In his speech on extremism today (speech in full), David Cameron said "Our freedom comes from our parliamentary democracy". He's right. Parliament can also dilute that freedom, and has within its power the means by which to end it all together. Parliament can only maintain freedom as long as it is challenged through protest, and held to account by the courts and the press, to name but two institutions that play such a role.
When the will of parliament is then ignored by the government of the day, as it clearly has been in the case of British servicemen embedded with allied military forces carrying out air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria, it does rather put into perspective the Tories' continuing obsession with promoting our supposedly indivisible British values as a counterweight against Islamic extremism. Prime ministers have of course long wielded the royal prerogative, enabling them to make war without bothering to seek the will of parliament, but it's clearly bad form to engage in semantics when there has not been just one, but two votes directly related to Syria. The first was defeated, while the second did not come close to providing authorisation to attack Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq. In truth, it's likely that British special forces have long been operating in Syria, but such are the activities of the secret state: for ordinary soldiers to be taking part in military operations in the country is something else.
One of the best, or at least most inventive defences of the government's fuck you, we bomb what we want attitude came from perennial fan of liberal interventionism James Bloodworth. Apparently those upset at parliament being ignored are "clinging to the outdated idea that Syria still exists as a state". Bloodworth might have more of a point if the government wasn't itself clinging to that "outdated idea"; lest we forget, according to David Cameron, Islamic State is neither "Islamic nor a state". The reality probably is that the rise of Islamic State has torn up Sykes-Picot, and that neither Syria or Iraq can return to their borders as previously recognised. That is however the intention of all the state actors involved, with the exception of the Kurds, if anyone's counting them. If we're going to ignore state borders because IS ignores them, it needs to be voted on. It's not a hard concept to get your head round, unless of course you're being wilfully obtuse, something liberal interventionists can never be accused of being.
It might also be an idea to have a strategy for dealing with Islamic State that runs alongside the one for dealing with homegrown extremism, as the two things while not inextricably linkedcould just have a connection. Launching Hellfire missiles at Toyota Land Cruisers, whether in Iraq or Syria, is not a strategy. One such strategy worth noting was set out on Left Foot Forward (edited by Bloodworth), Kyle Orton arguing the only way forward was to commit to regime change in Syria, which would convince all the non-ISIS rebel forces just how serial we are, and therefore result in an uprising against IS in both Syria and Iraq. This naturally wouldn't lead to the other jihadist rebels gaining power, or Syria descending even further into the abyss, just as regime change in Iraq and Libya didn't. There are times when describing something as insane doesn't quite cut it, although in fairness to Orton he is at least proposing something other than maintaining a murderous, bloody stalemate. It would be a murderous, bloody victory for the very forces behind the ideology of Islamic State, and result in years more of bloody insecurity in the most dangerous region in the world, but hey, you've got to start somewhere.
To give David Cameron some credit also, his anti-extremism strategy for here in the UK is not all bad by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, it's probably the most enlightened we've had post-7/7, although that's hardly saying much. Cameron did nonetheless get remarkably confused, if not express outright contradictions in multiple places in the speech. He again insisted that Islamic State is not Islamic, or rather isn't true Islam, and yet at the same time it cannot be denied that err, the extremists are Muslims, and clearly do follow Islamic practices. You realise that Cameron is trying his best to not to fall into the trap of either making this a war on Islam, or to give succour to those who try to paint all Muslims as extremists, but this really isn't working. Islamic State is Islamic, there's no getting away from it, just as jihadists are Muslims; they follow a twisted, perverse interpretation of the Wahhabi-Salafi tradition, which is in fact a relatively modern tradition, but it's still Islam. Islamism, or political Islam, is not inherently violent, nor is it necessarily incompatible with democracy; the Islamism of Hamas is very different from that of al-Qaida and IS despite descending from the same source. Recognising the Islamic State is Islamic surely isn't that difficult a step, or too hard to explain.
Within a couple of paragraphs Cameron is then at it again. It's only the extremists who divide people into good and bad Muslims he says. Except, err, the whole basis of his strategy is to do just that, as he then says in the next line, as this new approach is designed around isolating the extremists from everyone else. Either these extremists are Muslims or they're not; can we possibly make up our minds, please? He then immediately goes on to lecturing broadcasters about recognising the huge power they have in shaping the debate, apparently oblivious, or rather not, to how this speech will have more effect than anything they produce.
All this distracts from the good, which is the section on why people are being attracted to the extremist cause. You can quibble with Cameron's declaration that extremist voices overwhelm those of other Muslims, which I don't think is true at all, but his follow-up, that it's ridiculous the debate when the young have gone to join IS has turned into whether or not the security services are to blame is sound. If anything, Cameron doesn't ask the hardest of questions: whether or not some Muslims are in fact in denial of where their interpretation of Islam can lead. Radicalisation, as Cameron says, has to start somewhere, and for some it can be nothing more than ordinary religious observance. This is not to say they are to blame, that their interpretation is wrong, or that Islam always lead to extremism; it does not, and all religions and political ideologies have their extremists. There is however no getting away from how some are more susceptible than others, and the more conservative the interpretation of Islam, the higher the chances tend to be. It's not a coincidence that converts tend to be over-represented among the extremists, for instance.
The problem then is that Cameron's proposed solutions are so woefully lacking. There isn't really much point in once again going through why the emphasis on British values is chuckleheaded: suffice to say that when the leader of a party that has still has major problems with sexual equality, having so recently been converted to the cause, repeatedly insists that we all believe in such things and always have, the only reasonable reaction is to reach for the sick bag. Cameron protests that the new Prevent duty for schools is not about criminalising or spying on Muslim children, and yet what else is putting that duty on both nurseries and primary schools about if not spying on Muslim children, then spying on their parents and what they might be teaching them by proxy? It's certainly not seriously about protecting wider society from child jihadists. He talks about the effect "passive tolerance" could have on young British Muslim girls, when if anything we've now reached the stage where those brought up here are imposing their traditions on their own children. The "power and liberating force" of our values, and let's not pretend we haven't been debating these questions of identity for decades, don't seem to have had much effect.
Which is rather the point. Traditions are ingrained in all our little subcultures. Cameron boasts about the new diverse face of his party, and then within a couple of paragraphs is on to "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". Well, no, it's not Dave, but then what does the rest of your cabinet of private school attending mates have to do with this? Perhaps we finally get to where this is all leading when Dave suggests "the government needs to start asking searching questions about social housing" and also ask "how we can move away from segregated schooling in our most divided communities". One answer might be the new lower benefit cap, which research for the Graun suggests will lead to an exodus from the south and cities in general. Ah yes, it's all fitting into place.
The biggest hole by far in the strategy is on identity. The Tories don't truly believe in the nonsense they're spouting about British values, but it's the only thing they can think of in a world where identity is becoming ever more fragmented. This hardly affects just Muslims; in the face of seeming constant change it's natural to cling on to an ever more exaggerated sense of self, as we're seeing in the debate in the US over the Confederate flag. Young people brought up in an austere religious environment see the world as it is and react in different ways: some might abandon their faith and rebel against their parents that way; others might go in entirely the opposite direction. Identity has never been so fluid, exaggerated by mass immigration and access to wider culture unimaginable even 20 years ago. Little wonder that some people, and I can include myself in this, don't feel like they belong anywhere. Tackling alienation when individualism, or rather the marketed sense of individualism, is so prevalent is all but impossible. Harping on about British values while not actually following those values, especially at the same time as preaching myths such as how this is a country "where in one or two generations people can come with nothing and rise as high as their talent allows" and that our "success is achieved not in spite of our diversity, but because of our diversity" is about as idiotic as you can get. The strategy remains that there is no strategy. That there probably isn't one anyway doesn't diminish that.
Labels: British values, David Cameron, foreign policy, Islamic State, Islamists, jihadists, politics, radicalisation, Syria, terrorism