David Cameron’s long-awaited speech on Islamic extremism (aka Islamism) was sort of worth waiting for. As he expounded his ‘One Nation’ vision to defeat the “poison” of extremism, he peppered the strategy with important Conservative themes of “shared community”, “cohesive society” and “British values”. He spoke of the United Kingdom as “a successful multi-racial, multi-faith democracy”; not, it must be noted, as a successful multicultural one. But he was concerningly vacuous in his grasp (or lack thereof) of a basic understanding of religion. Either he eschews his spiritual advisers, or he never had any.
In a section entitled ‘Roots of the Problem’, he explained:
It begins – it must begin – by understanding the threat we face and why we face it. What we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology. It is an extreme doctrine. And like any extreme doctrine, it is subversive. At its furthest end it seeks to destroy nation-states to invent its own barbaric realm. And it often backs violence to achieve this aim – mostly violence against fellow Muslims – who don’t subscribe to its sick worldview.
That’s all cogent stuff. But then we get:
But you don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish. Ideas which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality. Ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation. Ideas – like those of the despicable far right – which privilege one identity to the detriment of the rights and freedoms of others. And ideas also based on conspiracy – that Jews exercise malevolent power, or that Western powers, in concert with Israel, are deliberately humiliating Muslims, because they aim to destroy Islam..
To segue from Islamism to the Far Right so swiftly is philosophically naive. But the Prime Minister is persuaded that “the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination”. This is patently untrue: violence is not the necessary end of extremist means.
We are told that in the autumn, the Government will publish a(nother) Counter-Extremism Strategy, “setting out in detail what we will do to counter this threat”. Its principles will include a challenge to their “cultish worldview (and) conspiracy theories”; a contrast of their “bigotry, aggression and theocracy” with liberal values; and the more confident promotion of “a very clear creed”.
This creed is set out as:
We respect democracy and the rule of law.
We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith.
We believe in respecting different faiths but also expecting those faiths to support the British way of life.
These, the Prime Minister says, are “British values.. underpinned by distinct British institutions”. He omitted freedom of religion, though it is doubtful that he understands how it differs from freedom of worship. The “British way of life” is to be inculcated via the state education system, which will henceforth have a statutory duty to spot extremism while they’re marking essays. God help you if you decide to write about Muhammad Ali Jinnah, or find virtue in Malcolm X, or seek to justify the armed struggle of Nelson Mandela. But we are assured that:
…our new Prevent duty for schools is not about criminalising or spying on Muslim children. This is paranoia in the extreme. In fact that duty will empower parents and teachers to protect children from all forms of extremism – whether Islamist or neo-Nazi.
There are some who label the racist BNP ‘neo-Nazi’. Others apply the term to the ultra-nationalist EDL. Still others apply it to Nigel Farage and Ukip. ‘Neo-Nazism’ is a slippery ideology, and one doubts that teachers are the best equipped to discern it. After all, the Nazis were also what we may now term ‘homophobic’. Is it ‘neo-Nazi’ to object to the liberal assertion that all sexual behaviour between consenting adults is equal? In order to identify the extremists, they’ll be monitoring the Internet:
And we need our internet companies to go further in helping us identify potential terrorists online. Many of their commercial models are built around monitoring platforms for personal data, packaging it up and selling it on to third parties. And when it comes to doing what’s right for their business, they are happy to engineer technologies to track our likes and dislikes. But when it comes to doing what’s right in the fight against terrorism, we too often hear that it’s all too difficult. Well I’m sorry – I just don’t buy that.
..We need everyone – Government, local authorities, police, schools, all of us – to enforce our values right across the spectrum.
One cannot enforce values. The seeds of virtue are planted, watered and tended. Values are imparted, demonstrated and nurtured. When the authoritarian state declares its intention to enforce its values – with recourse, it must be noted, to the agencies of law enforcement – we take another step toward the police state.
For David Cameron, there are two parts to extremist ideology: non-violent and violent.
This means confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative. 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.
This is interesting. The status of the non-Muslim to a Muslim is a point of theological debate. Certainly it can (and does) have socio-political consequences in certain cultures, but it is not simply a matter of being ‘inferior’. Is it extremist to read aloud from the Qur’an that the kuffar (ie infidels) are “cattle of no intelligence”? Is it really extremist to apprehend a difference between the suicide bomber in London and the suicide bomber in Jerusalem? As offensive as the views of Baroness Tonge and David Ward may be, are they themselves extremist in the same sense as the Islamist? Is understanding and empathy necessarily the first step toward murdering and maiming? Is Tim Farron extremist? How can a creed that includes freedom of speech deny the articulation of views that some may find abhorrent? Who judges the extent of offence? Indeed, who defines ‘offence’?
We must demand that people also condemn the wild conspiracy theories, the anti-Semitism, and the sectarianism too.
But some “wild conspiracy theories” are proven to be true, are they not? Or is it “wild” that will be used to distinguish the extreme and unacceptable conspiracy theory from the moderate and acceptable one? Surely if you wish to believe that the atrocities of September 11th 2001 were a conspiracy between Mossad and the CIA you ought to be free to believe that? If not, what if you wished to believe that the Hillsborough tragedy was “the biggest cover-up in history“, before, of course, it became fashionable to say so? Isn’t ‘conspiracy theorist’ rather like ‘bigot’ – a conceit often hurled by those who are devoid of argument in order to dismiss a hypothesis they would rather not address? And then we get:
We need to put out of action the key extremist influencers who are careful to operate just inside the law, but who clearly detest British society and everything we stand for. These people aren’t just extremists. There are despicable far right groups too. And what links them all is their aim to groom young people and brainwash their minds. And again let’s be clear who benefits most from us being tough on these non-violent extremists…
Is it to become unlawful to operate “just inside the law”? What are the thresholds of illegality within the parameters of lawful behaviour? Who is to determine this? The police? The courts? Who is identifying the “non-violent extremists” who “groom young people and brainwash their minds”? Is a Roman Catholic school ‘grooming’ and ‘brainwashing’ young people? The National Secular Society and British Humanist Association would say so, as they would opine about all schools with a religious foundation. Mr Cameron continues:
..as part of our Extremism Bill, we are going to introduce new narrowly targeted powers to enable us to deal with these facilitators and cult leaders, and stop them peddling their hatred. And we will also work to strengthen Ofcom’s role to enable us to take action against foreign channels that broadcast hate preachers and extremist content.
Cult leaders? What is a cult, Prime Minister? How does it differ from a sect? Who is determining and defining the extents of deviation from orthodoxy? Is the state defining that orthodoxy? Is a ‘hate preacher’ one who teaches that there is more to life than the liberal democratic heaven on earth? What is ‘hate’? Is it ‘hate’ to teach that there are sheep and there are goats, and that not all will enter paradise? Is it ‘extremist’ to preach that some behaviour is immoral or that some religions are idolatrous and evil?
The local environment, their families, their peers, their communities, are among the key influencers in any young person’s life. So if they hear parts of the extremist worldview in their home, or their wider community, it will help legitimise it in their minds.
In their home? So if parents wish to bring up their children with an awareness of the holy precepts of God, and those precepts do not accord with the inviolable state orthodoxy, those parents are ‘extremist’? Are we about to start removing children from their parents because those parents do not accord with ‘British values’, as defined? The Prime Minister explains:
Just as we do not engage with extremist groups and individuals, we’re now going to actively encourage the reforming and moderate Muslim voices..
In order to actively encourage ‘moderate’ Islam, its theology must be clearly defined and its creed codified. Is the Government really going to nail its liberal democratic 95 theses to the door of every mosque? Who is to teach this ‘reformed’ and ‘moderate’ Islam’ that embraces abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage if, as one presumes, this ‘moderate’ Islam must espouse “equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith”?
But the Prime Minister has seen the light in one respect. He takes the Blairite view that “this extremist ideology is not true Islam”, but he demurs from the mantra of Baroness Warsi that it is nothing to do with Islam.
..simply denying any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work because these extremists are self-identifying as Muslims. The fact is from Woolwich to Tunisia, from Ottawa to Bali, these murderers all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith. Now it is an exercise in futility to deny that. And more than that, it can be dangerous. To deny it has anything to do with Islam means you disempower the critical reforming voices…
This is progress, for the Wahhabi-Salafist strain of politico-theology is indeed an expression of Sunni Islam. It may be ‘cultic’, but they are self-identifying as Muslims. It is futile to say they are not so when they believe so. The most fruitful response is not dismissive denial, but theological, historical and sociological exposition in order to determine whether, if and how they depart from the teachings of Mohammed or abrogate the teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah. There are indeed worthwhile debates to be had on the fusion of religion and politics, but there are blatant contradictions:
But as well as tackling isolation, there is one other area we must look at if we are to build a truly cohesive society – and that is segregation. It cannot be right, for example, that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths. That doesn’t foster a sense of shared belonging and understanding – it can drive people apart. Now let’s be clear that these patterns of segregation in schools or housing are not the fault or responsibility of any particular community..
How, exactly, is the proliferation of ‘faith schools’ consistent with the desire to tackle segregation when those schools are, by definition, segregating children by faith? Certainly students at many of those schools come into contact with children of other faiths, but in what sense is it “meaningful” if they are not sitting side-by-side working out their simultaneous equations or playing in the same football team? Who determines “meaningful” in this context? Who measures “shared belonging and understanding”? Ofsted? God help us.
The concept of the Caliphate is as intrinsic to Islamic theology as the New Jerusalem is to Christian eschatology. Certainly, the political foundations and moral precepts of the Caliph are disputed across and within the divergent strains of sharia, but you cannot challenge the variably apprehended values of the Caliphate by enforcing ‘British values’ any more than you can abolish divergent understandings of holiness, justice and mercy from the New Jerusalem. Indeed, to aim to “enforce” a state orthodoxy of ‘moderate Islam’ is as futile as seeking to impose Anglicanism on the Roman Catholic Church.
If ‘British values’ are to contend against the Faith, all orthodox Christians become extremist, and so all must be subject to Internet surveillance and monitored for ‘hate preaching’, for to focus on Islam and Muslims alone would be ‘Islamophobic’. If the Prime Minister is intent on destroying the Caliphate by cracking down on non-violent extremism at home, he will criminalise Christians in the process, for the ‘ideology’ of the New Jerusalem is also insidious and subversive: it is the effectual, fervent prayer for God’s reign on earth, and that will be neither liberal nor democratic. David Cameron may have a sound grasp of the need to pursue a political resolution, but he seemingly has no grasp at all of the spiritual battles and theological complexities inherent in the process of resisting radicalisation. Prophets of God are radical, and preachers of the gospel are extremist. You simply cannot enforce peace, equality, reconciliation or respect without imposing the liberal ideology of the state. How radical, illiberal or extremist is that?