The release of the British Prime Minister’s Task Force Report on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism recently is another flawed response to serious social problems. The recommendations from the government’s latest policy thought experiment do little to offer fresh thinking on how to address the issues of radicalisation among members of the Muslim community and the growing extreme right-wing activism. It also perpetuates simplistic “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” dichotomies.
The on-going Woolwich trial for the horrific murder of soldier Lee Rigby underlies the timing of the publication. Though it makes a reference to “tackling Islamophobia and neo-Nazism”, there are no specific proposals to counter terrorist acts against Muslims by fascist and white supremacist groups. Instead, the entire document pathologises a “Muslim problem”, by focusing on new measures directed at Muslims, madrasahs, mosques and more problematically, blames an undefined “distorted interpretation of Islam”.
Continuing in the spirit of the discredited “Prevent” policy, which helped to create a “suspect community” out of British Muslims, and wasted large amounts of public money, this curious amalgam of generalisations and unsupported claims, advocates a set of recommendations that make little sense. It defines extremism as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”, which also includes any “calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas”. While most people would support these ideals, the gaps between rhetoric and reality often remain un-bridged, particularly for those on the receiving end of miscarriages of justice, curtailed civil liberties and violent intolerance towards societal diversity.
With on-going Western military interventions and extra-judicial drone killings in places such as Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is it surprising that many Muslims feel aggrieved?
The report goes on to identify the enemy as “an ideology which is based on a distorted interpretation of Islam, which betrays Islam’s peaceful principles”, and singles out the “teachings of the likes of Sayyid Qutb” and “Islamist extremists (who) deem Western intervention in Muslim-majority countries as a ‘war on Islam’, creating a narrative of ‘them’ and ‘us’, and ‘seek to impose a global Islamic state governed by their interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) as state law'”.
The mistaken premise of this contamination model is that violent extremist radicalisation is only caused when people are exposed to radicalised individuals manipulating the sacred texts of Islam. This idea contradicts the analysis of several international security and intelligence agencies and even the former head of MI5, all of whom agree that British foreign policy is the primary driver in Muslim radicalisation. Though Sayyid Qutb, a complex and controversial figure in jihadist thought, has, in the past, been invoked by certain hardliners, contemporary British Muslim fundamentalist groups are more likely to be inspired by the speeches of preacher Anwar al-Awlaki – who was assassinated by the US government, repressive Muslim-regimes, and the promise of spiritual rewards of going on so-called “Jihadi Tourism” in war zones like Syria. People have already begun to ask if university libraries, bookshops, and individuals will now be prosecuted for possessing texts written by Qutb.
The report promises to “continue to protect the right to freedom of expression” – but threatens to criminalise certain forms of political dissent and unpalatable conservative religious views. With on-going Western military interventions and extra-judicial drone killings in places such as Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is it surprising that many Muslims feel aggrieved? Will speaking out against these actions automatically constitute anti-Westernism?
There remains a lingering perception that the police and the government have unfairly targeted Muslim communities, with excessive stop and search tactics, high profile dawn raids, pre-charge detentions, unnecessary surveillance such as the “spy-cam” saga in Birmingham, and more recent events, such as stripping certain Muslims of their citizenship and arbitrarily banning speakers from entering the UK. While the number of street-level attacks is increasing against Muslim communities and religious prejudice is rising in online spaces and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, very little has been done by the Home Office and The Association of Chief Police Officers to deal with anti-Muslim hate crimes.
To tackle the problem, it proposes a set of measures to disrupt and counter extremist narratives and prevent radicalisation from occurring on the internet, communities and public institutions. Many British Muslims and terrorism experts have commented that the idea of the state or police arbitrating a theological “distortion” is not only patronising, but also unrealistic. Attempts to tailor a government-friendly depoliticised Islam, will only make it more difficult to cultivate trust and cooperation with Muslim communities. In any case, who would define an acceptable Islam? Surely not the almost entirely non-Muslim cabinet level politicians that made up the task force? No mention is made of the spectrum of Muslim institutions that could have been consulted on these policy ideas, perhaps because their input was not desired or maybe they refused?
Other key recommendations include ASBO-like, Terror and Extremist Behaviour Disorders, and government pledges to “support projects that demonstrate how communities come together”, and “give more support to those places which face the biggest integration challenges”. How are these objectives going to be met? Will there be new investment? If so, is there going be greater accountability for how funding is spent? Perhaps communities at risk such as those with high levels of EDL membership will be encouraged to integrate with Muslim communities? Full of opaque policy prescriptions, many of which would be difficult to implement, this nine-page report raises more questions than answers, inspires little hope for achieving its objective, and inadvertently increases the potential for Islamophobia.
Dr Sadek Hamid is a British Academy Fellow at Liverpool Hope University, UK and writes on issues related to young people, religious activism and radicalisation in British Muslim communities. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Sufis, Salafis & Islamists: The Contested Ground of British Islamic Activism”.
Follow him on Twitter: @SadekHamid