In the Muslim world, I suspect, the role of television is stronger still. For the first time on a large scale, on channels such as Al Jazeera, Arabs can see people in their own streets being asked those interviewer’s questions we in the West all take for granted – “What do you think?”, “How do you feel?” – and hear ordinary people give straight answers. If your main experience of political life is of helplessness and hopelessness, the sight of the opposite parading through nation after nation, each setting off the other, must be intoxicating. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” – and to see it on film.
But television, let alone Twitter, is not a medium that is any good at explaining things. After all those news bulletins, few of us are much the wiser about who has power in Egypt or what this great turmoil is really about. The famous Wordsworth lines quoted above celebrated the French Revolution, which ended in terror and tyranny. The same happened with the Russian Revolution. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 began with the overthrow of an unpopular autocrat and ended with the triumph of a murderous theocrat. What are the omens this time?
The feebleness of the media in guiding us through this is particularly reprehensible, because much of what we need to know is happening here at home.
Lenin lived in London and other parts of western Europe before returning to Russia as a revolutionary leader. The Ayatollah Khomeini flew in from Paris. Today, no city is more important in fomenting revolt in the Muslim world than London. The place is awash with exiles, and with British-born extremists. Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most significant global Islamist organisation, has been living here for several years. Last week, he returned to his country as the old regime fell. And although the Muslim Brotherhood began life in Egypt, and claims 20 million followers there, its power centres have grown in the West. Much of the propaganda for Hamas, and for one of the Brotherhood’s religious gurus, Yusuf Qaradawi (a big pal of Ken Livingstone), is generated here. Money from charity fund-raisers in Britain is used for its work in Egypt. The Muslim Association of Britain is the Brotherhood’s vehicle in this country. The Muslim Council of Britain, which supposedly represents all Muslims here, contains leaders who are highly sympathetic to the Brotherhood. We think of everything about the Middle East as “abroad”, but many of the truths about the state of the Muslim world are also home truths.
This afternoon, in Munich, David Cameron will tell some of these home truths. As I mentioned in this column a couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister has become exasperated by the way much of the permanent bureaucracy, in its attempt to counter violent extremism, ends up appeasing it.
Coming at the subject from his Big Society, “we’re all in this together” perspective, Mr Cameron finds the opposite – a sectarian world in which Muslims are encouraged by extremist leaders to identify themselves in as aggressive and separate a way as possible. They are taught to aerate their grievances in order to get political power and public money. He does not deny that some grievances exist, but he rejects the idea that they cause, let alone justify, terrorism. He will point out that it is often Muslim professionals born here, and prospering in middle-class freedom, who are most radicalised. He is horrified that young men educated at some of our best universities pick up noxious ideas from some student Islamic societies. He is caustic about the double standard which defends such ideas in the name of academic freedom: this would never happen if they were the vapourings of white racists.
The true boldness of Mr Cameron’s message lies in his view that non-violent extremism is an entry-chamber for terrorism itself. He blames Islamist doctrine – the political ideology advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood under the cloak, or rather the veil, of religion – as the bad thought from which bad actions naturally spring. It fills the dangerous vacuum created by multi-culturalism. Paranoia about Western governments, anti-Semitism, the oppression of women – all these things fire up young men with hatred of a society they are taught to see as decadent. Soon they are only the click of a mouse away from people who will teach them how to blow themselves up on a crowded train.
In arguing thus, the Prime Minister is directly confronting large elements of officialdom. The Prevent programme of counter-terrorism, currently under review, is managed by Charles Farr, an MI6 man seconded to the Home Office to run counter-terrorism. His approach depends on the idea of doing deals with extremists to rein in their own – fulfilling the old Iranian saying, dating from our colonial era, that “behind every beard there is a British agent”. Because of this doctrine of “it takes one to know one”, Islamists are employed under Mr Farr’s wing. The dangerous men are thus empowered by the state, becoming the gatekeepers for all Muslims.
Now Mr Cameron is saying goodbye to all that – no more public money, powers of patronage, honours (it’s fascinating how many of these extremists relish OBEs and knighthoods) and invitations to No 10 for people who do not share the open values of British civil society. His speech is intended to start a process which will run all through government – in schools, universities, prisons, policing, charities, social programmes, urban regeneration. Islamists believe that Islam is a Nation and no other entity deserves respect. Mr Cameron’s 21st-century version of One Nation Conservatism is a full-on rejection of that.
All this comes as the West faces the changes in the Middle East with a mixture of hope and fear. There will be those, driven by fear, who say that the Farr doctrine of engagement with the extremists is about to be vindicated as Islamism topples the tired old tyrants. It is good that David Cameron is on the other side – the side of hope about what freedom offers.