THERE is a test that can be applied to any rhetoric about extremism. It is to judge whether the utterances against it, directed almost invariably against Muslims, can be applied equally to a conservative Christian community in Lincolnshire, say, or a community of nuns in Yorkshire. When the Prime Minister spoke on Monday about extremists “who clearly detest British society and everything we stand for”, it was not hard to imagine Christians groups that do, indeed, despair of much of contemporary society, and attempt to bring up — Mr Cameron’s word was “groom” — children or young adults away from what they see as malign influences. “It cannot be right, for example,” Mr Cameron said, “that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths.” But if this is true of inner-city Muslim communities, it is equally true of people in many rural villages. A political message that is imprecisely applied is a doomed one.
Mr Cameron’s speech on Monday, however, was unusually pointed. He said little about Muslims that could be applied to any other religious group, a sign that the days when undifferentiated “faith groups” were praised or castigated might be over. “From Woolwich to Tunisia, from Ottawa to Bali, these murderers all spout the same twisted narrative, one that claims to be based on a particular faith. Now, it is an exercise in futility to deny that.” If you acknowledge that the terrorists are Muslims, Mr Cameron seems to be saying, you make it a responsibility of the rest of the Muslim community to stop them.
There are several concerns about this. One is that extremist violence is somehow being shifted out of the political sphere. However religious their terminology, Islamist extremists are heard to be critical of a rapacious Western materialism shored up by military power. This narrative has enough traction to draw in young idealists. Any attempts to counter it without an element of self-criticism will fail. A related worry is that little in the speech suggests that the Government might be starting to listen. The extremists have gained the Government’s attention; how do moderate Muslims make their concerns known? Mr Cameron and his ministers must recognise that engagement is a two-way process. As the Archbishop of Canterbury put it on the same day: “We need to recognise that this all requires a shift in the narrative — from a transactional language to a relational one.”
The problem with ideologies, religious or otherwise, is not generally what is believed but the contempt that adherents have for those with whom they disagree. Mr Cameron hopes that, by working through moderate Muslims, he can persuade those being targeted by the extremists to respect British society and “values”. But Muslims, like Christians, have a few values themselves that they would like to see respected. They are not interested in a transaction. Mr Cameron will succeed only through a new relationship.