Sunday, July 08, 2007

Reviewing the Prevent Agenda

How much progress has there been in the government's preventing extremism strategy (the hearts and minds strand of its counter-terrorism strategy) since last year?

The government departments that deal with counter-terrorism are the Home Office and the Department of Communities and Local Governement. The Home Office deals with the pursue strand and the DCLG deals with the prevent strand. I have written previously on what the government needs to do in this area and I would concur with those counter-terrorism experts that have suggested that one of the key planks of this strategy has to be 'draining the swamp'

This is where I think the government has over the last twelve to eighteen months really lost some ground. I feel and it certainly seems to be the case from people that I speak to that instead of draining the swamp, government actions have functioned to feed the swamp. A large part of this turn has come as a result of the government's response to the criticisms of their counter-terrorism strategy by journalists like John Ware and Martin Bright working for Panorama and the Observer respectively (Bright now writes for the New Statesman). Their argument has been that the government was in error when it tried to work with Islamist orgnisations or Islamist-inspired organisations like the MCB. Excerpts from interviews with MCB representatives were provided as evidence. This was followed last year by the creation of the Sufi Muslim Council and Ruth Kelly as the Minister responsible for this portfolio spoke at the launch. Ed Hussain's book 'The Islamist' has also suggested that the root cause of terrorism and hence responsibility lies with Islamist organisations. The main culprits are the Islamic Society of Britian, the Muslim Association of Britain and Hizb ut Tehrir according to him. Bright wrote recently that the government's preventing extremism strategy was 'sophisticated', alas, I think it is not sophisticated enough.

Word has got out that Tony McNulty, Minister responsible for Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office, held a meeting in which radicalisation was discussed and that Martin Bright, Shiv Malik (Bright junior) and Nick Cohen (? - he who still supports the Iraq war) were invited. Cohen recently wrote a piece for the Observer which is a good summary of his ignorance of the topic. Why senior civil servants who hold responsibility on such important matters decided to invite Cohen to such a meeting beggars belief and brings into question the competence and sincerity of their approach.

I wish to agree with the positive note that has been sounded about the government's approach to the attempted terrorist attacks of last week, but I wish to raise a large red flag about the preventing extremism strategy which is seriously floundering at present.

Perhaps the excuse is that this was a period of political instablity with no clear direction as everyone watched Blair's tortuously slow dance off the stage (there were no calls for 'encore') but nevertheless:

1. The 'Shared Futures' report: the report seems to be a revision of Cantle and an improvement, but Labour's journey from MacPherson through Cantle to Singh is a strange one. The composition of the commission raised some concerns. Two of the three Muslim members were Labour supporters (and the Tories may perhaps ask whether Labour was/is politicising the prevent agenda) but not representatives of faith organisations. Ramesh Kallidai represented Hindus on the commission. Kallidai's inclusion has been commented upon in the media (a response to the allegations is here). This commission was set up to deal with Muslim-related issues as one of its core concerns, indeed, it was announced after the July 7 bombings hence its composition was all the more perplexing. This point is perhaps not as important as others but it does raise some concerns.

2. Ruth Kelly attending the lauch of the Sufi Muslim Council was a big mistake. Practically the only succesful project post PET formation is the radical middle way. Even this project has struggled to maintian its credibility in the face of fierce criticism. But it has neverthless contributed to the preventing agenda. Its key argument was that scholars should be brought in to take on the legal justifications for terrorism.

TRANSLATION ALERT: Will people please stop referring to this as a theological problem? It is not a problem of aqeedah (theology) which only becomes an issue in relation to takfir. It is a problem of fiqh (law and legal justification) on the murder of innocent civilians. So will those so-called experts please stop referring to it as a theological problem - you are only revealing the extent of your expertise.

Now, where was I, yes, the radical middle way approach suggested that the scholars of traditional Islam should be brought in to counter the terrorist argument. This argument was taken up and developed into support for the Sufi Muslim Council. And this is a good example of how a good idea can be acted upon in a counter-productive way (this has happened repeatedly with the prevent strand and suggests that some of the senior civil servants don't understand the issues that they are dealing with). The problem with the Sufi Muslim Council and the government's immediate endorsement of it was that everyone saw it for what it was and still do and this has damaged the credibility of the prevent agenda enormously.

3. The third mistake is the attempt to mix the integration and terrorism arguments (Bright urges 'a sophisticated strategy that will help foster a progressive British Islam' - in my view this could lead to more radicalisation). We now have three sets amongst others of criminals: the July 7 bombers, the July 21 bombers and last week's bombers. Each bombing (or attempted bombing) has brought with it some rush towards theorisation. Initially Mipuri culture, Shiv Malik's recent thesis on marriage and frustration (I am so glad he is wrong) and now something to do with the NHS (moving from the terrorists are absent/hidden to the terrorists have authority over you). All of these are wrong and can't explain what takes people over the edge - and the answer to that question is simple, terrorists want to take revenge for the murders of others. The key thing to do is to drain the swamp.

But the preventing strand has not drained the swamp in the last year. It has instead fed the swamp.

One final point about the spinning. The spinning on this agenda is quite clear and it is also clear that the spinning is aimed for two audiences: the Muslim community and the white working classes (the only problem is that both communities read messages intended for the other community). This explains the spinning of the Shared Futures report and many other incidences. The Labour government does not wish to appear too friendly towards the Muslim community so it spins itself away from such outcomes. There is a lot to examine here but the spinning is not working either. There needs to be a serious review of the preventing extremism strand.