The government regularly bungles religious issues, so how can it deal effectively with Islamic extremism?

David Cameron is setting up a cabinet level task force to combat Islamic extremism (Photo: PA)

The Prime Minister made a speech on Monday in which he spoke about the government’s response to the Woolwich murder. He used the phrase “draining the swamp”. This phrase was much used, if memory serves, in the wake of 9/11. So, twelve years on from the Twin Towers, is our government any closer to formulating a response to the attacks directed against us by Islamist terrorists?

The Prime Minister is setting up a cabinet level task force, the details of which can be read about here. Governments are supposed to busy themselves with practical matters, so no sensible person would dismiss the task force and its attempts to disrupt extremist websites, for example. This is something that only government can do, and which government surely should do.

Something that falls into the same category is the deportation of undesirables, which is not mentioned, and which, as the case of Abu Qatada reminds us, is one area where government seemingly has its hands tied.

Governments like ours, however, are supposed to adopt a neutral approach to religion and matters of conscience (though, of course, in practice they don’t). Both Cameron and Blair before him have interfered with the realms of what they call ‘ideology’ – but let us not get into that now.

Tony Blair, now out of office, and therefore more forthright than the incumbent Prime Minister, makes the following point: “There is a problem within Islam – from the adherents of an ideology which is a strain within Islam… We have to put it on the table and be honest about it. Of course there are Christian extremists and Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu ones. But I am afraid this strain is not the province of a few extremists. It has at its heart a view about religion and about the interaction between religion and politics that is not compatible with pluralistic, liberal, open-minded societies.”

In this assertion, he is fundamentally correct, and it is the last part that is most important, the ‘not compatible’ part. Consider Saudi Arabia, which is a non-pluralistic and non-liberal society, and certainly not open-minded. In Saudi Arabia the government carries out executions (or judicial murder, if we are honest) of people it finds offensive, such as several people recently judged to be sorcerers. Is there any difference in the mindset of the Saudi authorities who condemn such unfortunates to death, and the perpetrators of the Woolwich murder?

It has been said many times that al-Qaeda is waging a war against modernity. So, in a different way, is the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia. Both reject pluralism, as a lived reality, and also the reasoning that underpins pluralism.

So what can our government do to try and get these people to see the benefits of embracing pluralism? Here we have a difficulty, thanks to government hypocrisy on this matter. Tony Blair closed down the Catholic adoption agencies – so he is hardly an apostle of pluralism. The British government regularly cosies up to the Saudi regime, so it can scarcely convince us that it disapproves of religious monism per se. At the same time, it has sponsored legislation that all Muslims must find offensive, which is hardly likely to induce trust. In many ways it is best that government stays out of the ‘ideological’ question given its track record, and its astonishing cackhandedness in handling religious matters to date.

But there are other people who can get involved. There are Muslims in Britain who combine faith and nationality with considerable success. These are the people who in the end have to convince their fellow Muslims that the extremist path is not the right one. Tony Blair is right in saying that this is a problem inside Islam; the solution too will be inside Islam. Those of us outside Islam will have to step back and wait for the conversation to happen; in the meantime the government task force can get on with its job of containing extremism, which will never be 100 per cent effective. But for a true and lasting solution, that is up to Muslims.

The best the government can do, I suppose, is to sponsor colloquies amongst Muslims on the nature of the relationship between faith and society, and get the BBC to televise them. This has historical precedent, as in the Colloquy of Poissy, the Hampton Court Conference, and the Colloquy of Marburg. Something like this has been tried with the Doha Debates more recently. True, none of the historical colloquies were great successes, but ‘jaw, jaw’ is always preferable to the alternative.