Theresa May’s speech last month “A New Partnership to Defeat Extremism” set out the next Conservative government’s vision for the way forward on this vital issue. I read it twice on the day it was delivered as I was lined up for a TV news interview; sadly, that appearance was cancelled!
While I thought it was an excellent speech, I was disappointed but not surprised by the number of Muslim organisations queuing up to criticise it. The Muslim Council of Britain’s response is at this link. I have mentioned the MCB specifically only because their response is readily available. While no respectable Muslim organisation does anything other than condemn terrorism, there is widespread refusal to recognise that non-violent extremism is a pathway and contributor to violent extremism.
Violent Islamist extremism is the greatest domestic threat
As explained at this link, I avoid using the word “Islamism.” However in this piece for brevity I will use “Islamist extremism” in the same way that Teresa May uses it. Given the death toll of the 7 July 2005 London bombings, and the vastly greater number of casualties if various thwarted plots had proceeded to fruition, I find it appalling when some organisations downplay the threat from violent Islamist extremists by citing actual or failed terrorism from other sources.
Non-violent Islamist extremists are everyone’s enemy
As May points out, such people poison the life chances of many young people by coercively inculcating a false narrative of history and a fundamentally false view of Islam. They seek to deny people the right to decide what level of religious practice (if any) they wish to engage in by social coercion or worse. I could quote from the speech at length but will limit myself to just one paragraph:
“Because extremism is not something that can just be ignored. It cannot be wished away. It must be tackled head on. Because where extremism takes root the consequences are clear. Women’s rights are eroded. There is discrimination on the basis of race and sexuality. There is no longer equal access to the labour market, to the law, or to wider society. Communities become segregated and cut off from one another. Intolerance, hatred and bigotry become normalised. Trust is replaced by fear, reciprocity by envy, and solidarity by division.”
There are some people who lead others on to commit violent extremism while themselves staying on the right side of the criminal law. If we can draft legislation that enables them to be identified and then banned without sacrificing the right to freedom of speech, I will support it wholeheartedly.
The challenge will be in implementation. If a banning order is received by most British Muslims with the reaction “About time!” then we will be winning. Conversely if the banning order is widely seen as unjust and unfair, then we risk government action creating more potentially violent extremists than might have been created by the individual just banned.
The Extremism Analysis Unit
The analytical work of this unit promises to be very valuable as it should enable the Government to decide which people are non-violent extremists “beyond the pale”. However the Government should not keep the results of the Unit’s work to itself. Instead of trying to force universities to ban particular speakers, which gives rise to freedom of speech concerns, the Government should use the Unit’s work to publish a list of unacceptable people, along with explanations of why they are unacceptable. If the list is genuinely persuasive, universities themselves can then take action to deny or restrict the giving of platforms to such people on university premises without having to be coerced to do so. This was explained in more detail in my 2013 piece “A Government register of hate preachers” at this link.
Given the extent of the opposition to Banning Orders since Mrs May’s speech, the alternative approach in this section may be a way of achieving essentially the same goals.
Enquiry into the application of Shariah law
There are real issues about the way that some Shariah councils conduct their affairs and whether they discriminate against women seeking a religious divorce. I recently wrote about religious divorces on Conservative Home. However, as I wrote three years ago, Shariah is an extremely precious concept for Muslims.
If the “independent figure” Theresa May mentions in her speech does not have credibility with British Muslims, then the entire exercise will be a waste of time. In my view the independent figure must be a Muslim; why would most British Muslims give credence to a non-Muslim on fundamental matters of Islamic doctrine? Furthermore the individual needs to be seen as knowledgeable on Shariah which requires somebody who is qualified as an Islamic scholar. If Mrs May selects a Muslim like me who does not have the appropriate credentials, (I am not available) the exercise will also fail to convince.
Calling them British values is counter-productive
While I am not aware of knowing any violent Islamist extremists (if I did I would phone the security services) I do know some people who probably qualify as non-violent extremists and interact with others electronically from time to time.
This has taught me that the phrase “British values” grates with many Muslims who tell me so in no uncertain terms. While reasoned explanations of their problems with the term are less forthcoming, I suspect that it comes across to them as the “white colonial master” lecturing the “backward native” about civilisation, a civilisation which is the exclusive property of the “white colonial master.” That is obviously not how Theresa May intends to be seen, since such a response causes the individuals concerned to react negatively to the entire values concept.
When you look at the list of British values in the speech: “regard for the rule of law, participation in and acceptance of democracy, equality, free speech and respect for minorities” they are obviously the values that underlie British society. They have my unequivocal support and these are values that I would fight and die for.
However, in no sense are they exclusively British. These values equally underlie American society, Canadian society, Swedish society, and even underlie French society although I have some concerns about the way that the French implement “Laïcité”! I could list many more countries which also implement those same values.
Somewhat more controversially, because many non-violent extremists would object to what I am about to write, these are the values that underlie my understanding of Islam. I can see how Muslims have applied aspects of them throughout their history. As just one example, Muslim societies treated minorities much better than did Christian societies before the enlightenment.
Instead of talking about “British values” I recommend talking about “the values underpinning British society” or even “our shared human values.”