The “British values” debate: How David Cameron’s imperialist rhetoric will only fuel extremism at home and abroad

This article was originally published on Comment Middle East in September, 2014. While David Cameron may have stepped down from his position as Prime Minister, it is the growing sense of nationalism and Islamophobia that makes this article just as relevant today (and perhaps tomorrow) as two and a half years ago.

Citing the threat of Islamic State (IS) and other radical Islamist groups to the United Kingdom, and in light of IS’s ambitions “to create an extremist caliphate,” Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Friday 29th August that the UK’s terrorism threat level had been raised from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe.’ While he outlined a number of new, stern anti-terror measures, the British Prime Minister declared that only by championing “British values” could extremism be defeated.

The threat to UK security posed by IS and other radical Islamist movements in the Middle East should not be underestimated; however, the echoes of imperialism in the Prime Minister’s rhetoric will only serve to further incite radical opposition from the Muslim community at home and aggravate anti- British sentiment in the Middle East.

Despite acknowledging but dismissing “perceived grievances” over Western foreign policy and the Iraq war, as well as socio-economic and political factors, Mr Cameron hypothesised that at the root of the threat lies “the poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism.” He asserted: “Adhering to British values…is a duty for those who live in these islands… it is only by standing up for these values that we will defeat the extremism.” Whether deliberate or not, the Prime Minister’s speech missed a trick by not acknowledging how Muslim and British values can in fact be shared, opting instead to imply that said values are uniquely British. While Mr Cameron rightly clarified that the vast majority of Muslims in Britain believe in the values of democracy, the rule of law and respect for minorities, the act of claiming these as “British” suggests that they are fundamentals to which Muslims have needed to assimilate.

A far cry from pacifying extremist factions that threaten the UK, the Prime Minister’s ethnocentric rhetoric succeeds only in resonating with those fighting on each side of the ‘clash of civilisations’ argument — a battle of “British values” versus Islamist extremist ideology; of democracy versus tyranny; or simply of “West” versus “East.” As history and Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism attests, the “West” has long looked to define itself in contrast to a negative “Other.” It is exactly this deeply rooted Orientalist tendency to ‘other’ Muslims in British society that will alienate segments of the Muslim community, and provoke an oppositional and even hostile attitude towards Britain and its so-called “values.”

The Prime Minister’s statement immediately incited xenophobic reactions pitting Muslim values against British ones on social media. One Twitter user commented: “A Muslim, by definition, does not share #BritishValues. Send them to their Islamic State.” Another user tweeted: “@David_Cameron To defend British values, government MUST be purged of all the closet islamists in its midst. Learn about islam &its tactics!”

With the 2015 General Election on the horizon, and increasing concern from Conservatives over support lost to the UK Independence Party, the Prime Minister may well have employed this populist, nationalist rhetoric with a ‘two birds, one stone’ tactic in mind. Over the last few months Cameron has not just proclaimed Britain “a Christian country,” but also called for Britons to be “more evangelical.” In an op-ed he declared freedom, tolerance, social and personal responsibility and the rule of law to be “as British as the Union flag, as football, as fish and chips.” With this wider Christian- oriented and populist discourse serving as a background to the “British values” campaign, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric appears all the less likely to appeal to British Muslims at home.

Another danger lies in aggravating the more radical anti-British sentiment abroad. By promoting the importance and authority of “British values,” the doublethink at large in British policy becomes apparent for all to see and exploit. Britain may well practice democracy and tolerance at home, but the government continues to actively prop up oppressive authoritarian regimes in the Middle East through arms deals, military training and public support. In light of the widespread understanding of repression as a common root of Islamist rebellion and radicalisation, Britain, through its support of these regimes, is not just complicit in these states’ crimes, but also active in inciting Islamist radicalisation in the Middle East.

The UK, for the most part, has been an unconditional ally to the Gulf’s monarchs since the British colonial era and throughout the Arab Uprisings and its wake that continue to cause concern today. The monarchs, consistently ranked among the world’s least democratic rulers, are bolstered by arms sales from the UK ranging from Typhoon jets to crowd-control ammunition. Last year, the UK government approved £1.6 billion worth of arms exports to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, making it the UK’s largest arms market. Furthermore, the current royal heads of state of Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman are all graduates of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, itself “a relic of the colonial past” according to Habiba Hamid, a former foreign policy strategist to the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Evidently, “British values” in the UK are the antithesis of “British values” in the Middle East. To ordinary citizens in the region, the Prime Minister’s “British values” campaign will do nothing but smack of an imperialist Britain whose hand has neither ceased to directly delve into Middle Eastern affairs, nor from pulling the strings above the ruling heads of state. Moreover, the rhetoric is a gift to radical, militant Islamist groups such as IS, as it is easily converted into propaganda material that calls on the disenfranchised to take up arms in the name of jihad against one of the Western superpowers that abets their suppression.

The extent to which the Prime Minister’s rhetoric will be regarded as a “new” and meaningful approach in the battle against extremism at home and abroad is as of yet unclear. What is clear, however, is that this familiar form of populist, imperialist rhetoric will do more to aggravate anti-British sentiment at home and abroad than to assuage it. To exude an imperialist and ethnocentric outlook and publicly support authoritarian regimes is hardly conducive to the country’s moral and security interest. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s command, it is not the duty of British citizens to blindly adhere to, but rather question the values that he claims define modern Britain and its peoples.

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