Last Tuesday Policy Exchange hosted a seminar in Washington D.C. to consider the future of Anglo-American policy towards Islamism. The gathering was addressed by former Prime Minister David Cameron – who reflected on his approach to this crucial question during his time in office. Between 2010 and 2016, Conservative-led governments established arguably the most progressive policy framework for dealing with Islamist terrorism and extremism anywhere in the world. David Cameron’s defining insight was that these two phenomena are intertwined: that it is not possible to properly tackle the Islamist terrorist threat, without also challenging the ideological extremism that fuels it.
As Cameron told his assembled audience in Washington, the beginning of wisdom on this matter lay in the clear-eyed recognition that Islamism – the politicised and distorted form of Islam – was at the root of the problem. To acknowledge this, the former Prime Minister said, was to reject those on the left who insisted that the current security threat had nothing to do with Islam; and equally, it was to reject those on the right who said it had everything to do with Islam. The truth, Cameron insisted, was to understand that Islamists had hijacked one of the great religions of the world – Islam – and their principal victims were the silent majority of Muslims who wished to live ordinary, peaceful and secular lives.
In Cameron’s formulation, we are in the middle of a generational struggle against extremism, at the heart of which is a “civil war in Islam”. It is his firm belief that we cannot afford to stand on the side-lines of this conflict – but must instead lend critical support to those “moderates” who truly represent the Muslim majority. Certainly, he believes we should do nothing that might serve to empower their extremist counterparts. As Prime Minister, therefore, Cameron insisted that government should neither engage with, nor fund, those groups and individuals who peddle the ideological poison of extremism.
Moreover, the former Prime Minister recounted how, in implementing this policy agenda, he had been regularly told it would be a disaster: that his policies would be divisive, would alienate Muslims and furnish greater division. Emphatically, this has not been the case. As Policy Exchange’s 2016 study of Britain’s Muslim communities shows, Muslims overwhelmingly feel a part of British society. The only people disadvantaged by Cameron’s agenda were the Islamists who saw their status and influence diminished.
Building upon these intellectual foundations, the Washington seminar explored possible future avenues for policy – in the first session of what Policy Exchange hopes will be an on-going Anglo-American conversation. Paul Goodman, the Editor of Conservative Home who was present noted that it was a unique gathering of experts and policy-makers. Among those present were representatives from some of the principal US government departments that look at the Islamist question as well as leading Senatorial and Congressional aides, and policy experts from both sides of the Atlantic. During a frank discussion, Cameron highlighted the difficulty of harmonizing international and domestic policy on Islamism – citing this as a key impediment to the development of a coherent and strategic policy framework. He pointed to the Muslim Brotherhood Review that he had commissioned under Sir John Jenkins as a model of best practice.
However, the former Prime Minister also noted that on this issue, he had often found himself cutting against the grain of the bureaucratic machine. Too often, he said, officials prefer the path of least resistance, which means accepting the bona fides of those Islamist voices who shout the loudest and drown out the quiet, moderate majority. It required sustained political will and direct interventions from the centre of government to shape a truly progressive policy. His worry today is that a UK administration that is more vulnerable politically – and overwhelmed by other matters of state, not least Brexit – no longer has the capacity to stay the course. And of course, the Corbynite leadership of the opposition Labour party makes no secret of the fact that it actively prefers a policy based on the embrace and empowerment of Islamists.
Against this backdrop, the hope is that events like the one in Washington can lay the groundwork for an informal “hub” of expertise, which can drive the creation of a lucid and enlightened Anglo-American policy framework, grounded in rigorous analytical understanding of Islamism.