Academic freedom, Islamophobia and antisemitism

I have followed the work of the sociologist David Miller for around a decade. During that time, it has been surreal and bewildering to watch him go from a position of complete obscurity to, in the last few weeks, possibly the most widely known and -criticised academic in the UK. This is all due to allegations of amtisemitism, which have been made about him for some years by various parties. After an ugly dispute with the Jewish society of the University of Bristol, where he teaches, however, these allegations have escalated into a deluge of calls for him to be removed from his post.

It is hard to overstate how deep the split is among academics on this issue. As I write, two open letters to the University’s leadership are circulating online, one describing Miller as an eminent scholar and champion of anti-racism, the other labelling him a peddler of slander and libel against Jews. Both these letters include hundreds of signatories, some of whom are recognised globally across a range of disciplines. Disconcertingly for me, both lists also contain the names of numerous individuals whose research I admire, as well as peers, colleagues, personal supervisors and friends.

I do not feel able to sign either of these letters. I recommend some of Miller’s writings on Islamophobia – a subject that both he and I research and teach – to my students. This, as well as wider concerns about freedom of inquiry, makes it hard for me to join the campaign against him. At the same time, I worry about the wording and arguments currently being used in his defence. What concerns me most is that Miller’s defenders seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge the nature and breadth of the criticisms made of him, which is driving a damaging wedge between different activist networks, scholarly fields, and religious groups.

Miller’s research and scholarship

What separates the dispute over Miller from the run-of the-mill cancel culture argument is that, rather than being based on a single badly judged tweet, it is closely connected to a longstanding research programme. This makes it worth saying a few words about Miller’s academic work, and firstly its strengths. Miller and his colleagues’ analysis of Islamophobia is distinct from most scholarship on the subject in that it doesn’t ask, ‘What does Islamophobia look like?’ but rather, ‘Who benefits from it?’ It explores how Islamophobic narratives are generated in the service of material interests, which range from party advantage to states’ geopolitical strategies.

His report ‘The Cold War on British Muslims’ is a good example of this. This examines how complex networks tying together senior UK politicians, media commentators and think tanks have effectively made it impossible to talk meaningfully about Muslim communities in the UK media. Muslim community advocates are routinely treated appallingly on UK TV and radio, the most recent case being an interview by Emma Barnett with the newly appointed MCB leader Zara Mohammed during which the latter was asked a range of misleading and spurious questions. Part of the reason this happens is such networks have cemented a badly distorted image of British Islam, one that helps to insulate our political leaders from penetrating criticism of their foreign, integration and counter-terrorism policies, as well as the Conservative Party’s deep Islamophobia problem

There are not many public voices who approach Islamophobia in this way, stepping beyond descriptions of tropes to look at why Islamophobia has surged in the last two decades. Without his and his colleagues’ writing, my ability to explain the reality of modern Islamophobia is badly diminished. This is one reason why support for Miller is not simply defensiveness linked to academics’ growing anxiety about political constraints being placed on scholarship, and why, to my mind, he has an academic freedom defence against calls for his sacking. That defence should not, of course, always trump concerns about how teachers relate to their students, and some of the allegations on that theme are serious. But I am not persuaded that those matters can be fully understood by outsiders whose understanding of the situation is partial.

Scholarship and public activism

The criticisms of Miller are not, however, baseless. He has, as Keith Kahn-Harris observed recently in a perceptive blog, a tendency to ‘flatten’ his subjects into one-dimensional, single issue parties. His transformation of complex traditions into movements with concrete objectives erases subtleties and, sometimes, internal tensions. He also views Western states almost solely as disciplinary and propagandising apparatuses, erasing any differences in practices, habits and perspectives across governance domains.

Mostly, these are these are the kind of technical criticisms that are best suited to academic journals. I feel he and his colleagues are unfair in the way they align some secularist activist groups like Women Against Fundamentalism with a wider constellation of anti-Muslim organisations, even going so far as to draw parallels between that group’s language and that of the English Defence League in one publication. More generally, although Miller’s work has a longstanding interest in the way claims about ‘Islamism’ are used strategically to disbar British Muslims from public life, you find almost nothing in his work about the multifaceted history of Islamist activism in the UK, which leaves his analysis feeling thin and at times badly equipped to make evaluative judgements.

When it comes to his writing on Jewish organisations, though, these criticisms take on more weight. ‘Zionism’ (or to be exact, ‘parts of the Zionist movement’) stands in Millers typology as one of five ’pillars’ of Islamophobia. Certainly, there is a sorry history of Islamophobic claims and stereotypes being used to delegitimise Muslim charities working in the West Bank and Gaza, with some such organisations even having their bank accounts frozen with little notice or right of appeal. But Miller’s reading of the ‘Zionist movement’ is, to put it charitably, conceptually wobbly. Even in his more detailed academic writing, where he does make efforts to avoid tarring all pro-Israel organisations as Islamophobic, I am never sure what ‘Zionism’ refers to. Sometimes it is limited to Jewish organisations and separated off from US neoconservatism, at others it is interpreted more broadly to include almost any pro-Israel organisation.

Outside of his academic scholarship, this conceptual wobbliness coalesces and solidifies into something troubling. Here, there is no accounting for the varied interpretations of and contestations over the category of Zionism in Jewish communities, in Britain or elsewhere. Any Jewish group that doesn’t reject the word entirely gets placed within a dense but one-dimensional network of adversaries. This is then supplemented by an image of shady, propagandising state forces. The end result looks like conspiracy, and Miller’s views seem to have become more conspiratorial over time, moving away from his professed sociological materialism.

One example of this can illustrate. In a defiant article about the campaign against him for The Electronic Intifada, Miller refers to the example I gave above of Emma Barnett’s interview with Zara Mohammed. In this example, Miller’s materialist theorisation of the production of Islamophobia as public common sense dissapears and is replaced by the baffling explanation that Barnett is hostile to Muslims because she is an ‘energetic Zionist campaigner’. Religious illiteracy, the culture of British journalism, cemented public attitudes to Muslims in Britain – all these factors are trumped by Barnett’s ‘Zionism’. And in all honesty, I am struggling to see what that term means in this context, beyond simply, ‘Jewish journalist’.

All of which brings us back to the campaign in support of him. I am convinced that it must be possible to defend academic freedom without exonerating those we seek to defend, just as it is possible to criticise without calling for someone to lose their job (something, I should note, the open letter criticising Miller stops short of). The difficulty I have with the letter in support of him is that it doesn’t just do this but draws the signatories into Miller’s worldview, speaking of ’well-resourced, co-ordinated networks […] manipulating and stage-managing public debates’. Anyone who objects to Miller’s writing has thus either been played or is part of the conspiracy.

No wonder, then, that the reaction from Jewish colleagues has been to express a sense of deep alienation. And let’s be clear on this: this includes the full religio-political spectrum, from conservative to liberal Zionist, to those who see Israel as approaching an apartheid state. It also includes practically all the people who have informed my thinking about antisemitism and British Jewish communal life – which is to say, the very people who give us the tools with which we can start to speak in a sophisticated, three dimensional way about contested, meaning-laden concepts like Zionism.

I’m not sure where this episode goes from here. I hope for a resolution, but I struggle to see how one can be reached. I wonder if I should have written some of this before now, when this would have been a matter of academic critique rather than of someone’s employability. The only thing I want to offer as a possible way forward is a plea for academic consistency. Those of us who write about Islamophobia are well attuned to the ways concepts like ‘Islamism’, or ‘the Sharia’ are – sometimes intentionally, sometimes out of ignorance –manipulated and inflated in order to imply that all Muslims are antidemocratic. The absolute least we can do is apply this level of sophistication to other religious traditions and our understanding of how other forms of prejudice operate. If we do not, then I worry we will always end up with one form of prejudice being played off invidiously against the other and with political battles fought on the terrain of religious identity.

NB: Since I drafted this blog a third open letter – the second in defence of Miller – has been posted. This does at least suggest some progress is possible, in that this letter does not assume agreement with Miller among the signatories. A meeting ‘Defend Academic Freedom, Defend David Miller’ has also been released publicly. While I strongly disagree with many of the contributions to this, I would recommend the statements by Tariq Modood and Justin Schlosberg, which indicate that there are some areas of common ground might be found between Miller’s critics and his supporters.

Letter to The Sunday Times regarding Andrew Gilligan’s article on Sadek Hamid and Tahir Abbas, by UK academics specialising in the study of Muslim Britain

Below is a letter sent to The Sunday Times on 7th May regarding a recent artcle about two academics who specialise in the study of Muslims in Britain. The newpaper declined to publish it on the basis that the article in question is currently the subject of a complaint. We have reproduced the text here in full. One of the two academics, Tahir Abbas, has also written a response to the article here.

The letter is written in a personal capacity and the views expressed do not reflect any higher education institution’s position or that of the Muslims in Britain Research Network as an organisation.

Academics who specialise in the study of Muslims in Britain face a difficult choice whether or not to engage with government bodies, especially those concerned with the subject of extremism. Many leading figures in the field – and not only those who hold politically radical views – opt not to do so as a matter of principle, due to the government’s record of narrowing the terms of reference to the point where speaking truth to power becomes impossible. This has been exacerbated by sections of the British broadsheet and tabloid press, which have consistently sought to delegitimise Muslim organisations, activists and scholars. From Andrew Gilligan in The Telegraph and The Times to Rod Liddle in the Spectator and Trevor Kavanagh in The Sun, it has become routine for prominent journalists to cover Muslim civil society organisations and public figures in a way that is selective at best and often straightforwardly dishonest.

Sadek Hamid and Tahir Abbas’s recent publications include some of the most important, insightful and thorough research on the subjects of British Islam and Islamist movements. This is reflected in their recognition by colleagues in the field and the fact that they have been supported and funded by, inter alia, the University of Oxford, the British Academy and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Andrew Gilligan’s research, by contrast, typically amounts to little more than trawling Muslim individuals’ twitter timelines for key words which can be spun into ominous-sounding headlines. His most recent article in The Sunday Times with Richard Kerbaj (‘Muslim advisers hit by anti‑Semitism row’, May 5 2019) seeks to delegitimise these two scholars on the basis of a few tweets, most of which simply shared headlines verbatim without endorsement. The article’s further suggestion that these scholars should not be at liberty to express dissenting views or criticise state securitisation policy represents a worrying affront to academic freedom.

In sharing this material, Hamid and Abbas may have been guilty of failing to read and publicly criticise content that included themes that bordered on anti-Semitic. This pales in comparison, however, to Gilligan’s long record of selectively quoting and wilfully distorting the statements of British Muslims. Our objection is not to criticism of those publishing or sharing material that promotes anti-Semitism. Rather, it is to a double standard in British public life. If the standards that Gilligan applies to Hamid and Abbas were applied to his, and some other Times journalists’, dishonest coverage of Muslims he would have been ostracised by major media outlets many years ago.

Dr Stephen H Jones , Lecturer, Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham

Dr Khadijah Elshayyal, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Dr Jan Dobbernack, Lecturer in Sociology, Newcastle University

Professor Jorgen Nielsen, Professor Emeritus, Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham

Dr Carl Morris, Lecturer in Religion, Culture and Society, University of Central Lancashire

Professor Tariq Modood, Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, University of Bristol

Dr Mohammed Elshimi, Research Fellow, RUSI

Ayesha Khan, doctoral candidate, Cardiff University Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK

Dr Rob Faure Walker, UCL Institute of Education and Prevent Digest

Dr Maryyum Mehmood, Research Associate, University of Oxford

Dr Rehana Parveen, Lecturer, University of Birmingham Law School

Dr Azim Ahmed, Research Associate, Cardiff University

Neelam Hussain, Chair, The Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies (TIMES) Post-Graduate Forum, University of Birmingham

Shahnaz Akhter, doctoral candidate, University of Warwick

Dr Asim Qureshi, Research Director, CAGE

Dr Tarek Younis, Honorary Research Associate, UCL

Hanan Fara, doctoral candidate, University of Birmingham

Dr Michael Lavalette, professor of Social Work and Social Policy, Liverpool Hope University

Huda Jawad, intersectional feminist activist

Humera Khan, educator and activist

Mark R D Johnson, Emeritus Professor of Diversity in Health & Social Care, De Montfort University

Hind Elhinnawy, doctoral candidate, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent

Samantha North, doctoral candidate, University of Bath

Yahya Birt, doctoral candidate, University of Leeds

Dr Rukhsana Farooqi, Independent Social Work Consultant, Director of Empowering Black Children and Families LTD

Dr Adis Duderija, Lecturer in the Study of Islam and Society, School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University

Dr Nighet Riaz, School of Education, University of the West of Scotland

Dr Mansur Ali, Lecturer in Islamic Studies, Cardiff University

Dr Marta Bolognani, Research Affiliate, Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, University of Bristol

Dr Richard McNeil-Willson, Research Associate, Robert Schuman Centre of Advanced Studies, European University Institute

Dr Shamim Miah, Senior Lecturer, University of Huddersfield

Dr Sadia Habib, PGCE

Walaa Qisay, Visiting Research Fellow, Şehir Üniversitesi

Professor J.A. Koops, Scientific Director & Chair of Security, Institute of Security and Global Affairs

Tufyal Choudhury, Associate Professor, School of Law, Durham University

Professor Hugh Goddard, Honorary Professorial Fellow, the HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, University of Edinburgh

Tahir Abass (no relation), doctoral candidate, University of Leeds

Erum Dahar, doctoral candidate, SOAS, University of London

Naureen Whittinger, Clinical Psychologist, London

Professor Robert Moore, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Liverpool

Professor the Baroness Haleh Afshar OBE, University of York

If you wish to sign this letter please contact me at stephenhowardjones[at]

Making People Up: The Sun and the Ethics of Polling Muslims


SunI do research for a living, most of it on British Muslims. It’s a great job. At its best, research is an art form, albeit an unglamorous one. You get to show people pictures that reveal to them something about how they live and the kind of people they live with. For researchers of British Muslims, though, the job comes with a major nuisance in the form of our news media and their incessant, awful polling. It is hard to convey the unique sense of annoyance engendered by their trumped-up claims built on the back of dubious evidence. I imagine it feels a little bit like being a musician whose heartfelt, hard-to-write, low key song gets turned into an awful cover version and then sent to number one for ten weeks by Simon Cowell’s latest X-Factor signing. Except while X-Factor, though irritating, is largely harmless, these polls are anything but.

The Sun’s front page splash yesterday about how ‘one in five British Muslims has sympathy for jihadis’ was as egregious a case as I have seen for a long time. Other people have done a good job of explaining what a travesty this claim was, so I shall try to keep my explanation short. First, it was based on the responses to a question that did not once mention jihadis or ISIS but ‘fighters in Syria’, meaning that it was prone to misinterpretation. Second, in the reporting of the research The Sun conflated sympathy for those travelling to Syria with support for ISIS’s insane aims and murderous methods.

Third, the newspaper failed to say anything about the wider, non-Muslim public, fourteen percent of whom, it transpired, also expressed similar sympathy for these ‘fighters’ when asked. (And why wouldn’t they, after all? Jesus managed to sympathise with those who crucified him without supporting their aims; much easier for us to sympathise with fifteen year-olds who have been seduced into journeying to Syria, even if their decisions were undoubtedly stupid and potentially deadly.) Fourth, it didn’t bother to mention findings from the same survey that seemed to undermine the central contention, such as, for example, the finding that only 3 per cent of Muslims feel it ‘is not important for British Muslims to integrate into British society’.

Fifth, and most irritating of all for research geeks, there was a glaring methodological flaw that could only be the result of sourcing research on the cheap. Survation, the polling company behind the research, identified respondents simply by calling people with Muslim-sounding names, which, as any researcher will tell you, creates a risk of systematic bias. A Muslim convert who has retained his Christian name, for example, will never be included in such a poll. Generally, researchers get around this problem by using pre-screened survey panels, but it seems The Sun was not willing to pay out for this.

I would risk my reputation if I made claims based on such utterly flawed research. Indeed, in a dystopian future in which I am king, these would all be capital offences for Crimes against Research Methodology. The Sun’s editors, of course, would be first up against the wall, followed by the polling company, Survation. (Although I concede I am not without sympathy for Survation.[i] Having worked in research consultancy, I know the pressure to win work. This is why, in my imaginary universe, I would offer a knighthood to YouGov, which, reportedly, declined to carry out the poll for methodological reasons.)

In response to a growing tide of criticism, The Sun today doubled down, claiming that their method was sound because it followed previous polls on the same subject. Plainly, this is a dubious claim. A course of action is not justified because it repeats previously made mistakes. The newspaper also claimed that the preceding questions in the survey made it clear that ‘sympathy’ in this question meant sympathy for ISIS. Again, this is bogus. Quantitative researchers know how sensitive surveys are to question wording. For example: Have you ever come across Gallup’s widely reported annual poll which is regularly used to claim that ‘forty per cent of US citizens believe in creationism’? It turns out that, by offering slightly expanded options, that forty per cent figure can be cut in half to twenty per cent.[ii] Small ambiguities can inflate results. Multiple ambiguities can inflate them massively.

Most frustratingly for people like me, The Sun painted anyone who disagreed with its take on its research as a ‘lefty’ in denial of the problem of Muslim support for Islamist militancy. I can’t speak for all those who disagree with The Sun, for we are many. But this does not represent most researchers of Islam and Muslims.

No-one who knows this subject well denies that even well-planned polls indicate pockets of support for radical Islamist revivalism, especially among the young. Yet those who do this for living also know that the narrative of a young Muslim fifth column is well wide of the mark. On the best evidence we have, what we actually see is something just a little bit baffling. Survey evidence shows – against the notion that young Muslims resolutely refuse to accommodate British cultural norms – that religious practice among young Muslims is noticeably lower than their parents, and inter-religious mixing is higher.[iii] In that respect, Muslims seem to be following the rest of the UK toward a more secularised way of life and  moving away from ‘segregated’ lives. This trend is often ignored, however, because this same group also adopts a confusing mix of religiously conservative and liberal positions. In polls, a larger proportion of young Muslims advocate ‘Sharia law’ than older Muslims.[iv] The same goes for advocacy of a global caliphate. The percentage of young Muslims offering such support approaches around thirty in some surveys. Yet young Muslims also tend to be more accepting than their parents of gay marriage, legal abortion, free mixing of genders and equality between sexes. Around three quarters of young Muslims support some form of legal protection for same-sex unions.[v]

What are we to make of this? The tabloids are generally inclined to take the statistics about ‘Sharia’ and run with them, ignoring contradictory evidence and questions about the complexity of religious interpretation. Some scholars, like Justin Gest and Clive Field, are sympathetic to the idea that Britain’s young Muslims are split between an increasingly liberal population and a small group who feel deeply alienated by wider British society. This is no doubt part of the truth, but I am not sure that it is all of it. What is interesting is that Islamic youth networks, some with Islamist leanings, have appealed to young Muslims partly because they have been more accommodating of women than traditional community institutions, as well as more participatory and internet savvy.[vi] To me, this hints that Muslims don’t just fall into neat groupings, but, rather, that liberal ideas can coexist with conservative and utopian ones, not always coherently. What emerges from the data we have on young Muslims is a picture of people who sometimes vocal and inclined to emphasise religious identity, without always being very observant. They are integrating, in the sense that their lifestyles are closer to the norm. But they are frustrated at what they are being asked to integrate into, and sometimes tend as a consequence to advocate oppositional identities. In extreme cases, these identities can, as we know, be dangerous.

The interpretation I am suggesting here can be challenged, of course. That is part of the art of carrying out and analysing social research. But this does not mean you can get into the art without training or awareness of ethical questions. Representation matters, and has consequences. Following the brutal murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, some forty-four mosques and Muslim institutions were attacked, these attacks ranging from arson, to graffiti to windows being smashed. How much easier is it to justify this when the perpetrator believes, when he pulls off a hijab or sticks a match through a letterbox, he has a one in five chance of scoring a ‘hit’. I don’t know if that makes The Sun’s article ‘hate speech’, as some have been protesting. It does, however, make its authors guilty of some pretty immense stupidity.

[i] This is partly because Survation has raised concerns about The Sun’s reporting. See here and, anonymously, here.

[ii] This claim is based on an unpublished report written by Professor Jonathan Hill. The change comes when participants are offered an additional response, ‘God both created and guided evolution’. Further details available on request.

[iii] Platt, Lucinda. ‘Is There Assimilation in Minority Groups’ National, Ethnic and Religious Identity?’ Ethnic and Racial Studies 37, no. 1 (2014): 46–70.

[iv] Field, Clive D. ‘Young British Muslims since 9/11: A Composite Attitudinal Profile’. Religion, State and Society 39, no. 2–3 (2011): 162.

[v] The exact figure is 74 per cent: see Kashyap, Ridhi, and Valerie A. Lewis. ‘British Muslim Youth and Religious Fundamentalism: A Quantitative Investigation’. Ethnic and Racial Studies 36, no. 12 (26 April 2012): 2131-2133.

[vi] On this see Lewis, Philip. Young, British and Muslim. London: Continuum, 2007.


Cameron on extremism: how can we change this broken record?

SONY DSCFor some time now, working one’s way through a new speech or policy document on preventing extremism in Britain has felt a bit like listening to a broken record. Occasionally there are changes in tone between one text and the next, but the basics remain similar and what is repudiated in one iteration can reappear again further down the line. This can be said especially of Cameron’s speech on Islamist extremism in Birmingham on Monday, for this, largely unnoticed by the commentariat, appeared to resurrect previously rejected elements of New Labour policy.

Unsurprisingly, Cameron followed Blair in making the case for further investigatory and restrictive powers – powers to proscribe speakers, to intercept communications, to ‘enforce our values’. Indeed, his government has already gone further than New Labour did on this, introducing statutory burdens on schools, prisons and universities. But he also, more surprisingly, spent around a third of the speech arguing that government policies to address extremism also need to address social integration. This is precisely what Cameron spent his first five years as Prime Minister arguing against. The 2011 Prevent strategy chides New Labour for failing to distinguish, at a policy level, between cohesion and counter-terrorism. Yet on Monday Cameron announced new plans to fund a ‘Cohesive Communities Programme’, suggested he would ‘empower moderate voices’ within Muslim communities, and spoke of everything from FGM to employment opportunities – all in the name of reducing the appeal of ISIS.

But it is not just the policy itself that has a wearying familiarity to it; the critical response has too. In the comment pieces that have surfaced since Monday the same lines about foreign policy, intrusive spying, the process of radicalisation (and government’s bad understanding of it) and anti-Muslim prejudice have been rehearsed again and again. Many hardly differ from what was written when Prevent was first rolled out by New Labour, but these criticisms have had little meaningful influence. I have little hope the current criticism will have much impact.

This inertia is dispiriting, and I am increasingly beginning to wonder whether the critics as well as the architects of the policy are responsible for it. Much of the criticism that has been made of Prevent is well founded; I have been a critical voice myself. But often – too often – it feels like a litany of unfocused, unproductive and even contradictory complaints. Rarely is there any sense of the need to develop a practical, focused critique and even more rarely is there any consideration given to how, strategically, policy change might be effected.

Below, then, are a few blunt thoughts about what critics of Prevent get wrong and what we might be able to say more clearly or effectively.

1. Are we making arguments we don’t need to make?

First, let’s not exaggerate the extent of our disagreement, or fight battles that we don’t really need to fight. Critics have fiercely attacked Cameron’s claim that ‘[t]he root cause of the threat we face is the extremist ideology itself’, for example. As Myriam Francois-Cerrah countered, ‘Ideology – or ideas – do not exist in a vacuum. They are the product of material factors, which, when ignored, reduce the battle against extremism to a cosmic battle of ideas’.

Francois-Cerrah is a journalist I admire hugely, and what she says here is of course perfectly true. But, leaving aside that one comment, Cameron does not actually seem to disagree with what she says. Indeed, the majority of his speech in Birmingham concentrated on the material factors – crises of identity, alienation, segregation and Islamophobia – that make extremist ideology appealing. This does mean that his speech comes across as inconsistent; he is clearly trying to please multiple, opposed constituencies at the same time and failing to do so. But I do wonder why we are spending so much time pushing criticisms Cameron doesn’t seem to fundamentally contest.

2. Why are we making arguments we wouldn’t accept from adversaries?

Second, there are a number of arguments critics have made that have been badly thought out, especially in relation to foreign policy, which has been the other major point of focus. True, Cameron was too dismissive of global political considerations, which he spoke of only in relation to what he called ‘grievance justifications’ for extremism. But in the responses one finds various comments like this, from Waqar Ahmed Ahmedi: ‘[I]t was startling and disappointing how casually Mr Cameron dismissed foreign policy as a valid grievance, particularly as this was the one factor the ring leader of the 7/7 bombings and murderers of Lee Rigby cited as the motivation for their acts’.

There is clearly a problem with this line of argument. The same murderers also claimed that they were directly inspired by Islamic teachings, and we do not take these claims at face value, so why are we prepared to do so for foreign policy? In 2005 when British forces were active in Iraq there was perhaps a legitimate debate to be had about whether foreign policy was fostering domestic resentment. Today the case is much less clear. Of course, Britain helped create the conditions in which ISIS now flourishes and our foreign policy in relation to autocracies in Egypt and Saudi Arabia remains deeply hypocritical. I am not saying that I disagree with efforts to reshape British policy abroad. But I am far from convinced that foreign policy provides a sociological explanation for extremism, support for ISIS especially; it certainly doesn’t provide a moral justification for it, and that is a territory to which some critics seem perilously close at times.

3. Are we being too dismissive in our disagreements?

I even have reservations about some criticisms of Cameron’s adherence to the so-called ‘conveyor belt’ theory of radicalisation, despite agreeing with them. The one point where Cameron has been consistent and has sought to distance himself from Blair has been in his conviction that ‘non-violent extremists’ need to be challenged as well as those who are directly involved in violent actions. As he put it, ‘[T]he extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination’. Now, there are various problems with this view. The one that Cameron’s critics have mentioned most frequently is that it ignores what we know about radicalisation, namely, that only a handful of violent extremists have had ties to non-violent extremist groups.

Yet while this argument may be valid, it too often leads to a dismissive attitude toward everything Cameron says. When discussing non-violent extremism, Cameron spoke of anti-Semitic conspiracies and theories about the security services being behind acts of terrorism in the UK. Such conspiratorial viewpoints do exist (and are not exclusive to Muslims, as a quick survey of 9/11 ‘truthers’ will show). Whether or not we subscribe to Cameron’s viewpoint (and I do not), there is surely room for agreement that the state as well as public and civil society institutions can have a legitimate role in challenging such views. We may disagree on what that role may be, but without that starting point it is hard to shape the debate.

4. Shouldn’t we concentrate on what is winnable?

Instead of just taking aim at these flaws, it might be more helpful to think about how to author a practical critique focusing on issues that might be, to use a term favoured by activists in CitizensUK, winnable. One issue I have in mind here is Islamophobia. It is hard to deny a link between Islamophobia and radicalisation if one accepts that alienation, isolation and a sense of being unwelcome facilitate extremism. Cameron certainly, as I said earlier, accepts that alienation from British cultural life has this effect, so he cannot reasonably deny that Islamophobia is relevant. As he said on Monday: ‘I know that for as long as injustice remains – be it with racism, discrimination or sickening Islamophobia – you may feel there is no place for you in Britain. But I want you to know: there is a place for you and I will do everything I can to support you’.

Yet despite this admission, interest in Islamophobia within Parliament has been minimal and that which there has been has not led to anything meaningful. There is a dire need for a concerted, targeted effort to ensure that anti-Muslim prejudice is recognised, at a policy level, as one of the (many) factors strengthening the appeal of extremist discourses. This is not to say that Islamophobia should only be addressed in policy as part of the debate about extremism, but this does appear to be a practical step that the present government could be persuaded to take.

5. Highlight where, and why, Prevent won’t achieve it’s objectives

Fifth, where we do want to make a fundamental objection, rather than just dismiss Cameron as a man who doesn’t understand or who harbours prejudiced views, it would surely be more effective and intellectually honest to focus on areas where Prevent undermines its own practical goals. For example, Cameron claimed as part of a discussion of the media to want to open up space for a diverse range of Muslim perspectives in public life. There are, he said, a ‘huge number of Muslims in our country who have a proper claim to represent liberal values in local communities – people who run credible charities, community organisations, councillors and MPs’. But Cameron’s advocacy of the ‘conveyor belt’ theory actually works to close this off as a possibility.

Since the Liberal Democrat–Conservative coalition was formed in 2010, Cameron has deployed this theory repeatedly in service of the argument that the state should not work with, or provide material support for, ‘non-violent extremists’, which he previously accused New Labour of doing. As he said to his audience in Birmingham, ‘[W]e have redirected public funds from bodies that promote non-violent extremism to those that don’t’. This contention is questionable on two levels. First, it is far from certain that there has been a significant shift, as Cameron claims. Undoubtedly, there have been huge cuts in public funding for Muslim civil society organisations, but none, as far as I am aware, explicitly justified in relation to non-violent extremism. Indeed, some individuals working with the Home Office that I and my colleagues spoke to as part of research carried out in 2010–2012 felt there had been little practical change under the coalition. Behind closed doors, it is recognised by some at least that: ‘[I]f you want to reach hard-line Salafi communities, you have to work with hard-line Salafi people…. You’re not going to reach them though cuddly Sufis’.

Second, the Conservatives – or some of them at least – have been too willing to accept accusations made by neoconservatives about Muslim groups supporting ‘non-violent extremism’, when these have little or no basis. Cameron and Michael Gove, in particular, have made misleading conspiratorial claims about British Muslim civil society organisations acting as ‘front organisations’ for radical Islamic parties.* This is a language that Cameron seems** now to reject; he talked of standing up to ‘those who try to suggest that there is some kind of secret Muslim conspiracy to take over our government’. We should encourage him to do so, for this view of Muslim civil society makes opening space to anyone other than a limited number of partners extremely difficult. It gets in the way of objectives Cameron says he wants to achieve.

6. The one big argument: if liberalism is the solution, you have to commit to it

This same basic approach can be taken to the most fundamental criticism we can make (and in fairness, many opponents have made this criticism). Cameron portrayed liberal principles, including rights, liberties and tolerance, as the UK’s best weapon in the struggle against extremism again and again in his speech. At one point, in the context of a (to be honest, out of place) discussion of FGM, he commented: ‘We can’t expect [vulnerable individuals] to see the power and liberating force of our values if we don’t stand up for them when they come under attack’. How, though, does one square this appeal to the importance of liberal rights, and their extension to every citizen regardless of their place in society, with his disregard for liberal traditions elsewhere? At one point in his speech he complained about internet providers that are happy to collect data for commercial insight, but not as part of the ‘fight against terrorism’. Cameron is educated enough to realise there is a world of difference between a company recording users’ data for commercial purposes and a state monitoring people’s political discussions and loyalties. Yet here and elsewhere he was happy to play fast and loose with liberal traditions that, he says, we need to protect to win people’s loyalty.

Of course, most of us recognise the need for investigatory powers. But what we can say is that over-extending these powers or failing to specify the basis on which they can be legitimately used undermines the struggle Cameron claims to be engaged in. What practical reason can there be, for example, to extent Prevent’s statutory component to early years (ages 0-5) education? Making a compelling case for citizenship education at this age is hard; making a case for policies whose aim is to dissuade toddlers from ‘anti-British attitudes’ is ludicrous and, more importantly, hugely counter-productive. Imagine how a Muslim parent must feel about Britain on hearing that his or her child’s inability to ‘mix and share’ now has to be viewed, by childcare providers, as germane to the effort to prevent the flourishing of violent political extremism?

We could add, too, that if Cameron does want people to view as conspiratorial nonsense the notion that Prevent is about ‘spying’, he will need to repair the firewall between Prevent and wider social policy that he repeatedly breached in his speech, and that previously he promised to protect. It is of course possible to recognise that mutual distrust between ethno-religious groups and inequality of opportunity are relevant to extremism policy. But such issues will never be remedied if they are seen as a means to the end of countering terrorism. Universities, to take another illustrative case, may indeed have a role to play in supplying people with the political and religious literacy necessary to recognise and counter apologetic conspiracy theories about Western politics. But the overbearing nature of Prevent in this and in other domains encourages authorities to be on the lookout for, rather than keen to converse with and overcome, extremism.

7. Is this a boxing match, or a judo contest?

Ultimately, the point I am trying to make here is that too many of those who are hostile to prevent act as though they are prize fighters, badmouthing an opponent (sometimes unnecessarily) and then attacking with a volley of lefts and rights. Perhaps we would be better off as martial artists, using the force of our opponent’s case against him. Part of the reason for this problem, I admit, is the nature of our public sphere, which demands fast replies and the kind of uncompromising polemic which drives up websites’ hit rates. But even if everyone works within these structural conditions it still might be useful to ask a few questions of ourselves before picking up our pens, tablets and keyboards.

First: Is some kind of policy to address violent extremism necessary and legitimate? I think the answer to this has to be yes. Then, two more: What would you do if sat next to someone supportive of a violent extremist movement, and how would you translate what you say to them into government policy? I am not quite sure what my answer to these two questions would be. Mine would certainly be different to Cameron’s. But it would probably also include themes on which he touches – the utterly brutal reality of movements like ISIS, the complex and uneven nature of Western foreign policy, and sympathy for personal sufferings and conflicts of identity. Recognition of this overlap does, then, give us something to work with, alongside the very many things in Prevent that we want to work against.

*This relates to a speech Cameron gave to the CST in 2008, which is no longer on-line.

**I say ‘seems’ here because he also, in the same speech, made accusations about the organisation Cage which, I understand, has prompted the group to seek legal advice. I generally only describe such accusations as ‘misleading’ when I know the organisation to which they relate well. In Cage’s case I am in no position to judge one way or the other, but it will be interesting to see where this advice leads.