Comment by Inayat Bunglawala:
Calling time on Prevent
Has the era when all politically-engaged Muslims were seen as being on a conveyor belt to extremism ended?
For some time now it has been clear that the UK government's "preventing violent extremism
" strategy has been facing major difficulties. So the news this week that the government is seriously rethinking this area of counter-terrorism should be welcomed.
Set up in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, the programme initially started out with laudable aims. Its central principles included challenging violent extremist ideology and supporting mainstream voices; increasing the resilience of communities
to violent extremism and addressing the grievances that ideologues are exploiting.
However, in practice, under the guise of the programme, ministers at the communities and local department (CLG), including Ruth Kelly and her successor Hazel Blears, engaged in a rather ambitious bit of social engineering and began promoting and funding outfits which had little or no support among UK Muslims, including the Sufi Muslim Council
and the Quilliam Foundation
. Oddly enough, the views of the government and these new outfits concerning the "war on terror" were largely indistinguishable.
The result has, of course, been entirely predictable. The "prevent" agenda – one of the four strands in the government's overall strategy, the others being "pursue", "protect" and "prepare" – quickly lost the trust of UK Muslims and became widely discredited and ridiculed among UK Muslims as the "provoke" agenda.
The large amount of money – £45m over a three-year period – set aside for funding "preventing violent terrorism" initiatives among British Muslims also caused disquiet among some non-Muslim faith communities who believe the funds should be more evenly distributed.
At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that the UK is facing an extremist threat not just from groups inspired by al-Qaida. Senior police officers in the UK have been warning that far-right extremists
are planning a terrorist "spectacular" in a bid to further stoke up racial and religious tensions in Britain. Recent weeks have seen a number of openly anti-Muslim demonstrations organised by the English Defence League in Luton, Whitechapel and Birmingham, with more planned for the coming weeks.
There have also been some very worrying arson attacks on a number of mosques around the country in which mercifully no one to date has been killed, but senior British Muslims believe it is just a matter of time if things continue as they are.
(pdf) published by the New Local Government Network this week also advocates a revised governmental approach to challenging violent extremism. It argues that:
The recent election of two BNP representatives to the European parliament, as well as 55 local councillors around the country, underlines the fact that racial hatred and extremist ideology is not limited to any one faith or community. Animal rights activism, far-right extremists, anarchism and hate crime constitute a serious threat to the safety and security of our communities. Indeed, recent reports show that Scotland Yard has genuine fears of major right-wing terrorist attacks against Muslim communities.
It now appears that the government may agree with this analysis. Yesterday the Guardian reported
that John Denham, the new secretary of state at the communities and local government department, wants to see a policy shift away from defining the government's relationship with Muslim communities solely in terms of tackling extremism while also developing a more explicit strategy to resist white racist extremism. This should be applauded by all who desire to live in safer communities.
Unsurprisingly, John Denham and Shahid Malik – a junior minister CLG – have both come under fire as a result from the right-wing press who have accused them of "easing up" on al-Qaida inspired terrorism amid alleged fears of alienating Muslim voters.
More interesting is the criticism from Paul Richards, the former special adviser to Hazel Blears. Blears was widely despised in UK Muslim circles for her openly patronising and antagonistic approach towards mainstream Muslim organisations. Richards was quoted in the the Sun newspaper as saying: "The good work by Hazel is being undone in the name of political correctness."
This "good work" had in fact brought relations between the government and British Muslims to an all-time low. The Economist magazine analysed these relations earlier this year in an article
titled "Britain and its Muslims: How the government lost the plot." Not an ideal situation to be in when facing an al-Qaida inspired terror threat that openly seeks to recruit alienated youths.
In recent weeks, Richards has written two articles for the Jewish Chronicle in which he defended Blears's blinkered actions and warned
against the alleged threat posed by what he terms as "political Islam
" to democracy and to the UK Jewish community.
Richards's approach – to deliberately blur the distinction between peaceful Muslims engaged in legitimate, democratic political work and violent groups inspired by al-Qaida – was one actively promoted by neoconservative thinktanks like Policy Exchange and the inappropriately-named Centre for Social Cohesion. Expect more attacks on Denham and Malik if they continue along their new course.
It is a frankly McCarthyite approach that regards all politically engaged Muslims as being on a kind of conveyor belt whose end point is violent extremism. The more sensible strategy is surely to view UK Muslims as a valued and essential partner in working towards the goal of a safer and more secure Britain.
The benefits of such an approach were underlined just last month when a would-be bomber was successfully prosecuted and convicted
following a tip-off from the local Muslim community.
Inayat Bunglawala is an Advisor on Policy and Research at ENGAGE, an initiative designed to encourage British Muslims to interact more effectively in politics and the media in the UK.
He is also a spokesperson at the Muslim Council of Britain and a co-presenter of the weekly 'Politics and Media Show' on the Islam Channel. Inayat has been active in UK Islamic organisations since he joined The Young Muslims UK in 1987. He has written pieces about Islam and current affairs over the past few years for The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Daily Express, The Observer and The Sun.
In August 2005, Inayat was appointed by the Home Office as the Convenor of a working group on Tackling Extremism. He writes here in a personal capacity.