Britain’s new counter extremism strategy: Kulturkampf or Arsenal of Democracy?

On Monday the British government unveiled its new “counter-extremism strategy,” which, while acknowledging the existence of other groups needing attention (neo-Nazis, et. al.), focuses mostly on Islamic extremism. Needless to say, it’s been drawing lots of criticism and analysis, from all areas of the political spectrum (the National Secular Society, for example, applauds the government’s investigation of Shari’a).

The “four pillars” of the policy sound reasonable enough on face (Brits love “pillars”…reminds of my days studying post-1945 defense policy). The main issue, of course, is that regulation and censorship is a slippery slope.  Sunny Hundal is undoubtedly right when he tweeted that “If Cameron’s speech leads to Anjem Choudhary getting less airtime, that will certainly get most British Muslims cheering.” [Seriously, why Choudhary hasn’t been permanently expelled from the UK is beyond me.]  The BBC has a good write-up of the government’s agenda, with video and discussion of the response, which basically comes down to three items: the law, the unity of the nation, and what in essence is a “Shibboleth” for Muslim communities in Britain.  That’s the entire thrust of the Muslim Council of Britain’s objection to the new policy (The minority Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, on the other hand, fully supports the strategy).

Tahir Abbas, writing on Tuesday in the Fair Observer, argued that “There is a discernible link between Islamophobia and radicalization that needs to be broken down.”  And again:

The only way to defeat extremism is to avoid stigmatization, provide targeted resourcing to specific issues within all afflicted groups, and to firmly understand the grievances that agitate some toward violence. The latter is not about certain norms and values being outside the frame of acceptability, but about genuine material concerns characterized by local, national and global realities.

Not sure I agree with that last part (to understand is not to justify, but in today’s discourse it often comes across that way), but anyway this is one of the great debates currently agitating British society.

As a historian, however, what I’m curious about is where the historians are in the public discourse. The opening pages of the strategy are replete with invocations of British values, Britain’s heritage, and Britain’s historical development to the society that it is today (not inaccurate on face, in my opinion, whether you accept it as a historical statement or a manifesto of “what we want to be”. I saw a couple Twitter-versions of groans from a couple of my acquaintance, but generally, silence.  I’m curious that Historians for Britain, or Historians for History, don’t seem to have been active yet. Surely the bigger issues of historical identity would call for a debate?

And while, as an outsider who doesn’t have the ability to study the issue in depth, the strategy seems not an unreasonable one, the seeds of Kulturkampf are too patently obvious to be ignored:

These values are under attack from extremists operating at a pace and scale not before seen. We will meet this challenge with a new and more assertive approach to defeat extremists. We will challenge their ideology, and defend and promote the values that unite us, not just because we are proud of these values, but because they are the means by which we have made a diverse, multi-racial, multi-faith society succeed. Our society works because we have responsibilities as well as rights. We all have the freedom to live how we choose, but in return it is vital that we respect the choices made by others.

I suppose this isn’t a good time to bring up the Syrian refugee crisis, and Home Secretary May’s plan?

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