The biggest risk to David Cameron’s leadership to date has been his appointment of Sayeeda Warsi as the shadow minister for community cohesion. Warsi’s rise makes Cameron’s ascent from freshman MP to leader in four years look almost sedate. In just two years she has gone from failed parliamentary candidate to being responsible for, perhaps, the most sensitive portfolio in opposition politics. Add in her history of making injudicious statements about anti-terror laws, talking to extremists, and Iraq — combined with some distinctly unCameroon views on homosexuality — and you have a pretty volatile cocktail. Especially as having staked his reputation on her judgment, Cameron cannot sack her.
Even among those who are normally sympathetic to the Cameron project, Warsi’s appointment was viewed as a stunt too far. After all, she has observed that the government’s anti-terror proposals were ‘enough to tip any normal young man into the realms of a radicalised fanatic’ and said that if ‘terrorism is the use of violence against civilians, then where does that leave us in Iraq?’ These concerns were assuaged, to an extent, by the naming of Paul Goodman as the Commons spokesman for her brief. Goodman, a former comment editor of the Daily Telegraph, has developed robust views on the need for the political class to wake up to the threat posed by extremist Islamist ideology. He denies that he’s been given the job as a balance to Warsi, claiming that the idea is a ‘stereotype’ and that ‘much of the commentary has been simply wrong’ about her views. But it is hard not to see his appointment as a signal that Cameron hasn’t gone wobbly on the Islamist threat.
Goodman represents more than 9,000 Muslims in Parliament, more than any other Tory MP, and his Wycombe constituency is home to several of those arrested over the 2006 Heathrow terror plot. When I meet Goodman in a near-deserted Palace of Westminster, it is immediately apparent how eager he is to get to grips with the brief. He has been firing off letters over the West Midland police’s bizarre decision to refer a Channel 4 programme on Muslim extremism to Ofcom, the so-called Olympic Mosque and the government’s decision to re-engage with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in a manner that suggests he should be the MP for Tunbridge Wells (Disgusted) rather than Wycombe. He talks animatedly about the issues involved, only becoming hesitant and defensive when the subject of whether it would be a good thing if more Muslims married non-Muslims is raised and when I ask him about some of Warsi’s more peculiar utterances.
Ideology is what is missing from our discussion of what radicalises young Muslims in Goodman’s view. He is happy to acknow-ledge that it ‘is undoubtedly true that the Iraq war …has worsened the situation’. But, he says, ‘it’s not sustainable to argue that Iraq and Afghanistan foreign policy are the sole cause, or even necessarily the main cause of our current difficulties’. Goodman thinks that there’s a growing recognition of this among the Muslim community, saying there’s ‘much more willingness to co-operate with the authorities than is sometimes said to be the case. It has becoming increasingly clear to everyone that you can’t shrug off this extremist, separatist political ideology as the fault of foreign policy or the world Jewish conspiracy or a malign plot by the West.’
Separatism is the problem, according to Goodman. In the course of an hour-long conversation he mentions it no fewer than 17 times. The answer to this problem, he says, is to bolster moderate Muslims. It often is: never have so few been invoked by so many. But Goodman, who is a Jewish-born Roman Catholic and well versed in religion, can at least define what this platitude means. ‘Moderate Islam has as its core not wishing to see different people living under different law. Not wishing to see sharia incorporated into British law.’ I ask him about polls that show that two in five Muslims want some kind of sharia law. He says, ‘You have to look at these polls a bit more closely as you have a spectrum. A spectrum that runs all the way from Abu Izzadeen [the extremist who famously heckled John Reid for daring to come to a Muslim neighbourhood] who, I believe, wants separate sharia jurisdictions where Muslims are in a majority — alcohol bans, bars on conversion to Christianity and all of that — to people like the bulk of my Muslim constituents in Wycombe who want to live under their own religious law but also want to obey the law of the land.’
I ask Goodman if he thinks wearing the full veil is a symbol of separatism. ‘There are worries that the niqab is associated with a kind of separatist extremism. That was Jack Straw’s view, and it is certainly mine.’ He is keen to say he shares Jack Straw’s view on the matter. When I try to press him on what government should do about the question, whether full veils should be barred from, say, schools, Goodman is wary of laying down a general rule. However, he does say that if individual schools chose to ban them, his ‘own view is that would be right’.
The money that the government is putting into its efforts to tackle extremism worries Goodman. He fears that if you ‘simply funnel money at one part of the community’, you risk creating the ‘sense of grievance that developed up in the northern towns which manifested itself in 2001’. However, he is sympathetic to the idea of establishing a college to educate policymakers, civil servants and the police about separatist extremism.
Soon after Goodman and I talked it became apparent that the government had invited the MCB back into the fold, in a reversal of the position announced by Ruth Kelly last autumn when she shut them out on the grounds that they were too ambivalent about the need for integration. Goodman was sanguine about dealing with the MCB, saying, ‘Obviously, whether you’re a minister or an opposition spokesman you have to deal with a body like the MCB with a lot of affiliates.’ However, he frets that the MCB gives too much house room to separatism and that we might see a similar situation emerge to Northern Ireland where the SDLP was undermined by the government constantly going over their heads to talk to Sinn Fein/IRA. A notably different take from Warsi who suggested after 7/7 that Britain needed to talk to the extremists as it had done in Northern Ireland.
Having identified the problem, Goodman needs to come up with some solutions — something which he acknowledges is far more difficult. To date the Tories’ main idea is banning Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist Islamist group, which might do some good but is hardly a magic bullet. Whether the Tories can develop a coherent approach to this issue will be a major test of whether they have the maturity to govern. Considering who his boss is, the onus is squarely on Goodman.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 1, 2007