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  • Should intelligence services spy on Muslims?

    by Sunny
    21st October, 2009 at 10:01 am    

    A row has broken out about spying on Muslims, that I haven’t had a chance to go into yet. It started with a Guardian article by Vikram Dodd that showed Prevent Violent Extremism money was being used to spy on British Muslims. A few points.

    Most people who know enough about PVE know that some of it is undoubtedly used to ‘spy’ on people by at least monitoring what they’re doing and whether they have extremist sympathies.

    The question then comes down to proportionality: how much information gathering should there be? What are the legal frameworks put in place to ensure that information is not abused and that civil rights are not violated? At which point do intelligence services take action? How far does it go?

    It’s absurd to assume that without PVE, the intelligence services weren’t already spying on some known people. Several terrorist plots have been foiled thanks to the intelligence services. Should those not have been stopped? It seems to me that in some ways, Guardian journos are trying to stitch up the Quilliam Foundation. Perhaps it’s because they get Prevent money. But back in the days so did the MCB. Lots of it. Why is that fact swept under the carpet? A lot of other good Muslim organisations also get Prevent money. Should all that be axed?

    Let me be clear, that there are concerns about:
    - intelligence services criminalising and black-mailing Muslims into spying for them.
    - violating civil liberties for large groups of people without evidence
    - using terrorism legislation to harass Muslims and other groups (incl environmentalist).
    - neo-cons advocating such legislation be used to harass or intimidate Muslims or keep them under watch.

    But let’s also be honest that every state has to monitor and keep an eye out for extremist elements in case any of them tip over into violence. And so an element of ‘spying’ will be necessary. Then you need an honest debate on proportionality and check/balances.

    Quilliam have released a statement saying:

    The Guardian recently published several articles alleging that the Government’s preventing extremism strategy was ‘spying’ on British Muslims. Quilliam was cited in the articles and our stance on the issue is as follows:

    1. Quilliam does not support indiscriminate ‘mass spying’ on British Muslims nor a ‘police state’. Ordinary Muslims are our first line of defence against Islamist terrorism and our allies against extremists. We condemn any efforts to conduct mass spying operations on innocent Muslims through the Government’s Prevent programme.

    2. At the same time, if and when Prevent practitioners encounter Islamist extremists during the course of their work, they should not feel that, as a result of their involvement with Prevent, they cannot approach the relevant authorities with their concerns.

    3. We believe that it is morally right for any individual, Muslim or non-Muslim, to alert the authorities about the activities and views of extremists of all stripes —be they far-right or Islamist — who condone, encourage or facilitate terrorism in Britain or abroad.

    4. Quilliam calls on Prevent practitioners, and ordinary British citizens, to share any evidence of mass spying on Muslims with us. If such concerns are well-founded, we will bring this to public attention and seek to hold the Government to account.

    I think all of that makes sense. All this hysteria about spying is frankly overblown, as if people were unaware it didn’t already happen to some extent.

                  Post to

    Filed in: Civil liberties,Current affairs,Religion

    26 Comments below   |  

    Reactions: Twitter, blogs
    1. Bob Connors

      #homeland Should intelligence services spy on Muslims?: … Muslims into spying for them. - violating ..

    2. Maajid Nawaz

      RT @pickledpolitics: New blog post: Should intelligence services spy on Muslims?

    1. Andrew — on 21st October, 2009 at 10:39 am  

      I’m uneasy about this, because once the authorities have a system in place, the principles can also be applied to other groups that the government has ‘problems’ with. One issue that needs to be addressed is this increasing overlap between ‘social cohesion’ and ‘PVE’ as they really ought to be separate. In any case, on my reading of PVE, isn’t ‘Pursue’ meant to cover intelligence and not ‘Prevent’?

    2. Tom Griffin — on 21st October, 2009 at 10:56 am  

      “And so an element of ’spying’ will be necessary. Then you need an honest debate on proportionality and check/balances.”

      To be honest, I think this is what the Guardian article is trying to do. Nobody is suggesting that genuine terrorists shouldn’t be monitored and reported to the police. Quilliam are setting up a straw man in that respect.

      I think Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Robert Lambert’s piece highlights a key issue:

      “Charles Moore and Dean Godson of Policy Exchange, have explained that this is a re-make of a 1980s Thatcherite counter-subversion strategy in which Husain is cast in the role of Frank Chapple the “moderate” trade union leader who was, they suggest, used to discredit and undermine the “extremist” miner’s trade union leader Arthur Scargill. Husain, they argue, can help defeat Altikriti, Bungalwala and their colleagues in the same way.”

      The current strategy repeats all the problems of the counter-subversion campaign against the left of the 1970s.

      That turned into a huge trawl with files on everyone from Patricia Hewitt to Peter Mandelson to the Prime Minister of the day. The spooks thought Harold Wilson was a communist then, today they think Jack Straw is too close to Hamas:

      Another thing that hasn’t changed is the habit of using ‘turned’ extremists, who are always highly beholden to their new masters, to keep tabs on people who were never extremists in the first place.

      Even MI5 now admit that the definition of left-wing subversion was too broad in the 1970s. Yet now we seem to to be moving towards a definition of Islamic extremism which encompasses everyone who won’t condemn Palestinian resistance to Israel. In the process, Al Qaeda itself is almost becoming an afterthought.

    3. Susie — on 21st October, 2009 at 11:39 am  

      What Prevent money did MCB get? I thought relations between the Home Office and MCB had soured so much by the time Prevent was launched that it didn’t get much, if any. In contrast to the generous govt funding MCB had earlier received.

    4. Susie — on 21st October, 2009 at 11:50 am  

      Another point is, how is ‘extremism’ to be defined and to be deemed ‘reportable’? Is someone who looks nostalgically back to the Caliphate, yet who would not endorse violence to try and restore it, an ‘extremist’, making reporting him or her to the authorities justifiable? Is someone who expresses support, perhaps qualified, for Hamas reportable? Quilliam’s point 2. is wide open to abuse, and could be used to settle scores, to silence troublesome but non-violent individuals, and to try to “get in with” the authorities for opportunistic reasons. It risks permanently placing ‘reported’ individuals on data bases, thereby blighting their long-term prospects (and we know the resistance there is from the authorities to removing people from a variety of data bases once they are on them). It’s not hysteria surely to worry tha the Quilliam four-point policy really does risk taking us towards a Stasi-type situation,

    5. Gerry — on 21st October, 2009 at 11:52 am  

      PLease make the effort to understand that Muslims respond well to the hand of
      friendship and assistance:

      See what I mean?

    6. cjcjc — on 21st October, 2009 at 12:09 pm  

      Is someone who looks nostalgically back to the Caliphate, yet who would not endorse violence to try and restore it, an ‘extremist’


    7. soru — on 21st October, 2009 at 1:14 pm  

      To be honest, I think this is what the Guardian article is trying to do.

      There was nothing remotely honest about what the Guardian was trying to do. Nobody realistically holds the position that terrorists should not be in any way monitored until they have actually detonated.

      So anyone pretending to do so can be assumed to have some other agenda. In the case of the Guardian, that’s unlikely to be actual support for bombing its readers, so it’s presumably the typical ‘which-agency-gets-the-grant’ squabbles.

    8. Paul — on 21st October, 2009 at 1:16 pm  

      Quilliam is of course itself involved in intelligence gathering: it is associated with a European ‘anti-radicalisation’ network known as RECORA. This is an EU-funded project aimed at establishing local intelligence units, inside local governments. In its own words:

      To be able to formulate adequate prevention strategies it is a sine qua non that the exchange of information is increased between local governments dealing with similar issues and between national security agencies and local governments, as these can provide the intelligence on where and how potential radicalists have been recruited within their communities in the past. This knowledge will enable local governments to target the parts of communities most vulnerable and address the underlying factors by formulating socio-economic policy, youth policy and education schedules.

      Quilliam’s representative on RECORA is Ghaffar Hussain. There is absolutely no doubt that Quilliam and its partners do collect information on Muslims, that this information is held secretly, and that there is no independent review of its accuracy. Information is collected on minors without informing their parents or guardians.

      It is also absolutely certain that some of the intelligence units established under RECORA collect information on non-Muslims, including left-wing and right-wing activists.

      Quilliam participates in programmes, as part of the RECORA project, aimed at training local government officials in political intelligence-gathering. That seems to be Gahffar Hussain’s main job.

      Although it is not secret, RECORA has, so far as I know, never attracted any media coverage.

    9. cjcjc — on 21st October, 2009 at 1:18 pm  

      that’s unlikely to be actual support for bombing its readers

      Probably not…though quite a few CiF writers are happy for “resistors” to bomb away overseas…

    10. Paul — on 21st October, 2009 at 2:00 pm  

      Although Quilliam tries to suggest in their statement that their intelligence-gathering is aimed at “Islamist extremists” the remit is broader. The PREVENT strategy is aimed at “individuals identified as radicalised or vulnerable to violent extremism” (page 12). You don’t have to be an Islamist to end up in their files, and you don’t have to be a Muslim.

      Quilliam are lying about the scope of their activities, there is absolutely no doubt about that. The local intelligence programs now appearing in several EU member states are a major new development. Possibly they are not even primarily directed at Islamic extremism, but represent a general devolution of intelligence-gathering to the local level. Given the apparent number of training sessions, and the stated aim to extend this activity to all local government units, there must be thousands of ‘informants’ by now.

    11. Sunny — on 21st October, 2009 at 3:41 pm  

      Tom - good points and I trust Dean Godson and Charles Moore as far as I can throw an elephant.

      And I acknowledge that point above.

      But I think there is a middle ground here. I don’t want to go as far as PX but I do think that a policy of no spying at all is silly.

    12. Gerry — on 21st October, 2009 at 4:03 pm  

      Dean Godson?

      Is he the Dean of Canterbury?

      Is he the Son of God?

    13. Gordon Bennett — on 21st October, 2009 at 4:13 pm  

      He is God.

    14. Tom Griffin — on 21st October, 2009 at 4:19 pm  

      I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting there should be no spying. I’m pretty sure that Robert Lambert isn’t given that he’s a former counter-terrorism officer.

      In suggesting that is the issue, Quilliam are setting up a straw man. It’s about a choice between focused counter-terrorism operations and a mass counter-subversion campaign that turns British Muslims as a whole into a suspect community. Prevent is specifically not targeted at people who represent an existing threat, otherwise it would be replicating the work of the security services.

      In my experience, Muslims don’t yet have the kind of taboos about co-operating with the police that existed in parts of the Irish community. Nothing is going to change that quicker than treating the whole community as potential subversives to be spied on and manipulated.

    15. Gerry — on 21st October, 2009 at 4:47 pm  

      Spying on Muslims?

      … from an upstairs window, no less!

    16. Gerry — on 21st October, 2009 at 4:48 pm  

      Was it the ‘Mail’ or the ‘Express’ which claimed that coppers-of-a-certain-origin were hopping off to Waziristan for a spot of extracurricular training?

    17. soru — on 21st October, 2009 at 5:18 pm  

      I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting there should be no spying. .

      Actually, that’s exactly what the original guardian article was strongly implying.

      The government programme aimed at preventing Muslims from being lured into violent extremism is being used to gather intelligence about innocent people who are not suspected of involvement in terrorism, the Guardian has learned.

      In a college in northern England, a student who attended a meeting about Gaza was reported by one lecturer as a potential extremist. He was found not to be.

      In order for the examples listed to be ‘an affront to civil liberties’, then anything other than ‘I think he has a bomb in his bag right now’ has to be too.

    18. Arun Kundnani — on 21st October, 2009 at 5:19 pm  

      In my Institute of Race Relations report Spooked: how not to prevent violent extremism, on which the Guardian story was in part based, I argue that the key issue in relation to Prevent and surveillance is whether teachers and youth workers should be expected to routinely provide information to the police about the religious and political opinions of young people whom they work with. In my view, to do so would go against professional norms of confidentiality and be counter-productive.

    19. Gerry — on 21st October, 2009 at 5:53 pm  

      A teensy

      weensy bit off-topic but of interest to a few readers

    20. Quillam — on 21st October, 2009 at 8:36 pm  

      The question to be asked is what are the motives of Quillam to back the governemnts policies on Muslims. Quillam is only interested in keeping its funding and therefore agrees to most government policies rather than challening them. The prevent strategy will only criminalise many innocent muslims. There must be a better way of keeping tabs on the nutters. Also remember not all practicing muslims are extremists even if they disagree with a number of government policies

    21. Yahya Birt — on 21st October, 2009 at 10:17 pm  

      Sorry for the plug but for those Picklers who are interested to hear more about these issues at greater length there’s a debate at City Circle this Friday with Arun Kundnani and Debbie Gupta, who heads up the Prevent agenda for the Home Office. Starts 6.45pm @ Abrar House 45 Crawford Place off the Edgware Rd.

      Details here:

    22. soru — on 21st October, 2009 at 10:52 pm  

      The above comments pretty much demonstrate the downside of the policy. If you switch funding from group B to group A because group A is more thoroughly hostile to terrorism, the supporters of group B will come up with scare stories as to how this will inevitably lead to mass detentions, arbitrary arrests, increased terrorism, and so forth.

      The danger is that some people may actually believe those stories, and so start out on the route which leads to a camp near the Pakistan border.

      Simplest solution is to give the only-somewhat-anti-terrorist groups lots of money too. Just make sure it is in the form of travel and research grants, not running youth groups.

    23. Andrew — on 22nd October, 2009 at 3:51 am  

      I don’t think most people object to intelligence-gathering - that’s what MI5 and Special Branch are for! But Prevent is not the right cover for it - this will just discredit many good anti-extremism programmes aimed at young Muslims.

    24. harbash — on 26th October, 2009 at 11:52 pm  

      “But back in the days so did the MCB. Lots of it. Why is that fact swept under the carpet? A lot of other good Muslim organisations also get Prevent money. ”

      Sunny, proof please?

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