The modern culture of the West tends to promote tolerance and respect for individuals, including those in immigrant or minority ethnic communities, no matter how illiberal their worldview, as long as they are not violent. Thus, while Western governments vigorously prosecute the war on terror, they often overlook essential ideological sources of “violent extremism.”
It is within this context of moral relativism and political correctness that Prime Minister Cameron delivered a stem-winder of a speech on July 20 in Birmingham, England. His remarks were intended to spur governmental and civil-societal resistance to “the growing scourge of radicalization” in British society. It called for decisive action to stigmatize barbaric practices such as female genital mutilation in the Muslim community and summoned universities to challenge the core tenets of the Islamist narrative – anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, for instance – in the same way they challenge Holocaust denial. It deserves to be remembered as one of the most ambitious and tough-minded addresses by a Western political leader about the growing threat posed by religious fanaticism.
Cameron’s message has been a mighty long time in coming. Thanks to ISIS’s control of vast swaths of Iraq and Syria, its expansion into Libya and Yemen – and its extensive recruiting power through social media – the subject of extremist ideology now commands attention worldwide. More often than not, however, the response of world leaders has been characterized by complacency and confusion.
Cameron broke from this pattern, advancing the argument that “any strategy to defeat extremism must confront, head on, the extreme ideology that underpins it.” Every decent government opposes violent extremism. Where Cameron parts company from the Western governing class is his insistence in calling the threat by its right name: Islamism.
For the prime minister to acknowledge the connection between an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam and violence - rather than to indulge the conceit that Islam is simply “a religion of peace” - serves a dual purpose. First, it brings pressure to bear on the agents of intolerance that have eclipsed liberal and reformist voices in Muslim communities. In modern-day Britain, Muslim victims of Islamism have been forced to endure female genital mutilation and forced marriage, among other characteristics of the “honor” culture. The past insouciance of British institutions toward these vulnerable members of society is nothing less than a betrayal of citizenship.
The second purpose of recognizing the faith-based ideology at the root of this violent menace is to support the voices of a more modern and diverse Islam, in Britain and beyond. Given the battle of ideas raging in the Islamic world, it does no good for open societies to pretend they are neutral, or, more bewildering still, to deny that any battle is being fought. For the sake of their own security, Cameron argued, British institutions should actively encourage “reforming” voices in Muslim communities who embrace liberal values.
For too long, political leaders have refused to confront Islamic extremism out of concern for cultural sensitivity or liberal tolerance. This has all but guaranteed that it would fester, and spread. To cite but one example: British Muslims who count themselves as supporters of ISIS now outnumber Muslims who serve in in the British armed forces. The triumph of liberal civilization over the illiberal ideology in our midst depends on staring the enemy full in the face. Prime Minister Cameron deserves our thanks for having done so.