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British Prime Minister Announces Program To Defeat Islamist Extremism


British prime minister David Cameron announced a program today to defeat what he called the poison of Islamist extremism.


DAVID CAMERON: Any strategy to defeat extremism must confront, head on, the extreme ideology that underpins it. We must take its component parts to pieces - the cultish worldview, the conspiracy theories and yes, the so-called glamorous parts of it as well. In doing so, let us not forget our strongest weapon - our own liberal values.

SIEGEL: In a speech in Birmingham, a city with a large Muslim population, Cameron proposed a mix of policies - greater integration of schools and public housing, giving parents the power to cancel their children's passports and much else. Peter Neumann of Kings College London studies radicalization. He's in Washington this summer teaching at Georgetown. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: First, in a nutshell, how would you sum up what the British prime minister has said?

NEUMANN: Well, he was setting out principles for his government's program for the next few years. He was putting a lot of emphasis on ideology, countering the narrative of violent extremists. And he was also emphasizing that this would also include nonviolent extremists, people who are not necessarily al-Qaida or the Islamic State, but who he believes are providing the mood music that allows these people to thrive, and that's been quite contentious.

SIEGEL: Is there some effective program somewhere against such nonviolent extremism that would serve as his model?

NEUMANN: Well, philosophically, Cameron is aligning himself more with Continental European tradition. In countries like Germany or France or Austria, governments have always made a big play out of countering nonviolent extremists because they said, you know, the fascist, they came to power through the vote, not through violence. And you have to as a robust democracy, you have to stand up for your values. Whether they've been successful is another question, but that's certainly the sort of philosophical tradition that he sees himself in.

SIEGEL: One of Cameron's proposals were to have the British communications watchdog agency clamp down on foreign TV channels that broadcast extremist messages. I believe he's also calling upon Muslim community leaders to crack down on people in their midst who espouse various odd conspiracy theories.

NEUMANN: And that's where it gets a little bit problematic because a lot of his critics will say, who exactly defines what extremists are? Is this not a slippery slope where the government basically decides what kind of views are legitimate, what kind of views are illegitimate? Will this at some point be used in order to clamp down on legitimate dissent? And that's where his speech was a little bit lacking because he didn't exactly say what he meant by extremist. He didn't exactly say how this is going to be implemented in future. And in any case, it is kind of problematic if the government then decides what kind of discourse takes place in civil society.

SIEGEL: Prime Minister Cameron's speech included acknowledgments that in terms of housing, educational opportunity and job prospects, English-Muslims are not adequately integrated into British society. Is it too late, perhaps, to plead the virtues of British liberal values to young adults who might well feel that they haven't benefited from those values?

NEUMANN: Yes, and I think that's a major root cause of radicalization in a lot of European countries. A lot of European Muslims, they latch onto that ideology because they do not feel that they belong into Europe, that they are proper, fully-accepted citizens. Maybe it's too late, but it's never too late to start. I think, however, that that will not deliver results any time soon. It will probably take a generation for that to work if it is being started now.

SIEGEL: For those who prefer to speak of extremism as opposed to Islamist extremism, this was a very disappointing speech. Prime Minister Cameron very much rooted Islamist extremism among Muslims.

NEUMANN: Yes. But to be fair to him, he also made a number of references to far-right extremism. He actually said if you called the far-right extremists far-right extremists, you should also call the Islamist extremists Islamist extremists. So that's a slightly different point of view from the administration here who prefers not to talk about it in those terms. But in Britain, that's been long accepted. And even the previous government, the Labor government, talked about Islamist extremism.

SIEGEL: You're - not during the summer, when the Washington heat attracts you - each year, you're a professor in Britain...


SIEGEL: ...Although originally, you're German.


SIEGEL: How does Britain fare? If you're grading European countries in how they've dealt with these problems, how well has Britain done?

NEUMANN: I think right now because there's a lot of talk about Britain in terms of people going into Syria and Iraq, but actually, Britain is, compared to other European countries, in the middle of the table. Seven-hundred people have gone to Syria and Iraq. They're smaller countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium that, per capita, have produced a lot more extremists. And the situation in Britain is problematic - more problematic than in the United States - but it is by far not the worst in Europe.

SIEGEL: Professor Neumann, thanks for talking with us...

NEUMANN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...Today. Peter Neumann of Kings College London, where he directs the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.