The day after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, I was at a meeting with the Prime Minister. I was there because I am Chief Executive of the Greenwich Inclusion Project, a strategic race equalities and hate crime organisation based in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, which includes Woolwich. At this meeting, there was a suggestion that the Prevent Strategy was to be reviewed. In a speech to the House of Commons a week later, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced the creation of a task force on “Tackling Extremism and Radicalisation”, composed of the usual senior ministers, MI5, police and so-called ‘moderate’ religious leaders - the same faith-based strategy for curing militancy that already failed us under Tony Blair.
For me, there is a disturbing feeling of déjà vu about the whole thing. At the time of the 7/7 bombings in London, I was Director of Partnerships and Diversity within the Metropolitan Police Service and I led on community engagement with women in the aftermath. Unfortunately, our national pattern of response to Islamist terrorism does not appear to have changed since 2005. There is a roll call of condemnation of the attack by Muslim organisations; extremists are given a media platform to air their views; questions are asked about what makes young Britons turn to violence; and the government signals robust measures to tackle extremist terrorism and sets up yet another task force. Worse, this new task force brings in no new players or sources of expertise; it is Tony Blair’s failed Prevent strategy all over again.
The government’s tendency to see terrorist crimes of violence in terms of racial, religious or class stereotypes and to address them from a “faith-based” platform is part of the problem. As before, the new task force is focused only on Islamic extremism and fails to draw on the expertise of frontline groups who work with the disaffected and marginalized from a non-religious standpoint. Severely alienated people do not fall neatly into racial, religious or class stereotypes. The “underwear bomber”, Abdul Mutallab, was the son of a Nigerian banker and a former student at the prestigious University College London. Recently convicted of planning terrorism, Richard Dart, the son of teachers, is white, middle class and hails from Dorset. Neither fits the archetypal terrorist stereotype of working class, ethnic-Pakistani from the north of England.
Instead of a rehash of failed ideas, we need a complete rethink of Blair era counter-terrorism policy, with its heavy reliance on faith based strategies. Religious fundamentalism is only one of many forms of violent extremism. Insights gained from other areas of criminality must inform counter-terrorism policy.
Why do we treat Al Muhajiroun and its various incarnations so differently from the English Defence League or British National Party? By focusing so much on one sort of extremism, don’t we leave ourselves exposed to the possibilities of further atrocities from other sorts? Were David Copeland, Timothy McVeigh, or Anders Breivik Muslims? As the police investigate a possible link between the far-right and the suspected arson attack on a Muslim community centre in North London, shouldn’t we be asking if this is simply moronic vandalism or a more sophisticated act of revenge or provocation?
We should also note the similarities between extremist groups and gang culture. Both attract disaffected, marginalised and confused young people searching for a sense of identity and belonging. Like gangs, extremist organisations offer such individuals an alternative family and status. Senior members of the organisation ‘mentor’ young recruits, potentially criminalising or radicalising them. Why is the expertise gained in the study of gang culture and behaviour so completely absent from our counter-terrorism approach?
Like its predecessors, the Cameron government has stood side by side with Muslim faith leaders in their condemnation of the latest attack. It is certainly important that the public be taught to separate the acts of extremists from the Muslim faith and population in general. But these demonstrations of unity are also problematic, for they leave a lot of people out. The government ignores the fact that organisations working to promote inclusivity are secular and not religious. It excludes the expertise of community-based organisations working on racism and violence against women, and of refugee organisations who have been working to tackle extremism locally for many years.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair is still making suggestions. In an article for the Mail on Sunday earlier this month, he stated that “there is a problem within Islam – from the adherents of an ideology ….which is profound and dangerous”. His solution is to educate Muslim children about their faith here and abroad. I take great issue with this idea, which would be a backward step based on a simplistic analysis. Quibbling over interpretations of religious texts and histories is not a solution to the problems we face. By once more restricting any social or political response to a faith based approach, Blair ignores just how limiting this is. Many people he would class as Muslims are not even religious, and most of those who are religious are not defined only by their faith or 'led' by religious leaders. But this was Blair’s approach after 7/7 and remains the Government’s today, despite the change in administration.
It is a little ironic to hear Blair talk now about problems with political Islam when he is the man who took us into Iraq, a war which has led to horrific levels of sectarian violence. He is also the man who called for organised religion to have a more prominent role in public life and under whose leadership the Prevent programme was developed—a programme which gave credibility and funding to Muslim groups, some of which were known to support extremist views and others that had known links to jihadists. These ‘moderate’ leaders were even invited to be government advisors. In June 2011 the Home Secretary, Theresa May, was forced to concede that Government funding had been given to extremist groups and promised this would never happen again.
But we are all too likely to see a recurrence of this problem unless the Government begins to scrutinize self-appointed Muslim religious leaders. How does the Government distinguish between radical and moderate religious leaders to ensure that those who are acting as community representatives are not linked to the very groups responsible for radicalising young people in the UK? Following the recent Bangladeshi indictment for crimes against humanity of Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, one of the government’s favourite “moderate religious leaders’, a founder of the Muslim Council of Britain, former Chairman of Muslim Aid, and director of Muslim Spiritual Care for the National Health Service, it is high time to ask exactly what the government means by ‘moderate’.
Blair’s Prevent strategy was based on the theory that “non-violent extremism” inoculates young people against violence rather than encouraging them to seek it. But the emerging information about the Woolwich suspects clearly shows that they were involved in nonviolent extremist behaviour that, unchecked, led to the brutality of that May afternoon. I would urge the Government to create an approach that develops a clear lack of tolerance for any forms of extremism - violent and non-violent.
Surely, at the very least, people who research the ways Jamaat-e-Islaami and salafi-jihadi groups operate and are linked in the UK should be part of the new Taskforce as well as the usual conservative religious leaders? By excluding secular experts from the debate, the Government are exposing themselves once again to developing a counter terrorism strategy in company with the very people they may need to target.
A new response to extremism must represent those with the most relevant experience and must incorporate experts who are not self-appointed religious leaders, including community organizers, front line organisations, independent researchers, and women’s groups. The Quilliam Foundation has suggested that there are potentially 500 European and 200 British citizens fighting for jihadi groups in Syria in a situation of growing violence. The return home of these extremists will pose significant challenges for countering terrorism and halting the spread of extremist ideologies. We must change direction before it is too late.