Cameron – Combating Extremism or Attacking Freedom of Speech?

Published: 23 July 2015

Country: UK

David_Cameron_2The British Prime Minister David Cameron presented his 5-year-plan for fighting ‘home-grown’ Islamic extremism through concrete measures, such as parents’ right to confiscate their children’s passports if they fear they will join extremist groups, the reallocation of government funds to ‘moderate’ Muslim organisations, and the strengthening of Ofcom to ‘tackle media that promote messages of hate’.

A number of right-wing media applauded Cameron’s ‘tough’ approach to extremism. Some mainstream newspapers such as the Independent praised his ‘smart and relatively small-scale interventions’.  The tabloid Daily Mail took a stand against critical voices, arguing that ‘[al]though a few libertarian voices have criticised the Prime Minister’s ‘authoritarian’ approach, the real authoritarianism will come if we allow extremists to flourish’.

The Economist reported that ‘David Cameron stretches the definition of ‘extreme’ ideologies’, which Amnesty International UK’s legal programme director Rachel Logan viewed as problematic especially regarding freedom of speech.

‘It is obviously extremely worrying that British people have travelled to Syria to join a murderous group like Isis, and the Government should be thinking about this difficult issue. But it would be wrong to criminalise speeches that do not amount to advocacy of hatred constituting incitement – such as strong criticism of the UK’s foreign policy in the Middle East – which should be allowed in any free society with a plurality of views,’ says Logan for the Irish Examiner.

Huffington Post reported that ‘some critics have already expressed concerns about freedom of speech and worries over the definition of ‘extremist’ due in any legislation’. In an interview with the Guardian, a mother of three teenagers said Cameron had not made a genuine effort to reach out. ‘I have a question for David Cameron: does he think it’s OK to be a practising Muslim? Or does he want Quilliam Muslims?’ she said, referring to the counter-terrorism think tank Quilliam Foundation. She went on to say that the labels that are bandied about are unhelpful: ‘The word Islamism has not been really defined. I am a practising Muslim and follow the way of Islam, and that would mean I fall into it.’

In a different article The Guardian criticised Cameron’s stigmatisation of the Muslim community and warned of right-wing rhetoric: ‘Sadly, successive governments of both parties have peddled the same narrative that somehow there is a link between extremism/terrorism and integration/cohesion, and Cameron was no different today. In fact they are two separate and distinct areas and we need to address them separately. Integration is a two-way process, and there are responsibilities on the host community as well as the incoming community. We want one nation where Muslims are equal citizens, where our contribution to British life is recognised and where the far-right narrative doesn’t become mainstream.’

International security scholar and founder of crowdfunded alternative journalism platform Insurge Intelligence Dr. Nafeez Ahmed provided a thorough critique of Cameron’s speech in his ‘Open Letter to Britain’s Leading Violent Extremist: David Cameron’. Cameron’s attempt to absolve Western politics from responsibility for terrorism by arguing that ‘historic injustices and recent wars, [as well as] poverty and hardship’ are a form of ‘grievance justification [that] must be challenged’ was harshly criticised by Ahmed.

Quoting a joint Home Office and Foreign Office study, Ahmed put a perspective on economic disadvantage as a critical factor in radicalisation and on a sense that the deprivation experienced by the majority of British Muslims contributes to the formation of a general sense of identity associated with social exclusion, even for those who are not themselves excluded.

‘Muslims are more likely than other faith groups to have no qualifications (over two fifths have none) and to be unemployed and economically inactive, and are over-represented in deprived areas’ […]When a wider community experiences deprivation and unemployment — and 70% of British Muslims of South Asian ethnicity are in poverty — all the social science literature confirms that this has a detrimental impact on general identity formation in those communities, and exacerbates a sense of exclusion’, says Ahmed.

It seems like some critical voices in the UK media considered Cameron’s speech and anti-extremism plan as a way to stigmatise and further marginalise British Muslims, while restricting freedom of speech and failing to address UK foreign policy and domestic inequality as catalysts for extremism.