Friday, November 27, 2009

What kind of religion?

Large parts of the third generation are finding religion in a way that few predicted. Some have attempted to explain it all away as something foreign and dangerous. I have understood it as something familiar, once one gets behind the veneer of difference. Is it strange that spiritual discipline should be attractive to those who were raised in the same North that welcomed Methodism? Is marching for social justice so foreign in a place that gave rise to the labour movement? Is believing in more than the material really that problematic in ‘Wuthering Heights’ country? Behind the veneer of difference, therefore, is a familiarity that can become obvious to those who lend a listening ear to the souls that are discovering their religious selves.

Religion is here, not arriving from outside, but developing from within our own local traditions. But what kind of religion is it? I am struck by the Muslim capitalist spirit that is present in Bradford. It is a religious spirit that bases itself on moral chauvinism, prides itself on the show of external symbols of religiosity and is linked closely with a capitalist spirit that seeks to exhibit the trophies of success to all those who are also engaged in this game of mutual rivalry. They have become religious and financially successful. But how moral is this position on religion? Is this why the moral voice in the community is seldom heard and why many very wrong things continue to be tolerated in the name of a chauvinism that pretends that God does not see everything?

There is another way of being religious that is also emerging. It is value-driven. Shami Chakrabarti came to Bradford recently and she is admired by many in the Muslim community. She has spoken out on issues even though she is not from amongst us. Are our convictions like her’s or are they driven dare I ask by a selfish individualism or perhaps even a selfish communitarianism? As the Sufis say, people wrapped up in themselves make small packages.

There is another kind of religion that is becoming evident: it is one of integrity, dignity and service to others; it seeks the Divine Mercy while also recognising that it is perpetually under the scrutiny of the Divine Gaze. Religion is about worship, contemplation, prayer and remembrance. It is also about our relations with each other: family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and fellow city-dwellers. Does the Prophetic tradition on relationality – as this is how it could be described – encourage us to give or to take from others? The encouragement is to give to everyone, and continuously, because the consequence of possession (of time, wealth and health) is generosity, for those who understand the true nature of things. Hence, as the moral energy is gathered, so it should be distributed, if we are minded so. Wordsworth said, ‘Blessed are they who in the main, this faith even now do entertain’. It is time that we began to feel this.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Another big mistake by pursue

Yesterday, Greater Manchester Police released Shaykh Asif Hussain Farooqui after he had been arrested on counter-terrorism related offences the week before. Four others who were arrested at the same time have been charged. The police have been in their words investigating this case for the last fifteen months.

There is a lot of anger in the community about the arrest of the respected Sufi Shaykh. Years ago, when there was no prevent, and hardly any linkages between the community and the police - this kind of mistake could have been explained away. Today, when prevent is anywhere and everywhere, and there are hundreds of police officers employed to know about the community, how the police could have arrested the Shaykh is totally beyond me. That they spent fifteen months investigating this and then released him within seven days after searching his house just beggars belief. It confirms one of my greatest worries - that is there is too much focus including from the Muslim community on prevent and not enough on pursue.

From the policing perspective, the damage to the credibility of British counter-terrorism is immense. Some mistakes are just too big, and this is one of them. How are we supposed to take the pursue strand seriously? Let it be remembered that this is the same force that arrested the Pakistani students earlier this year.

Our problem as a community is that we react. Instead, we should be proactive and organised. We need to know:

Which officer was responsible for the decision to arrest the Shaykh. He has some serious explaining to do, on the very specific question of the arrest of the Shaykh himself - why was it necessary?

Who trains and has trained the counter-terrorism unit in North West (CTU NW)?

Which Muslims were responsible for advising on this arrest, if any?

How many Muslims do GMP or CTU NW employ or have in scrutiny positions?

If we wish to ensure that mistakes like this do not happen again, then we need to ask questions of those who are employed by us to protect us. Also worryingly, if the police are still arresting innocent good people then are they also missing the potential criminals?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Four Stages of Prevent

The Guardian's recent reporting of examples of bad practice in the implementation of prevent are currently being investigated by the Home Office. Before I write about what I consider to be the core problems at present, I'd like to provide some context.

There are four stages in the development of the prevent strategy as it is currently in place.

The first stage was pre-prevent, if you like. If we take 9/11 as the beginning (this could be disputed, because there was some activity in this area in the 90s), then there was a period which I find most astonishing upto July 7 2005 in which there was no prevent. There was a leaked memo from Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary of the time, to John Gieve, the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office at the time, in 2004 which gave indications of what prevent could look like in its embryonic stages.

The second stage began after the bombings in July 7 2005. This included the forming of seven working groups of Muslims that were called to advise the government in different areas including regeneration, youth, education, mosques, extremism, women and security and policing. Many recommendations were presented to government and some of them were taken up. The government was criticised for not taking up more of the recommendations, the response was that many of the recommendations could not be taken up by government because it remained for the community itself to take them up. A couple of succesful projects took off during this period including Radical Middle Way which was aiming to support the counter-radicalisation argument in the community.

The third stage was a response to the second stage. The problem with the second stage was that it involved activities at the national stage and there was not enough devolution of the prevent strategy to the local level, There needed to be productive partnerships at the local level for the prevent strategy to work thoroughly. Councils with large Muslim populations were therefore chosen and given small amounts of money in the first trial year to examine how this process would play out. The problem was that many councils were distant from their local Muslim communities and their youth, sometimes due to exclusion and sometimes due to history. The government decided to roll out a three year programme of funding for Muslim community groups to work together with the local councils on the prevent agenda.

This led on to the fourth stage. The police had a counter-terrorism remit which focused on the second strand of the contest strategy: the pursue strand which was about actually apprehending people who were about to commit terrorist attacks. It was about this time when counter-terrorism was refashioned with local counter-terrorism units and the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office being constituted (I'm still not sure whether this was not an elobarate form of musical chairs). The fourth stage of prevent involved the funding of prevent strands specifically in police forces, sometimes aligned with the neighbourhood policing agenda. This was announced by government at the time.

There are several problems with prevent at present. But perhaps before I proceed I should state my position on prevent as a whole. Is prevent necessary, that is, if Britain has a counter-terrorism strategy, then should it have a prevent aspect to this strategy which is specifically about positive linkages with the Muslim community? I think it should, indeed, it must. Otherwise contest is left to senior CT officials who tend to be Home Counties, Oxbridge and clueless. There needs to be a corrective element which adds to the strategy and comes from the Muslim community itself, at least in principle. I don't know if there remains a major terrorist threat to this country, but if there is, then the CT prevent strand must be Muslim-focused and inclusive. This is how most effective policy responses to social problems work.

About the problems. First of all, it is not clear to me whether the walls between the community aspect and the policing aspect are Chinese enough. If they are not, then this is a major problem. The cases referred to by the Guardian indicate that there are problems in this area. The key problem being that funding is being provided to community organisations who are then leant on to provide information for pursue.

Secondly, there is this whole problem of ensuring the the whole community is represented in the prevent strategy to reflect the diversity of the community. This mixes the objectives of prevent and dilutes the effectiveness of the strategy, as is happening in several projects. The only justification that I can think of for prevent money from a state perspective is if it leads to actually making Britian safer, but this requires some strong-mindedness from the officials. For example, a non-practising Muslim with hardly any activist history will simply not have any effect on deradicalisation of extremists, but a practising one can. But the government and officials are too worried of the Daily Mail factor and so instead are more willing to fund meaningless projects which help no-one except those that are funded. Here. the government should I think call Paul Dacre in and explain what this strategy is about, what they are doing and why and then ask for some slack from the Daily Mail in the interests of the security of the country.

The third problem is recognising the difference between community cohesion and prevent. One positive aspect of prevent has been that it has helped community cohesion in one way - there are many succesful projects - by linking up Muslim communities that were previously excluded from police services and local councils to those same bodies, by force. This has been attritional and many have resisted, but it has brought more co-operation and therefore more cohesion where it matters most, between officialdom and the local communities. Others (in the South) that previously had good relations were upset by stigma associated with prevent but the honesty of their convictions can be tested by looking to see how they have involved and employed Muslims throughout the rest of their organisations.

The fourth problem is Muslim involvement itself. This has been a big failure and the fact that there is this current attrition between the OSCT and the community and the fact that many Muslims have simply not cared enough about the recent reporting are indications of the distance that remains between officialdom and serious leadership in the community. This is a disaster and I can only put it down to cowardice on the part of officialdom - to take on characters who would have given them a hard time, but for a good purpose. Something to do with comfort zones? Does this explain why so many clearly dodgy characters are hanging around the prevent agenda?

The Tories have stated that they will keep with Contest but review Prevent. The DCLG select committee is also reviewing prevent. Is the community itself at a different place now than where it was five years ago? Is prevent as important now as it was then? Is something else required now? Could streamlining prevent (making it fit for purpose), ringfencing police involvement in prevent and mainstreaming Muslim community participation and involvement in public services a surer way to make this country safer?