In her speech on responding to recent terrorist attacks, following the London Bridge attack on 3 June, the Prime Minister framed the threat posed by Islamist terrorism as one coming from outside the UK, by linking this threat to current military operations in Iraq and Syria and by invoking the spirit of unity that has marked British responses to violent attacks by foreign powers in the past. This framing suggests that such Islamist terrorists only happen to live I in the UK, but are not part of UK society proper. This is a dangerous framing, because it suggests that the history and current state of British society at large is unrelated to the rise of such terrorism. However, most of Islamist terrorist who have hit the UK grew up in Britain. They are not foreign powers.
This framing is particularly problematic, because May goes on to suggest that there has been “far too much tolerance of extremism in our country”. Pressing questions arise. The first one is: if the extremist speech and action happens in spaces that are hardly publicly accessible at all, as May suggests by focusing on the internet, who is to be blamed for the “toleration”. The answer seems to be: the lawmakers or the law enforcement services (“stamp [extremism] out in the public sector and across society”). I note that Theresa May, as Home Secretary, would have had direct responsibility for such measures. Consider that e.g. Saudi Arabian funding for UK schools which disseminate the extreme Wahhabi Islam seems to have continued under her tenure (see https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/may/31/sensitive-uk-terror-funding-inquiry-findings-may-never-be-published-saudi-arabia). Also consider that the cuts to police services have led to increased difficulty in obtaining local intelligence. If she doesn’t mean lawmakers and law enforcers, who could she mean? Surely not the general public, because of all UK inhabitants, very few would “tolerate” murder and violence or ideas that justify them in any form. If it is not the wider public, is it only a specific group, i.e. Muslims in Britain, that are blamed for tolerating extremism? It seems to me that the argument that there has been “far too much tolerance of extremism” only makes sense either as a criticism of the Home Office or a clandestine reference to Muslims in the UK.
May is unlikely trying to openly undermine her own work. Furthermore, there are good reasons to understand her remarks as a kind of “dog whistle”. First, rather than directly addressing UK Muslims, her statement is better viewed as addressing those citizens who already think that UK Muslims show “far too much tolerance of extremism”. Second, as I show below, this interpretation captures the connection between the ambiguity of her message for unity in Britain and the recommendation May makes for stamping out extremism which seems to appeal directly to citizens (rather than to the security forces). May argues that “stamping out” extremism will require “some difficult and often embarrassing conversations, but the whole of our country needs to come together to take on this extremism and we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities, but as one truly United Kingdom”. Her appeal to unity seems to at least offer pretext for people to feel emboldened to confront people they think might be Muslims about their allegiance to British values. After all, if citizens go out and try to have “some difficult and often embarrassing conversations” with people they suspect of tolerating extremism, I cannot but fear the addresses of such conversations will be chosen on the basis that they “look like” Muslims.
Thirdly, this interpretation is corroborated by her closing remarks: “enough is enough, everybody needs to go about their lives as they normally would. Our society should continue to function in accordance to our values. But when it comes to extremism and terrorism, things have to change.” These closing remarks make clear that “everybody” (only those who share British values are included I suspect) should keep going as before. It seems difficult to square May’s call for internal unity which requires changing the attitude toward social exclusions (“we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities”) with her idea of keeping going as before. The call for unity together with the call for keeping going in the usual way while actively confronting “extremists” is best understood then as a resolute call for assimilation which has not been successful thus far, because of “far too much tolerance of extremism in our country”. The “pluralistic British values” May mentioned at the beginning of her statement can be read as providing only a veneer for such a call. It is – in the terms of the philosopher Jason Stanley (“How Propaganda Works”) – a form of undermining propaganda. A form of speech which undermines the values that it claims to uphold.
The grave danger of May’s statements it not only might offer a pretext for aggression but also that it offers very little to address the roots of the crisis of jihadist radicalization in the UK. Today the content of British values is very much contested, they cannot easily serve as the basis for unity. The previous attempts for integration, assimilation, toleration across the UK have all been somewhat successful and somewhat unsuccessful. The analysis of their shortcomings is one that should take us beyond counterterrorism and prevention strategies toward discussing the historical trajectories and current self-understanding of the United Kingdom as a society.
Unity requires mutual understanding. Being a cultural majority brings rights and responsibilities, and so does being a cultural minority. It may be time for “difficult and often embarrassing conversations” but these conversations must be a two-way street. In addition, the government officials who allow foreign extremists to fund extremist education in the UK, should be the first to face such conversations. As former Home Secretary, Theresa May would be one of them.
Janosch Prinz is a Leverhulme early career fellow at the University of East Anglia
Image credit: Number 10