In 1999, three people were killed and about 70 wounded when a London pub was bombed by a neo-nazi fanatic. Another, or a group of others, could today target, say, a mosque or a synagogue. But the number of fascists working for terror in Britain is small, and 1930s-style fascism is not today on the march in the middle east and the Indian sub-continent. The civil war in Syria is not being fought by adherents of different varieties of fascism. Young men are not leaving Britain in their thousands to fight for fascism there. They are not being radicalised at Universities by hate speakers preaching fascism, nor by videos of fascists fighting abroad, or brandishing banners decorated with bundles of sticks or with swastikas. Young women are not departing the country to marry fascist fighters abroad. No local authority has been subverted by those who hold fascist ideals.
Put like that, one begins to see the difference between the scale of the security and political threat posed by neo-nazis, on the one hand, and radical Islamists, on the other. But to say so flies in the face of much that we hold modern – namely, the spirit of diversity, respect and inclusiveness that has given us equality legislation and the Equality Commission. Unsurprisingly, and in some ways understandably, the tendency of the state has been not to say so: big parts of the security services, the civil service, the police, local government, and the main political parties have shied away from clearly naming the problem. In particular, they have wanted not to drive British Muslim opinion – which in some respects has the fluidity and sensitivity that nationalists had in Northern Ireland during the troubles – into the arms of the hard Islamists of ISIS or the softer Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This is understandable – and correct. Islamist ideology menaces British Muslims more profoundly than the rest of us, because it is their children who are being targeted for conversion. The struggle against it cannot be won without their active participation, and not to alienate them is thus a vital policy aim. But to shy away from identifying a problem is to risk confusion about tackling it, and so it has proved ever since Labour first set up the Contest strategy that seeks to do so. Senior civil servants believed that it was politic to allow Zakir Naik, a hate preacher, into Britain. So they worked against the wishes of Theresa May, who wanted him barred, which he eventually was. Politicians suspect that Muslim faith schools could fall into the hands of extremists. So all new faith schools of all religions are now required to take a large proportion of pupils who are not of that faith.
The medley of Ministers and spooks and mandarins worry that naming and shaming the ideology which shapes radical Islamism is a step too far, and have toyed with targeting some apparent symptoms of the problem – such as opposition to same-sex marriage, female genital mutilation, or women’s rights – rather than the cause. This leads to muddle at best and problems at worst. Female genital mutilation is a product of culture, not Islam: it is practiced by some Christians as well as Muslims. So although there should be legal action against it, such measures should have nothing much to do with the anti-extremism strategy. Opposition to same-sex marriage is a view traditionally held by Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. Confuse it with your efforts to combat Islamist ideology, and you risk the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggesting that teachers who hold such an opinion could be prosecuted.
It was to clarify the issues and avoid such consequences that, during the last Parliament, Michael Gove fought for – and got – the naming of Sayyid Qutb in the report of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Radicalisation and Extremism. Earlier during it, Theresa May sensibly separated Contest, which deals with violent extremism, from anti-extremism work more broadly: under Labour, funding to support, say, local inter-religious projects was mixed up with the security measures required to deal with Al Qaeda. Above all, David Cameron basically got it right, turning away from New Labour’s hysterical efforts to imprison people without charge for up to three months; clearly identifying the challenge in his Munich, Bratislava and Birmingham speeches, and insisting that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat Islami pose a problem for Britain and so cannot be partners for government.
The test of his extremism strategy published today (see also his Times (£) piece) will be less one of words than deeds – that’s to say, it needs to be followed up across Whitehall and especially, at a local level, by the police. It is tempting, if one has to maintain public order at an anti-Israel march or win co-operation in an East London borough, to “partner” with “credible Muslim voices” who can “speak to young people”. But as Peter Golds has demonstrated on this site - including very recently – such partnerships are purchased at too high a price for the rule of law to bear. Some of the measures that have been briefed as part of the speech are good, such as barring hate preachers from all contact with children and the inspection of madrassahs. Others are questionable, such as the provision of £5 million for community groups. This is re-inventing a wheel originally crafted by Ruth Kelly under Labour.
I spent the best part of a year, when Kelly was succeeded by Hazel Blears, trying to track down where the money was going. The Taxpayers Alliance produced an excellent report on the matter. Some was well spent; some badly; most probably made little difference. Other parts of the strategy announced so far are dubious, such as the proposed Extremism Disruption Orders: the wisdom or otherwise of these will hang on whether the Government can a find a workable definition of extremism. Then there is what should be in it and isn’t. In opposition, Pauline Neville-Jones, then Cameron’s National Security Adviser, suggested barring the funding of mosques from abroad – in effect, from Saudi Arabia. The Prime Minister may be prepared to back the Justice Secretary over ending a Saudi prisons programme, but he would consider cutting off money from the country for religious institutions to be a step too far.
Finally, there is the question of whether or not the security services will or will not target subversion, which they have not done since the end of the Cold War – and are reluctant to do now, partly because of reasonable concerns about how such additional work will be funded. Watch for whether or not Cameron’s plan refers to security service and other work against “entryism”, the new code word for subversion. Above all, the Prime Minister needs to broaden and deepen the clarity of view which he developed in opposition but was hindered from implementing during the last Parliament by the requirements and compromises of Coalition – and, more narrowly, by elements in Whitehall exploiting these to claim that he was presenting Conservative policy only. The challenge of implementing such the policy is daunting. That of winning Muslim hearts and minds for it is more daunting still.