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Preventing people becoming terrorists


9 July 2011

Spying upon people planning terrorism, or arresting people after terrorist attacks have taken place can only be part of a counter-terrorism strategy. Even more important is the need to stop people wanting to become terrorists; that is the essence of the United Kingdom's "Prevent" strategy.

The prevent strategy has been controversial since it was first announced in 2003. As mentioned on my page "We all need to prevent violent extremism – nobody can stand idly by” the previous Labour Government's strategy was criticised in a Parliamentary committee report published in March 2010. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition has been reviewing the Prevent strategy since it came into power and on 7 June 2011 the Home Secretary Theresa May announced a revised version.

The government acknowledges that our country faces terrorist threats of many kinds. Northern Ireland-related terrorism led to over 3,500 deaths between 1969 and 1998 and some deaths are still occurring. There are 17 people serving prison sentences for terrorism related offences who are known associates of right wing groups. There have also been other types of terrorist groups. However the greatest danger we face comes from Al Qaeda, its affiliates and like-minded terrorist organisations inspired by violent Islamism. Of the 115 terrorist offenders currently in custody in England and Wales, 79 are associated with these groups. Accordingly most, but not all, of the Prevent review has focused on this most serious threat.

As soon as the revised Prevent strategy was announced, and in some cases even before it was announced, Muslim organisations have been queuing up to criticise it. One of the few organisations to say something positive has been the Conservative Muslim Forum.

What seems to attract the greatest criticism is the idea that the terrorists concerned have an ideology and that other extremists who share part or all of that ideology cannot be used to dissuade would-be terrorists. A recurring theme in the criticism is the so-called "Conveyor belt" theory; a straw man which is easy to knock down. Essentially the critics claim that the government is asserting that every Muslim who has extremist views will automatically become a terrorist and then proceed to demonstrate that is not the case. However the Prevent strategy document never asserts that all extremists must automatically become terrorists.

What the Prevent Strategy document does do is to explain what has been learned about how individuals are radicalised into becoming terrorists. At the heart of the radicalisation process is Al Qaeda's ideology, as summarised in paragraph 8.11 of the main document:

The ideology associated with Al Qa'ida and like-minded groups proposes that most governments in Muslim majority countries are 'un-Islamic' or 'apostate'. It calls for their overthrow by jihad and for the imposition of new governments, (and ultimately a pan-Islamic Caliphate) based on a very specific interpretation of Islamic law. The ideology claims that these 'apostate' regimes have been supported and in some cases occupied by western states that are waging a war on Islam. It proposes that violent jihad and terrorism against these states are not only legitimate but a religious duty. It makes no distinction between civilian and military targets.

There is extensive research quoted in the strategy review which demonstrates that many of the people who become terrorists are first influenced by extremist groups. While respecting the right to free speech, the Government will challenge the ideology of extremist organisations, and will ensure that it does not inadvertently give them any funding. As a departure from previous practice, it does not regard it as sensible to try to use "non-violent extremists" to prevent people becoming terrorists. Extremists are defined for this purpose as people who do not subscribe to mainstream British values, which are set out explicitly in paragraph 6.60:

We are concerned that insufficient attention has been paid to whether these organisations comprehensively subscribe to what we would consider to be mainstream British values: democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind.

The other complaint from many Muslim organisations is that the Prevent strategy stigmatises British Muslims. The government is acutely aware of this risk and the documents make it clear that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims do not support terrorism. The review criticises the implementation of Prevent under the previous government, as many aspects of the implementation could be taken as stigmatising the Muslim community. The need to avoid this comes out strongly in the Equality Impact Assessment which states:

When respondents were asked whether the proposed strategy would have a negative impact on religion/belief, the majority of respondents (59%) answered yes – the strategy would have a negative impact on religion/belief.

This category is the strongest area whereby online respondents envisaged a negative impact of the strategy.

When asked whether the proposed strategy would have a positive impact on religion/belief, the majority (57%) answered no – the strategy would not have a positive impact on religion/belief.

The main theme dominating the online comments in terms of perceived negative impact of the Prevent strategy on race/religion/ belief, was that the previous Prevent strategy was too Islam focused and only aimed at Muslims. Respondents felt strongly that the focus on Al Qa'ida-influenced terrorism had led to the stigmatising and stereotyping of Muslims, especially those of South Asian (e.g. Pakistani), Middle Eastern and African descent.

I recently wrote a short article on the Conservative Home website on this subject. The full text is reproduced below but it is worthwhile reading the original on Conservative home in order to see the reader comments received. The article was limited to about 800 words and therefore had to be very concise.

Why the Muslim organisations that criticise the Prevent Review are wrong

Since Theresa May’s announcement of the revised Prevent strategy, Muslim organisations and “community leaders” have, sadly but predictably, been queuing up to criticise it. As a contrast, the Conservative Muslim Forum’s published view is summarised in its last sentence “The CMF considers that the review will considerably improve the Prevent programme, will do what it can to assist the Government, and calls upon all British citizens to do the same.”

It’s the ideology, stupid!

While the occasional demented individual wants to set off an explosion for fun, every terrorist organisation that I am aware of has believed in something, and has justified its murderous activities by an ideology articulated as best it can. Accordingly, I am deeply disappointed that many Muslim organisations deny that the Al Qaeda-linked terrorists who threaten us have an ideology. Such denial makes it impossible for such Muslim organisations to rebut the ideology. How can you rebut something whose very existence you deny? Instead, these Muslim organisations wrongly place the entire blame for terrorism on British and American foreign policy.

Every terrorist group has had fellow travelers, who believe in the same ideology but have no active terrorist involvement. Believing something has never been a crime in Britain, but such fellow believers are the easiest people to recruit into active terrorism; even when not recruited they provide intellectual and emotional support to the terrorists. Therefore the ideology of Al Qaeda must be countered in parallel with counter-terrorist security measures.

Foreign policy also matters

Conversely, there are a few politicians who make equally incredible claims from a different position. I will never forget Prime Minister Tony Blair looking straight into the camera and stating flatly that British foreign policy made no difference to the level of the terrorist threat. Any residual credibility he had was lost at that point, with me and I suspect with most of the population, since we all knew that the security services had warned him otherwise before the invasion of Iraq.

The intellectually honest position is to accept that our foreign policy may either increase or reduce the risk of terrorism, but that Britain will never make the risk of increasing terrorism the sole determinant of our foreign policy.

What all of us need to do

The Prevent strategy document details the ideology that underlies Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Our actions and words can either strengthen that ideology’s appeal to British Muslims, or they can weaken and indeed eliminate its appeal.

There is a long list of things British Muslims can do: here are just three examples:

  1. Becoming personally successful directly refutes the narrative that Britain is at war with Islam and oppresses Muslims. Every British Muslim millionaire, elected politician, academic or professional helps to counter that lie, simply by existing.
  2. Challenging the extremists’ narrative whenever it is encountered. Islamist extremists paint a picture of unremitting “Western” hostility to Islam and Muslims, listing such issues as Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, the Iraq war, the Afghan war, etc. However, they conveniently leave out cases where British, French or American armed forces have saved Muslim lives such as ending the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, or the current intervention in Libya. Whenever anyone is spouting this nonsense, sensible Muslims should speak up and point out the extremists’ deliberate distortions.
  3. Using vocabulary which counters the language of division that Al Qaeda promotes. The words you use affect how you see the world. I refer to “our country” instead of talking about “Britain”; saying “Britain” implies that you are talking about a foreign place. Muslims should use “we” to refer to all British people collectively; other words should be used when referring to their particular ethnic or religious community, such as “British Muslims of Pakistani descent".

The 96% of the British population that is not Muslim also has a key role to play in countering the Al Qaeda narrative of permanent hostility between Muslims and non-Muslims.

The starting point is to avoid strengthening the narrative, applying the adage “Before opening mouth, engage brain!” For example Philip Hollobone’s Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill might as well have been sponsored by Al Qaeda, given the damage it would do to our country if it ever got anywhere near the statute book.

More positively, it helps to learn something about Islam from reliable sources instead of tabloid newspapers. If you are afraid you might end up reading propaganda by Muslims, I recommend “Islam – Past, Present & Future” by Hans Kung, a 700-page book by one of the world’s leading Roman Catholic theologians. If that is too much knowledge, I have written a ten page introduction to Islam for non-Muslims.   You will then be well placed to remind everyone you meet that Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship the same God, and agree about Him far more than they disagree.


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