Tunisia attack vindicates Cameron on Islamists
London - The massacre of tourists in the Tunisian coastal resort of Sousse has given new impetus to the British government’s campaign against Islamist ideology, which is at the heart of its new counter-extremism measures.
The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the Sousse attack, in which 30 of the 38 victims were British citizens, making the atrocity the most deadly attack on British citizens since the 2005 bombing of public transport by Islamist terrorists in London in which 52 were killed.
In the wake of Sousse, British Prime Minister David Cameron placed a heavy emphasis on combating the ideas that he says motivate such acts of violence.
Addressing parliament, Cameron urged Britons to be “more intolerant of intolerance”, drawing attention to the ideological dimension of Islamist terrorism and emphasising that “people who do these things do it in the name of a perverted and twisted ideology which hijacks the Islamic faith”.
The basis of the Conservative government’s approach is what Cameron has termed a “full spectrum” response that fights both non-violent extremism as well as acts of violence.
Extremism is defined by the UK government as: “The vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also regard calls for the death of members of our armed forces as extremist.”
This definition is strikingly broad and has been criticised by rights groups as amounting to the policing of individual beliefs but Cameron has argued forcefully for linking extremist ideas to violent acts of terror.
Cameron advocated such an approach in 2011 during a keynote speech at the Munich Security Conference.
“As evidence emerges about those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called non-violent extremists and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence,” Cameron said.
The Conservative strategy to challenge non-violent extremism, however, was not fully implemented because of divisions within the previous government between the Conservative party and their Liberal Democratic coalition partners, as well as opposition within the Conservative party itself. Significantly, the most senior Muslim member of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, was opposed to the approach.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper after her resignation from government in the summer of 2014, Warsi criticised the tendency “to view ever-increasing numbers of Muslim organisations or individual activists with suspicion”.
In March, Warsi attended an event in parliament hosted by Islamist extremist Azad Ali, who has expressed his “love” for ultra-extremist al- Qaeda ideologue and terrorist Anwar Awlaki, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2011, and has attended speeches by the high-profile al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Qatada.
Cameron responded to Warsi on the BBC radio show Today by saying that, in the wake of the Sousse attack, the argument over his government’s counter-extremism strategy had decisively been won by those taking a tougher line with non-violent extremists.
“I have an honest disagreement with Sayeeda, with whom I have debated this many times,” the prime minister said. “My point is that we should engage with imams, with Muslim communities, with Muslim organisations but we should have some basic rules in terms of our engagement. If organisations back extremist preachers… then I think we have a serious problem.”
The goal of combating non-violent extremism is to make views associated with terrorism unacceptable, much as racism has become socially unacceptable in Britain over the last three decades.
One manifestation of the new approach, the so-called prevent duty, went into force July 1st. This requirement, part of the Counter- Terrorism and Security Act of 2015, imposes a legal obligation on a range of organisations — including schools, local authorities, prisons, police and health bodies — to have “due regard to preventing people from being drawn into terrorism”.
Security Minister John Hayes says the new obligation is “about protecting people from the poisonous and pernicious influence of extremist ideas that are used to legitimise terrorism”.
In schools, the prevent duty will require teachers to inform social services and the police if they encounter views and behaviour that may indicate a child is being drawn into extremism.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, criticised the government’s approach as “causing significant nervousness and confusion among teachers… The prevent duty is felt by many teachers to be counterproductive and wide of the mark.”
The government appears unmoved by such criticism of its strategy, however, and has other measures in the pipeline designed to target Islamist thought by regulating spaces where Islamists are believed to propagate extreme views, such as informal sharia courts, unregulated supplementary schools and the governing bodies of schools, all of which have been the subject of high-profile scandals involving Islamists in recent years. Planned measures include a government investigation into the application of sharia law in England and Wales, a national review of supplementary schools and a national database of school governors.
In his address to parliament, Cameron indicated that the new prevent duty was only a small part of a tougher approach and promised to “go further” in the coming weeks.