This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
As the dust starts to settle on David Cameron's speech delivered in Birmingham on Monday on the "struggle of our generation" against "extremism," it's probably a suitable time to look back and note that, for all the hype and build-up, the Prime Minister didn't say anything new.
To recap, Cameron gave a speech against the "poison" infecting young minds in which he said that the police, schools, mosques, broadcasters, prisoners, and parents all have to do more to defeat extremism. Pretty much everyone, it seems, except the government themselves. He also singled out my organization, the National Union of Students (NUS) for "shame" because our members voted to work with CAGE—an Islamic NGO that works to oppose the "War on Terror," directed by former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg.
What this amounts to is further, deeper, more conclusive confirmation of what has become painfully evident to most us for a long time already—that under the guise of "counter-terrorism" we in the UK are facing the greatest threat to civil liberties in a generation, that the British government is pursuing its steady descent into a police state unabated, and that the sun never sets on the arrogance of the British Empire.
From jump, Cameron set out a strategy designed to fail. It won't work because it's embedded in the divisive and discredited idea that what Britain is facing is primarily an ideological threat—that of "Islamist extremism." Without even stopping to consider the material reality and circumstances from which such movements as the Islamic State develop and draw strength, and Britain's role in fomenting that—ie. a fairly consistent recent history of bombing Muslim countries—this Government has decided that the solution is to wage war for (and on) the minds of Muslim people in the UK, and recondition them in the doctrine of British values.
This is instead of engaging with the long, long list of grievances held by people, including Muslim people, in the UK regarding the government's domestic and foreign policy—an idea rejected out of hand by Cameron.
Apparently the notion that the state-sponsored witch-hunt of Muslims under the Prevent agenda might fuel resentment against Britain is "deluding ourselves." Ditto the brutal austerity measures consigning Black and Muslim communities to grinding poverty, and the dismissal of half a million in the people on the streets last summer protesting Britain's role in the Israeli occupation (not to mention myriad other cases in the Global South)—none of that stuff could possibly be to blame, it seems.
Under the newly-statutory Prevent agenda, Muslims in Britain will find themselves fully pathologized, criminalized, and targeted by every arm of the state and private sector. Most perversely, with the extension of Prevent into the education and healthcare sectors, Muslims will be—and have been—marked out as "at threat of radicalization" by their schoolteachers for questioning the oppression they face, their lecturers for speaking out against the oppression they face, and by their psychologists when the crushing burden gets too much, and they succumb to the oppression they are subjected to.
In casually dismissing the "grievance justification" by pointing out that 9/11 preceded the Iraq invasion he has highlighted the willful historical amnesia of his government—the UK and the West's destructive presence in Black and Muslim lands extends far beyond the occupation of Iraq. And with more and more of Britain's citizens being descendants of people colonised or invaded by Britain, the memory of this nation's injustices and brutality against their ancestors and relatives runs deep and vivid.
As long as the effects of that history continue to color the reality of Black people in the UK here today, demanding that they all identify with and embrace Britain and "Britishness" will simply not happen as long as the government keeps up its feigned ignorance.
While Muslim people in the UK appeared to be, in varying degrees, the object or the target of his speech, the greatest disrespect is that he claims to be able to speak on behalf of us and our communities without ever having properly engaged with Muslims beyond the counsel of sycophants and sell-outs validating his lies and slander.
Meanwhile the National Union of Students, which I represent as Black Students' Officer, is derisively name-checked for allying with organizations like CAGE—organizations which approach the issues at hand with some degree of nuance and offer some hope to resolving these conflicts, and which are quickly misrepresented and subject to a racialized, Islamophobic witch-hunt.
It's pretty ironic that David Cameron praised NUS's "noble history of campaigning for justice"—while he violated the boycott movement against apartheid South Africa while NUS was campaigning for the movement in the 1980s, and whilst his government is more than happy to continue arming and defending Israel while NUS is campaigning for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against it.
What remains is that we're hearing nothing new. The dangerous intolerance of the state grows day by day, but the toxic rhetoric and patent falsehoods have remained the same across governments, for over a decade now.
What these old ideas need, however, is a new response. As students or as people in the UK, we need to find a new way of articulating our opposition. We need to avoid the pitfalls of the past, which validated or undergirded the state narrative, or left Muslim communities to defend themselves alone.
The urgency of action needed to reject the government's agenda can't be stressed enough. This affects all communities, all oppressed and minority groups. As we build against it, we should be highlighting this and therefore taking it on from all angles.
We need to be mobilizing nationally with the strongest, most principled unity, but the conversation starts within each of our own communities and campuses—and those conversations are needed now more than ever because the reality is, it doesn't get worse than this.
Malia Bouattia is NUS Black Students' Officer