David Lowe, Principal Lecturer, Law School, Liverpool John Moores University
It is clear that Cameron’s speech was aimed at tackling the threat the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) pose, especially in their radicalisation processes that results in individuals wanting to travel to Syria, Iraq or Libya to fight for IS or to live in the caliphates it has created or to carry out attacks in the name of IS in their home state. As with all UK legislation in the area of extremism linked to terrorist activity, the term ‘extremism’ is wider than just Islamist extremism and covers all forms of extremist thinking such as the likes of far right extremism.
The time has come where the kid gloves have to come off when looking at how to deal with extremist thinking especially that linked to IS. As Cameron said, there should no more be turning a blind eye, ‘…on the basis of cultural sensitivities.’ He wants to empower moderate and reforming voices who speak for the vast majority of Muslims that want to reclaim their religion. This is an important point and it is time the narrative changed, especially from Islamic scholars and imams who should consistently and openly condemn IS’ acts of and interpretation of the Quran. They should repeatedly emphasise that what IS promotes is not Islam but a distorted, narrow and intolerant view of that faith. IS activities do not just affect the UK, IS actions affect many states around the world. In June 2015 IS not only attacked European tourists in Tunisia, they also attacked a Shia Muslim mosque in Kuwait, killing over 20 people and injuring over 200 worshippers. Muslim brotherhood does not exist with IS, they are prepared to torture and kill anyone who deviates slightly from their narrow and twisted view of Islam. When hearing Muslims call each other brother or sister, among non-Muslims in European states there is a degree of incredulity that Islam is a peaceful religion. To convince them that Muslims do abhor and dissociate themselves for the activities of the likes of IS what non-Muslims want to hear loud and clear is the moderate and reforming Muslim voice condemning extremist Islamist views and actions.
In the UK it is clear the prevent strand of the UK’s terrorism policy, the CONTEST programme, has and is failing. The Channel Programme accompanying the prevent strand designed to deal with those who are in danger of or who are becoming radicalised has not achieved its targets. This may be down to two reasons. One being it is been inadequately funded with low publicity. Secondly where it is known, staff in education establishments and other sectors have been reluctant to pass on information or deal with those they suspect are being radicalised. This part of the UK’s policy does need reviewing and strengthening. In early July 2015 section 36 of the UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 commenced where support for people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism is in place and this includes educational establishments ranging from schools, colleges and universities where staff should look for individuals who could be radicalised. Following the Conservative Party’s winning of an overall majority 2015 General Election, the current UK government indicated within days of being elected that they would be introducing a Counter-Extremism Bill in the autumn session of Parliament where they would enhance the prevent strand of the terrorism policy by including criminal measures such disruption orders and this would include monitoring free speech. Of course, for this to operate effectively it requires wider powers of surveillance granted to intelligence and policing agencies. This has been signalled by the proposal by the UK government to introduce the Investigatory Powers Bill to widen surveillance of electronic communications. As Cameron outlined in his speech, he proposes a measure similar to that seen in Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act 2015 introduced in May measures to clamp down on cable television channels broadcasting extremist measures. Human rights law issues are raised here as how do you define extremism and what limits do you put on freedom of expression? The danger with such proposals is once legislative powers are in place there will be the suspicion that the intelligence and policing agencies could use this more widely than is expected. It is imperative there is a high degree of judicial scrutiny of such powers to rein in any abuses.
That said there is a degree of common sense as to what extremism is and the views espoused by groups like IS, abhorrent not just to non-Muslim UK and European citizens but to all members of our society both nationally and globally, have to be dealt with by taking a hard stance. Democratic western states have a soft under-belly that groups like IS has exploited to the full, and that is tolerance of others’ views and beliefs. A line has to be drawn with groups like IS. As stated earlier, what IS espoused is not welcome in democratic states and does not reflect the true meaning of Islam. However with increasing legislation on dealing with extremism and radicalisation in the UK and other Western states, there is the fear that terrorism is winning as by states starting to restrict freedom of expression undermines democratic principles. This is the dilemma facing many states, and I agree with Cameron, there should be no more turning of a blind eye based on cultural sensitivities. What groups like IS promote is not welcome in democracies and Europe knows only too well what appeasement of extremist views can result in was seen in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Imran Awan, Deputy Director, The Centre for Applied Criminology, Birmingham City University
The Prime Ministers speech is welcomed and I agree wholeheartedly that we must do more to tackle the Isis propaganda and Islamophobic hate crimes against Muslim communities in the UK. However, we must also ensure that we use this to help create safer communities and not shift the whole responsibility of counter-terrorism to Muslim families. As a British Muslim academic specialising in counter-terrorism issues in Birmingham and who talks to Muslim communities across the city on a daily basis, I can confirm that they have, as one resident recently told me, ‘had enough’ of being criticised. Muslims, like any other community, play an important role in Britain and the young people I speak to want to help, but when they are constantly targeted with political soundbites they feel marginalised and unfairly targeted. We need a joint up effort to tackle extremism. This requires reaching out to communities and engaging them, not shifting the blame on them or asking them to fulfil unrealistic goals.
Adrian Guelke, Professor, Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict, Queen’s University of Belfast
I found it thoroughly depressing since the PM simply repeats themes that are commonplace in the right-wing press in the UK and which uncritically reflect the prejudices of their readers. And it contains the usual tropes about radicalisation. Cameron fails to make basic distinctions – in particular, between views (which may be silly or extreme) and resorting to violence or joining a group engaged in violence. In this context, the numbers going to Syria to join ISIS is a concern from a security perspective and also in some respects from a humanitarian one. However, that does not alter the fact that from a political perspective the numbers are tiny and tell us very little about the political attitudes of Muslims in the UK, many of whom would in any case tend to identify themselves primarily in ethnic terms rather than religious ones. Through the argument, which Cameron makes, that the holding of extreme views can simply be a staging post to engaging in terrorism, the way may be opened to the criminalisation of the expression of particular opinions and while these may indeed include some really unpleasant attitudes, limiting debate is generally a bad thing. Expecting universities to police the views expressed by speakers at meetings cannot be desirable – a problem for political correctness already, though Cameron criticises aspects of that, which underlines his confusion on the whole subject of what free speech should or should not entail. The danger of a speech like this is that it will have a chilling effect on the expression of perfectly legitimate views about, say, the best way for the international community to tackle the various conflicts in the Middle East and what the UK’s role, if any, should be.
Steve Hewitt, Senior Lecturer in American and Canadian Studies, University of Birmingham
Cameron’s speech reiterated themes that he first raised in a speech in Munich in 2011. In that sense there wasn’t a lot new or specific, short of letting parents cancel the passports of under 16s. More specifics are apparently coming in the autumn and counter-terrorism legislation was recently passed. The controversy connects to the focus on non-violent extremists who Cameron essentially accuses of paving the way for terrorists. This is unproven and the UK’s domestic security agency, MI5, said in 2005 that there was no clear path to extremism. Cameron also denied any connection between western foreign policy and the anger that leads to terrorism despite what the terrorists themselves have repeatedly said and a UK government survey of British Muslims. Finally, it needs to be remembered that there is a political dimension to all of this. Cameron’s rhetoric plays well with the right-wing media, Conservative voters, and, potentially, supporters of the UK Independence Party who Cameron is keen to win over.