Straight after the incident outside Finsbury Park Mosque in the early hours of June 19, when a man drove a van into a crowd of Muslims, Theresa May promised a crackdown on “extremism in all its forms”. The Queen’s Speech, a couple of days later, promptly pledged a Commission for Countering Extremism, which would identify and expose extremist practices and organise the defence of British values.
This all sounds like a decisive response to a sequence of terrorist outrages over the preceding months that included the Manchester bombing and the ISIS-inspired attacks on Westminster and London bridges. Sadly, it is not really the slap of firm government. Rather, it represents an unwelcome continuation of the imprecise and shiftily disingenuous Counter-Extremism Strategy May delivered back in 2015, when she was Home Secretary. Depending on who sits on this new commission, Catholics could face very serious threats to religious freedom in the years to come.
The phrase “extremism in all its forms” arose out of a debate within David Cameron’s government about how best to deal with radical Islamist terrorism. In simplified terms, the dispute ran thus: Team A argued that all efforts and resources should be concentrated on stopping acts of violent extremism – actual terrorist attacks, even if this meant making tactical alliances with theological hardliners – imams who, say, would baldly tell you that homosexuals deserve to be thrown off a cliff or apostates deserve death, but who were not actually involved with terrorist groups or supportive of their aims. If you want to recruit the Muslim community to tip you off about potential suicide bombers, Team A argued, you cannot alienate these religiously and socially conservative community leaders, however distasteful their views.
Team B, by contrast, saw the war against terror as more like the Cold War, where defeating the enemy’s ideology was a crucial part of the struggle. They wanted to supplement the security and counterterrorism effort with a cultural contest that pitted Enlightenment values against the political tenets of Islamism and against those Islamic teachings and practices that offend against Western values. The government would combat both violent and non-violent extremism.
Team B won the argument, but only on condition that the strategy be cosmetically adjusted in order to mollify the sensitivities of British Muslims, who might otherwise misread the whole thing as an Islamophobic attack by the state on their community. To make it look more even-handed and inclusive, the project was broadened to include white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
This has proved something of a stretch, as there are so few blackshirts around these days. The BNP has imploded, the EDL has split. National Action, the new kid on the block – which celebrated the murder of the MP Jo Cox before being banned by Amber Rudd – has been estimated to have only 60 members. Britain First, despite its large Facebook presence, has fewer than 40 active members, according to the Independent.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection