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Tuesday, June 07, 2011 

Radicalisation and the ideologues.

It's Tuesday, which means it must be time for another government review to publish its findings. Having yesterday demonstrated muddled thinking and a complete unwillingness to confront the real fundamental problem when it comes to the supposed commercialisation and sexualisation of children, so today we have a report on the Prevent strategy of countering radicalisation which demonstrates muddled thinking as well as an apparent determination to potentially make things much worse.

For this we have the prime minister to principally thank. Where Tony Blair once told the country that the rules of the game were changing, and the prospect of 90 days detention without charge followed shortly after, David Cameron back in February in Munich of all places informed the nation that the time had come for a muscular espousal of our values. In what was meant to be a speech on terrorism he decided the time was right to pronounce on both integration and the failure of "state multiculturalism", when even if the issues are hardly mutually exclusive he had not even begun to exercise the proper level of caution before making sweeping statements of fact. His key new point was that no longer would the government tolerate organisations which hold "extremist" points of view being either funded by the state (which they weren't in the first place) or consider them as useful in combating extremism. Why, you wouldn't expect a fascist political party to help in steering followers away from a violent white supremacist grouping. Why should it be the same when it comes to groups with an adherence to Islamism?

Two months in to a consultation exercise then and the findings of the review had already been set out. As well as being heavily influenced by the personal biases of Michael Gove, he of such remainders as Celsius 7/7, along with Policy Exchange, they of such fine reports as the one which was undermined somewhat by the forging of receipts from mosque bookshops, it also draws heavily from the work of the Quilliam Foundation, the counter-extremism think-tank which is err, mainly funded out of the Prevent budget, and has, err, Michael Gove on its non-executive advisory board. Having started out promisingly, the think-tank has since settled on a course of annoying almost every other Muslim organisation it's come into any sort of contact with, and last year singled out a good number of them as being the kind the government should have little or nothing to do with, among them the Muslim Safety Forum, a grouping which has been praised for its work with the police in helping to understand the concerns of the community.

Not that this closeness has stopped Quilliam from today being highly critical of the end result. The criticism is also rather rich, and more than a little self-contradictory: having previously set out in a secret document which Muslim organisations had extremist leanings, it now finds that Prevent's definition of what Islamism is is flawed. To quote from their press release (PDF):

The Prevent strategy’s definition of Islamism as ‘a philosophy which, in the broadest sense, promotes the application of Islamic values to modern government’ shows a complete misunderstanding of the nature of Islamism and why it is problematic. This current definition downplays the negative aspects of Islamism and ignores the fact that most non-Islamist Muslims also believe in combining Islamic values and modern government. The Prevent strategy’s definition therefore risks smearing ordinary, non-Islamist Muslims as Islamists and thus falsely identifying them as being part of the problem while also implying that Islamism is one of the aspirations of every Muslim.

Yes, smearing ordinary, non-Islamist Muslims as Islamists is something Quilliam would never do, would it? The point however is a sound one, even it comes from those with plenty of baggage. For however much we want to espouse and define ourselves by our values, it's those very values that those at risk of radicalisation and turning to terrorism are either unmoved by or are actively opposed to: the best hope of turning them away from such a path isn't to imply that the entirety of Islamic-influenced political thinking is reactionary and opposed to Western values, especially when much of it isn't, but for such ideology to be recognised as perfectly legitimate. This is exactly why Cameron's analogy of not relying on fascists to be part of the solution to violent white nationalism is so fatuous: those inclined towards Islamism are not going to be suddenly converted to the joys of Western democracy as it stands overnight. Moreover, if we regard the likes of Hizb-ut-Tahrir or the remnants of al-Muhajiroun to be stepping stones towards full on radicalisation in the takfirist jihadist mould, shouldn't we also consider that Islamist groupings opposed to violence but not able to pass the new "extremism" test are viable steps on the road to recovery?

Quilliam is also, notably, critical of the new definition of "extremism" as laid out in the new Prevent strategy, this time for the reason that it isn't tight enough to contain all the awful Islamist groups:

For instance, the definition’s description of extremism as being opposition to ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual tolerance’ is far too open to interpretation. For instance this overlooks that both far-right and Islamist extremists are authoritarians who want more ‘rule of law’ rather than less.

This is besides the fact that governments themselves often have a rather hazy concept of the rule of law and individual liberty. The last one certainly did, whether it was ordering the end of an investigation into corruption or deciding that the threat to the country post-9/11 was so massive that it meant foreign nationals could be detained indefinitely without charge.

It is that threat after all that this entire document is meant to be about thwarting. Just how serious is the threat, though? There hasn't been a major terrorist plot in this country prevented now since the "liquid bombs" ring was broken up, and to tempt fate, there's no sign of one on the horizon. Yes, the threat remains at severe as we are endlessly informed, yet for the most part the last few years have seen the rise of the "lone wolf" attackers, operating alone or with minimal if any contact with the base organisations overseas. Just how these individuals can be prevented from becoming so disillusioned with society that they feel impelled to attack it is almost impossible to prescribe, and this document doesn't really even begin to provide any answers. Yes, some vulnerable individuals have been identified through the Channel programme, along with dozens of others it's reasonable to surmise who had nothing other than temporary interest in the subject of jihadism. Much depends then on the groups the strategy seems intent on all but proscribing at worst and dismissing at best.

This isn't to suggest that all of the changes to the strategy are bad: belatedly it's been decided that it will cover not just Islamist extremism but also what it terms as "Northern Ireland-related terrorism", as well as extreme right-wing ideology, although it massively plays the latter down, something that seems curious when it's the radicals of the English Defence League that currently pose the biggest threat to community cohesion. It's also discarded the previous combination of work on integration along with tackling radicalisation, something that David Cameron could have learned from. So much else though is either counter-productive or worrying: the document applauds the "No Platform" stance of the National Union of Students, something that continues to shut down debate, while urging universities to keep closer tabs on their charges, even if it doesn't say so in as many words. The section on the internet also appears to suggest that the Internet Watch Foundation's role in blocking "extremist" content will be stepped up, as if its completely unaccountable work wasn't already raising more than legitimate concerns.

Counter-terrorism policy is far too important to be left to ideologues, as we saw under the last government. Instead what works has to be prioritised, however much that potentially offends our political sensibilities. For all the nonsense spoken today about "extremist" organisations being funded out of the public purse, the review itself fails to name a single one which was, only saying that groups it would now define as "extremist" had previously picked up public funds. It might well have been some of those small organisations that helped those on the path to outright radicalisation to step back and reconsider; after all, there were no successful attacks over the period it was in operation. We'll have to wait and see if that remains the case in the years to come.

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