Declaring it “the struggle of our generation,” Prime Minister David Cameron called Monday for a wide-ranging effort in Britain to combat the radical ideology that has inspired hundreds of his compatriots to join Islamic militants fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Cameron urged universities, prisons, Internet companies and broadcasters to work with the government to “confront and defeat this poison.” He said it was important to promote moderate Muslim voices in society and to “de-glamorize” extremist groups such as Islamic State that glorify gruesome acts of violence.
“This isn’t a pioneering movement. It is a vicious, brutal and fundamentally abhorrent existence,” Cameron told listeners at a school in Birmingham, Britain’s most populous city after London and home to a significant Muslim population.
“Here’s my message to any young person here in Britain thinking of going out there,” Cameron added. “You won’t be some valued member of a movement. You are cannon fodder for them. They will use you.”
Cameron’s speech came a month after horrifying reports of a 17-year-old British youth who secretly made his way to Iraq and blew himself up in a suicide attack. Earlier this year, three London schoolgirls were believed to have flown to Turkey and crossed into Syria after telling their parents they were going out for the day.
Authorities estimate that as many as 700 Britons have gone to fight in the Middle East and that half have returned, posing a major security threat.
Officials are now drafting a five-year counter-extremism strategy that will be unveiled in the fall. One step announced by Cameron on Monday would grant parents the right to ask for their minor children’s passports to be canceled if they fear those children are flight risks.
The government is also trying to increase its online surveillance powers. As in the United States, British authorities already collect some so-called metadata, such as details of phone calls and other communication minus the content. However, they are pushing to expand the scope of information they can obtain, including people’s Web-browsing histories and social-media use.
Cameron called on Internet and media companies and college campuses to show more restraint in giving platforms to inflammatory rhetoric – not just overtly jihadist speech but also other pernicious ideas that feed such viewpoints, such as anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
“The adherents of this ideology are overpowering other voices within Muslim debate, especially those trying to challenge it,” Cameron said. “There are so many strong, positive Muslim voices that are being drowned out.”
Although he emphasized that Islam was a peaceful religion, Cameron warned it would be an “exercise in futility” to pretend there was no link between Islam and the radical ideas espoused by militants who call themselves Muslims. Exploring that link will mean “uncomfortable” but necessary conversations, Cameron said.
He lamented the segregation in some communities and lack of integration by Muslim and other minority youths who feel detached from “British values.”
“We have in our country a very clear creed, and we need to promote it much more confidently,” he said. “There are things we share together. We’re all British. We respect democracy and the rule of law. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith. We believe in respecting different faiths, but also expecting those faiths to support the British way of life.”
The Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group of faith-based organizations, welcomed Cameron’s remarks but warned against “litmus tests which may brand us all as extremists, even though we uphold and celebrate the rule of law, democracy and rights for all.”
“Dissenting is a proud tradition of ours that must not be driven underground,” Shuja Shafi, the council’s secretary general, said in a statement. “Challenging extremist ideology is what we all want, but we need to define tightly and closely what extremism is rather than perpetuate a deep misunderstanding of Islam.”
Monday’s speech by Cameron was not the first time he has called for a plan to combat home-grown extremism.
In 2013, after the hacking death of a British soldier on a London street by two self-styled Islamic fighters, Cameron said it was time to determine whether universities, prisons, Muslim charities and the Internet had been allowed to become a “conveyor belt” of radicalization. Critics fault the government for taking so long to come up with a comprehensive counter-extremism strategy.
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