Billed as one of the most important speeches of his first nine months in office, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s address to world leaders at the Munich Security Conference in Germany highlighted his disapproval of multiculturalism and the alleged rise in extremism in the U.K. linked to its failure. Cameron criticized Britain’s “tolerance for segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to British values” and called on European governments to practice “a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism.”
The majority of Cameron’s speech focused on Muslim communities in the U.K. (primarily of South Asian descent). To the British government’s credit, Cameron and top government officials have made it explicitly clear that they are not equating Islam itself with violent extremists espousing deeply conservative social values. They are targeting homegrown Muslim extremists, not Muslims in general. Distinguishing between the two is important. As this Guardian article points out, many Muslim leaders in the U.K. support the government’s sentiment to assist them in curbing extremist elements within their communities, but they felt betrayed by Cameron’s confrontational approach from afar.
Cameron concentrated on the latest estimate of homegrown extremism by Britain’s domestic intelligence service, the MI5: as many as 2,000 active extremists. (This equates to 0.0008% of the U.K.’s 2.5 million Muslims.) He also vowed to stop Muslim groups that propagate views hostile to values of gender equality, democracy and human rights “from reaching people in publicly funded institutions like universities and prisons,” and cutting off government support for such groups.
The government’s firm condemnation of sexism, homophobia, and other intolerance that remain pervasive in Muslim communities and exist in British society more broadly is a good thing. The issue lies not in the content, but rather in the approach. Change is most successful when it comes from within (as evidenced by Middle Eastern protests in comparison to the war in Iraq in bringing about democracy). Cameron’s tone implies his lack of faith in British Muslim communities themselves.
Furthermore, by giving the speech in Germany, Cameron has created deeper divisions in an already tense environment. With suspicion, hatred, and racism towards Muslims continuing to increase in the U.K, Germany and other European countries, Islamophobic rallies and protests are gaining momentum. Over 3,000 people turned out in Luton, England, recently for an anti-Muslim rally. Interestingly, despite widespread racism against British Muslims, a recent poll found that 77% of British Muslims identified “very strongly” with the U.K. as compared to only 50% of the general public.
Encouraging British Muslims to create social pressure within their own communities is the best policy. By chastising Muslims so publicly in Munich, on the international stage, Cameron furthers the isolation that already exists. The issues addressed in Cameron’s speech were too important to be given out of country and away from British Muslim leaders. Talking with community leaders in a town-hall format, with a healthy, at times uncomfortable, dialogue, is what’s needed for both Muslims in Britain to feel welcome and for Britain to grow as a nation.
What approaches do you think might help to address extremism in British Muslim communities? What approach should the British government take?