by Stephen Oryszczuk, Foreign editor
Well done David Cameron for naming the enemy that is jihadism. Credit, too, for saying not just how bad it is, which is easy, but what he intends to do about it, which isn’t.
To date, this has been a problem without a solution, a cancer without a cure. Last week he presented one. But what should have been a plan to defeat home-grown jihadism became a “war on extremism”. It was a terrible mistake, and means the prime minister has already suffered strategic drift before his war commences.
First, you can’t defeat “extremism,” because you can’t define it. In the political context, “extreme” beliefs are those considered unreasonable or unacceptable. By whom? Does it apply to complete ideologies, one-off conspiracies or something in between? Does it apply universally?
If, for example, “extreme” includes Muslims with Palestinian sympathies who want to fight Israelis, could it not also be said to include Jews with Israeli sympathies who want to fight Palestinians? Violence aside, does it include boycotts, which can be delegitimising or perfectly legal choice-based decisions, depending on who you ask? What about protests, which we all regard as a democratic right? The senior vice president of the Board of Deputies has already called some pro-Palestinian protesters “extremists”. Is this now a label to be applied to everyone and everything we don’t like? The term’s lack of definition leaves it open to abuse, and threatens to send “extremists” the way of “terrorists,” a term now so over-used as to render it virtually meaningless. Just ask the boy who cried “Wolf”.
Second, even if you could reliably define “extremism” and apply it universally, would you ever get rid of it? Surely “extremism” has been around since the first caveman disagreed with the way his cave was run. He became a terrorist when he first raised his club in anger. No doubt he, too, was accused of “perpetrating a noxious ideology”. Evil, in this sense, pre-dates the anvil. You can’t get rid of widely-differing views about the way the world is run by declaring war on anyone who holds them. America has seen a spate of shootings by delusional, angsty teenagers, but it hasn’t declared war on adolescence. You don’t eradicate “extremism,” whatever that is. You manage it.
Third, in seeking to manage it, Mr Cameron has put the onus squarely on the Muslim community. Fine – the terrorists associate themselves with Islam. But by holding British Muslims accountable, has he not perpetuated the ‘us’ and ‘them’ grievance? Would there not be outrage if he held Britain’s Jews responsible for the West Bank’s Jewish ‘price-tag’ vandals?
The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are no more responsible for ISIS than the world’s 2.3 billion Christians are for Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which raped and pillaged its way across Africa, and are no more able to stop it.
Fourth, Mr Cameron’s offensive equates non- violent “extremism” with violent “extremism”. But a fundamentalist ideology is not the same as terrorism. Depending on how you define it, half the world’s Muslims are Islamists, but whether they want Sharia law or the overthrow of the Western democratic order, the crime is in the action, not the mindset. People are free to believe what they want. Until they break a law, they are not lawbreakers. In the Tom Cruise film, Minority Report, police punish “future crimes” using sophisticated prediction techniques. We’re not there yet.
Fifth, Mr Cameron’s Big Society is giving way to Big Brother. In his war on “extremists,” he is creating a police state. An Orwellian law now requires teachers to shop classroom “extremists,” while new software uses algorithms and watchwords to shop “extremists” online. State surveillance is already suffocating. Laws turning prison officers, classroom assistants and social workers into informers (Mr Cameron’s “extremism” army?) just make it worse. Are “extremists” still assumed innocent until proven guilty? This attack on civil liberties must stop.
What is the alternative? Show the idiots to be idiots. Nutters embarrass themselves. At university, I went to seminars by al-Muhajiroun (before it was banned) and evangelical Christians. The former said the CIA invented AIDS, the latter that I’d drown if my boat capsized unless I shouted “Jesus”. I imagine an hour with Joshua Bonehill-Paine, David Irving or Anjem Choudary would be just as ridiculous.
That leaves the hardcore nasties, where the UK could take a leaf out of Israel’s book. At their best, Israelis hit hard, fast, and with pinpoint accuracy, which sends a message. So be it with terrorists. Jihadists intent on killing civilians don’t play by Hobson’s Rule Book, so neither should we.
A well-developed network of human intelligence, coupled with surveillance warrants, when warranted, should give the security services all they need. But in a recent interview, an anonymous counter-terrorism commander said his team, which is charged with combating home-grown threats, had but one Muslim officer. That’s the army Mr Cameron should be building.