“The judgment also found Rahman to be the first person since the 19th century to be found guilty of the misdeed of unlawful religious influence. As the then mayor campaigned for re-election, local Muslims were told “that it was a religious duty to vote for Mr Rahman”, the judge said. It was claimed that a Bengali newspaper, the Weekly Desh, published a letter signed by 101 Islamic leaders, which was “intended to have undue influence on the Muslim population of the borough”.”
These words from today’s Guardian report of Rahman’s conviction on multiple corruption charges go to the heart of what Islamist extremism is all about, and why it’s not to be confused with the religion of Islam itself. The court case was about even more than bribery, intimidation and vote rigging.
At the core of Islamism is a belief that people living in a country must be treated not on the basis of their common citizenship, but on that of their religion. Obviously, this view is not an intrinsic part of Islamic practice (and polling shows that most British Muslims don’t hold it).
Before the Coalition took office, government refused fully to recognise that this extremism is a challenge to liberal democracy – and that although not all Islamist extremists support terror in Britain, there is an intrinsic connection between Islamist ideology and violent acts.
In office, Labour swayed one way and the other. Far-sighted Ministers such as Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears (especially) took one view, mindful of what Islamism can mean for women. Others, such as Jack Straw and John Denham, took another.
In opposition, I saw at first hand, and was a participant in, the debate within the Conservative Party between the polarities of Michael Gove and Sayeeda Warsi. (Broadly speaking, Gove was right.) It also divided institutional Britain – the civil service, the police and the security services.
David Cameron is not temperamentally drawn to conflict. But he “gets” what Islamism is all about. His Munich Speech ranged widely into the debate about multiculturalism, which was a mistake. But on the narrower matter of how to treat extremism it was well-judged.
The row between Theresa May and Michael Gove about the anti-extremism policy (which, by the way, was driven through against the instincts of the Liberal Democrats) was fascinating to those who follow the debate. But it was about how it should be implemented – not what it should be.
The Home Secretary has been the lead Minister and her judgement is sound. She overhauled the Prevent Strategy to ensure that, as the Conservative Manifesto puts it, “it focuses on non-violent as well as violent extremism”.
She has worked to keep hate preachers out of the country – such as Zakir Naik, who was excluded against the wishes of her own civil servants. She has helped lead the charge to cut Islamist-leaning groups off from state patronage, funding and access.
She has striven to get Universities to face up to their responsibilities. Elsewhere, Michael Gove sent Peter Clarke, the former head of Counter Terrorism Command, to Birmingham to investigate the “Trojan Horse” allegations. (Read Clarke’s report here.)
The manifesto now proposes Banning Orders for extremist organisations that “could be applied to dangerous organisations that fall short of the existing thresholds for proscription under terrorism legislation”.
It also champions new Extremism Orders “to restrict the harmful activities of extremist individuals”. The scope of these would need to be drawn carefully. But there is a gap in the law that the Anjem Choudarys of this world are able to exploit.
Choudary is an example of how extremism is a challenge not just to government, but the whole of civic society. It is a damning condemnation of our culture that broadcasters effectively collaborate in building up his influence and reach by giving him publicity.
But here, too, the Government has acted. For example, it appointed William Shawcross to head the Charity Commission. He has taken a more rigorous approach to abuses of charitable status, responding to criticism of its previous work by the Public Accounts Committee.
As May has pointed out, extremism isn’t confined to Islamists: for example, there is that of the English Defence League (together with the violence of some of its members). But the EDL’s ideology does not challenge liberal democracy itself; nor is it prevalent on the same scale.
There is much more to do – not least in toughening up the electoral system against fraud, and in ensuring that the police uphold its integrity in places like Tower Hamlets, rather than taking what the judge in yesterday’s case called a “three wise monkeys” approach to it.
None of this work would have been possible without David Cameron taking a view, overcoming the objections of the Liberal Democrats, and driving the policy through resistant parts of government. It has been one of his finest achievements – and Rahman is a reminder of what we’re all up against.