Why David Cameron’s Campaign Against ‘Extremist Ideology’ Will Fail

July 24, 2015

Earlier this week David Cameron gave a speech on his five year plan to defeat extremism.

The centrepiece of his speech was a focus on the need to defeat the ideology of extremism:: “what we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology. It is an extreme doctrine.”   In opposition to this he placed ‘British values’ which need to be ‘enforced’

At the end of the speech he proclaims that:

Our Great British resolve faced down Hitler; it defeated Communism; it saw off the IRA’s assaults on our way of life. Time and again we have stood up to aggression and tyranny.

There are several things that concerned me about this speech – which echoes previous speeches by the PM and the Home Secretary – and the overall push to define the problem as one of ‘extremism’ rather than violence.

From the perspective of a historically minded social scientist the implicit ‘theory of change‘ is the wrong way round. The argument seems to be we will defeat the Salafi-Jihadi threat by discrediting its ideology and by promoting our own ideology. My reading of the Nazi and (European) communist cases is that the ideologies were made irrelevant by their failure to deliver results. There are still lots of people around who embrace white supremacist ideas or who belong to various flavours of communism. The case of the IRA is even more interesting because I don’t think that the British government made any serious attempt to discredit the fundamental ideology of the IRA (a united Ireland) rather it was its methods that were the problem. The Sinn Fein members of the Northern Ireland government still believe in a united Ireland it’s just that they don’t think that they can achieve it by force. The lesson I would take away from this is that there more important to ensure that political failure of violent radical Islam in the Middle East rather than to engage in endless debate on the correct version of Islam.

The emphasis on cohesion through value promotion is sociologically and politically suspect. Sociologically speaking the idea that societies are held together by a value consensus takes us back to Durkheim and Talcott Parsons and is one that has been largely rejected by the last forty years of sociology (eg Joas and Knobl 2009) . The ‘mass society’ and its consensus was always a myth. Hence the pursuit of such a consensus will have limited effects.   Politically the idea that the British state should be defining (and enforcing) British values (rather than providing a legal framework for behaviour) smacks of totalitarianism.

“We are all British. We respect democracy and the rule of law. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith.”

I suspect that there are quite a large segment of the British population who don’t agree with one or more of these stances but who are absolutely never going indulge in any overt expression of these views (let alone actions) beyond the comfort of their sofas.

Given these points it would be more sensible from a domestic political point of view to play down the issue of Islamist violence rather than talk it up. The British public certainly seems more relaxed about the terrorist threat than the political elites do. The greater them emphasis placed on it the more the negative political consequences from an attack – and, some smaller attacks are probably not preventable. This is not to say that there is not a problem and actions to manage it are not important but it’s a good rule in politics not to give too much attention to problems that you cannot resolve.

What the Prime Minister is promising is an intrusive, hectoring, alienating campaign that will not achieve what he wants to achieve.


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