Cameron under fire

British PM made distinction between Islam and Islamist extremism but faced wave of criticism nonetheless.

David Cameron 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
David Cameron 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In an address at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke out against Islamic extremism and his country’s failed “doctrine of state multiculturalism.”
The speech unleashed a wave of criticism. Mehdi Hasan, writing in the New Statesman, took the prime minister to task for, among other things, lacking sensitivity to the diversities of Muslim immigrant communities. And the Daily Telegraph, not traditionally inclined to undermine Conservative prime ministers, reflected this purported lack of nuance via a notably misleading headline – “Muslims must embrace our British values, says Cameron” – as if the prime minister had charged the entire Muslim community with a refusal to integrate. The Guardian, meanwhile, lambasted Cameron for using “a mix of cliches, tired thinking and some downright offensive terminology” and blamed him for mixing up multiculturalism with terrorism.
The timing of the speech provided additional fodder for critics: On the very same day, a march was organized by the fascist English Defense League on Luton, a town with a large Muslim population. EDL members who shouted, “Muslim bombers off our streets,” and, “Allah, Allah, who the f*** is Allah?” cheered when they heard news of Cameron’s address, creating the false impression that the two events were connected.
Cameron, in fact, took pains to make the very distinctions he was accused of ignoring. Unlike those on the far Right, he recognized the difference between “Islam and Islamist extremism,” and specifically rejected the claim that “Islam and the West are irreconcilable – that there is a clash of civilizations.” He added that “the extremism we face is a distortion of Islam,” and called on “these arguments [against extremism]... to be made by those within Islam... Let us give voice to those followers of Islam in our own countries – the vast, often unheard majority – who despise the extremists and their worldview.”
Significantly, Cameron placed part of the blame for the failure on British society: “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream,” he said. “We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.” Nor did he ignore the crippling poverty in which many immigrants suffer.
It is hard to deny, as Cameron pointed out, that there is a serious problem of extremism with minority groups within Muslim communities. Nor can it be denied, despite the Guardian’s claims, that many Brits, except perhaps for the socially mobile urban elite, live in culturally homogeneous enclaves, hostile to those around them.
And the fact remains that radicalized young Muslims, born, raised and/or studying in Britain – including Mohammed Siddique Khan, the ringleader and one of the four suicide bombers in the July 2005 attack in London that killed 52, and Asif Muhammad Hanif, one of two British suicide bombers who participated in the April 2003 attack at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv – are responsible for many terrorist acts.
If Cameron’s speech was fair, then, what explains the broadside against him?
WHILE BRITAIN’S hard Right has deteriorated toward crude fascism, large swathes of the Left seem to have adopted a policy of cultural masochism that advocates what Christopher Hitchens has called a “one-way multiculturalism.”
Amidst a hypersensitive desire not to offend, coupled with an embarrassing, terribly self-defeating willingness to relinquish Western values, all manner of antisocial practices – such as the wearing of veils, forced marriages, even genital mutilation – are rationalized, and sometimes validated, in the name of religion, even when none of these practices is necessarily dictated by the Koran. Even honor killings, in some marginal circles, can be regarded as something less than murder because of an ostensible religious imperative. At the same time, the demand that Muslims respect British cultural norms is sometimes presented as an untenable intrusion.
Cameron was trying to articulate a sensible middle ground. The attack on him from some on the Left represents the kind of response that has thus far prevented the formation of a broad non-partisan coalition in Britain, dedicated to reasserting the values at the heart of the country’s illustrious history of democracy and liberalism.
This does not bode well, and demographics are only further complicating the cultural conundrum. The Muslim population in the UK will almost double to 5.5 million – or 10 percent of the national total – within 20 years, according to a recent Pew Research Center forecast. The Islamists’ threat itself may be crude, but fighting it entails adopting intricate cultural and political distinctions, bolstered by the firm conviction that Western ideals of freedom and liberty truly are superior. The climate of response to David Cameron’s speech suggests that many in Britain are not convinced.