The number of books translated into Arabic during the thousand years since the ninth century was less than those translated in Spain in one year. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and the Muslim-majority world ranges wider than the Arab heartlands of the Middle East. But that one statistic, drawn from a report itself compiled by Arabs, packs centuries of failure into a single finding. Whether the measure is stable government, the rule of law, economic prosperity, opportunities for women, strong civil society or scientific achievement, countries in which Islam has been the dominant religion have lagged the West since the Renaissance. Secularist dictatorship failed to mastermind a catching-up: Nasser, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Baathists – all failed. Now it is the turn of extremist Islam.
This is the daunting background against which David Cameron will today make his first major domestic speech on Islamist extremism. It is partly pitched at government itself, but mainly addressed to Britain’s Muslims – for without their support victory over violent extremism will be very hard to achieve. Most of them loathe ISIS and Al Qaeda: it is their children, after all, who are being groomed as suicide bombers and child brides. Opposition to liberal democracy among them is a minority concern. They can truthfully point out that western foreign policy has been stronger on muscle than brains – and made a big contribution over a longer period to the decline of traditional sources of Islamic authority. Above all, most simply want to get on with their family and work lives, exactly like everyone else.
But too often, there is a tendency to blame others for collective historical failure – the Jewish people, the CIA, western governments, Israel. And that support for liberal democracy is compromised by practices that discriminate against women, reservations about free speech and, in some quarters, the persistent dream of an Islamic state as a cure-all. In opposition, the Conservatives were no less divided about how to respond than other political parties and state institutions – the security services, the police, the civil service. One school of thought stressed targeting terrorist acts only, and the groups that carry them out. Another argued that there will always be crocodiles, to borrow Michael Gove’s image, if the swamp in which they breed is not drained. This requires targeting extremist ideas themselves.
I played a small part in the discussion, urging the latter course on David Cameron – together with Gove, and Pauline Neville-Jones, who had more senior roles. And I saw for myself how, first as Leader of the Opposition and then as Prime Minister, he wrenched Party and Government policy decisively in the direction of combating extremism. True, mistakes were made: since Sayeeda Warsi didn’t agree with Cameron’s take, it was an error to allow her a Ministerial role in the field. But, overall, the Prime Minister “gets” extremism. The Liberal Democrats notwithstanding, his Government made a bit of a start after 2010 – excluding hate preachers, closing websites that support terror, cutting off funds and patronage from groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Today’s speech builds on what has already been done, and sets out four key problems: extremism can seem exciting, especially to young people; people can be drawn from non-violent extremism to violent extremism; extremists are overpowering other voices within Muslim debate, and failures of integration allow extremist ideas to gain traction. It will be delivered in front of a largely Muslim audience in Birmingham. Downing Street acknowledges that this is long overdue: Cameron’s two main pronouncements on these matters to date have been made abroad, in Munich and Bratislava respectively, and as parts of speeches that ranged more widely. Louise Casey will now lead a drive to improve the learning of English and boost women’s employment outcomes.
In essence, there are three main elements to counter-extremism policy. First, government itself must not patronise or share platforms with or promote extremist groups – and get on with barring extremist preachers and websites. Second, it must ensure that other institutions face up to their responsibilities: for example, it is right that Vice-Chancellors should be chivvied into treating Islamist extremists on campus in the same way that they would treat fascist extremists. Finally, it must work alongside integration policy more broadly (hence Casey’s review). In particular, the test of the new policy will be whether it practices what it preaches: whether, for example, people who support an Islamic state or Islamist enclaves are kept off public bodies, especially policing ones.
We have suggested before that an enforcer is needed in Number 10 to drive the policy though Whitehall: we floated Lord Carlile, himself a Liberal Democrat. Downing Street is in a better position to rise to the challenge now that Carlile’s colleagues are gone from government. Camilla Cavendish, who now heads the Policy Unit, grasps what must be done. Ameet Gill, recently promoted to Director of Strategy, has mulled these issues for a very long time, and is the main writer of the Prime Minister’s speech today. Theresa May is on top the issues at the Home Office, and Michael Gove will be alert to the challenges in prisons. But there remains a Carlile-shaped gap, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t fill it just because the Coalition is no more.