 9/11 that “You are either with us or against us” I think he was broadly right. There are some conflicts in which one cannot be a bystander, and the struggle against both violent and non-violent Islamist extremism is one of them.