British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has followed his French counterpart, Manuel Valls, by responding to a terrorist outrage with a major speech and proposals for tougher laws.
Coming in the wake of the attack on a beach in Tunisia which killed 38, mostly British, tourists and more evidence of British-born recruits going to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State, Cameron’s address was billed as a major statement of his government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
Prime Minister Valls delivered similar speeches in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack as a prelude to announcing new laws.
Cameron’s was certainly a detailed and apparently comprehensive assessment of why – in the view of the British government – young Brits are attracted to groups like IS and why they turn to violence.
But can the counter-terrorism strategy it portends have any greater success than its predecessors?
Flaws in the analysis and suggested remedies suggest not.
The Prime Minister began by extolling the virtue of Britain as a successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith society. A “beacon to the world” he called it.
But then went on to make clear Britain isn’t so well integrated after all.
If it were, he wouldn’t have returned to a common theme of his that one of the main problems fuelling Islamic extremism is that there are people in Britain – many born and bred – who don’t share British values.
Those, he argued, are based on liberal values of democracy, freedom and equality.
He then went on to say the government and British society needs to enforce those liberal values. Can values be liberal if they are enforced? Is there not a contradiction there?
But then rather strikingly he only used the word tolerance when he condemned “passive tolerance” of things like forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
This confusion perhaps explains another weakness in the government’s approach.
Cameron correctly identifies Islamic extremism as an ideology, but goes on to argue that if you hold certain ideas, that facilitates violence.
Try this: “We’ve got to show that if you say “yes I condemn terror – but the Kuffar are inferior”, or “violence in London isn’t justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter” – then you too are part of the problem”
Or this: “… you don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish.”
The danger here is the Prime Minister is essentially saying some ideas – rather than actions – are impermissible in a democratic, liberal society.
This threatens to undermine the very values Cameron says he is defending.
It is also counter-productive.
If people hold certain ideas and there’s no democratic space for them to make their arguments and enjoy the same freedom as others to think what they like, there is a danger they may be even more likely to turn to violence.
The speech laid repeated emphasis on conspiracy theories as a cause of violent extremism, but denied the role of western foreign policy in alienating young Muslims.
He made selective references to Somalia, Kosovo and Bosnia, where western intervention has sided with Muslims, but failed to even mention Israel/Palestine where Cameron – along with other western leaders – has done little to pressure Israel to end its brutal occupation.
His most confused argument was that because 9/11 – where many Britons were killed – preceded the Iraq invasion then Iraq should not be seen as a cause of Muslim anger. Does he think his audience hasn’t read about how the Bush Administration used 9/11 to galvanise support for the Iraq invasion even though Baghdad had nothing to do with attacks on New York and Washington?
He also failed to address another cause of anger among Muslims – the hundreds of thousands who have died in the wake of western intervention or at the hands of local allies of the West.
And telling young British Muslims IS is brutal and extreme risks patronizing them. After all, IS doesn’t hide it. It revels in its brutality, disseminating images of its murderous actions as part of a deliberate propaganda strategy.
Despite saying the problem isn’t Islam, the fundamental flaw in Cameron’s framing of his argument is it fuels the impression there is a problem with Muslims – they are somehow ‘other’. This threatens to further alienate many Muslims and confirm prejudices and preconceptions of non-Muslims.
This is something governments resisted doing regarding the Irish community when the IRA campaign was at its height in the 1970s and 80s
Instead of making speeches with obviously contestable assertions and arguments, the Prime Minister would be better advised to put more resources into understanding what leads people who hold certain views – be they Islamist or far-right – to turn to suicide bombing and terrorism.
Research that’s been done so far suggests a complex cocktail of the political and social, as well as personal psychology and experience, is responsible.
Unfortunately, this complexity doesn’t brook simple solutions. It also requires greater honesty and self-awareness from western politicians, like David Cameron and Manuel Valls, of the impact of past and present policy on Muslims – both at home and abroad.