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Reflections on the Prime Minister's speech on extremism
08/02/2011 21:44:00

When I looked at the BBC website on Saturday morning, I was disappointed to read the headline "Multiculturalism has failed says PM". It turned out to be an article about a speech that the Prime Minister was giving to a conference on security in Munich.

I have long ago learnt not to comment on a report of a speech someone has given without reading the speech in question myself (this is particularly good advice when the person giving the speech in question is the leader of your party!). I have now done so and it allayed nearly all my concerns.

The Prime Minister argues that the biggest threat to our security comes from terrorist attacks, some of which have, sadly, been carried out by our own citizens; and that whilst terrorism is not linked exclusively to any one religion or ethnic group (we still face a threat from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland - who, it is worth noting, are not referred to as "Catholic extremists") this threat comes overwhelmingly from young men who follow an ideology, Islamist extremism.

The Prime Minister then makes a very important point - that we need to be:

"...clear what we mean by this term, and we must distinguish it from Islam. Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority...It is vital that we make this distinction between religion on the one hand and political ideology on the other. Time and again, people equate the two. They think whether someone is an extremist is dependent on how much they observe their religion. So, they talk about moderate Muslims as if all devout Muslims must be extremist. This is profoundly wrong. Someone can be a devout Muslim and not be an extremist. We need to be clear: Islamist extremism and Islam are not the same thing...those on the hard right ignore this distinction...and just say that Islam and the West are irreconcilable - that there is a clash of civilizations. So, it follows: we should cut ourselves off from this religion, whether that is through forced repatriation, favoured by some fascists, or the banning of new mosques, as is suggested in some parts of Europe . These people fuel Islamophobia and I completely reject their argument...there are those on the soft left who also ignore this distinction. They lump all Muslims together, compiling a list of grievances, and argue that if only governments addressed these grievances, the terrorism would stop. So, they point to the poverty that so many Muslims live in and say, 'Get rid of this injustice and the terrorism will end.' But this ignores the fact that many of those found guilty of terrorist offences in the UK and elsewhere have been graduates and often middle class. They point to grievances about Western foreign policy and say, 'Stop riding roughshod over Muslim countries and the terrorism will end.' But there are many people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who are angry about Western foreign policy, but who don't resort to acts of terrorism. They also point to the profusion of unelected leaders across the Middle East and say, 'Stop propping these people up and you will stop creating the conditions for extremism to flourish.' But this raises the question: if it's the lack of democracy that is the problem, why are there so many extremists in free and open societies? Now, I'm not saying that these issues of poverty and grievance about foreign policy are not important. Yes, of course we must tackle them. Of course we must tackle poverty. Yes, we must resolve the sources of tension, not least in Palestine , and yes, we should be on the side of openness and political reform in the Middle East...But let us not fool ourselves. These are just contributory factors. Even if we sorted out all of the problems that I have mentioned, there would still be this terrorism. I believe the root lies in the existence of this extremist ideology".

He then goes on to make a second point:

"I would argue an important reason so many young Muslims are drawn to it [Islamist extremism] comes down to a question of identity...some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practiced at home by their parents, whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries. But these young men also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We've failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We've even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values...the failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don't want to, is a case in point".

It is this section of the speech that gave rise to the unfortunate "Multiculturalism has failed" headline. Why do I say unfortunate? Because multiculturalism means different things to different people.

To its critics - and at least in the way he uses the word in this context the Prime Minister is clearly one of them - it means focusing on what divides us.

To its supporters - and I confess to being one of them - it means celebrating Britain's diversity (at the risk of stating the obvious, Britain - an amalgam of England, Scotland, Wales and at different points in its history some or all if Ireland - has always been multicultural). The OED defines it as "the process whereby the distinctive identities of the cultural groups within a society are maintained or supported". This can be at the expense of a sense of Britishness but it doesn't have to be. Indeed, done the right way it can assist its development. Put simply, it is important that people who settle here should learn English and integrate into our society but we should not force them to choose between being British and having pride in their roots. Integration is a two-way process.

When I saw the headline, I hoped that the Prime Minister, who has done so much to transform perceptions of the Conservative Party, wasn't repudiating this conception of multiculturalism, taking us back to Norman Tebbit's cricket test. And when I read the speech indeed he wasn't - he talks about the need for "a clear sense of shared national identity that is open to everyone".

So although I wish he hadn't used the word multiculturalism - because it means something very different to many of my constituents than what he meant by it in his speech - the speech itself is a good one that makes some important points.

Finally a political point: the comments by Labour's Sadiq Khan that the speech is propaganda for the English Defence League are, as I think the above quotes demonstrate, ill-judged to say the least.

If you want to read the whole speech for yourself, you can find it here.

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