UK counter terrorism aids far-right

Government-backed programme helps far-right by targeting innocent Muslims, expert says.

British far-right protestor
Report reveals that the civil liberties of British Muslims are being infringed by a government-backed programme [EPA]

Muted mainstream political reaction to recent reports by the Guardian newspaper and the Institute for Race Relations (IRR) concerning allegations of “violations of privacy and professional norms of confidentiality” in connection with the UK government’s Prevent (Preventing Violent Extremism) programme is revealing.

Politicians and commentators who have been falling over each other to express outrage against Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party (BNP), who appeared on the BBC’s flagship Question Time programme for the first time last week, have remained conspicuously silent on the important issues raised in the two reports.

Crucially the Guardian’s Vikram Dodd and IRR’s Arun Kundnani interviewed ordinary British Muslims in their research.

The concerns and fears expressed by these Muslims about the extent to which the Prevent programme might infringe Muslim civil liberties deserve to be taken seriously in Westminster.

However, it was not an issue deemed worthy for discussion on Question Time. Instead those British Muslim viewers already fearful of being stigmatised as a suspect community will have noted with concern how Griffin was constantly attacked by his Westminster co-panelists as a racist while his attacks on Islam and Muslims went largely unchallenged.

Rise of the right

This is significant. Griffin has successfully lifted the BNP from the political gutter by singling out Muslims for attack.

BNP leader Nick Griffin appeared on the BBC’s Question Time programme [GALLO/GETTY] 

His first publication on the topic pre-dates 9/11 and throughout the last decade he has maintained a steadfast campaign against Muslim targets.

While it is a tribute to the fairness of the overwhelming majority of British citizens that the BNP’s electoral successes have been as small as they have so far, it is to the shame of many in Westminster that they have provided much of the fuel for Griffin’s rise.

This is the same fuel first used by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, and George Bush, the former US president, to propel the war on terror.

At all points Griffin agrees with Blair that the suicide bomb attacks on 9/11 and 7/7, along with those attempts successfully thwarted by British security services and police, are motivated by an evil ideology inherent to what they both call radical Islam.

Both Griffin and Blair deny Muslims any political identity based on their religion and suggest that its removal is a key part of a strategy to tackle the root causes of the significant terrorist threat in Britain.

Inaccurate diagnosis

Blair’s legacy to his successor Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, was to extend this thinking into the Prevent programme. Thus the outstanding efforts of many grass roots Muslim community projects tackling al-Qaeda inspired propaganda and influence (both with and without Prevent funding) have always been at risk from Blair’s diagnosis of the problem.

The extent to which this inaccurate diagnosis impacts on Prevent was revealed in Ed Husain’s response to Vikram Dodd’s report.

As co-director of the Prevent-funded Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank, Husain argues that Prevent should target Muslims he describes as Islamists whether or not they are suspected of terrorism or violent extremism.

Such intrusion of civil liberties is warranted, he says, because his targets are extremists who “provide the mood music” for the 7/7 bombers and others who threaten the British public with violence.

Although there is no credible evidence to support this view it is one that Husain shares with influential think tanks including Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion in the UK and Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum in the US.

On this account, respected Muslim activists Inayat Bunglawala, the Muslim Council of Britain’s media secretary, and Anas Altikriti, the president of the Cordoba Foundation, are described as “extremists” and “subversives” who should be targeted and stigmatised in the same way as terrorists inspired or directed by al-Qaeda.

As Jonathan Githens-Mazer and I explain in a recent article in the Guardian, Husain has been cast in the role of a “moderate” to challenge Altikriti and Bunglawala, so-called extremist “Scargills of Islam” according to Charles Moore and Dean Godson of Policy Exchange in their re-make of 1980’s Thatcherite counter-subversion strategy.


Not only is this approach based on a false premise, it is also hugely detrimental to the original and stated purpose of Prevent – to empower communities to tackle violent extremist influence.

However, by funding Quilliam to work in Prevent the government has licensed a counter-subversion strategy that is antithetical to effective and legitimate community based approaches to counter terrorism. 

In contrast to Husain, many experienced Muslim community youth workers involved in Prevent have never been in any doubt that they do not spy on communities under any circumstances.

Unlike Husain they work at the sharp end and are clear that the only time they will divulge confidential client information to police or other Prevent partners is when they have reasonable suspicion of involvement in serious criminal activity.

As Kundnani explains, “it is right that channels should be made available for youth workers and teachers to provide information to the police if there are reasons to believe an individual is involved in criminality”.

That is a basic rule of youth work in inner city areas where Muslim youth workers adhere to the same ground rules that apply in a wide range of government funded programmes aimed at tackling gun, gang, drug and other kinds of street crime.

It would take more than a Prevent ‘Information Sharing Agreement’ to persuade an effective Muslim youth worker to abandon the golden rule of effective community engagement in dangerous environments.

It is one thing for Husain to justify spying on “radical” Muslims from the comfort of a Westminster office, quite another for Muslims working on dangerous streets to be wrongly smeared as “informers” when their integrity deserves to be bolstered not undermined.

Good Prevent work takes place on poor urban British streets every day. It helps reduce the influence of violent extremists.

However, it owes everything to the integrity of Muslim youth workers, police and local government officials who focus wholly on their original remit.

Their work is seriously undermined by government support for Quilliam and the counter subversion strategy it embodies.

Flawed argument

It is no small irony that one of the most successful community initiatives against violent extremism in “Londonistan” was undertaken by the very “Islamists” the Quilliam Foundation now targets as subversives.

I am one of a number of Metropolitan Police officers proud to have worked in partnership with Altikriti and his colleagues – Quilliam’s “Islamist subversives” – to rid the Finsbury Park mosque in North London of violent extremists in 2005.

Abu Hamza was the imam at Finsbury Park mosque[GALLO/GETTY]

The success in that case pre-dates Prevent and highlights another flaw in Husain’s argument. Abu Hamza, the former imam of Finsbury Park mosque, and other violent extremists associated with it have been convicted in British courts of violent, extremist hate crimes, including incitement to murder.

Rather than providing the “mood music” for these violent extremists, Altikriti and his colleagues publicly and consistently challenged their violent propaganda face-to-face and toe-to-toe.

As a result of their bravery and civic mindedness a once notorious centre of violent extremism is now a model mosque and a role model for Prevent projects.

Both my police experience and subsequent research work confirms that this success by the Finsbury Park mosque trustees against the violent extremism of Abu Hamza and his close associates was achieved without spying on or alienating local communities.

On the contrary it was achieved with their co-operation and the full support of local MP, Jeremy Corbyn, a respected champion of the rights of minority communities.

For Husain and Melanie Phillips, the author of Londonistan, this partnership represents everything that Prevent should not become.

There is a battle for the heart and soul of Prevent – broadly speaking, counter terrorism versus counter subversion – that Phyllis Starkey and her colleagues on the Select Committee for Communities and Local Government would do well to reflect on along with the specific findings contained in the Guardian and IRR reports.

Rather than provide more fuel for Griffin’s strident anti-Muslim hate-speech politicians from all mainstream parties should grasp the nettle and challenge Quilliam’s conflation of a significant security threat with their own ill-conceived and divisive role as counter subversives.

Robert Lambert is the co-director of the European Muslim Research Centre and is a member of the EC Expert Panel on Radicalisation. Prior to retiring from the Metropolitan Police in 2007, Robert was co-founder and head of the Muslim Contact Unit.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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Source: Al Jazeera