On Monday this week, David Cameron set out his government's five-year strategy for defeating Islamist extremism. Describing it as an ideology that seeks to destroy nation states in order to invent its own barbaric realm, Cameron said the fight against Islamist extremism would be the 'struggle of our generation'. Explaining how, in addition to a new Extremism Bill, the five-year strategy for defeating this 'subversive doctrine' would require government to:
- Confront the ideology of Islamism
- Tackle both violent and non-violent forms of extremism
- Embolden the 'Muslim community', and
- Build a more cohesive society
Vitriolic and at times accusatory, Cameron spoke about how the police, universities, internet companies, schools, universities, mosques, prisons and parents all needed to do more to tackle the 'poison' infecting young minds. The National Union of Students was earmarked for particular criticism.
Some of his speech was far from new. Claiming that 'British values' were the 'strongest weapon' available in fighting Islamist extremism, that well-oiled mantra remained as elusive as to exactly what these 'values' might be.
Some suggested a rethink about existing practices. It was unclear for instance how the announcement about the introduction of specific de-radicalisation programmes might differ from those that have been in place for the last five years through Channel, part of the government's existing Prevent strategy.
Similar too, the new community engagement forum through which government intends to hear the voices of Muslim groups it believes are challenging extremism. The Coalition and New Labour governments have done similar, creating forums in the National Muslim Women's Advisory Group, Young Muslims Advisory Group, Cross-Government Working Group on Anti-Muslim Hate, among others. These groups were widely criticised and quickly disbanded, having been shown to abjectly fail, not least because politicians limit the voices they are prepared to hear to those Muslim voices who agree with their particular ideology. Whether this will change under this new incarnation remains to be seen.
There were new proposals too, much of which focused on the threat seen to be posed by Islamic State (ISIS), something that did not feature in the government's counter-extremism strategy just 18 months ago. Responding to a rapid and constantly changing landscape, Cameron said that the government would be providing a platform for Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish communities to speak out about what life is really like under ISIS.
So too, did Cameron announce new measures to allow parents to get their child's passport cancelled if they suspect they intend to flee Britain to join ISIS. While around 700 Britons are believed to have already done so, as only a handful were aged under-16, the impact of this measure may be limited.
Wide-reaching in its remit and focus, three observations emerge that require further consideration.
First, a very subtle change in emphasis with regards to governmental discourse. Since 9/11, politicians have gone to great lengths to stress that Islamist extremism and violence has little to do with the religion of Islam. For Cameron, this has changed. As he put it: 'to deny [Islamist extremism] has anything to do with Islam means you disempower the critical reforming voices'. While subtle, the change in emphasis has potential ramifications in the light of the government's intention of tackling non-violent forms of extremism. Now, it is possible that government will seek to deploy the 'disempower the critical reforming voices' criteria to demarcate between what it believes to be extremist and non-extremist forms of Islam. Consequently, Muslims who practice more conservative expressions of Islam will be inaccurately targeted as being non-violent extremists irrespective of whether the evidence exists to support such a view.
The second relates to Cameron's statement that British foreign policy has nothing to do with the rise of extremism. Until politicians are prepared to acknowledge that Britain's foreign policy over the past decade and a half may have had at least some influence on the solidifying and subsequent growth of extremist attitudes among some, the full complexity of the problem will fail to be understood.
The final observation relates to Cameron's insistence that the government was not targeting Muslim communities. While so, aside from a few cursory references to the far-right and neo-Nazis the overwhelming focus was on Muslims and Islam. As if to reinforce the point, Cameron's speech went beyond Islamist extremism to incorporate a number of other issues that are routinely seen to be 'problems' of Islam, in particular, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Despite Cameron's protestations to the contrary, therefore, it is likely that those listening will have made up their minds that it was clear who this was about and where the 'problem' is seen to exist.
This is also true of Cameron's choice of venue, Birmingham's Ninestiles School. One of those investigated following allegations of an Islamist takeover of Birmingham's schools last year (Operation Trojan Horse), Ninestiles was subsequently found to be outstanding by Ofsted. However, as my own research has shown, despite the fact that the allegations were a hoax, that most of the schools investigated were given a clean bill of health, and that no evidence of extremism as opposed to poor practice or governance was found, many still uphold that there was 'no smoke without fire'.
Despite Cameron's assertions otherwise, there is nothing in the new strategy to suggest that the new approach to tackling Islamist extremism will be any less heavy-handed or discriminate, further fuelling suspicion and mistrust, while making all Muslims without differentiation feel increasingly scrutinised and pressured.
Whether this new approach will be any more successful in tackling Islamist extremism than that which has preceded it remains open to question. But if the approach I bore witness to a few weeks ago at another former 'Trojan Horse' school where Muslim pupils were stage-managed to watch videos about ISIS while television cameras filmed their every reaction, then it is highly unlikely.
(This is a reworked version of a comment piece written for the University of Birmingham's College of Social Sciences)