‘The challenge of violent extremism will be with us for years, but I am optimistic we will overcome it’
Violent extremism is one of the greatest challenges to this country’s security today. Since 2001, there have been nearly 200 convictions for terror-related offences, with more prosecutions being prepared. This is testament to the hard work of the police and security services. But the solution to this challenge does not lie in arrests alone. It lies in making communities resistant to extremist messages, in equipping them with the skills and confidence to stand up to poisonous ideology and, ultimately, in stopping people getting to the point where they can contemplate committing violence.
This is one of the central aims of the government’s renewed counter-terrorism strategy, published in March. It means that government, both national and local, is engaged in an unprecedented level of dialogue and interaction with the UK’s Muslim communities. This is not — as some mischievously imply — because the government believes all Muslims to be terrorists. Rather, we know that extremist recruiters look to target people from Muslim communities, using a “single narrative” concocted from half-truths and conspiracy theories. We also know that there are courageous men and women in those communities who want to make their voices heard, standing up for decency and common humanity. We must support them.
Crucial though this dialogue between government and communities is, it is subject to myths and misunderstandings.
The first myth is that “dialogue” means ministerial colleagues and I meeting a small handful of familiar faces while in London. The fact is that there is no one Muslim community in the UK. There are many Muslim communities, with different ethnic origins, religious and cultural traditions. The government has long recognised that achieving a meaningful dialogue means reaching all those people. This means local contact is vital. With support from the government’s PREVENT programme, town halls have renewed and deepened their contacts at the grass roots. At a national level, we have encouraged new voices to join the debate, including those who may not have been heard in the past, including women and young people. This is especially important as these are often the same people with a unique viewpoint and insight to reach out to those most at risk.
The second myth is that the government only wants to listen to people it agrees with. There is a need for clarity here. Frank and legitimate discussion is the basis of democracy: its absence benefits only those who want to stoke up a sense of grievance and division. The government is ready for debate on issues such as foreign policy. For example, at the start of this year, many groups were deeply concerned about events in Gaza, and pressed the government on its decisions. I welcomed the debate. Needless to say, talking to those groups is not the same as endorsing their particular views. But equally, we will not hesitate to challenge anyone whose condemnation of violent extremism is ambiguous. And there can be no question of ministers sharing platforms with organisations that call for or support violence, because that would confer upon those groups an aura of legitimacy they do not begin to deserve. We have nothing to offer them but vociferous opposition.
The third myth is perhaps the most pernicious: that violent extremism is the be-all and end-all of the government’s dialogue with Muslim communities. Violent extremism is a real and serious challenge, but we must not let the actions of a tiny and totally unrepresentative minority obscure the wider story of people with talent, energy and enthusiasm who want to make a contribution to Britain. Consider recent research by Gallup and the Coexist Foundation, which found that more than three-quarters of British Muslims said that they felt an affinity to the UK, compared to just half of the population as a whole. Look at the Muslim Women Power List, compiled by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It includes professors, doctors, newsreaders, journalists, politicians, lawyers and entrepreneurs. These are women who are shaping the professions and the communities in which they live and work. Or take the members of the Young Muslims Advisory Group, who have direct access to myself and Cabinet colleagues to talk about how government policies affect their lives. They are brimming with passion and talent and want to be part of the debate about the kind of society we could be.
The challenge of violent extremism will be with us for years. But when I meet people like these — a new generation, proud to be Muslim, proud to be British — it reinforces my confidence that we can and will overcome it: not divided by the machinations of extremists, but united in our shared values.