The government’s ‘counter-extremism’ crackdown won’t reduce the threat, and is more likely to increase marginalization of British Muslims and the alienation that groups like Isis attempt to feed on argues Matt Carr

Governments rarely have anything honest to say in response to terrorist atrocities, and they rarely have anything intelligent, insightful or useful to say about them either. Invariably they lapse into the standard bargain-basement cant that has acquired such tedious traction over the last fourteen years: we shall not cower…an attack against all of us…an attack on our way of life…resolution…defiance…heinous crime…twisted ideology…twisted death cult etc, etc.

Such language invariably generates more heat than light, and that is usually its primary purpose. Because governments may recognize in private the ‘rational’ strategic intentions behind the horrific crimes they so vociferously condemn. They may even understand that certain crimes are connected to decisions they themselves have taken or policies they have adopted, but they rarely have any interest in acknowledging such connections to the public.

More often than not they prefer to use such atrocities to justify and reinforce preconceived responses and a course of action already decided. David Cameron’s response to the massacre in Sousse is no exception. Lord Snooty has said so many things you would  expect him to say on such occasions that Tony Blair could be forgiven for sueing him for plagiarism.  Struggle of our generation? Tick. Existential threat to the West? Tick. Isis A declaration of war on Britain? Tick. Shoulder to shoulder? Stand united with those that share our values? Attack on our way of life? Tick, tick, tick.

All this is to be expected, but His Lordship has also taken the cant to new levels. He has announced a ‘full spectrum response’ to the attacks in Tunisia – a quasi-military concept borrowed from the Pentagon that seems to have surprised and confused even his own officials.  He has repeatedly criticized the BBC for calling Isis ‘Islamic State’, because he says it isn’t a state and it isn’t Islamic and the BBC is therefore legitimising it by calling it the name that it calls itself.

For Cameron, Isis is an ‘appalling, barbarous regime’ and he wants it to be known only as Isis or have reporters put ‘so-called’ before it, just so you know that Islamic State isn’t really a state. Perhaps the BBC should simply call Isis ‘the evil ones’ or ‘the nihilistic death cult Isil’ to remove any ambiguity.  But either way. it’s none of Cameron’s damn business, and I really can’t see Isis being particularly bothered one way or another about what the BBC calls it.

The dimness doesn’t end there. In promising to carry out air strikes in Syria as part of his ‘full spectrum response’, His Lordship reassured the public that such interventions won’t lead to ‘boots on the ground’, because the government’s strategy is ‘to build up local armies. It’s much easier to just invade a country…It’s easier and faster, but that has consequences.’

Well yes, it’s really ‘easier and faster’ to invade a country than bomb it, isn’t it?  We’ve seen that a lot these last years.    And as for those ‘consequences’ that His Lordship alludes to; it would be really useful to see a British government actually acknowledge what the consequences of one of these ‘easy’ invasions have been, instead of lecturing the BBC over what it should call Isis. But don’t hold your breath.

The main brunt of Cameron’s ‘full spectrum response’ is likely to be felt domestically,  as the government uses the attacks to justify the reactionary and authoritarian ‘counter-extremism’ agenda that it has been talking up for months. These intentions were clearly signposted in yesterday’s speech to parliament, when Cameron declared ‘

‘There are a lot of extremists that buy into a lot of the narrative of the terrorists – that they want a caliphate, that Muslims and Christians cannot live peacefully together, or that they want to subjugate women. We have to say that in our country that those views, while they fall short of condoning terrorism, are not acceptable either.   This is something that can be fixed but it can take many, many years.’

Such views may not be ‘acceptable’, but they do not necessarily mean support for terrorism and banning and criminalising them will not ‘fix’ them, not in the short term or over ‘many, many years.’  Muslims who ‘want a caliphate’ for example, may include a whole range of individuals and organizations whose notion of the caliphate – and whose concept of how to achieve one – may have nothing at all to do with the Isis tyranny.

Cameron’s proposals are intended to take the ‘conveyor belt’ theory of ‘radicalization’ to an entirely new level. Last year Theresa May promised to ‘undermine and eliminate extremism’ in all its forms. According to a leaked document published in the Telegraph in March this year, the government’s ‘tough new measures’ to combat extremism include the following proposals:

  • A ban on radicals working unsupervised with young children to prevent ‘brainwashing’
  • A requirement that job centres identify ‘vulnerable claimants’ who may become targets for radicalization – a provision apparently intended to address ‘public outrage at people who hate Britain being able to live off the state.
  • Penalties in the benefits system to make people learn English so as to improve their integration into British society
  • Tighter citizenship rules to ensure that new residents embrace “British values”
  • Targeting Sharia courts
  • The establishment of a new ‘carefully defined legal threshold’ of extremism or opposition to British values which will subject refugees who do not meet this threshold to a ‘new form of restrictive leave to remain’
  • New visa restrictions on visitors who fail to comply with ‘British values’ and governmental powers to prevent such applications from universities and other institutions

Some of these proposals are jaw-droppingly senseless. Does anyone really believe that penalising jobseekers because they don’t speak English will combat ‘extremism’ or even that it is intended to? Is a claimant identified by his/her local job centre as ‘vulnerable’ to radicalization likely to be more or less ‘radical’ if they have their benefits cut?  I know what I think.

And how can universities know whether visa applicants are complying with ‘British values’?  What is this ‘carefully defined legal threshold’ that will identify refugees who are as accepted as refugees as potential security risks? What are ‘British values’ and what has all this nonsense got to do with Islamic State the Evil Ones?

Not much, I feel. And let’s not assume that this extremism agenda is some well-meaning but over-zealous response to a genuine threat. Because the threat of further atrocities like Sousse is real, but the government’s ‘counter-extremism’ crackdown will do nothing to reduce this threat, and is more likely to increase marginalization of British Muslims and the alienation that groups like Isis attempt to feed on.

And there isn’t just stupidity and short-sightedness here, but real cynicism, in the way that these proposals are using the threat of extremism to justify attacks on the unemployed, on refugees and migrants. Nevertheless that is what reactionary governments will do, and you can bet that this one will squeeze the crime in Tunisia to the last drop in order to persuade the population that these proposals are necessary.

We mustn’t let them get away with it.