The Prime Minister’s Birmingham speech on radicalisation and Muslim communities in the UK given earlier today is a rather important one. Regular readers will know that I’m not easy to please in this area, but it seems to me that David Cameron has come to understand the real problem of Islamic extremism and has been developing his attitudes towards that problem.
There might be any number of reasons for this, but the most likely one is simple observation. Anybody can see that there is a problem, and a Prime Minister who has oversight on the intelligence and security threats that never come to fruition as well as those that do has a starker confrontation with the scale of the challenge than most.
The Prime Minister is right to present the threat of radical Islam as an ideological threat which needs countering. And he is particularly right in stressing the non-governmental, civil-societal responses that are needed if the problem is going to be brought under control. The whole speech seems to me to benefit from a deeper and broader understanding of the problem than any other speech recently given by a Western leader.
And although I know it won’t be enough for some, the speech contains a number of important shifts in tone. For instance the Prime Minister’s warning that people who go to join ISIS will be ‘cannon fodder’ is an important change in emphasis which I’ve called for here before. The UK government’s previous warnings about joining ISIS have sounded beseeching – a sort of ‘We’re better together’ plea. Much better, as the PM has now done, to explain the unvarnished reality of what you’re likely to face if you were foolish enough to join ISIS. ‘You’ll be raped and murdered’ is not just PR – it is the truth, and worth stating.
Another positive development is the change in emphasis from supporting Muslim groups because they claim to be representative of the majority of Muslims to supporting Muslim progressives who are supportive of Britain. Since the government of John Major UK governments have got this one wrong, and promoted sinister and regressive Muslim voices under the belief that they were playing the numbers game.
Another crucial shift in emphasis is in relation to the whole question of how to address the religious elephant in the room. For many years, after any and every terrorist attack, Prime Ministers, politicians and police chiefs have said that Islamist violence has ‘nothing to do with Islam.’ Now finally David Cameron has found a way to correct this misleading statement and said of Islamist violence, ‘To deny it has anything to do with Islam means you disempower the critical reforming voices.’ This is a vital change in emphasis.
In all I have only one major criticism of the speech. The Prime Minister is right to stress all the things that civil society – including Muslim communities, university heads and the National Union of Students – needs to do. But there are some things which only government can do. One which is noticeably absent in this speech is stopping the state’s insane support for hate preachers who live on benefits.
The PM knows this problem exists and he needs at some point to address it. The problem is not just the highly visible people like Anjem Choudary who live off the state whilst preaching against it. It is also people like the man suspected of being an inspiration for the Tunisia attack which killed 30 British citizens. He lives on 50,000 a year benefits and claims not to be able to work.