David Cameron set out his “full-spectrum response” to the terrorist threat less than two weeks from the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 attacks in London, and barely a month after 30 Britons were killed by an Islamist gunman in Tunisia.
It was an evolution of the prime minister’s 2011 Munich speech, when he attacked the previous Labour government’s “state multiculturalism” and argued that the UK needed a stronger national identity to prevent people turning to dangerous ideologies.
At the time, he called for greater scrutiny of some Muslim groups in Britain that received public funds but did little to tackle extremism.
Four years on, Mr Cameron’s address on Monday was more nuanced. He urged broadcasters to give more airtime to moderate Muslims so they could show the country a more balanced view of their faith.
The premier also promised funding, protection and “political representation” to UK Muslim groups that demonstrated an adherence to British values.
While the prime minister has accused some segments of the Muslim community of “quietly condoning” Islamist ideology, his criticisms on Monday were targeted at non-religious groups which, he said, were shirking their duties to keep the country safe.
He accused universities of failing to challenge the “creeping extremism” on their campuses and said internet companies were not doing enough to help the authorities identify extremists who operated online.
However, this change of attitude did not win universal approval. The Muslim Council of Britain expressed fears that the government’s new focus on the amorphous concept of non-violent extremism would “set new litmus tests which may brand us all as extremists”.
Under the plans — which will be clarified when the government publishes its extremism strategy this year — local authorities, medical practitioners and teachers are all expected to be under a heightened duty to identify and report signs of radicalism.
“Challenging extremist ideology is what we all want,” said Shuja Shafi, the council’s general secretary in response to the speech.
“But we need to define tightly and closely what extremism is rather than perpetuate a deep misunderstanding of Islam . . . which inevitably facilitates extremists to thrive.”
Rashad Ali, a counter-terrorism expert at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue think-tank, also criticised Mr Cameron for bringing up the sex abuse scandal in Rotherham as an example of society’s “passive tolerance” of practices that are contrary to British values.
The danger, Mr Ali said, was in wrongly conflating appalling criminal acts such as child abuse with true manifestations of extremism.
The Quilliam Foundation, a UK counter-terrorism think-tank that has long argued for a tougher line on non-violent extremism, was far more positive about the prime minister’s new track.
Their vision — which has been strongly endorsed behind the scenes by those such as justice secretary Michael Gove — is that the government should “build resilience” in vulnerable institutions such as schools, universities, prisons and charities to prevent the growth of extremism.
The key question now is whether Mr Cameron can get senior colleagues onside.
Just before the election, Theresa May, the home secretary, was forced to water down her counter-extremism strategy after encountering opposition from at least seven Cabinet colleagues in her own party.
Minds may have been focused by last month’s attack in Tunisia and the increased dangers of British jihadis returning to the UK after spells training in Iraq and Syria.
Nevertheless, it will mark a significant shift in policy if the government succeeds in advancing plans to deal with British subjects on the basis of their ideas, rather than their actions.
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