Challenging crocodiles, draining swamps and the 1970 World Cup are imperfect metaphors for an issue that needs to be debated with clarity. Cameron’s cabinet have had a public disagreement about the best way to tackle extremism, in much the same way that Blair’s cabinet did after 7/7. Internal Conservative Party politics, rifts between Westminster and Whitehall, and rows about funding all risk masking a very serious debate about the stance that the United Kingdom should take on non-violent extremism.
This is not about saying that all extremists are terrorists or about dividing the world into goodies and baddies. Rather, it is about identifying that all Islamist terrorists subscribe to an extremist ideology and a narrative that is a political distortion of an otherwise peaceful religion.
Extremism is not as vague a term as is often suggested – the imposition of a certain set of beliefs over other people is clearly not acceptable in a secular democracy.
We must accept that non-violent extremism merits challenging, in the same way that we know opposing homophobia, misogyny or anti-Semitism is the right thing to do. Racism does not have a grey area, and saying so does not push more people to being racist. Extremism is no different. The irony of not challenging non-violent extremism is that the homophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism that this country has made great strides in combating over the last two decades remains rife in Islamist circles.
Countering extremism is entirely possible in a multicultural Britain. As Martin Parsons said recently, we should not care at all whether people wear bikinis or burqas and eat halal or ham. However, we should absolutely intervene when Islamists attempt to limit the freedoms that Britain affords everyone, denying the right of individuals to make their own choices, and even more so when vulnerable people are victims to pseudo-religious fascism.
A tough approach to the violent symptoms of extremism should not preclude a clear stance on its causes. Tackling it with illiberal policies like TPIMs and Schedule 7 or increased surveillance for those suspected of preparing for terrorist acts is not the only solution. Indeed, before Pursue, Protect and Prepare, all important work streams under the CONTEST counter-terrorism strategy, is Prevent, the strand that seeks to address the root causes of both violent and non-violent extremism. Clarity, consistency and cross-departmental cohesion for Prevent are absolutely essential to take a more effective and pre-emptive approach to countering extremism and terrorism.
If society gets better at tackling non-violent extremism, we can remove the need for certain hard end counter-terrorism measures, which will in turn undermine the key Islamist narrative that the state is against Islam. By taking an inclusive civil society approach to challenging extremism, we can avoid alienating ‘with us or against us’ discourses. We must be proactive not reactive.
David Cameron’s intervention to prevent an internal rift between the Home Office and the Department for Education is important to him politically but this debate runs deeper. Preventing extremism in all its forms and protecting those vulnerable to its narratives is more important to our society in the long term.