Cameron’s recognition that we should acknowledge the dangers of extremist ideology, and the need to tackle it head-on, is welcome. His call for a social vision that young British Muslims can feel part of, to overcome the sense of rootlessness which can make a minority of them vulnerable to extremist recruitment, makes eminent sense. And his condemnation of the divisive impact of segregated communities, along with state support for groups with backward ideas about women and society, is certainly important – though hardly groundbreaking.
The devil, unfortunately, is in the details. By pinpointing the root cause of terrorism as an amorphous “state multiculturalism”, Cameron reveals that his government’s understanding of the problem is as simplistic as his predecessors.
The actual background of those already convicted on terrorism charges undermines his suggestion that the government should attempt to crack-down on 'non-violent extremists' – an undefined category that could include anyone from climate protestors, to student dissidents, to civil liberties campaigners. Over a third of terrorism convictions between 1999 and 2009, and every single major terrorist plot in the UK including 7/7, were linked to the extremist network formerly known as al-Muhajiroun. Yet despite being proscribed, the network has never been fully investigated by police. Many of its leaders roam free despite a track record of flagrantly inciting to violence, while its spiritual leader, Omar Bakri Mohammed, was allowed to escape to Beirut despite confessing to having advanced warning of al-Qaeda plans to bomb London. Worse, the court records of the fertilizer bomb plot trial showed that another individual Mohammed Quayyum Khan, also known as ‘Q’, was an al-Qaeda ‘go-between’ who recruited the leaders of that plot and the 7/7 mission – yet inexplicably remains at large.
As former Justice Department prosecutor John Loftus has noted, the fact that al-Muhajiroun had disturbing links with British security services in the Balkans during the late 1990s, as well as with repressive Western client-regimes abroad such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, among others, may well explain this reticence. Our links with militant Islamists during this period was motivated by the desire to use them to access strategic oil supplies in Central Asia and elsewhere, according to whistleblowers like former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds – whose testimony before the 9/11 Commission and U.S. Congress is so embarrassing for the U.S.-led ‘War on Terror’ it has been retroactively classified.
These links are compounded by an interventionist foreign policy programme that has been heavily disfigured under the influence of short-sighted (and self-interested) U.S. geostrategy in the Muslim world. As both internal Home Office and Joint Intelligence Committee reports have conceded, Britain’s unquestioning allegiance to U.S. hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East and Central Asia has been counterproductive. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, the radicalization of the insurgency has accelerated in direct proportion to NATO’s troop surge, and ceaseless civilian casualties from indiscriminate U.S. airstrikes have inflamed local grievances, while failing utterly to meet even the most elementary requirements of the national interest.
Our U.S.-hijacked foreign policy has also poured fuel on the fire for extremist recruiters at home, who point to our interventionism abroad as ample evidence of an anti-Muslim agenda; which is then made worse by domestic policies that reinforce the structural problems prevailing in many British Muslim communities.
For instance, Cameron overlooks how government policies have intensified British Muslim social exclusion. The dogmatic adherence to neoliberal principles pursued by both Tory and Labour governments, continuing under the coalition regime, have widened inequalities in the UK with debilitating consequences for the working class from both white and ethnic minority communities. Consequently 69 per cent of British Muslims of South Asian background live in poverty, compared to 20 per cent of white people. Meanwhile, questionable and sometimes institutionally racist local authority housing policies have systematically housed white and ethnic minority communities in segregated areas of the same cities. The upshot is that Muslims in Britain are now overrepresented in poor housing, unemployment, low educational achievement, and in prisons.
But Cameron has already been warned that his own economic policies will make this sense of exclusion even worse. As was revealed by equalities secretary Theresa May’s letter of June last year to Chancellor George Osborne, senior ministers are well aware that the coalition’s cuts would likely widen social inequalities, such that “women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and older people will be disproportionately affected.”
Of course, poverty by itself does not cause extremism, but on this scale feeds the sense of a separate identity. Crucially, this even afflicts more upwardly-mobile groups who often remain painfully aware of the unresolved problems in their wider communities. This was revealed in the path-breaking research of Quintan Wiktorowicz – now the White House senior director for global engagement at the U.S. National Security Council. Even more surprisingly, Professor Wiktorowicz, a former academic and author of the book Radical Islam Rising, found from his hundreds of interviews with British Islamists – many linked to al-Muhajiroun – that religious identity is not the root cause of violent radicalization. On the contrary, while very religious Muslims were the most resistant to radicalization, he found that those who did not have a strong grounding in Islam were most at risk of being attracted by Islamist extremism.
Perhaps even more counter-intuitively, despite entrenched social exclusion, studies show that British Muslim communities are largely integrated into British social and cultural life. A 2009 Gallup poll found that while only half the general British population identifies strongly as British, 77 per cent of Muslims in the UK identify very strongly as British, with 82 per cent affirming themselves as loyal to Britain. Although employment levels for British Muslims are at only 38 per cent, British Muslims have a higher confidence in the judiciary than the general public, and 67 per cent of them want to live in a neighbourhood that has a mix of ethnic and religious people – compared to 58 per cent of the general British public
The danger is that by blaming “state multiculturalism”, Cameron is not simply barking up the wrong tree, but undermining the good-will on both sides of the fence. As economic inequalities deepen under the impact of the coalition’s ill-conceived economic prescriptions, social cohesion will be challenged. Meanwhile, his speech will be exploited both by militant Muslims to vindicate their claims that the state is the avowed enemy of Islam, and by far-right extremists to legitimize their vendetta against minority and Muslim communities. Rather than dealing with the root causes of terrorism, this only makes our predicament far more volatile.
By blaming our longstanding celebration of diversity – a uniquely British value that stands us out from our European neighbours – Cameron is targeting precisely the principles that make our country strong. If he really wants to deal with the scourge of Islamist extremism, he would do well to focus on encouraging the authorities to investigate and prosecute individuals linked to groups like al-Muhajiroun who remain at large despite breaking the law; on re-evaluating a U.S.-centric foreign policy that has empowered Islamists abroad who support extremists at home in the name of oil and geopolitics; and on addressing the social problems that working class communities of all ethnic and religious backgrounds are experiencing due to the bankrupt economic policies of successive British governments.