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.
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
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