Cameron’s recent speech shows that the British government sees countering violent extremism (CVE) as a priority. Yet it also reveals that options to fight it are dwindling. What is now required is a strategic framework that goes further than treating the symptoms but neglecting the disease. By Evan Tyner

IS is now more than an organisation, it has grown into a proto-state. IS controls swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq and is expanding its presence in Yemen and Libya, exploiting empty space and power vacuums created by conflict. Ruling over millions through a mixture of violence and intimidation and popular appeal, the so-called 'caliphate' has developed state-like organs of power and increasingly entrenched territorial control. Yet, Europe and the US view the conflict with IS as an ideological battle that can be won with the right mixture of moral righteousness and aerial bombardment. David Cameron’s recent speech on extremism, for example, continues to paint IS as an ephemeral, rather than a definable entity. Some of Cameron’s remarks exhibit a worrying lack of understanding of the nature of the threat we face. In order to “win the struggle of our generation”, we must first ‘know our enemy’.

David Cameron’s 'Counter-Extremism strategy' is based on four pillars: countering ideology (and project liberal values); tackling violent and non-violent extremism and empowering Muslim voices; and, building a more cohesive society. While these principles are welcome, they fall short of a comprehensive strategy. There are five main areas of weakness:

1. A belief in the superiority and universality of liberal values

Cameron is correct in pointing out that there is a need to counter extremist content on the web, and internet companies must play a central role in this. As noted by Alex Schmid in a recent study, “Terrorism is a combination of violence and propaganda. Counter-terrorism has so far mainly targeted the former and neglected the latter”. It is moreover the ontological roots of this argument that are tenuous. Cameron assumes a natural civilizational exceptionalism – a Manichean belief that our righteousness will triumph over their barbarism. Surely a decade of involvement in the Middle East has made clear that imposing Western ‘norms’ is not the way forward. In Cameron’s very own words from a similar speech he made in 2011, “If a lack of democracy is the problem, why are there extremists in free and open societies?”

2. The assumption that extremism is the root-cause of extremism itself.

Cameron assumes that narratives of the West meddling in the Middle East are false. Consider the inception of IS. Would it have occurred without Anglo-American involvement in Iraq? In a recent book, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan emphasise the impact of the disbanding of the Iraqi military had on top Saddam-era officials and experienced fighters to joining the ranks of IS. The West is simultaneously fighting a monster of its own (inadvertent) creation and denying responsibility for its existence. Instead, Cameron makes his most glaringly misguided assumption: “The root cause of the threat we face is the extremist ideology itself.”

Of course the roots of Islamic extremism are diverse, encompassing a numerous array of socio-economic, religious, political, psychological and personal motivations. Extremism is a consequence, not a cause – although this may also be changing. Cameron himself recognised this in 2011, stating that there is no ‘terrorist profile’ and that “…many of those found guilty of terrorist offences in the UK have been graduates, and often middle class.” Yet in the 4th pillar of his counter-extremism strategy, Cameron implies that extremism is in part a socio-economic phenomenon: “we need to lift the horizons of some of our most isolated and deprived communities.” While this is an honourable pledge, it is unclear how it will reduce the appeal of IS. Reversing the ailing project of multi-culturalism and promoting social cohesion is of limited worth against a system of beliefs (political Islam in all but its most liberal forms) that is totally irreconcilable with modern European norms, including gender equality, secularism and pluralism. Attempts to do so may exacerbate tension further.

3. A lack of appreciation of Middle Eastern geopolitics and history.

Additionally, while with one hand Cameron promotes social cohesion, with the other he risks tearing it asunder through reviving Bush’s infamous ‘you’re either with us or against us’ worldview: “confronting groups and organisations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative… Condemning a mass-murdering, child-raping organisation cannot be enough to prove you’re challenging the extremists.” Deriding apathy both risks demonising the larger Muslim community (within which Cameron rightly points out only a small minority harbour extremist beliefs) and has implications on freedom of expression, which surely comprises one of the liberal values Cameron wishes to weaponise in his moral crusade.

4. The vilification of inaction against extremism.

While showing complete disregard to empirical research on the subject of the causes of terrorism, Cameron does reveal certain insights as to what the future of counter-extremism likely holds. Tackling violent extremism is possible, so long as it is considered ‘extreme’. Returning to my original argument, IS is no longer an aberration, it is re-writing the laws of war and civil conduct to suit its abhorrent system of beliefs. People no longer need to be converted and radicalised to this form of millenarian extremism, they are born into it. Future IS fighters undergo gradual socialisation in an environment of normalised violence and barbarism. Being a ‘radical’ is becoming the status quo – the start of a process, rather than the end. This is not a unique event in history. The vast majority of sub-state movements fail, yet certain revisionist actors successfully topple the establishment and create their own political reality. This is quickly becoming the case in Syria/Iraq, while the contagion and entrenchment of IS and its affiliates shows no sign of ebbing. In an extremist state, extremism will beget extremism.

5. The absence of an aspirational narrative to positively influence people away from radicalism.

Cameron is correct in stressing the need to ‘embolden Muslim voices’ in order to counter and dispel extremist propaganda and tackle radicalism, both violent and non-violent. Making use of former foreign fighters’ experiences offers a credible counter-narrative. Yet it remains the realm of the politics of fear. There is a distinct paucity of positive, aspirational messages to counter the IS propaganda machine. As Cameron discovered during the Scottish independence debate, selling static realities is much more difficult than selling utopian dreams to those who are dissatisfied with their state of being. Additionally forming a cohesive narrative is very difficult at a time when policy lacks clarity. Opposing Sunni extremism in Syria, yet supporting it in Yemen, backing Kurdish forces against IS, yet acquiescing to Turkey’s anti-PKK airstrikes paint the US and her allies as confused hypocrites, not as champions of liberal values.

Cameron’s speech shows that the government sees CVE as a priority. Yet it also reveals that options to fight it are dwindling. A country with a long history of combatting sub-state threats now finds itself with a much diminished toolbox, and faced with something that has become so much greater than a sub-state entity. As Arendtian logics holds, violence appears where power is in jeopardy. Extremism must be defeated at source, otherwise its fallout in Europe will continue to be felt. What is required is a strategic framework that goes further than treating the symptoms but neglecting the disease.

Photo © Open Government Licence v3.0,  Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street