Cameron channels Blair in extremism fight

David Cameron Image copyright PA

David Cameron's major policy speech on the challenges posed by Islamist extremism has been hailed in some quarters as a nuanced intervention in a complex and sensitive area, as well as attracting criticism from some others, including parts of the British Muslim community.

The prime minister's speech is interesting in a number of ways, including the light it inadvertently sheds on the ongoing political challenge posed by the growth in extremism in the last decade or more.

His speech contained some echoes of one made almost 10 years to the day by one of his predecessors.

In August 2005, Tony Blair, in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London, declared that "the rules of the game have changed".

His policy response was a raft of new anti-terror legislation as well as new laws to combat extremists.

The plans included measures to deport extremist foreign Muslim clerics without appeal, shut down mosques preaching hate, and proscribe extremist Muslim groups.

Mr Blair also proposed a commission to look at multiculturalism but said that it would not threaten anyone's culture or religion.

But he went on: "There are people who are isolated in their own communities.... That worries me because there is separateness that may be unhealthy."

These very themes were touched on by Mr Cameron on Monday.

Community engagement

In another key part of his speech, Mr Cameron said he would actively encourage reforming and moderate Muslim voices to speak up.

The prime minister said he would set up a new community engagement forum to hear directly from Muslim groups challenging extremism.

Looking back to November 2005, a number of working groups set up in the wake of the London attacks put forward proposals of their own to tackle extremism and the radicalisation of young Muslims.

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Image caption Tony Blair warned after the 7/7 attacks that anti-terror strategy had to change

Their proposals, which found favour with then Home Office Minister Hazel Blears, included a rapid rebuttal unit to combat Islamophobia, a better reflection of Islam in the national curriculum, and better training of imams.

The renewed emphasis on shared values as a way of combating extremism touches on ideas that came up back in 2009, as part of the Prevent initiative, ostensibly aimed at tackling the threat of radicalisation among young Muslims in particular.

The new measures, put forward in the Queen's Speech in May, reinforce the growing tendency towards more legislation in the sphere of anti-terrorism.

Indeed the UK has a long - if controversial - history of terrorism legislation.

The last Labour government introduced five major pieces of terrorism legislation:

The political in-fighting, particularly over the issue of detention periods for suspects, was fierce.

David Cameron returned to another of his major themes in linking the extremist threat to values and identity.

Mr Cameron explored some of these ideas in a major speech in Munich in 2011, dubbed by some at the time as an example of a new "muscular liberalism".

It was in Munich that he stated that "the passive tolerance of recent years" had to be replaced by a much more assertive defence of British values against "Islamist extremism".

He talked about the notion that the problems stemmed in some instances from a failure to fully belong in British society.

Muslim help

Asking that Muslims, particularly moderate ones, play a greater role in finding the solution to the Islamist threat has again been highlighted as a major plank of government policy.

It has been a common theme over the last decade or more. In January of this year, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles wrote to more than 1,000 imams and Muslim leaders, urging them to publicly condemn the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in France.

Mr Pickles pointed out in his letter that Muslim leaders had a responsibility to prevent young people from being radicalised.

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Image caption Eric Pickles was criticised by Muslim leaders

Mr Pickles was criticised by some Muslim leaders for his approach - they believe their efforts go unrecognised and that such statements stigmatise the Muslim community unfairly.

But the prime minister backed Mr Pickles, claiming that some Muslims had " a problem" if they objected to being asked to do more to tackle Islamist extremism.

Mr Cameron, in his latest speech, put his weight behind setting up a number of new de-radicalisation initiatives.

The government already has a de-radicalisation programme - Channel - which is part of the Prevent strategy to help stop people becoming involved in violent extremism.

The government's overall strategy for countering terrorism - Contest - is based on four areas:

  • Prevent - criticised by some, including a former head of MI5, as being ineffective - aims to halt the spread of extremist ideology and is aimed in particular at young people at risk
  • Pursue is the name given to the work of the security services in identifying and investigating plots and prosecuting terrorists
  • Prepare covers the area of responding to an attack
  • Protect is the name given to the task of defending Britain's borders

The government is committed to publishing regular updates on the Contest strategy. The most recent covers the year 2014.

Mr Cameron speaks of the fight ahead as a generational struggle against Islamist-inspired terrorism.

And his speech on Monday, agree supporters and critics alike, is his attempt to show the way forward.

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