Extremism in the UK: PREVENT or Promote?

On the 13th May, David Cameron pledged to up the fight against radicalisation in the UK. His proposed measures, which had been blocked by the Liberal Democrats in the previous coalition government, will introduce banning orders for those using extremist and hateful language in public spaces. Bans would correspond to Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), with membership or funding to that group or individual becoming a criminal offence. Plans to tighten immigration and asylum rubrics, as well as powers to shut premises used or owned by extremists, were also clarified. In addition, the Charity Commission will be given more power to “root out charities who misappropriate funds towards extremism and terrorism”, and broadcast regulator Ofcom will be able to take action against channels broadcasting extremist content.

Image courtesy of Dan H, © 2011, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Dan H, © 2011, some rights reserved

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, demanded that the measures focus on “extremism of all sorts… seeking to promote hatred, seeking to divide our society, seeking to undermine the very values that make us a great country.” For too long, added Mr Cameron, has Britain been a “passively tolerant society” – extremist ideology must now be challenged.

These proposals do not, perhaps, come as much of a surprise. In September 2014, Theresa May stressed a need to review the compatibility of Shari’a courts in England and Wales. Fears over an apparent “Trojan Horse plot” also suggested radicalisation was occurring within the British schooling system (although a committee found only one incident in one school). Again, in March this year, Mrs May endorsed a “positive campaign to promote British values.” She pushed for a “significant increase” in funding for English language training services and aimed to establish “extremism officers” in prisons.

However, to assume that the Conservatives are the only force behind these policy changes would be wrong. Tony Blair cited similar measures following the 7/7 London attacks in which 52 were killed. More recently, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said that Mrs. May’s proposals were the “right ones” and needed to be backed by real policy. She added that Labour’s plans included a “major overhaul” of the current counter-terrorism strategy.

In practice, the government’s new proposals are expected to target individuals like radical Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary, a controversial figure currently on bail on suspicion of membership of a banned organisation. Choudary labelled the September 11th hijackers as “magnificent martyrs”, actively encourages Muslims to ambiguously “fulfil their Islamic duties” and, in 2006, claimed that the blame for the July 7th bombings lay with Tony Blair, who has “blood on his hands.” Accordingly, he argues that Drummer Lee Rigby’s murder was a result of British foreign policy. For him, a British passport represents no more than a “travel document.”

Even five years ago, Mr. Cameron said “Choudary is one of those people who needs to be looked at seriously in terms of legality”. More alarming, however, is the value of Choudary’s influence. He has had contact with up to 50 countries globally. Brandeis University estimates that “about a third” of Western Europeans going to fight in Iraq and Syria are connected to groups affiliated with Choudary. The ascendency of Norwegian group Prophets Umma exemplifies this trend. The group was “laughed at” before Choudary came to visit and advise on how the group could expand. Around 75 Norwegians have travelled to fight for the Islamic State, of whom 26 have returned. Many have strong ties with Prophets Umma.

But how have extremists like Anjem Choudary become so well established in the UK? And why are the two main British parties calling for new measures in addressing radicalisation and extremism?

Both of these dynamics strongly suggest that the current counter-radicalisation strategy, PREVENT, is failing. With an annual budget of £40m, the Prevent programme is one of four strands of CONTEST, the acronym given to the government’s multi-pronged counter-terrorism strategy. The other strands are Pursue, Prepare and Protect. Indeed, there have been steps in the right direction. Since 2011, over 75,000 pieces of “unlawful terrorist material” has been removed from the internet. Additionally, over 200,000 leaflets in five languages warning people not to travel to Syria have been distributed to over 250 mosques and 50 faith groups. Communications between the police and communities have also improved, and “potential incidents of terrorism have been stopped”. Yet Prevent appears far from perfect.

At least 700 people from the UK have travelled to support or fight for jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq with about half since returning to Britain. Twenty males and ten females are suspected of being there at present, and around 50 Britons in total have died in the conflict. Over 30 UK jihadists have come from London, and around 15 from Manchester. And yet, so far only 13 have been convicted of offences relating to the conflict. Six were convicted for preparing for acts of terrorism.

Government efforts are clearly failing to address the conditions encouraging Britons to travel and join the Islamic State. Indeed, part of Prevent’s remit includes the creation of alternative opportunities for the vulnerable as well as funding for community groups that seek to discourage extremism. Former MI5 Director General, Eliza Manningham-Buller, sums up pertinently: “[700] is a large number. If PREVENT had been working for the past 10 years, we might not have seen so many going.”

Not only is Prevent falling short of its objectives, some of its consequences may actually be promoting radicalisation by alienating Muslim communities. Aminul Hoque, an author on British Islamic identity, asserted “If the idea [of Prevent] was to understand the roots of extremism, the roots of radicalisation, by putting a magnifying glass across the Muslim communities of Great Britain, what has happened is that has widened the schism between the ‘Muslim’ us and the British ‘other’.” Polling data illustrates the impact, for example, of 200 surveillance cameras installed under ‘Project Champion’ in “targeted areas with significant Muslim populations.” These cameras reinforced notions of a “suspect community” and added to the “stigmatisation of Muslim communities.” Academic Robert Lambert similarly suggests that counter-radicalisation policies are habitually perceived as forwarding an anti-Islamic agenda. He notes that “unfocused, ineffective counter-terrorism policing consisting of unnecessary stop and searches risks creating suspect communities.”

Undoubtedly Prevent needs updating. But the Conservative’s new measures may not be the way to achieving better results. The BBC’s Mark Easton notes an inherent contradiction between banning orders and the core British value that one should be tolerant of different viewpoints – “extreme views are necessary to test the wisdom of the mainstream.” Problems defining extremism are also inevitable, and the security services may not simply have the capacity to monitor both dangerous people and all those with dangerous views. Jonathan Russell, from Quilliam Foundation think tank, argues that the measures will tackle symptoms, not causes. He added that banning orders may negatively alter the balance between national security and civil liberties. Chairman of the Muslim Forum think tank, Manzoor Moghal, expresses that “we might be walking into a police state” and furthermore maintains that Shari’a courts are fully compatible and subservient to British laws.

So what could really help Prevent tackle radicalisation? Dr Mathew Wilkinson, director of the think-tank Curriculum for Cohesion, believes part of the solution lies in better religious education. 89 per cent of young British Muslims see Islam as their main identifier and yet RE is their least popular subject. Filling this gap with better education may help deter extremist views from developing. Nazir Afzal, a former chief crown prosecutor, puts forward some lessons which could help produce a better strategy. Firstly, top-down schemes need to be replaced by ones based in the community. Women, who are key in providing pastoral care for vulnerable girls, should make up at least 25 per cent of these new ranks. Secondly, money and resources allocated by Prevent should be made available to grassroots activists, rather than for business plans to combat radicalism. Local organisations are often neglected in favour of groups that have the capacity, networks and organisation required to prepare business cases. Finally, Nazir emphasises the role of women who operate behind ‘closed doors’. The ability of women with considerable diplomatic and communicative skill to help prevent radicalisation in private spheres must be encouraged. Muslim women are far more successful in aiding the vulnerable than the police or a heavy-handed authoritative response – they represent role models which are only otherwise available through the media.

Lady Manningham-Buller neatly condenses the point: “counter-radicalisation has to be led by moderate Muslims rather than the state… I cannot see how legislation can really govern hearts, minds, and free speech.”

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