David Cameron's speech at Munich on Saturday is one of the best and most inspiring speeches I have read in a long time. It is one of the most robust defences of freedom and democracy, and one of the most balanced and honest analyses of radical Islamism. In contrast with a previous Conservative prime minister's famous words after a Munich conference seventy two years ago, Cameron has shown that if we really want peace in our time, we have to be prepared to fight for our values.
That Yvette Cooper, Sadiq Khan and Jack Straw decided to score cheap party political points rather than engage with the substance is disappointing, though unsurprising. That the Muslim Council of Britain, and people such as Inayat Bunglawala from Muslims4Uk don't like it is indicative of their Islamist sympathies. But that Cameron's speech has been praised by Muslims such as Haras Rafiq and Maajid Nawaz, a left-wing journalist like Nick Cohen, and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission's Trevor Phillips suggests to me that he has got it absolutely right.
Cameron's speech deserves to be read in full, but the key points are the following:
- We have to "get to the root of the problem". For too long, politicians, civil servants and commentators have sought to excuse, or at least explain, terrorism and extremism by looking at grievances: poverty, anger at our foreign policy, Palestine. While some of these issues need to be addressed, because they are important in themselves and because they may contribute to radicalisation, they are not the root of the problem. The core challenge is an ideology, radical Islamism, which rejects liberal democracy and human rights, pluralism and religious freedom, and seeks to impose literal Sharia law and theocratic rule. This ideology is adhered to by a variety of people, some who use, advocate or support violence, and many others who may reject violence but whose worldview is filled with intolerance and hatred.
- It is essential to distinguish between Islam, the religion, and Islamism, the political ideology. "Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people," Cameron notes. This is a crucial point. We do not help ourselves, or indeed the vast majority of Muslim people, if we conflate Islam and Islamism, attack Islam the religion, or make sweeping generalisations about the attitudes of all Muslim people. Like Christianity, Islam has a variety of interpretations, ranging from the extreme, the fundamentalist and the conservative, to the devout, the mainstream, the progressive and the liberal. To suggest that Islam as a whole is incompatible with democracy is to completely ignore the success of democracy in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, the efforts of many democratic-minded Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the involvement of Muslims in Burma's democracy struggle, or indeed the movement taking place right now in Egypt. To people who say there is no such thing as a peaceful, moderate, progressive-minded Muslim, I say: come with me and I'll introduce you to some of my friends, who show more graciousness, and commitment to freedom, pluralism and harmony than some Westerners.
- Having made that important distinction, Cameron goes to the heart of the matter: the ghetto-isation and fragmentation of our society as a result of "the doctrine of state multiculturalism". We should indeed respect and celebrate the good aspects of different cultures and religions – but if we are to be a country of many cultural backgrounds, we need to find ways to work together, live together, know each other. In too many parts of Britain, different ethnic and religious communities keep themselves to themselves, living separate lives. We need to celebrate unity in diversity – but that requires integration.
- What is the test of integration? Here Cameron provides a passionate defence of liberal values, and it is this that most inspires me. I have long argued on this site that radical Islamism is hostile to our principles of freedom and human rights, and that the war on terror is not simply a security matter but a battle of ideas. Cameron echoes this, rejecting neutrality and setting out the case for democracy:
Governments must also be shrewder in dealing with those that, while not violent, are in some cases part of the problem. We need to think much harder about who it’s in the public interest to work with. Some organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism. As others have observed, this is like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement. So we should properly judge these organisations: do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separation? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask. Fail these tests and the presumption should be not to engage with organisations – so, no public money, no sharing of platforms with ministers at home.
…. we must build stronger societies and stronger identities at home. Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things. Now, each of us in our own countries, I believe, must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.
Those who criticise Cameron for not mentioning the rise of the far-right in the context of extremism have clearly not read the whole speech. While he does not specifically talk about the English Defence League or the BNP, in several places he refers to our rejection of racism and fascism as a given - but makes the point that we need to be consistent in opposing all those who are hostile to our values of liberty and pluralism. He says:
So, when a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious frankly – frankly, even fearful – to stand up to them. The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point. This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. And this all leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless. And the search for something to belong to and something to believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology.
And here he continues:
Would you allow the far right groups a share of public funds if they promise to help you lure young white men away from fascist terrorism? Of course not. But, at root, challenging this ideology means exposing its ideas for what they are, and that is completely unjustifiable. We need to argue that terrorism is wrong in all circumstances. We need to argue that prophecies of a global war of religion pitting Muslims against the rest of the world are nonsense.
Cameron sets out some practical steps the government can take: preventing extremists from recruiting in universities and prisons; promoting the teaching of English to immigrants; ensuring a common curriculum in education; the introduction of a National Citizen Service. I would add one other: ensuring that Ken Livingstone does not return to power in London next year. I do not understand how people like Livingstone and George Galloway befriend radical Islamists and brutal theocratic regimes such as Iran, when these people are opposed to everything Livingstone and Galloway say they believe in: gay rights, women's rights, minority rights.
As Maajid Nawaz says, it is hard to imagine a more balanced and "reasonable" speech: a speech that recognises the difference between Islam and Islamism, and implicitly acknowledges other forms of extremism, such as racism and fascism. Those who are jumping up and down today are fuelling, in Nawaz's words, "the atmosphere of increasing community polarisation" through a "self-defeating form of victimhood".
It is time to end the grievance culture and victimhood mentality, time to distinguish between Islam and Islamism, and time for all of us, Muslim and non-Muslim, to decide where we stand in relation to our basic freedoms and human rights. If we cherish our liberty, we must confront the ideology of radical Islamism, which terrorises Muslims as much as it does non-Muslims, and help people of all cultural and religious backgrounds to integrate and unite around our shared values. To do nothing is not an option for, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil … not to speak is to speak, not to act is to act."