British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a remarkable and powerful speech Monday on combatting radical Islamist extremism, a topic many other Western leaders including President Obama avoid tackling head on.
Cameron, speaking at a Birmingham school, appropriately distinguished between "Islamist extremism" – a fundamentalist political ideology with religious underpinnings and "Islam the religion." He directly addressed moderate British Muslims, framing the struggle against radical Islam as a phenomenon that is plaguing the Muslim community.
"I know too how much you hate the extremists who are seeking to divide our communities and how you loathe that damage they do," he said.
Cameron defined what he saw as the roots of the threat. While many point to poverty or Western wars in the Middle East, Cameron explicitly called out Islamist ideology and radicalization as driving the violent threat facing British and other societies.
There is no single path to radicalization, he said, but even non-violent ideology can be a "gateway" to violence.
"It may begin with hearing about the so-called Jewish conspiracy and then develop into hostility to the West and fundamental liberal values, before finally becoming a cultish attachment to death," Cameron said.
The speech was part of a five-year plan Cameron is implementing this fall in hopes of curbing Islamist extremist influences. It calls on empowering British Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds, who can speak about the devastation ISIS is wreaking in their native countries.
Cameron also invited "some pretty uncomfortable debates – especially cultural ones. Too often we have lacked the confidence to enforce our values, for fear of causing offence."
But a true debate would give greater influence to Muslims who oppose and challenge the radical narrative, he said. "There are so many strong, positive Muslim voices that are being drowned out. Ask yourself, how is it possible that when young teenagers leave their London homes to fight for ISIL, the debate all too often focuses on whether the security services are to blame? And how can it be that after the tragic events at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, weeks were spent discussing the limits of free speech and satire, rather than whether terrorists should be executing people full stop? When we allow the extremists to set the terms of the debate in this way, is it any wonder that people are attracted to this ideology?"
He also addressed young British Muslims who might be tempted to travel to Iraq or Syria to wage jihad.
"You won't be some valued member of a movement," Cameron warned. "You are cannon fodder for them. They will use you. If you are a boy, they will brainwash you, strap bombs to your body and blow you up. If you are a girl, they will enslave and abuse you."
The speech is significant because of Cameron's direct approach and specific references to "radical Islamist ideology." That something many other Western leaders, including President Obama, avoid as a matter of policy. The Islamic State, the president has said, "is not 'Islamic.'"
Cameron, in contrast, said it is not enough to condemn ISIS or al-Qaida.
"This means confronting groups and organizations that may not advocate violence – but which do promote other parts of the extremist narrative," he said. "We've got to show that if you say 'yes I condemn terror – but the Kuffar are inferior', or 'violence in London isn't justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter' – then you too are part of the problem. Unwittingly or not, and in a lot of cases it's not unwittingly, you are providing succor to those who want to commit, or get others to commit to, violence."
This applies directly to many Islamist groups in the United States and the West which, acting as civil liberties organizations, justify terrorism in some contexts especially against Israeli civilians.
According to Cameron, their doublespeak and double standards only serve to promote the extremist narrative.