How can politics unite two communities that don't trust one another?
Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis once divided his colleagues into “lumpers” and “splitters”. Those in the first camp usually sought to generalise about neat patterns that reduce the untidiness of history, he noted, while the second group preferred to reject these patterns in favour of complexity and endless distinctions. Getting the right balance between lumpers and splitters, wrote Gaddis, was “no easy thing”.
It seems a cultural version of the lumper-splitter problem now burdens the painful debate on why a steady flow of young Britons are aspiring to become jihadi brides and henchmen.
Theories from the Left have included cultural insensitivity, the provocation of Islamophobes, marginalisation by the state, victimisation by its security services, villainous Western foreign policy and neo-imperialism, or just Tony Blair.
Commentators on the Right have variously emphasised the failure of multiculturalism and immigration policy, the influence of unassimilated enclaves, unimpeded hate speech, inadequate funding for security services, embedded ideology within Islam itself, and the low self-esteem of loners.
In the process, pundits for each camp have lambasted the other, with Left accusing Right of conflating British Muslim identity with fundamentalism, and vice versa for refusing to acknowledge the cultural or religious dimensions of the issue.
Between these poles, meanwhile, experts with actual data on the lives and motivations of jihadists have sought to emphasise two less donnish points: first, that each case is different and seldom pinpoints a singular cause for metamorphosis – for example, watching online propaganda is often only part of it while offline encounters can be key; and second, that although counter-terrorism is the duty of state, counter-extremism must be led by local communities.
What is needed, in short, is a balance between splitting and lumping that can demystify and disassociate Islamic extremism on one hand, but also recognise and assist the special burden of moderate Islam to confront it on the other, albeit without feeding an “us and them” mind-set.
Easier said than done. This lofty feat was implicit in Theresa May's recent pronouncement of how a future Tory Government would tackle Islamic extremism, in which she called for “a new partnership to defeat extremism” between government and local communities.
Alongside a raft of new powers to block and ban extremists, the Home Secretary also vowed to promote British values “more assertively”, with less funding for translation services, more funding for English language training, and a review of citizenship rules to ensure applicants properly understand and respect the nation’s values.
A clear distinction must be made, Mrs May concluded, between followers of the Islamic faith, which is “entirely compatible” with British values, and extremists who claim there is a “fundamental incompatibility”. Hence the keystone of her new strategy is a proud promotion of “the values that unite us”.
Except they don’t unite us, according to a majority of the British public. As a recent survey by the YouGov-Cambridge Programme shows, a striking 55 per cent of British voters currently think “there is a fundamental clash between Islam and the values of British society”, compared with just 22 per cent – little over one in five – who say Islam and British values are “generally compatible”.
Among Tory supporters, this gap increases to 68 per cent who say “clash” versus 17 per cent who think “compatible”. Ukip supporters look almost unanimous on the issue (89 per cent “clash” versus 4 per cent “compatible”) while roughly half of Labour supporters take the negative view (48 per cent “clash” versus 27 per cent “compatible”) and Lib Dems are divided (38 per cent “clash” versus 39 per cent “compatible).
These figures hardly reinforce the idea of new partnerships and highlight a deeper problem that is unaddressed by a tub-thumping appeal to values: public concerns about extremism and Muslim concerns about alienation are currently locked in a vicious cycle, feeding each other in ways that fuel the atmosphere for extremists and their increasingly sophisticated portrayals of a war between Islamic and Western societies.
If the answer to extremism is united communities, then the first question is “how do we break this cycle?”.