Author: Douglas Murray
Description added to the article: Mr. Murray is associate director of the Henry Jackson Society.
Source: Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2011
Original title: Britain’s Islamist Split
The government is divided on whether Muslims and non-Muslims should be subject to the same standards.
In a speech in Munich in February, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his government would change the rules of the game on home-grown extremism. Having been one of the world’s leading exporters of terrorists, Britain would reform its ways. Among other things, it would no longer fund extreme Islamist groups. That this was considered progress suggests the problem.
On Tuesday, at last, the government published its review of the previous government’s “Preventing Violent Extremism” strategy. As of today we’re no longer meant to pay the people who want to kill us. Which—credit where it’s due—is progress. The question is whether it lasts.
Shortly after Mr. Cameron’s speech, the Liberal Democrat leader (and Deputy Prime Minister) Nick Clegg gave an almost exactly opposite speech in Luton. He argued, among other things, the importance of engagement with nonviolent extremists. The review of “Prevent” has once again shone a light on this critical disagreement at the heart of the U.K. government and the security strategy that Britain, and a number of our closest allies, have pursued.
One strand of Prevent aimed to use taxpayers’ money to fund a variety of groups claiming to draw young British Muslims away from violent extremism. If the theory was poor, the reality was worse. Prevent swiftly became a magnet for racketeers, a cash-cow for extremists and a textbook example of government overreach.
Some of it was laughable. A Muslim boy scout group in Bristol received money for new camping equipment. A multicultural food-festival in Oxfordshire received Prevent funds, as though the residents of Banbury were but a Balti away from detonation. But silliness aside, Prevent underscored a larger political and strategic dispute.
The core of the Cameron/Clegg disagreement is this: Are people who are radicals, bigots, racists, homophobes, misogynists and more, but not currently actively violent, the sort of people you should support, or shun? In Munich, Mr. Cameron expressed his belief that paying radical nonviolent Islamists to draw people away from violent Islamists would be like paying British National Party fascists to draw people away from the violent neo-Nazis of Combat 18.
But inside the Cabinet and the civil service, the prime minister encountered a very different view: that currently nonviolent extremists should be supported as a bulwark against al Qaeda. Despite its manifest failures and the societal divisions it has caused to date, this view could yet prevail. As one senior official put it in private, “The Munich speech is [Mr.] Cameron’s personal view, not policy.” Mr. Cameron may be in office, but we have yet to see if he is in charge.
Inside the cabinet he is apparently struggling not only with his Liberal Democrat deputy but also with Sayeeda Warsi (promoted from obscurity to the House of Lords and the Cabinet by Mr. Cameron), who holds troubling views about what constitutes extremism. Another Conservative, Dominic Grieve, has apparently proved equally obstinate. But it is in the government’s Office of Security and Counter Terrorism, and particularly its director general, Charles Farr, that Mr. Cameron is facing his biggest obstacle; Mr. Farr has for years led the fight against the view that people who are Muslim should be treated in exactly the same manner as everybody else and that bigotry is bigotry even if it is originates from a Muslim.
Mr. Cameron has some peerless allies, not least the independent overseer of the Prevent review, Lord Alexander Carlile, and Home Secretary Theresa May. But troubles remain evident even in the largely excellent final review document. Almost none of the groups that have worked against the government—indeed against the state—are named. None of the groups that have pilfered and racketeered from the British taxpayer are shamed. What is worse, one of the few organizational criticisms that does come in the review is so muted that it could be a textbook example of mandarin-speak.
Since its founding in 1963, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) has promoted a radical and narrow form of political Islam to Muslim students across British campuses. In recent years it has hosted such luminaries as the Yemen-based al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Hamas proponent Azzam Tamimi. Each week FOSIS does everything it can to divide Muslims among themselves and divide Muslims from non-Muslims—an activity that the review designates as a core goal of Islamist ideology. Yet the best that the Prevent review can say is that FOSIS “has not always fully challenged terrorist and extremist ideology within the higher and further education sectors.”
Elsewhere, despite rightly explaining that it is not the role of government to get involved in theological disputes, the review gets involved in just such matters. Sayid Qutb is name-checked, only for it to be said that he “did not suggest that violence should be perpetrated in Western countries.” This is flat-out wrong (as any reader of Qutb’s jihadist tract “Milestones” would know). But it points to another problem with the British government’s approach.
The finer points of what Islamist ideologues did or did not say should be of no interest to the U.K. government. All that should matter, as Mr. Cameron said at Munich, is whether people in Britain live by, and are treated according to, the same standard, or different ones. A faction at the heart of the British government understands this. Another, for a variety of reasons, does not. Who wins this dispute certainly matters in Westminster. But it also matters, and may yet have reverberations—literally—in the wider world.