Image: UK Immigration Barristers
According to M15, 200 young British Muslims have headed to Syria to fight in the civil war; now, in response, British counter-terrorism police have launched an initiative to encourage Muslim women to inform on family members who might be headed for the war zone. Far from giving voice to or empowering women, this "new initiative" fails to learn from the lessons of the past and is an unfortunate return to the approach of Tony Blair's Preventing Violent Extremism agenda.
New Labour recognised that Muslim women could be a significant resource in the "War on Terror", allocated extensive funds to target them, and established the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (NMWAG) to address their issues. But NMWAG was beset with problems from the beginning and was criticised by one ex-member for doing nothing and serving no purpose. As several authors discuss in a recent book I co-edited, Moving in the Shadows: Violence in the Lives of Minority Women and Children, multiculturalism may have bred segregation and encouraged Islamic extremism but the vigorous promotion of faith communities and New Labour’s policy of "multi-faithism" is not the answer. This policy, which was intended to encourage integration and cohesion, create more "moderate" versions of Islam and promote religious identities within public policy and state institutions, has led to direct state sponsorship of the religious right and fundamentalist organisations that masquerade as moderates.
Targeting Muslim women is nothing new for the Metropolitan Police either. In 2005, after the 7/7 bombings, then-Assistant Commissioner Tarrique Ghaffur developed a number of community-based projects to improve communication with the London Muslim community. I worked for the Met at this time and witnessed the lack of enthusiasm expressed by community women who were asked for help in stopping their young men from becoming radicalised.
In 2006, the now defunct Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) held a series of six meetings with specially invited London community groups in order to explain that they wanted to integrate community women into counter-terrorism policing. In a meeting with women's groups, Deputy Chair of the MPA, Cindy Butts, explained that "Marginalising more than half of our population is counterproductive....Women have a valuable contribution to make generally, and specifically in helping us to prevent young men from becoming radicalised or feeling isolated from mainstream society, especially a problem among black and Asian men. Women bring a new perspective to a growing problem and we would do well to listen."
Although directed at genuine concerns about radicalisation, this initiative, like many others, is part of a wider "culturalist" approach that sees Muslim women only in relation to the ethnic or religious communities of which they are a part. It fails to recognise the diversity of these Muslim communities and it limits Muslim women's voices to those of victims or survivors who are prepared to disclose their personal stories.
Those who take a culturalist approach are interested mainly in women who identify through their faith and reach out to Muslim women through male community or faith leaders. This approach further marginalises and neglects women who are not engaged in recognised communal structures—women who are surely more at risk of being targeted by Islamists than their observant sisters.
The hope of the police now as before is that Muslim women will inform the authorities about their wayward sons and brothers, preventing further terrorist atrocities on British soil. Do they think that preventing sons, brothers, and husbands from leaving for Syria will also somehow prevent them from becoming radicalised? Are the police interested in the rights and needs of Muslim women only insofar as they promote a counter-terrorist agenda?
While such an instrumental approach can hardly be described as feminist, it is being echoed by some international women's organizations. A recent report on women and religious extremism by ICAN (International Civil Society Network) cites the work of the Paiman Trust to argue that "the prevention of radicalization needs to focus on women and their families and communities.... even uneducated women are amazingly effective as early warners." The Paiman Trust's work is based in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pukhtunkwa province, which are controlled by the military, and its founder, Mossarat Qadeem, recently visited Washington with three women politicians "to seek support from U.S. policymakers for their efforts to increase the role of women in initiatives to counter violent extremism".
In the UK, the Muslim Women’s Network has been the face of much of the publicity for the new counter-terrorism effort, even though its Director, Shaista Gohir, criticised the government in the past for viewing Muslim women “as political pawns” and publicly resigned from NMWAG. One can only wonder what about the "new initiative" made her change her mind.
As one who used to be on the inside, I cannot overlook the fact that this initiative is being launched by the Metropolitan Police Service, an organisation plagued by numerous scandals over many years, not least the ongoing revelations in the case of murdered Black teenager Stephen Lawrence. As recently as February 2014, his mother said she believes that “sections of the police are still racist”. Trust and confidence in the police has suffered as a consequence of cases such as Lawrence, Mark Duggan and others.
Building such trust and confidence will take time, investment, and honest engagement. Most of all it will require the police to listen to women when it matters most—when they report rape, domestic violence, abuse and violence. The police cannot expect minority women to have faith in them when they only see them as informants.
I have been working with Arc Theatre on a project that to explore warning signs that may indicate an involvement with extremist ideologies and groups; the purpose is to help family and friends of those involved locate sources of help and advice. But our meetings have made it clear that there are very few trusted sources of help. Participants have told us that the police and organisations perceived connected to them are not "safe" because family members may be arrested and those who report could be at risk. Unless the police are part of a network of agencies that can be accessed by those wanting to protect their friends and families, people are unlikely to turn to them. Sadly, this network is extremely limited.
I believe the "new initiative" to address radicalisation and extremism—an aim I support—has been misconceived. Surely by the time someone is prepared to travel to a war zone to support resistance or "jihad" he must have bought into an ideology that paints Muslims as persecuted victims – he is therefore already on the road to being radicalised. And why limit the program to Muslim women and communities? What about the families of Muslim converts? What about non-Muslim women who have relationships or friendships with Muslim men? What about teachers, work colleagues, classmates, friends, irrespective of faith or background?
Limiting community-based counter-terrorism initiatives to Muslim women places the burden of responsibility on them to spot the signs of radicalisation and inform the authorities. It does not take into account the dangers that women in minority communities face when they challenge men and elders in the community, let alone report them to the police. The Met should know this better than most, given its work on forced marriage and honour-based violence. Whilst neither of these practices are limited to Muslim communities, even a cursory glance at the statistics show that those affected are disproportionately Muslim women.
Now the same women who can face violence and even death for transgressing so-called norms about dress codes, education and choice of husband are being asked to become state informants without any regard to the dangers they may face as a consequence. What assurances are there for protecting women who come forward? Carlene Firmin's work on gangs shows the very real consequences for women involved with men in gangs and on the fringes of criminality. The Met knows of these threats first hand. As a gang, Al-Qaeda is as dangerous as they come, and women who report place not only themselves and their families in the UK at risk, but also potentially family members overseas. The case of Jean McConville, a mother of ten murdered by the IRA, shows what can happen to women who are believed to be police informants.
Work to tackle radicalisation must begin much sooner than envisioned in the "new initiative" and it must break with the discredited approach of the Prevent strategy; rather than the instrumental use of women as informants, we need integrated programs that include counselling and services and show as much concern for the safety, welfare and development of Muslim women as for gathering intelligence.