Ranj Alaaldin is a Doctoral Researcher at the LSE and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, specialising in the Middle East.
In his speech earlier this week on Islamic extremism, David Cameron described the battle against radicalism as the challenge of our generation. Indeed, it is a battle that has to be fought both at home and abroad, in the Middle East and North Africa but also within our schools, communities and other sections of British society.
The government’s dedication to fighting radical Islam through its words and its deeds must, therefore, be welcomed. For much too long, groups like ISIS have been exploiting an ideological vacuum that has resulted from the absence of conviction and narrative from the government, one that should be defining the country’s values and principles and challenging ISIS’s brand of radical Islam.
In dominating the narrative, ISIS and other extremist groups have been able to reach out to British Muslims with devastating effect. That includes vulnerable British Muslims susceptible to their manipulation tactics as well as adventurous British Muslims looking for a sense of purpose and that, sometimes, might also be oblivious to the true nature of life in the so-called caliphate.
Constraining and eliminating the space that groups like ISIS have enjoyed here in the UK is crucial but Cameron must go one step further. Internationally, Cameron must bring back the ideals and principles that define and guide Britain on the global stage.
The local now overlaps considerably with the international. Islamist groups have benefited greatly over the past ten-years from a dangerously mistaken narrative that argues it was costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have fuelled radical Islam.
Details matter little in this narrative. It forgets that radical Islam first emerged onto the scene decades before those wars, that radical Islam is underpinned by religious ideology and thought that, though rejecting Western ideals of democracy and freedom, were born and function independently of this rejection.
As Cameron pointed out, the atrocities of 9/11 took place before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 7/7 London bombings a decade ago were also perpetrated by individuals under the watch of the security services as far back as 2001, before the Iraq war took place.
The greater tragedy is that in allowing this narrative to thrive, the values and moral impulses that we must follow internationally have been constrained. Sensible foreign policy does matter, no doubt, but it is worth remembering that inaction has its consequences, too: conflict in Syria has seen hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced and has allowed for the rise of ISIS, with consequences for the international community at large.
The West can be damned if it does and damned if it does not. Iraq and Libya were two different conflicts. The former was a nation-building exercise involving a heavy Western footprint and the latter a limited, Nato-led air-campaign. Libyans were given a chance to rebuild but squandered that opportunity. Yet the disarray and civil conflict in both have been attributed to the West.
Granted, interventions in the Arab and Islamic world have tainted the notion of promoting democracy in the rest of the world. However, there remains within those local populations a yearning for greater Western engagement that aims to empower civilians and those striving for democratic and human rights.
The narrative when it comes to foreign policy and interventionism must differentiate between interventions aimed at reconstructing and rebuilding nations and interventions that aim to give local populations a chance to do the rebuilding themselves. That can include outside assistance with stabilisation and governance efforts, as well as the empowerment of moderate forces and civil society.
Under Cameron’s leadership, the Conservative Party has revitalised itself as the party of empowerment and aspiration. These over-arching ideals must be at the centre of its strategy for dealing with ISIS and radicalisation, namely by combining the efforts of law enforcement agencies with moderate members of the Muslim community; by dominating the narrative and defining the country’s values in the battle against extremism but also by extending these efforts internationally.