A man walks past graffiti showing CCTV cameras in the Sparkbrook area of Birmingham, central England, October 2, 2010.
Darren Staples / Reuters

Although it garnered little attention in the United States, the five-year anti-extremism strategy that British Prime Minister David Cameron announced last month during a major speech in Birmingham marked a significant moment in the evolution of Western counterradicalization policies. The program, occasioned by the rapid increase of British recruits to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also called ISIS), which now number in the hundreds, marks the first time that “nonviolent extremism”—a term of recent pedigree and imprecise meaning—has been outlawed as a direct cause of terrorism by a Western government. Cameron’s strategy is a political measure that can now be legally enforced through the United Kingdom’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, passed earlier this year. With all public bodies also given statutory duties to monitor and report on nonviolent extremism, including on the activities of children in primary schools, the state’s power to police ideas in a liberal society has rarely been so extensive.

But Cameron’s focus on Muslims as a suspect community with the potential to subvert “British values”—even if people within these communities do not directly advocate violence or engage in the planning or execution of terrorist acts—is a regressive approach that risks eroding, rather than fostering, trusting relationships between the state and its citizens. Such a move also cuts against the grain of wider Western policy trends in recent years, particularly within the United States, which have tended toward the expansion of religious engagement to include faiths other than Islam and issues other than security. In this regard, the United States has the potential to play an important role in curbing some of the excesses of Whitehall’s current domestic agenda.

A Muslim family perform prayers for Eid-al Fitr to mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at a park in London, Britain, July 17, 2015.
A Muslim family perform prayers for Eid-al Fitr to mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at a park in London, Britain, July 17, 2015.
Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters
Although hostility to Islam is arguably more widespread in the United States than in the United Kingdom, in legislative terms, Washington is more permissive toward Muslim-free expression than London. The peculiarities of the U.S. Constitution, which constrains all forms of state intervention in religious matters, is partly the reason. It makes governments more inclined to treat all religions equally before the law, as any special restrictions could be more easily considered unlawful. Broad U.S. focus on engaging with all religions also stems from the recognition that violence and extremism can be present in all faiths (as seen in current global conflicts from Burma to countries in Central Africa), from political lobbying by religious groups other than Muslims, and from a belief that religion, especially interfaith dialogue, may be part of the solution to conflict, rather than just a source of problems. Innovative polling and research on the global impact of religion, from the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life project, for example, has also underpinned this policy outlook.

Cameron’s plan is vague in its definition of “nonviolent extremism,” which seems to amount to anything that contravenes the equally hazy concept of “British values.”
In the United States, the current broad-based approach to faith engagement predates 9/11. For example, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 serves as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy that addresses religious persecution in a variety of multifaith, global arenas. It was under this law that the current Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, was banned from the United States in 2005, owing to his alleged complicity in the slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 during his stint as the state’s chief minister. Similarly, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (now the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships) was established back in January 2001. More recently, the White House issued its “U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement” in 2013, which addresses not only security issues but also development and human rights concerns and is being implemented at the State Department level through the newly established Office of Religion and Global Affairs (formerly the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives).

Following 9/11 and until recently, the United Kingdom might have followed its transatlantic ally in foreign policy in the Muslim world, but in matters of domestic Muslim engagement, it often led. At its inception over a decade ago, the United Kingdom’s “Prevent strategy”—aimed at preventing British citizens from being drawn into terrorism—was widely seen among British allies as an innovative departure in community engagement in the battle against Islamist extremism. It had domestic and foreign relations components and involved an ever-growing number of government departments. Prevent’s spirit—if not letter—was increasingly adapted to fit emerging concerns about homegrown terrorism in other contexts, including the United States, Europe, and even the Muslim world. In the United States, the idea has been evident from the evolution of community policing in New York to the appointment of a U.S. envoy to the Organisation of Islamic Conference.

Police officers search a group of Muslim demonstrators near the residence of Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron in London, May 24, 2011.
Police officers search a group of Muslim demonstrators near the residence of Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron in London, May 24, 2011.
Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters
But the United Kingdom’s Prevent strategy has become a victim of its own sweeping ambition to foster model citizens by supporting “moderate” Muslims. Cameron’s newest focus on treating nonviolent extremism as a legally punishable domestic crime represents the culmination of the internal contradictions that Prevent has always presented for liberal societies. Indeed, by turning attention from those directly involved in acts of terrorism to those who, as Cameron put it, only “quietly condone it,” Cameron has run up against the long-held value of freedom of expression. The United States is unlikely to be able to or want to replicate this new policy. Unlike in the United Kingdom, where Cameron’s anti-extremism policy is primarily positioned as an attack on the moral relativism of multiculturalism, in the United States, the public debate around such legislation has centered more on concerns about privacy and mass surveillance, especially in the wake of the Edward Snowden affair.

Still, the ultimate value of any policy lies in whether it actually works: If Prevent was meant to stop British citizens from becoming terrorists, it has failed. If it was meant to reduce the pool of Western Islamist terrorists traveling to conflict arenas, it has also failed; the number of jihadist tourists joining ISIS has grown significantly in recent years. And if Prevent was meant to create meaningful partnerships between the state and Muslim civil society, it has faltered because it has not engendered trust. And this is perhaps the most important aspect: to be effective, government engagement with faith communities must be built on trust. Without it, Western governments cannot exercise authority in their dealings with Muslim communities, they can only project power and, in turn, spark protest. By extending the reach of state power rather than the hand of trust to Muslim communities, who already feel collectively stigmatized, Cameron’s new strategy alienates many of the very people it aims to convince.

In addition to the political overreach of trying to reengineer Muslim moderation and the furthering of cultural stigmas against Muslim communities, Cameron’s plan is vague in its definition of “nonviolent extremism,” which seems to amount to anything that contravenes the equally hazy concept of  “British values.” These problems were apparent in his Birmingham speech, where he appeared to want to stifle even nonviolent forms of Muslim dissent and free expression and also conflated a raft of social ills not particular to Muslims—from child sexual abuse to honor killings—with Islamist extremism. In doing so, he likely pushed British Muslims further away.

As the United States increasingly recognized that it was not immune from the problem of homegrown jihadist terrorism in the years following 9/11, it often looked to the United Kingdom for lessons. British Muslim engagement policy was, at the time, seen as being more developed and nuanced. But perhaps now it is Whitehall that could learn something from Washington. To help prevent radicalization at home, Cameron would benefit from looking to Washington’s efforts to build a broader and more sophisticated political architecture to address religion in the public sphere—one that attempts to move beyond a singular focus on Islam and terrorism. With ISIS’ progress unabated, it is all the more important for Western governments to build trust with their Muslim citizens.

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  • ZAHEER KAZMI is an Associate Member of the Faculty of History, University of Oxford, and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. He was formerly a Senior Research Analyst and diplomat at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
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