The fiery birth of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy: England's Summer of Discontent, ten years on

As the UK government reviews its counter-terrorism, counter-radicalisation strategy, Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Robert Lambert argue that a panicked reading of the events of summer 2001 - the attacks on the twin towers and communal riots in the north of England - have set the tone of a divisive and counterproductive debate on the connection between radicalism and terrorism. On the tenth anniversary of the Oldham, Burnley and Bradford riots, it is time for a fundamental rethinking of counter-terrorism and community cohesion strategy.

Jonathan Githens-Mazer Robert Lambert
3 June 2011

This article is part of a series on the government's 'Prevent' counter-terrorism strategy.

 It is easy to forget that 9/11 occurred just a matter of weeks after the riots in the cities of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. From May until July 2001, these cities were rocked by violence reflecting deep tensions between white working-class and Muslim communities. The riot’s longer term impact has profoundly affected the way that the British government thinks about terrorism and Muslim communities. In the ‘Summer of Discontent’, ethnic and racial tensions boiled over because of issues related to the north of England’s urban decay such as social exclusion, isolation and unemployment. The Cantle report, commissioned in the wake of the riots, reported that white working-class and Asian Muslim communities were living “parallel” but totally separate lives. Despite the similarity in experiences, these communities blamed each other for these conditions.

The Cantle, Ousley and Ritchie reports on the riots all explained that development plans in these areas had  ‘pitted’ communities against each other in competition to obtain regeneration funds. These reports, and many others, concluded that this competition created a situation whereby communities saw each other as adversaries rather than potential partners. Mounting tension was further stoked by opportunistic exploitation of these divides by British National Party (BNP) and National Front agitators. For Tony Blair and the Labour government, these riots posed several serious problems. Northern urban areas, like the Welsh Valleys, were symbolic heartlands of Labour political activism. Oldham, Burnley and Bradford were former industrial towns that had suffered the effects of Thatcherite economic reforms, and had been left virtually destitute as they faced the abyss of unchecked urban decay. 

Social, economic and especially political partnerships between white working class and Muslim communities of Asian extraction represented the kind of coalition building that Labour strategists hoped would lay at the core of Northern regeneration – partnership based on social stratification rather than race, religion or ethnicity. This vision for cooperation, when combined with a plea to wider middle-class Britons that it was high time politics cared about all of society – not just southern elites, lay at the heart of New Labour’s raison d’être  - grafting working class interests onto Mondeo man’s sensibilities. As ethno-religious tensions mounted in these cities and elsewhere, there was a deep sense of concern that New Labour’s reforms risked losing traditional core voters amongst working-class communities because of concerns over immigration and the issue of ‘asylum seekers’. Iconic images, such as that of the horrifically bruised and battered face of Walter Chamberlain – of which one picture was only ever published – seemed to visually epitomise the tensions between white working class communities, some of whom felt on the one hand that their very existence was being challenged, while some others in Asian Muslim communities felt as though they were subject to higher and higher degrees of attacks and anti-Muslim sentiment. 

The June 2001 general election was a watershed for questions of Muslim communities in Britain. As the Institute for Race Relations particularly pointed out in their report, Immigration, integration and the politics of fear, in Europe, and specifically in Britain, immigration and asylum was now firmly placed as a key point of popular political debate. In the run-up to the 2001 British general election, and during the election itself, questions of immigration and cultural difference were regular topics of heated exchange, with a broadly centre-right appeal on the part of many politicians to condemn the ‘perils’ of unchecked immigration. 

In constituencies like Oldham, this provided clear opportunities for the British National Party, led by Nick Griffin, to try to make electoral inroads. They campaigned hard on issues of racial and ethnic difference.  The general election, held right in the middle of the ‘Summer of Discontent’, provided an opportunity for the BNP. Griffin ran for the Oldham West and Royton seat and, though he lost, finished with an astounding 16% of the vote. The BNP did even better with 17% in the other Oldham constituency. It had become apparent to the New Labour government that the 2001 riots, in conjunction with political debate, had clearly forced the of immigration, asylum seeking, and multiculturalism to shibboleth status in British politics. 

The riots simultaneously raised serious concerns about ‘community cohesion’ and posed a threat to Labour’s political vision. In the wake of their landslide victory in the general election, Tony Blair named David Blunkett as home secretary, and personally tasked him with addressing the causes of the riots. Blunkett’s initial comments were that he would "transform the lives of individuals and communities who face continuing disadvantage, division and conflict".The Labour government rushed to convene studies and inquiries that would explain what happened and suggest how best to address problems in these communities. As Humera Khan points out, these reports often did not reflect what had actually happened, but more readily presented what the Labour government wanted to hear: 

What the [Cantle] report does not emphasise is who we didn’t meet and the questions we didn’t ask. Often Muslim participants would tell me in private of their frustration with this review. When I asked why they didn’t speak up at the meetings they answered: ‘What’s the point? They’re not going to listen.’ Thus, the very concept of community cohesion became incorporated within a political circle of exclusion, segregation and control ...this legitimise[d] a policy focus that simultaneously targets the beliefs and identities of particular communities while disregarding those same communities’ lived experience. [1]

Only two months later, the shock of 9/11 was profound. While it is popularly remembered as the cause of the more or less immediate invasion of Afghanistan and the ‘Global War on Terror’ against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, it is easy to forget that political and popular reactions had a clear context in Britain. There was an existing prism through which politicians and civil servants had been thinking and worrying about what it meant to be mobilised on lines of ‘Muslim identity’ in contemporary Britain because of the Northern Riots. New anxieties about the nature of Islamcially inspired terrorism at home and abroad were rapidly attached to sensitive domestic political questions over ethnic social, economic and political disadvantage amongst South Asian Muslim communities, questions of immigration and asylum, and wider questions about Islamism as a political force. For Bush, Blair and those that had espoused the danger of Islam in Britain, the US and the West, the lurid details of the 9/11 plot provided compelling evidence that some Muslims did indeed constitute a fifth column lurking the wings to carry out ‘spectacular’ attacks to try to destroy Western society. 

 For commentators and politicians making sense of 9/11 in the wake of the Northern Riots, the lesson was simple. Disadvantaged Muslim communities were vulnerable to processes of ‘radicalisation’ because of an intractable dissonance and sense of difference (whether violent or cultural) between Islam and the West. [2] In Britain this echoed with an emerging ‘conventional wisdom’ that Muslims broadly, and Islamists specifically ‘didn’t get Western liberal freedoms and lifestyles’, a cultural narrative which has come increasingly to form part of popular political discourse on the relationship between Islam and democracy. [3] Pipes summed up this degree of concern when he asserted in his 1990 National Review article that British society was unprepared for Muslim immigration because they had a mind set that thought about this issue as one of : 

… the massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and not exactly maintaining Germanic standards of hygiene. Muslim immigrants bring with them a chauvinism that augurs badly for their integration into the mainstream of the European societies. The signs all point to continued clashes between the two sides … 

The smouldering fires in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford thus were likened to the smouldering fires at the base of the Twin Towers. The Northern Riots had been transformed into something more than the Cantle report could ever address. The smoking wreckage of police vans and bottle strewn streets weren’t just about economic disadvantage and inter-ethno-religious competition for regeneration funds – but indicated the latent threat posed by politically active, grievance-fuelled, and angry Muslim communities. The transformation of 2001 was almost complete; as a year it not only gave birth to the Global War on Terror, but as a combination of events gave birth to a conventional wisdom that violent radicalisation in British Muslim communities could be simply boiled down to a sense of Islamic difference (variously explained as a lack of integration, a lack of secularism, the existential threat posed by Islam to the West, and/or external Islamic influences from Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East) which could mutate into support for violent ‘Islamo-fascism’.  

These are the themes that have dominated the political debate ever since. Take for example the argument as presented in the book The Islamist, by Quilliam Foundation co-founder Ed Husain. In the book, Husain depicts himself as a repentant ‘Islamist’, renouncing his previous engagement with the Islamic activist group Hizb ut Tahrir. According to Husain, radicalisation occurs when groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir exploit Muslim feelings of marginalisation and alienation, and recruit naïve followers based on stories of glorious jihad, the sanctity of martyrdom, and anti-Americanism. By Husain’s logic, HT provoked and nurtured existing senses of separation among British Muslims and directly contributed to a milieu in which violence in the name of Islam became acceptable.[4] This separation was particularly understood as being apparent between older generations of Asian Muslim immigrants and their children, born in Britain, who were now struggling with what it meant to ‘belong’.[5]

In these analyses, it was easy to draw a clear line between riots in the streets of Northern cities and the facts that Zacharias Moussaoui, the leader of the 9/11 terrorist cell and Richard Reid, the failed ‘shoe bomber’, had both attended the Salafist Brixton Masjid in the late 1990s. In the analysis of the time, there was apparently something deeply wrong with Islam in Britain. For British policy makers these themes created a prism by which ‘radicalisation’ in the wake of 9/11 was deemed to be a function of Muslim communities not demonstrating a commitment to ‘shared values and beliefs’ that underpin both British society and provide ‘resilience’ against messages that support and encourage Islamically inspired violence against Britain and British interests.

Thus, the political calculus of May to September 2001 was simple – Muslim communities mobilised along ethno-religious lines constituted an inherent political and electoral problem at home, and a clear and present danger to international security in the context of the Global War on Terror. In the wake of 9/11, where transnational Islamic terrorism was now being proclaimed as both domestic and foreign concerns, politicians rolled the institutional analysis of the Northern riots into ways of addressing and ‘preventing’ terrorism at home. This may have been deliberate – an attempt to define the problem as widely as possible so as to provide greater scope for it to be addressed. Equally, it may represent a degree of ignorance as to the problem, where policy-makers, practitioners and academics simply were unable to theoretically conceptualise or empirically observe that ethno-religious riots were very different than the transnational threat posed by Al Qaeda. The real world effect was that speculation and assumptions about Islamic activism, about the links between the domestic and the foreign, about the fact that Islamic political mobilisation led to violence came to underpin British government policy. Prevent was quite simply born out of a panic induced confusion/correlation of Islam, or sects of Islam, with bases for engaging in Islamically inspired political violence. 

This view of the threat of Islamism, or even more basically, Islamically inspired political engagement, though first espoused by the Blair Labour government has now transcended party politics, and over the past ten years become a truism in British counter-terrorism policy. It now sits at the heart of Conservative Party and coalition government thinking on preventing violent extremism, as evidenced by Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Munich Speech’. In this speech, delivered in February 2011 to European leaders at the Munich Security Conference, Cameron said:

The failure, for instance, of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage, the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone when they don’t want to, is a case in point.  This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared.  And this all leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless.  And the search for something to belong to and something to believe in can lead them to this extremist ideology.  Now for sure, they don’t turn into terrorists overnight, but what we see – and what we see in so many European countries – is a process of radicalisation.

Cameron’s confusion between processes which lead to terrorism (i.e. what Cameron and others mean by radicalisation) and concerns about religious and/or cultural practices is indicative of the muddle thinking that pushes issues of ‘leitkutlur’ and social cohesion on to fears about terrorism. 

Taken as whole, popular media and political discourses now routinely juxtapose integration and immigration with terrorism and radicalisation, such as the wearing of the Hijab, arranged marriage, and the compatibility of Islamic religious ideology and practice with liberal democracy. This then creates a feedback loop between policy makers, the media, and scholars such as Gilles Kepel, who asserts that British Islamic ‘home grown’ terrorism is a result of a failed policy of multiculturalism, where political, cultural and social differences in British Muslim communities were overly tolerated at a cost to wider British society, and the clear solution is the wholesale adoption the French model of ‘radical secularism’. The latter model has, he claimed, by a programme of social control including, most notably, a ban on all religious symbols in schools, conscious integration and a preventative security policy lead to ‘France being spared from terror attacks for the past decade’.[6] 

Cameron’s (and others such as Education Secretary Michael Gove’s) insistence in labelling of Islamic terrorism as being inherently related to ‘Islamism' indicates the problem in official thinking on these issues. By saying that terrorism is the result of Islamism, he betrays a lazy indifference to the theological, geographic, political and contextual differences that mark a hugely diverse range of groups and movements, from the millenarian to the worldly political, the non-violent to the extremely violent.[7] It is the equivalent to saying that any form of right leaning politics succours fascism, and not bothering to disaggregate the historical trajectories of organisations such as the Tory Party, the US Republican Party, France’s Front Nationale and Mussolini’s Black Shirts.  Yet this is the exact kind of pernicious conflation that sits at the heart of David Cameron’s thinking on radicalisation, a main point made explicitly in his Munich Speech:

We have got to get to the root of the problem, and we need to be absolutely clear on where the origins of where these terrorist attacks lie. That is the existence of an ideology, Islamist extremism. We should be equally clear what we mean by this term, and we must distinguish it from Islam. Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by over a billion people. Islamist extremism is a political ideology supported by a minority. At the furthest end are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal: an entire Islamist realm, governed by an interpretation of Sharia. Move along the spectrum, and you find people who may reject violence, but who accept various parts of the extremist worldview, including real hostility towards Western democracy and liberal values.

The popular notion that politically active campaigning ‘Islamist’ groups are merely the smiling face of a concerted Islamist attempt to take control of Europe becomes difficult to sustain in the face of systematic close quarters comparison of rhetoric and actions between non-violent groups and organisations between those that espouse violence and those that don’t.[8] Even Maajid Nawaz, co-Director of the Quilliam Foundation, has publicly stated that there is no definitive research that proves a causal link between radical (or as they would call them, extremist) ideas and the practice of violence, as Demos’s 2010 report on extremism concurred.

Where does this leave contemporary debates over radicalisation and the Prevent Review? In a shambles. While the Arab Spring is demonstrating the peaceful, pluralistic and democratic potential of Islamist activists from Rabat to Tunis, from Cairo to Damascus, British domestic policy is left defending a rhetoric that demonises Islamism and explicitly posits that the British government should talk to Muslims, but never talk to Islamically inspired political activists. The Labour Government under Blair, and the Home Office under Blunkett (and later enshrined under a Communities and Local Government Department led by Hazel Blears), sought to address substantial fears amongst the electorate by amalgamating ideas about terrorism and security with domestic concerns about Muslim communities, social exclusion and community cohesion. These concerns culminated in the Prevent policy. 

The Coalition has continued this line, not because they seek to address issues that could matter to Labour electoral heartlands in the North – but because key Tories in the Coalition Cabinet have made their political careers by attacking Islamism, and because it is a useful stick with which to beat ‘multi-culturalism’ and proclaim the popular rightist project of a ‘leitkultur’. And this conventional wisdom is more than about counter-terrorism policies. Baroness Warsi was explicitly banned by the Prime Minister’s office from attending the Global Peace Unity event in October 2010, as they felt that she would be entreating with Islamists, despite her insistence that she hoped to attend to specifically challenge Islamist perspectives. 

So ten years after the Northern Riots and the shock of 9/11, we find ourselves saddled with a policy that though supposedly about terrorism, has actually been about political anxiety and ethno-centrism. Britain has bet its security on shoddy, reactionary and unproven wisdom now enshrined as Prevent (whether reviewed or not). The inherent danger is that when politicians play politics with security, real counter-terrorism suffers. Any political narrative that links cultural practice and Islamic political 'ideas' to terrorism is not only wrong, but potentially distracting from the kinds of issues that really matter.  The sooner the link between Islamism and/or community cohesion with terrorism is broken, the better, for counter-terrorism and for different communities, Muslim or otherwise, throughout Britain. 



[1] Humera Khan as quoted in Jonathn Burnett, 'Community, cohesion and the state', Race and Class 45 (3), pp. 1-18
[2] D. Pipes, Miniatures: Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1993); S. Huntingdon "The Clash of Civilizations", Foreign Affairs 72 (3), pp. 22-49
[3] R. Jackson, Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counter-Terrorism, (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2005); V. Squire, "'Integration with diversity in modern Britain': New Labour on nationality, immigration and asylum." Journal of Political Ideologies, 10 (1), pp. 51-74
[4] E. Husain, The Islamist, (London: Penguin, 2007), p. 119
[5] Y. Hussain and P. Bagguley, "Citizenship, Ethnicity and Identity: British Pakistanis after the 2001 ‘Riots’." Sociology, 39 (3), pp. 407-425, p. 420
[6] G. Kepel, The Roots of Radical Islam (London, Saqi, 2005)
[7] J. Esposito, The Future of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
[8] N. Teske, Political Activists in America: The Identity Construction Model of Political Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); M. Phillips, Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within (London: Gibson Square, 2006)
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