I wrote this for Guardian’s CIF yesterday. More soon on the actual report.
Today, the government is publishing an updated version of its counterterrorism strategy, Contest 2. Let me tell you why I think it’s unlikely to make us much safer. But first, a brief background explanation is needed.
Contest 1 had a four-pronged approach to counterterrorism: protect, pursue, prepare and prevent. The prevent (violent extremism â€“ PVE) strategy involved spending between Â£70m and Â£90m in supporting local Muslim groups that could help deradicalise extremists and pull them back from the brink of becoming terrorists.
So far so good in theory, except that a series of blunders, highlighted and amplified by various journalists, bloggers and thinktanks, have forced the government to redefine its rules of engagement.
Critics of Contest 1 say “extremists” only ended up giving cover to violent radicals. Supporters of existing policy say that unless the government engages with a wide range of Muslim groups, including those whose views it is ideologically opposed to, it will cut itself off from the very people who have credibility with radicals.
It’s worth briefly explaining the case for PVE money.
Islamists, like most people in any utopian fringe sect, are incredibly energetic. They expend serious time and effort organising meetings, speaking, jumping on bandwagons, holding publicity stunts (the Luton demo), converting and radicalising potential recruits. Most British Muslims shun them and generally abhor their politics, but this isn’t a well established or a relatively prosperous community with widespread internal dialogue and capacity to challenge extremists.
So PVE money has been used to build organisations that specifically look to engage with radicals; to teach youngsters how to engage with and establish their own local media; and to hold town-hall style debates with Muslim women asking them to discuss extremism within their community, for example.
Among Muslims there have been differing reactions. Some support the capacity-building work and have been encouraged by help received in establishing women’s groups. Others regard any money from the government as tainted and refuse to touch it. It has also sparked conflict amongst some Muslim groups, leading at least one council to refuse any money at all. Others, among them the women’s group An-Nisa Society, have said it doesn’t reach the root of the problem.
It has also created a mini-industry of people who specifically want to get into the action and get a slice of the cash by offering strategies. I’m on the board of a conflict-resolution group with 10 years of experience that found itself in the cross-fire when some Muslim groups accused it of “not being Muslim enough” to help de-radicalise extremists.
In short, it’s a bit of a mess. This is partly because of the decentralised nature of the project, leaving it to local authorities, the police and local organisations to devise their own strategies. Undoubtedly some of them have been poorly conceived and implemented. Transparency, accountability and a yardstick to measure results have also been lacking.
But the Contest 2 strategy now says that any form of extremism must be shunned. The problem is that in the same way that extremist radicals such as Islam4UK (a reincarnation of al-Muhajiroun) and Hizb ut-Tahrir spent a lot of time organising followers, most popular grassroots Muslims organisations are Islamically conservative in nature because they are tied to mosques or take populist positions against government policy. They also spend a lot of time and energy building a grassroots base. More liberal and moderate groups have not bothered or been able to do the same.
So unless the government works with groups that have deep support or at least credibility among Muslims who are in danger of being seduced by more radical groups (the aim of “prevent” extremism), then there’s no point spending this money at all in trying to tackle terrorism.
There’s no point denying that most British Muslims deeply abhor the government’s stance in the Middle East, or that they are socially conservative. What’s needed is a clearer distinction between groups helping to prevent extremism and those who will help build social cohesion. The Muslim Council of Britain, for example, would be suitable for the former, if not the latter.
There is a danger that the communities department, for the sake of political expediency, avoids working with groups that offer easy targets for tabloids. But for the sake of our security, it needs to make tough decisions now more than ever.
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Filed in: Islamists,Organisations,Terrorism