By Gregory Buls
Western luminaries descended on Munich this weekend for the 47th annual Munich Security Conference. On Saturday, representatives from forty nations listened to what should be remembered as the first reasonably coherent defense of Western values by a Western leader in the age of modern Islamic terrorism. If his speech is taken to heart, U.K. leader David Cameron may have opened Pandora's Box -- and perhaps none too soon.
He gave some indication that this was not the standard boilerplate speech right from the start, identifying radical Islam as the main terrorist threat:
But we should acknowledge that this threat comes overwhelmingly from young men who follow a completely perverse and warped interpretation of Islam and who are prepared to blow themselves up and kill their fellow citizens.
He further declared that "State multiculturalism" dead, saying that it enables extremism, and fails to offer young people the clear alternative to radicalism -- traditional Western culture and values. He acknowledged that some Muslims plot world dominion and argued that the West's cultural weakness is enervating, inviting extremism and aggression.
The speech was remarkable both in its content and its contrast to the normal platitudes we hear on this subject from elected officials. He began by identifying the problem:
At the furthest end are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of Sharia.
Move along the spectrum, and you find people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist world-view including real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values.
This may be the most dangerous extremist element -- that which uses our institutions and openness against us. It is arguably as great a long-term threat as the violent extremists, who may create crises in which the rules change abruptly, against them. The badly-weathered rock of Western civilization is probably more likely to be broken down by erosion than blown apart in violence.
Cameron explicitly denied the wisdom of appeasement, drawing a distinction he says the left is unwilling to make:
On the other hand, there are those on the soft left who also ignore this distinction. They lump all Muslims together, compiling a list of grievances and arguing if only governments addressed them, this terrorism would stop.
But let's not fool ourselves, these are just contributory factors. Even if we sorted out all these problems, there would still be this terrorism.
This is bold talk, indeed -- it directly contradicts what almost every Muslim group is willing to publicly say. Mr. Cameron is arguing that even if we assuage every Islamist concern, we will still be attacked, that it is not merely a matter of geopolitics and sociology; it is a matter of philosophy. The leader of the United Kingdom appears to be acceding that there is something rotten at the core of Islam -- in its present form as an institution/worldview, it can't fully get along with others even in the best possible circumstances. Extremist elements will ostensibly find imagined justifications to recruit and act, based upon philosophy. Where can Mr. Cameron possibly go from there, having framed what may be an existential dilemma for the West?
So first, instead of ignoring this extremist ideology, we -- as governments and societies -- have got to confront it, in all its forms. And second, instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity, open to everyone.
Broadly speaking, these must be the correct approaches, given what is possible and palatable to Western democracies in early 2011. The first would mark a distinct departure from the otherwise hollow rhetoric of most Western leaders -- the problem indeed goes far beyond violent Muslims. The second, while it may seem a slippery notion and hard to realize, is precisely what is needed if we expect Muslims to assist us in promoting stable societies. To have any effect, such an effort necessarily requires an affirmation and broader appreciation of what makes Western societies such ideal places to live and raise families. It is also a direct and flagrant repudiation of the egalitarian foundations of multiculturalism. What are we defending, and why does that defense require every ounce of our energy and ingenuity? Without a clear answer to that question, the endeavor is crippled from the outset.
Islam may in fact propose an existential problem for open cultures. The spread of destructive technologies accompanies the growth of a religion which many of its followers believe is destined to rule the world, by force if necessary. It sounds like the plot of a bad science fiction novel. From the perspective of outsiders looking in at the Earth, Islam would likely be recognized as the force most likely to significantly disrupt human civilization. Almost everyone else has a manifest interest in maintaining at least the appearance of stability.
We know that nations are able to hold and handle destructive technology responsibly and refrain from using it. We cannot expect the same from terrorist organizations. In the past, whole societies could be geared to war for years and walk away from conflict relatively unscathed. The destructive technologies Islamist groups admit to pursuing have the capacity to derail the entire centuries-long enterprise of Western civilization in a fortnight. It's likely, given the rest of what he said, that Mr. Cameron understands the ultimate nature of the threat. For now, he has taken the most sensible possible approach -- identifying the problem actors, isolating them to the extent possible, and encouraging everyone else to unite around shared interests and ideals, working together against the holdouts.
The theme of unity runs through Cameron's speech, but it's not the patronizing, feel-good (dis)unity of multiculturalist rhetoric. He traces the radicalization of English Muslims in part to the alienation from the greater English culture which results from multiculturalism:
But they also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.
This will sit well with the average English voter and should be viewed favorably by most English Muslims. Many Muslims have vested interests in English society, and none can be blind to the possibility of extremism overturning the apple cart. They also respect strength. Cameron displays it by calling out both Muslim communities and the multiculturalist infection which encourages the sense of otherness:
We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.
So when a white person holds objectionable views -- racism, for example -- we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn't white, we've been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them. The failure of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone they don't want to, is a case in point. This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless...
In our communities, groups and organisations led by young, dynamic leaders promote separatism by encouraging Muslims to define themselves solely in terms of their religion. All these interactions engender a sense of community, a substitute for what the wider society has failed to supply. You might say: as long as they're not hurting anyone, what's the problem with all this? I'll tell you why.
As evidence emerges about the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were initially influenced by what some have called 'non-violent extremists' and then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence. And I say this is an indictment of our approach to these issues in the past.
Having identified some of the catalysts of violent Muslim extremism, Mr. Cameron then turned to solutions. Among the approaches he advocates are the following:
1. Refuse to deal with Islamist front groups: "Some organisations that seek to present themselves as a gateway to the Muslim community are showered with public money despite doing little to combat extremism. As others have observed, this is like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement."
2. Establish standards for recognizing or subsidizing Muslim groups: "Do they believe in universal human rights -- including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separatism? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask. Fail these tests and the presumption should be not to engage with organisations. No public money. No sharing of platforms with Ministers at home."
3. Deny the most extreme parts of Islamic prophecy: "We need to argue that their prophecies of a global war of religion pitting Muslims against the rest of the world are rubbish." The antecedent is "terrorists," so clearly he was not referring to those in the West who warn of such a war. Some Muslims will take this as a direct assault upon the Prophet's veracity. But they are unlikely to loudly condemn Cameron for it, as that puts them in the position of predicting just such a global war against nonbelievers. And it's not as though they're predicting that someone, sometime will do it -- they are the "someone," if anyone is.
4. Define what it means to belong to Western society:
A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. A genuinely liberal country does much more. It believes in certain values and actively promotes them. Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality. It says to its citizens: this is what defines us as a society. To belong here is to believe in these things.
Here again Mr. Cameron goes out on a limb -- if you don't embrace these values, your way of thinking doesn't really belong in the West. The natural extension is that the individual does not belong in the West. But Mr. Cameron is not recommending widespread expulsion of ideological dissidents -- rather, he is saying that it is impossible to feel a part of Western society without respecting these beliefs. The alternative is mutual alienation.
5. Empower communities to unify them: "I also believe we should encourage meaningful and active participation in society, by shifting the balance of power, away from the state and to people. That way common purpose can be formed, as people come together and work together in their neighbourhoods. It will also help build stronger pride in local identity so people feel free to say yes, I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am Christian but I am also a Londoner or a Berliner too. It's that identity -- that feeling of belonging in our countries -- that is the key to achieving true cohesion."
It's too much to ask, at this juncture, for a national leader to delve too far into the starker realities of Islamic theology and the implications it may have for the future of freedom. Hopefully, such frank talk will never be necessary -- perhaps there exists the prospect of so moderating Islam that it polices itself, as it ultimately must if it is to peacefully coexist alongside other worldviews. Prime Minister Cameron seems intent to find out if such moderation is possible. He speaks to that hope in strong and unapologetic terms which will command the respect of many Muslims. The ultimate measure of cultural decadence is the unwillingness of a culture to defend itself. Why should Muslims defend our civilization if we are too weak to do so? Cameron is not afraid to defend ours, and he calls on others to do the same.
Most Muslims and even many Islamists may eventually embrace, or at least reconcile themselves to, "Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Democracy. The rule of law. Equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality." But the theological and political totality of Islam as revealed by the Prophet Mohammed is difficult to reconcile with these Western institutions and ideals. Discussing this inescapable fact is a step too far for Mr. Cameron, and rightly so. At most, he hinted strongly at it when he stated bluntly that Islamic terrorism would still exist even in a climate of total accommodation. He recognizes, rightly, that we must marginalize the fanatics, and you don't do so by saying that they are the only ones who take the religion seriously -- that everyone else is biting off only what they are comfortable chewing.
David Cameron said more about Islam on Saturday, and he said it with greater insight, sensitivity, and realism than you'll find in virtually all of the platitudinous speeches on the subject delivered by all other Western leaders since 2001 combined. And he did so while defending our culture, our integrity, and our basic goodness. Pandora's Box is open -- the West may not be dessicated after all. People all over the world should take notice: A Western leader has finally emerged.