David Cameron has warned of the dangers posed by Muslims who supposedly “quietly condone” the brutal ideology of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Happy to play politics with the issue rather than commit resources to tackle the issue, the British prime minister claimed during a speech delivered from Slovakia that blaming agencies or authorities for the radicalisation of young British Muslims amounted to an abdication of responsibility on behalf of Muslims. Yet as much as the speech was high on rhetoric, it remained content free.
There can now be no doubt that the migration of British Muslims to Syria to fight for jihadi groups is both a crucial social issue and security problem. The involvement of British recruits in Syria is contributing to the violence and destruction in the Middle East. It also raises fears about the possibility of that violence returning to UK shores. Tragically, British schoolchildren can now too be added to the growing list of potential victims of the Syrian crisis, having been transported from a West Yorkshire town to a Middle Eastern war zone.
The government’s response to this problem has so far been insufficient. Now Cameron is shifting the blame for the growing problem away from governing institutions and agencies. While the risk of terrorism can never be entirely extinguished, governments do have the power and capacity to prevent people joining IS, as three sisters from Bradford are thought to have done most recently.
In light of the fact that the brother of these women was already known to have gone to fight in Syria, and the indication that the family was being monitored, there seems to have been a lapse by security services in preventing them from making the same journey.
And even though British police maintain that relations with their Turkish counter-parts are effective, there is a growing suspicion that more police manpower and greater cooperation is needed to safeguard young Britons. They also need to respond faster when it is feared British citizens may be on their way to the Syrian border.
The medium-term solutions require a re-evaluation of the Preventing Extremism programme. From its inception in 2008 the programme has struggled to identify those at genuine risk of radicalisation. In its initial form, the policy merely filled the gap left by retreating public services following the credit crunch. The effect was a muddying of the waters between counter-extremism work and community cohesion efforts, which in turn also increased suspicion of government-led community work with Muslims.
Since 2010, funding for the Prevent programme has been cut, and yet the tentacles of the Prevent agenda have grown longer. NHS, university, local authority and school staff are all receiving training in an optimistic and largely futile attempt to “spot” radicalisation.
In the future, the Prevent policy needs to have a much tighter focus and realistic goals. It needs, for example, to simply provide spaces where Muslims can discuss the personal and political issues which mosque-leaders have traditionally shied away from.
In the long term, and separately from the Prevent agenda, thought needs to be given to the ways in which community cohesion is delivered. Many academics have refuted the myth that Muslims self-segregate and “stick to their own”. But at a time when fear and suspicion of migrants and of Muslims is increasingly high, there is a pronounced need to ensure that all Britons, and particularly young citizens, have the opportunity to interact and engage with others from outside their own cultural, religious or socio-economic groups.
Any meaningful policies to ensure that this takes place through schools and youth centres would require a reversal of the huge cuts to youth and community services that have taken place since the Conservative party came to office.
Finally, beyond the realm of government, Muslim religious leaders need to give thought to the ways in which scriptural texts can be used to promote violent ideologies. Make no mistake, an overwhelming majority of even the most conservative Muslims reject violence.
Nonetheless, groups such as Islamic State use violent scripture as a shibboleth – a marker of Islamic identity that, if rejected, leaves a Muslim out of the fold of their faith. In this way the more liberal instincts of young Muslims collide with the intransigent scriptural interpretations set out by radical groups.
The UK government cannot involve itself credibly with that theological struggle but on all other fronts, government intervention and involvement is needed to tackle extremism. Measures implemented also need to be sustained; community building is a long-term project and requires a commitment of resources for security services, police, local authorities and community organisations. David Cameron’s empty politicking will not achieve any of its stated goals.