Politics & Policy

Security, Extremism and Terrorism

Is there a way forward?

In his speech on terrorism at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, David Cameron brilliantly analyzed the religious and social background to extremism. It seems that, at last, someone is listening to what many of us have been saying for years. He has also identified a number of steps that the government must take to counter the rise of homegrown extremism, which can lead to terrorism: the banning, for example, of teachers of hate from coming to this country, the proscribing of organizations that incite people to violence, and the refusal to “solve” the problem of extremism by funding organizations that actually promote it or, at least, do not discourage it.

This is all very welcome, even if it is belated. So what else remains to be said and to be done? There must be clarity about the fact that extremists claim to draw their strength from their interpretation of Islam and, more particularly, from sharia. This is why it remains important to distinguish moderate Muslims from extremists. By moderate Muslims we do not mean those who are lukewarm in the practice of their faith, but those who interpret it to enable peaceful coexistence and respect for fundamental freedoms. At the international level, we should be careful to distinguish between those who are genuinely committed to democracy and those who wish to use it to gain power and then discard it.

It is not enough just to ban certain inflammatory preachers from visiting Britain. We need a thorough system of vetting religious leaders (of all faiths) who wish to visit and work here. Apart from a working knowledge of English, their academic credentials and their knowledge of British culture should be taken into account. We have urged this on successive governments for a long time, but with only partial results.

Concrete steps need to be taken to reduce and prevent radicalization in prisons and universities. All radical activity and speakers must be monitored, vulnerable groups protected from exposure, and intimidation and separatism discouraged. Academic freedom, particularly in the study of religion, culture, and civilization, must be maintained regardless of how academic institutions and their programs are financed.

The prime minister referred to extremist chatter on the Internet. This is much more influential than it should be, considering its quality. There should be government encouragement for counter-programs that critique extremism and that practice interpretations of Islam and sharia that reject such fundamentalist extremism.

Mr. Cameron rightly criticizes the doctrine of multiculturalism, which has helped to bring about the segregated communities that have been fertile grounds for extremists. But the reason multiculturalism came to be invented was the loss of public discourse rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is this discourse, and the making of moral and political decisions in its light, that needs to be recovered.

The diversity of Britain should have been welcomed and accommodated on the basis of Christian hospitality. This would have affirmed the Christian basis of British institutions, laws, and values, as in the Coronation Service, where the monarch promises to uphold “the laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel.” Others would then have been welcome to contribute, in this context, to nation-building. What we have had, rather, is the amnesia from which we now need to recover. The question of identity, which he raises, is inseparable from the pervasive influence of this tradition, and it should be the basis for a forward-looking but historically aware conversation about its place in public discourse today.

The integration that the PM seeks has to do with an overall vision of what Britain is, where it has come from, and where it is headed. But the government also needs to take specific steps — for instance, in a housing policy that does not encourage ghettos to emerge, in an education system where schools represent a healthy mix of pupils of different racial and religious backgrounds, and in the requirement that English be learned and spoken within and between communities as a lingua franca that unifies them all. Government, local authorities, and employment agencies also need to encourage social mobility for the sake of education, in employment and for housing. Integration, rather than segregation, should be a declared aim of social policy.

The prime minister has begun a national and even Europe-wide debate on integration and its relation to security. The government needs now to show in its policies that it is aware of the issues he has raised.

— Michael Nazir-Ali, a bishop in the Church of England, is director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy, and Dialogue.


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