Leading article: Cameron's confusion over identity

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister delivered an important speech in Munich yesterday. He was careful to distinguish between Islamist extremism and Islam. He was of course right to do so. He said that the Government had been too passive about extremists recruiting in publicly funded institutions such as universities and prisons. He was right. He said that public money should not be available to organisations that "seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community" if they are opposed to democracy and universal human rights – including for women – or if they encourage separatism. He was right again.

He also took issue with something he called multiculturalism, which, he said, "encouraged different cultures to live separate lives". We doubt that this could ever have been described as a "state doctrine". It is a word that usually means little more than celebrating diversity, which is a good thing. But if anyone thinks that separatism should be government policy, the Prime Minister was right to disagree with them.

We are all for an "active, muscular liberalism", and accept that it can require uncomfortable choices. But David Cameron was wrong to link it with the fight against terrorism. This was a surprising error, because most of his speech was thoughtful and considered. He even argued against the right-wing case that multiculturalism – defined as excessive deference towards different cultures – causes terrorism. He pointed out that the 7/7 home-grown bombers were not the product of an impoverished and isolated Muslim community. "Many of those found guilty of terrorist offences in the UK have been graduates, and often middle-class," he said.

As Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed argues today, Mr Cameron was right to make that point and wrong then to contradict himself by saying that we had as a nation "tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values".

Having complained of "muddled thinking" on this issue, the Prime Minister seems to have fallen victim to it himself. He suggested that the reason so many alienated Muslim young men are drawn to extremist ideology "comes down to a question of identity", and that the failure of the previous government to assert liberal values with sufficient vigour was responsible for the "weakening of our collective identity".

Our view is that he is confusing two issues. It is fair to say that, for the best of motives, the liberal left in this country has pursued policies that have been in the interest neither of immigrants nor of wider social justice. Instead of paying for translators, for example, public money should have been used to teach immigrants English. It also took too long, as Mr Cameron suggests, for tough questions to be asked about equal rights for women and gays in ethnic minority groups. It makes sense to celebrate different cultures while insisting on liberal values, especially when public money is involved.

All of that, however, is justified in its own terms. If we are robust about the values that we share, that makes us a better society and gives all citizens more equal chances of fulfilling themselves.

It has almost nothing to do with Islamist terrorism, however. The reasons why young people turn to political violence might well be described by concepts borrowed from social psychology such as "identity", but to relate those to government promotion of the values of freedom of speech, rule of law and equal rights is simply naive.

This part of Mr Cameron's speech was worse than naive, however. It was counter-productive. By linking Islamist terrorism with the issue of integrating Muslims, he managed to suggest that Muslims are a threat. We doubt that that would have been his intention, but it would have been better to have given two speeches.

Yesterday, at a conference on security, he could have talked about counter-terrorism: policing, intelligence, measures against extremist organisations and, of course, the argument against al-Qa'ida's perversions of Islam – an argument, as he said, that has to take place largely within Islam.

On another occasion, he could have delivered a speech celebrating Britain's rich cultural eclecticism, how we have benefited from immigration, and how it is in the interests of immigrants and society that we are "unambiguous and hard-nosed" in asserting the liberal values for which we stand.

His error was the muddled thinking that turned two good speeches into one bad one.