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Time to join up this thinking

23 October 2015

The Government should be consistent on refugees and extremists, says Paul Vallely

CONSISTENCY has never been a top priority for politicians — at least not when the alternative is reinforcing the prejudices of their supporters. The Government’s treatment of large numbers of refugees and small numbers of radicalised Muslim extremists offers a fascinating study in contrasts.

The latest instalment in the massive refugee crisis was the sight of thousands of refugees shivering in the cold and mud, as Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia argued over how to deal with them. The TV footage underscored the poignancy of the appeal to the Prime Minister by Anglican bishops, who said that an extra 30,000 refugees should be admitted into the UK. David Cameron has not only ignored that plea, but publicly rebuffed the bishops after they revealed the private letter that they had written to him more than a month ago.

Interestingly, Mr Cameron’s riposte suggested that the bishops would be better shifting their focus from the comparatively few refugees in transit to the far greater number whom the UK Government is helping in refugee camps in Lebanon and elsewhere. “Look at the big issue” was the implied rebuke.

When it comes to combating Islamic extremism, however, the Government takes the exactly opposite approach. It focuses on the minority, and ignores what the majority needs. This week, it announced new measures that are intended to prevent the radicalisation of young Muslims — and was promptly accused of alienating the very moderate Muslims who are best placed to combat the spread of extremist ideologies.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced plans to review all public institutions — including schools, colleges, charities, the civil service, and local authorities — to safeguard them against the risk of “entryism” by extremists. She also proposed banning orders on non-violent radicals, and powers to close mosques where extremism is suspected. All this comes on top of previous cuts to state funding of Muslim groups whose views the Government dislikes — and an instruction to schools and universities to inform the police of any students with extremist views.

Moderate Muslims have reacted with dismay or anger. The Muslim Council of Britain condemned the plans for their “McCarthyist undertones”, saying that it should be up to judges, not politicians, to create blacklists of people who are deemed to be extremist. The plans, it said, risked alienating the very people who were most qualified to carry out deradicalisation work: the Muslim communities of Britain.

It is not just Muslims who think this. The Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, Sir Peter Fahy, who speaks for the nation’s police forces on counter-terrorism, has said that the Government’s plans could be counter-productive, and were also a threat to free speech and religious freedom. Coming at a time when Muslims in the UK feel increasingly alienated, he warned Mrs May, the plans could “undermine the very rights and British values you seek to protect”.

A lack of joined-up thinking is nothing new. In July, Mr Cameron announced a review of how immigrants learn English. On the very same day, news broke that the Government’s skills agency was cutting funding for language courses that were specifically targeted at integration in the workplace. The Government needs to think more profoundly if it wants to be taken seriously.

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