By Elliot Adams
I’m unsettled by the shift in purpose in the governments counter-terrorism measures. I was rather hoping this would be one of the issues where the Lib-Dem part of the coalition won out over the Tories. Unfortunately, in the run up to last week’s release of the government’s updated Prevent counter-terrorism strategy there were numerous concerning hints in the press that this was not going to be the case.
These showed a coalition that was shifting from a strategy of preventing violent extremism by engaging with non-violent radical groups, to one of pursuing extreme views(violent and non-violent) and survielling the communities that harbour these views.
Notably, there was the revelation that National Health Service doctors will be required to identify and report people who may be “vulnerable” to future recruitment by terrorist groups. This was one example of how the new Prevent is intended to bring an end to “ungoverned spaces” in education, in the NHS, charities and discussion forums. To this end, May criticised Muslim organisations for allowing extremist speakers – and under the updated Prevent allowing such views to be discussed could lead to the gathering of organisation members being proscribed.
Furthermore, in a stunning bit of scape-goating that could not possibly aid efforts against radicalisation, May accused Universities of “complacency” in tolerating radical views on campus. I had a crack at this on the day Prevent was published, needless to say I think such attitudes do more harm than good.
I’ve had a more in depth read through of the publication since, and I find myself returning to this issue of refusing to engage with – or even to outlaw – non-violent Muslim groups that give air to extreme views(it is almost entirely Islamist extremism addressed by Prevent, despite a few cursory nods to extreme right-wing or Irish terrorism).
In the past, to counter violent extremism, previous governments have worked with groups like Jamiat-e Islami who were ideologically supportive of some forms of non-violent political Islamism.
I’m not sure if anyone is really qualified to speak as to the efficacy of this, but to me this just makes sense in our national context. Many British Muslim families are of fairly recent immigrant origin, with early migrant communities being built at a time when their countries of origin were held together by a political Islamist social infrastructure. Therefore, the ideologies of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood shaped these communities on an organisational level.
Despite their possibly illiberal views, they were non-violent, connected and were a valuable communication point between these British Muslim communities and the anti-terrorism initiatives of the Police and government.
But the updated Prevent, precludes such communication. Prevent claims that the real problem is a dangerous ideology shared by both non-violent and violent groups, and as such, the government should not work with them at all.
Adding to these problems is that ‘extremist’ isn’t adequately defined in Prevent, nor has it been outside the report. It apparently encompasses those who have ‘un-british’ values, those who do not engage in ‘full participation in society’ and those who ‘implicitly tolerate the killing of British soldiers’.
But this is so vague you can contort it to include just about anyone you want to, This is the rare occasion that I agree with the Archbishop Cranmer Blog that “By codifying a set of values to which Muslim groups will need to subscribe, the Government is effectively reintroducing a Test Act: only those who profess adherence to the orthodoxy will be eligible for … government engagement.”
This will make impossible many valuable partners for the government and police against terrorist security threats. The little guidance Prevent gives on the matter implies that problematic views on gender rights would be enough to exclude a group, which is a subject that could exclude even moderate faith groups.
I understand the hesitancy to engage groups with Islamist influences that may have sympathy for more violent organisations, but we already have heavy-handed and impractical laws that forbid such groups from inciting violence
or religiously-based hatred. The conviction rate with these laws is miniscule, but as these groups haven’t even been threatened with prosecution surely they should be acceptable on those grounds?
To counter Islamist terrorism I can’t see why we wouldn’t want to work with – rather than against – the British Muslim community. They have been conducting a debate on these issues for a long time and, I think, because of these in-group discussions the influence of Islamism is nowhere near the strength it once was. I fear the attitudes revealed by Prevent risk undermining moderate positions in that debate, and legitimising more radical elements by publicly making a Pariah of politically-engaged Muslim groups.