Theresa May’s speech: a very cautious welcome

It is imperative that the measures outlined by May are carefully devised and responsibly implemented.

It is imperative that the measures outlined by May are carefully devised and responsibly implemented

At the Conservative Party Conference today, the home secretary Theresa May outlined a number of ideas that could be used to tackle Islamist extremism.

She emphasised a need for a civil society led push against extremist ideologies by groups that uphold ‘British Values’.

Putting aside her other suggestions for now, this is a vital breakthrough for a government that has, thus far, focused on strengthening the legal framework for countering extremism only.

Previously, conventional measures deployed by the state, including military and legal policies, have had some success in curtailing Islamist activity.

But they have failed to tackle the root cause of extremism in the UK. Namely the unhindered proliferation of various forms of the Islamist ideology that has come as a result of a variety of groups and individuals using ever more creative means, an ideology that has managed to attract support and avoid condemnation – despite its bigoted tenets – by appealing to those who oppose military action in the Middle East and the ill-fated ‘War on Terror’ in general.

For all her talk, May did not delve into the details of what a civil society-led challenge looks like. In my view, it is something that must be as organic as possible, something driven from the bottom-up that involves and empowers the British Muslim community, its activists, bloggers and campaigners.

It is imperative that the hitherto silent majority finds its voice and speaks out against the unrepentant preachers of hate that have, in certain circles, monopolised the discourse on what it is to be a Muslim in Britain.

Promoting liberal values in civil society will help create an ideological debate, potentially discouraging individuals who may find Islamist narratives attractive. This assertion coincided with May’s pertinent call to tackle the entire extremist ideological spectrum, not just its violent forms.

Thus, confronting non-violent extremists who promote intolerant views will be on the new agenda, as opposed to only dealing with those who are also carrying out violent attacks. As previously stated by Michael Gove, this strategy will help ‘drain the swamp’, instead of only picking off those few crocodiles that come to the surface.

In her speech, May also argued for more robust vetting procedures to restrict Islamist infiltration into institutions such as schools and charities. This follows a number of cases in which the Islamist strategy of entryism was at play this year, including the Trojan Horse affair, in which Islamist groups planned to take over a number of schools in Birmingham.

The home secretary also noted that Islamist organisations have used charities either as fronts to promote Islamist views, or have used donations of such charities to fund groups considered as terrorist organisations in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. This has included charities such as Muslim Aid, which in 2010 was according to The Telegraph had funded charities connected to Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

By infiltrating such organisations, Islamist groups gain access to vast numbers of young impressionable minds to which they can disseminate extremist views. The decision to stamp out such organisations from gaining access to schools and charities as covers for malevolent activities, will help ensure taxpayer funds aren’t used to promote views that run contrary to secular liberal values.

All in all, then, we should feel cautiously optimistic in the wake of today’s speech.

That said, it is imperative that the new measures outlined by May are carefully devised and responsibly implemented. As has often been the case in the past, government policy in this area always has the potential to worsen the issue it’s trying to resolve.

Ghaffar Hussain is the the managing director of Quilliam

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.