David Cameron will announce today that "extremism is the struggle of our generation." Calling on British people to reject rationalisations about poverty or historical injustice, he will declare "the root cause" of Islamic extremism's allure is, well, the ideology of Islamic extremism. With this tautological circuit, the buck apparently stops.
Attacking "grievance justifications" offered to explain radicalism and terrorism is really a highly euphemistic way for Cameron to voice what much of Middle Britain is already thinking: "It's just THEM! Muslims just prefer violence!"
Now whether you agree with the whole idea of combatting Islamic radicalism, or that this should be a "generational struggle" (this from a Prime Minister apparently intent on bombing Syria, I should add), you have to question a strategy that expressly forbids political explanations of that radicalism. After all Islamic radicalisms are expressly political ideologies.
In his book The Muslims are Coming (2014), the NYU professor Arun Kundnani takes apart the belief that we will locate the causes of political violence in either the collective consciousness of a community or in the damaged psychology of the individual. Focusing on the domestic War on Terror, Kundnani observes how British and American politicians have used the supposed threat of extremism to build a veritable surveillance state. Moreover, to obfuscate the role of western governments in creating terrorism, they repeatedly discount political causes, preferring to blame either a widespread or minority Muslim fascination with violence. Kundnani argues that, in most surveyed cases, the advocates of terror become politically radical before religious radicalism enters the equation. The causes themselves are expressly political: instability in the Middle East; alienation or racism at home in Britain or the US; the crushing of more secular political forces. As one ISIS fighter tells Patrick Cockburn in the LRB (02/07/15), Jihad becomes a substitute for revolution.
Against the logic of counter-radicalisation, Kundnani insists that radicalism is built on a political ideology, with no necessary connection to terrorism. In order to understand the appeal of Islamic State or other extremely violent groups for British citizens, we need to look precisely at the political context at home and the historical context more broadly. Simple psychology does not explain anything. And nobody is going to stop terrorism by going after any and every Muslim who might harbour "dark thoughts."
Cameron's four key reasons for radicalism all either explicitly or implicitly place the blame for Islamic radicalism on Muslim communities. He argues that Muslim kids may be psychologically drawn to the "excitement" of Jihad, as opposed to crediting them with articulate political convictions. Moderate Muslim voices are weak compared with extremism (a perennial complaint, with an extremely narrow definition of moderation). There is a connection between non-violent radicalism and violent radicalism (which means, if the limits of moderation are narrowly drawn, the net of dangerous radicalism can be extremely broad). The failure to integrate leads to isolation (with young Muslims failing to properly love their homeland).
Put together, this stuff is toxic. Why? Because it allows British politicians to blame a group in British society for their own sense of alienation from the state; to censor as extremist or radical any criticism of that alienation and racism; and to say that Muslims in general are not trying hard enough to be British enough. Terror is all their fault. This is the sort of thing that leads to Terror Lists compiled by the British state with over eight thousand names on them; it becomes a reason to censor and control all specifically political Muslim voices. When Christians speak politically as Christians, we may object to what they say. We don't generally question their right to say it. But we do, increasingly, with Muslims, because Muslims, we're told, harbour dangerous extremists in their ranks and are psychologically predisposed to violence.
Kundnani catalogues a vast field of convictions for terror on highly dubious grounds. What purpose do widespread surveillance, extraditions, infringement of rights and spurious, trumped up charges serve the US and UK governments? Why are these extremely powerful states so obsessed with harassing Muslims who have radical political views (white supremacism gets less attention even if, as Kundnani contends, it is responsible for a comparable number of murders). The answer is possibly twofold: to regulate the expression of domestic political opinion in the War on Terror; and to drum up domestic fear that will feed into support for further attacks. As David Cameron declares his intent to go after Islamic State, which shows few signs of exhausting itself in the current phase of the war in Syria and Iraq, we should be extremely sceptical of these moral crusades.
The prime minister will today ask us to confront the fact that many Muslims "don't really identify with Britain." They are, by implication, not patriotic enough to be allowed a public voice. In fact, they should be criminalised if they step out of line. He will ask British people to endorse the harassment of a minority by the state on the grounds that their ideas are "dangerous." We need to ask ourselves in turn if we approve of the criminalisation of ideas that, while not necessarily advocating violence, are disagreeable to the state? Meanwhile, the mission to ostracise and stigmatise all instances of Muslim participation in political life that are not overtly obedient to the state, goes on.
Muslims deserve a public political voice uncontrolled and undistorted by the state. Efforts to take that away, and to criminalise Muslims, are not going to prevent radicalisation. More likely, they will spur it on.