According to James Forsyth, David Cameron will soon make his first major domestic speech on Islamist extremism. It is already being labelled “Munich Two”: a nod to the fact that his fullest statements on the problem to date have been made abroad, first in Munich in 2011 and second in Bratislava recently. Both sets of remarks were sandwiched into wider-ranging speeches on defence and security policy. He has not yet devoted one solely to extremism and delivered it here in Britain – before an audience of British Muslims.
Such will surely be his audience, at least in part, when the speech is delivered. There would be little point in making it were this not the case. For although extremism here and abroad isn’t confined to some followers of one religion – a point that the Prime Minister should put right at the start of his remarks – no other form menaces public security on the same scale. Other extremists have killed innocent people on British soil since the IRA ended its terror campaign: three died in the Admiral Duncan bombing in 1999 at the hands of a neo-nazi. But the Islamist threat exists on a bigger scale.
The mass murder of British holidaymakers in Tunisia is a reminder of its evil and potency. Nor can we be comforted by believing ourselves safe on our own soil: remember 7/7, 21/7, the attack on Glasgow airport, the murder of Lee Rigby. Cameron long ago concluded that a main driver of Islamist violence is Islamist ideology: the belief that we should live not equally under the law in a nation state, but under pre-modern law (that’s to say, under a literalist reading of sharia law, unmediated by modern western living or classical Islamic scholarship), and be treated by it on the basis of religion – with all that this implies for women, gay people, followers of other religions and liberal democracy itself.
ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood disagree about a very great deal, but the beliefs of both flow from the same source: politicised and violent religion, expressed in the writings of Qutb (and, on the sub-continent, Maududi) – a reaction to the failure of the wider Middle East, as Baathism and secular dictatorship were in previous decades. This is why the Prime Minister refers to “poisonous ideology” in a Daily Telegraph article today: indeed, he likes the phrase so much that he uses it twice. In opposition, he was pulled one way by Michael Gove, Pauline Neville-Jones and (insofar as it made any difference) myself, and the other by Sayeeda Warsi and Dominic Grieve.
The first camp stressed the centrality of combating ideology, the second the importance of gaining support – “winning Muslim hearts and minds”. If politicians can be divided into warriors and healers, Cameron is a healer: by inclination and experience, he is a pragmatic One Nation Tory with an instinct for compromise and a necessary focus on winning votes. His flintiness on Islamist extremism, which I have seen at first-hand, is thus rather surprising. He is said to have been scarred by a visit during his opposition days to Birmingham Central Mosque, where he was told that 9/11 was a false flag operation carried out by “the Jews”.
This was an extreme manifestation of a problem recently demonstrated, in a different form, by the husbands of wives who have gone to Syria to join Isis: when in trouble, blame someone else. But the Prime Minister will be mindful of other core facts. The overwhelming majority of British Muslims do not support ISIS or Al Qaeda. Most of them have little time for politics and simply want to get on with their lives, just like everyone else. And although there is no national Muslim anti-extremist campaign, there are a mass of local ones – initiatives that see mosques and organisations working against extremism among their own community, and with other people of all faiths and none more widely.
There is an analogy with Northern Ireland. Catholic support there for IRA violence was a minority concern. But it ebbed and flowed: flowing if innocent Catholics were killed by the security forces, ebbing after IRA atrocities in which people died in large numbers, such as the Enniskillen bombing. What forced the IRA’s eventual ceasefire was not only that the security forces had it beaten and infiltrated – and that its Soviet sponsor no longer existed – but that Sinn Fein, its political wing, had tilted towards democratic politics. This was why Catholic and nationalist voters shifted to it from the SDLP in large numbers – which, in turn, persuaded the IRA that the future lay with democracy, not terror.
The IRA was, as it were, a local problem – not one that existed on an international scale, as Islamism does. Nor is there any sign that the latter is ready for democratic normalisation: it has not produced a Martin McGuinness. But the task that Cameron faces as he prepares to draft his speech is not unlike that which faced John Major and Margaret Thatcher and his predecessors during “the Troubles” – namely, to make no compromise with extremism while also winning crucial support. In Northern Ireland, that support consisted of nationalist Catholics. Today, it is made up Britain’s Muslim majority – non-violent, suspicious, media-fearful and frightening vulnerable to net-spread conspiracy theories.
There is much he can say. He can point to the contribution that British Muslims are making to their country, citing Jabron Hashmi, who was killed in action in Afghanistan; or, in a totally different context, Mo Farah – his body bent in prayer before he races to win; or, in a political one, the presence of a very British Muslim at the top the Conservative Party – Sajid Javid. He can remember the 400,000 Muslims who came from British India to fight in two World Wars. He can name and praise some of those local anti-extremism projects.
Above all, he can try to project and popularise the thought that it is Muslims themselves that are the main victims of Islamist extremism worldwide. As he points out in his Telegraph article, 100 Syrians were executed in their homes in Kobane by ISIS on the same day as the Tunisian and French atrocities. It is the children of British Muslims that the extremists are targeting for recruitment and death – on the net, through social media, by personal contact. Their family peace and happiness is also under threat.