Last Friday David Cameron gave a speech at the Global Security Forum in Bratislava that was widely reported as a warning to British Muslims to do more to combat radicalisation. This provoked the predictable support and opposition from different sections of the media, but nothing I’ve read so far highlights the inherent contradictions in what Cameron said.
Cameron’s speech is directed not just at the issue of radicalisation in the UK, but three ‘extraordinary challenges’ facing Europe, in the shape if ISIL (as he calls them), Russia and migration. He begins by stating that Europe can meet these challenges as long as ‘we stand up’ for the ‘values that have made European nations strong and successful’, values which he lists as ‘democracy, freedom of speech, free enterprise, equality of opportunity, [and] human rights’. The danger, in Cameron’s eyes, come not only from those who pose a direct threat to these values, but from those who do not fully accept this constructed identity, those who would say something different.
In terms of ISIL, this threat to European identity takes the form of young people abandoning their homes to travel to Syria and Iraq. This process, he argues, in the most widely-reported sections of the speech, begins in an environment where such views are normalised by those who ‘hold some of [ISIL’s] views [but] don’t go as far as advocating violence’, from those ‘who do buy into some of these prejudices giving the extreme Islamist narrative weight and telling fellow Muslims, “you are part of this”.
According to Cameron, this ‘paves the way for young people to turn simmering prejudice into murderous intent’, with the reinforcement of ideas coming from something ‘that is quietly condoned online, or perhaps even in parts of your local community’.
Let’s pause at this point. I don’t think it would be an over exaggeration to suggest that Cameron is placing part of the blame for young people turning to ISIL on the failure of the Muslim community in the UK to challenge extreme narratives, and that he is urging the Muslim community to take more responsibility for this. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this point, I think you can accept that Cameron is seeking to apportion some blame on those who could have acted differently in order to prevent young Europeans travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the brutal and murderous IS movement.
As Cameron moves on with the speech, he quickly contradicts this position, by affirming that ‘radicalisation starts with the individual’. Trying to deflect blame by pointing the finger at ‘agencies or authorities’ is wrong, in his view, and indeed ‘dangerous’. So when he talks about the Muslim community in the UK, there is responsibility beyond individual agency: but when he talks about the state’s role, it is ‘wrong’ and ‘dangerous’ to say anything else than ‘the individual is solely to blame’.
Let’s pause again: it seems that Cameron is able to separate state governance from the role of the community in moulding individual action. While communities can be held at least partially responsible, governance structures should not. We can encourage and help the ‘police and intelligence agencies to stop people travelling to Syria’, but that does not mean we can blame them for the fact that people want to go in the first place. Communities can be responsible, but state agencies cannot. Communities shape individuals and can therefore be the root source of threats, but state agencies do not and cannot.
As he brings the speech to its conclusion, Cameron contradicts himself again. He affirms that the security threats emanating from Eastern Europe and the Middle East ‘often have one thing in common: a failure of governance in other countries’. By this point his short-sightedness and double-think is reaching astonishing levels:
It is the failure of governance in African states that leads many to want to leave. It is in part the failure of Libyan governance which has allowed the traffickers to profit from human misery. It was the failure of Ukrainian governance in the years before 2014 which led to discontent and instability. It’s the failure of governance in the Middle East which has left a vacuum within which ISIL can proliferate.
The first blind-spot in Cameron’s analysis is the role that the UK and its allies have played in contributing to any poor governance that exists in these areas, be it through the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank in sub-Saharan Africa, the role of these same institutions in Ukraine’s post-socialist transition straight into a four-year recession, or the violent interventions in Iraq and Libya which destroyed lives and infrastructure.
The second, and perhaps more damning for Cameron’s vision of the world, is the fact that he is able and willing to blame other governments for their failure, without accepting any responsibility for his own government’s failures. In his world the ‘blame game’ involves blaming local communities in the UK and the failures of foreign governance for Europe’s problems, while not accepting that any responsibility rests with his own government.
Cameron’s platitudes about building a ‘national identity’ that ‘young people in our country feel truly part of’ is not enough. If he is so keen to ensure people take responsibility for their actions then he should take responsibility for his own: for the demands he makes on Muslims to pledge their loyalty to an undefined idea of ‘British values’, that could indeed not be defined in anything but an exclusionary manner; and for the essentialised notions of a ‘Muslim community’ his government propagates, requiring surveillance and securitisation.
While he continues to apply the contradictory logic expressed in this speech, Cameron will be unable to recognise that the failure to engage with the Muslim community is a failure, and that speeches like these only serve to contribute to that failure. That is perhaps the most damning indictment of all.