Mandelbrot set image very small
Serious writing for
serious readers
Follow @Mohammed_Amin
Join my
email list

Search this site

Custom Search
Mohammed Amin's website
Serious writing
for serious readers
Tap here for MENU

We all need to prevent violent extremism – nobody can stand idly by


3 April 2011

For some time, the Government has been reviewing its strategy for preventing violent extremism. Even before last year’s general election, there was a critical report on the “Preventing Violent Extremism” programme from the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, published on 16 March 2010. Including the submitted evidence it is 310 pages long, but well worth skimming through.

Two key speeches now give us a much clearer understanding of the new thinking.

David Cameron’s speech on 5 February 2011

Our Prime Minister David Cameron delivered an important speech setting out his view on radicalisation and Islamist extremism. It was given at the Munich Security Conference, and resulted in my first ever appearance on the BBC News Channel just after 1600 on that same day when I explained why I concurred with the speech.

The speech has been criticised by many Muslim organisations, in my view incorrectly. I recommend reading the full text linked above to reach your own conclusions.

In my view, the key points of the speech are as follows:

On the BBC News Channel, as one needs to be brief, I said that the speech could be summarised as “It’s the ideology, stupid!” paraphrasing Bill Clinton’s memorable reminder to himself during his 1992 presidential campaign.

“Islamist extremism” is a counterproductive term

While “Islamist extremism” is a convenient two word name for the ideology that threatens us, and is well understood in academic circles, I regard the name as politically counterproductive. Too many Muslims, and indeed non-Muslims fail to understand the distinction between “Islamism” and “Islam”. Accordingly use of the term can inflame anti-Muslim hatred as well as alienating many Muslims. I have previously made this point in my pieces Why we need to stop using the word “Islamism” and Time to retire Islamism?

A better term would be “the ideology that conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims is universal, unavoidable and permanent; that democracy has nothing to do with Islam; and that Muslims must re-establish a Caliphate to replace secular Muslim governments.” While this is much longer, it has the merit of being descriptive and not requiring a prior background in political theory.

However for consistency on this page I will also use David Cameron's phrase “Islamist extremism”.

Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones’s speech on 1 April 2011

She is the Minister of State for Security and Counter-terrorism at the Home Office, and therefore the responsible minister within the Government. She was speaking at the “Symposium: UK and U.S. Approaches in Countering Radicalization: Intelligence, Communities, and the Internet”which was co-sponsored by a trio comprising the Council on Foreign Relations, Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies and King's College London's International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

Her speech is available on video, and it is worth listening to both the speech and the question and answer session. The text of the speech is also now available.

As one would expect, Baroness Neville-Jones’s speech is consistent with the Prime Minister’s. Again, she drew a clear distinction between Islam and Islamist extremism. She pointed out that non-Muslims who ignore the distinction are helping Al Qaeda by spreading its message of unremitting hostility between Islam and non-Muslims.

But let me stress emphatically: this does not mean “tackling” the religion of Islam which is one of the great religions of the world.

Those on the right wing extremist fringe argue that is exactly what we should do.  But they have it wrong.  Those who say that the West and Islam are eternally irreconcilable have more in common with the Islamist extremists than they might like to think, for this is the very same argument advanced by Al Qa’ida. They have it quite wrong.  We need to work with mainstream Islam.

Moreover, the events of the last weeks in North Africa – in Tunisia, in Egypt and in Libya -have demonstrated that the populations of Muslim countries themselves see no incompatibility and that they crave the freedoms they see us in the West enjoying. That’s very important.  In our foreign and our domestic policies it should be a cardinal tenet that democratic freedoms and Islam are companions not opponents.

As the Prime Minister made clear in his recent speech at the Munich Security Conference– Islamist extremist ideology is the problem; Islam is not.

Baroness Neville-Jones explained the "Prevent" component of the Government's overall anti-terrorism strategy, and went on to discuss some of its failings under the previous government:

However, there is a however, the mistakes have however blotted out the progress made. There have been accusations of stigmatisation and of the police spying on Muslim communities, a perception lent false colour by the legitimate role of the police in personal interventions.  You can see how it easy it is, wilfully or not.

The result is this:  the government has also been accused of only being interested in British Muslims insofar as they represented a terrorist threat and that their mainstream needs like health, education and housing, were of no concern. Government, it was said, was “securitising” the government’s approach to Muslim communities. 

Prevent gradually lost the trust and goodwill of many in the very communities that it was designed to help.  More widely, Prevent was criticised for trying to do too many things at once, for wasting money and also for spending it on the wrong projects.

Compared with other part of our counter-terrorism strategy, it was clear to the incoming Coalition government that Prevent wasn’t working and could be improved.

The Government recognises that there is an integration challenge in the UK but Prevent cannot be the main tool for promoting integration:

Our first conclusion was that segregation of communities was becoming more pronounced and that Prevent was the wrong vehicle to counter this. Indeed, unless set in a wider policy context, special programmes are liable to have the effect opposite from that intended: far from uniting they isolate leading to the accusations of stigmatisation. We needed a unity strategy - a strategy for integration - in its own right, of which Prevent would be a component part rather than the other way round.

In his Munich speech in February, the Prime Minister said “we must build stronger societies and stronger identities at home”. He criticised past government policies of state multiculturalism which encouraged differentiation between communities instead, as we see the task, of actively fostering a sense of what we share and what we value. To give you an example of the kind of things we need to do. As part of the Big Society the government is introducing programmes like the National Citizen Service in which sixteen year olds from all backgrounds and walks of life spend two months living and working together. We want to create a vision of society to which all, including young Muslims, feel they want to belong and to participate in.

There is something here we can learn from America.

You have created in your country a palpable sense of national identity – an American dream to which all can aspire and an acceptance of immigrant communities as Americans.

It is the task of the British government to create a similar sense of shared identity in our country. We need this anyway and it stands independently of counterterrorism.

She explained that at the core of Prevent will be the three “I”s: ideology, institutions and individuals.

The speech is an important one which will repay careful reading as well as the time taken to watch the video.

The Channel programme

The Channel programme is often confused with government spying on British Muslim communities. It is actually quite different.

Almost a year after first reading it, I am still struck by the evidence from Sir Norman Bettison of the Association of Chief Police Officers on page EV 46 of the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee report mentioned above. The paragraph breaks have been inserted by me to make the record of Sir Norman's testimony easier to read.

Sir Norman Bettison: Can I start with a story about Hasib Hussain. Hasib Hussain was a young man, a third generation Leeds-born individual. He went through the school system. He was the son of a foundry worker. His three siblings have done very well. Hussain was doing a business diploma course at a local college. He was a model student at Matthew Murray School in East Leeds. He went on at the age of 18 to strap a rucksack to his back and blew up the number 30 bus that we have all seen in the scenes that followed the 07/07 bombings.

We started to unpick what was known about Hasib Hussain. He had never come to the notice of the police at any stage in his young life and therefore in terms of opportunities for the police to intervene to prevent what went on to occur, there were just no hooks there. However, what we did discover is that as a model student whilst at Matthew Murray School his exercise books were littered with references to Al-Qaeda, and the comments could not have been taken as other than supportive comments about Al-Qaeda. To write in one’s exercise book  is not criminal and would not come on the radar of the police, but the whole ethos, the heart of  Prevent is the question for me of whether someone in society might have thought it appropriate to  intervene.

What do I mean by intervention? I do not mean kicking his door down at 6 o’clock in the morning and hauling him before the magistrates. I mean should someone have challenged that? They are the sorts of cases that get referred through the Channel scheme. It is not a question of having a scheme and targeting it on individuals but having a scheme that is capable that has the facility to actually provide intervention opportunities that might be a precursor or it might be some way up-stream from somebody’s ideas and attitudes developing into violent extremism.

The key point here is that a successful intervention would have saved not just the lives of the people who Hasib Hussain killed; it would also have saved his own life. Muslims who care about vulnerable young people like Hasib Hussain need to identify friends and relatives who are at risk of radicalisation. Intervention can help them to re-integrate into society and get their careers and indeed lives back on track.

What you can do if you are a British Muslim

As David Cameron said, the threat of violent extremism comes from many sources. However as the greatest threat is from Islamist extremism, it is right to focus on that, though it would be incorrect to focus on it exclusively. Everyone has a role to play, but in this section for brevity I want to focus specifically on what British Muslims can do. I believe strongly that means thinking about what you as an individual can do, rather than thinking about what other people or organisations should do.

I have a short list of suggestions; once you start thinking about the subject, you will easily be able to add to this.

  1. Your vocabulary matters. It affects how others relate to you, but even more importantly it affects how you see the world. I talk about “our country” instead of talking about “Britain”; saying “Britain” implies that you are talking about a foreign place. Hence my deliberate use of the phrase “Our Prime Minister” earlier on. Use “we” to refer to all British people collectively, instead of using it to refer only to your ethnic or religious community. Many more examples will come to mind when you start thinking about your vocabulary.
  2. Challenge the extremists’ narrative whenever you hear or see it. 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. More subtly, they also leave out all of the many other cases when one group of people have treated another badly with Islam not being involved at all, such as the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, the Congolese civil war etc. They have a single narrative, of unremitting and unending hostility between non-Muslims and Muslims, and skip over all facts that they find inconvenient.
  3. Get involved in civil society. As a first step, join a political party for the reasons explained in The benefits and costs of joining a political party. If you are employed in a unionised workforce, join the union and become active in it. If you are professional such as an engineer, lawyer, accountant or doctor, become an active member of your professional body. If in business, join the local chamber of commerce. This is your country and these are your organisations; you should have a say in how they are run.
  4. Look for new experiences outside your ethnic or religious group. Get to know socially some Christians, atheists, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs etc. For example, my own horizons have been broadened by my involvement in the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. Looking at it from a religious perspective, Islam did not spread through sub-Saharan Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia or China because of Muslim armies; it spread by people seeing the example of how Muslims lived their lives. If all of your social interactions are only with other Muslims, you are denying non-Muslims the benefit of interacting with you. I regard that as failing in your duty as a Muslim.

While the above comments are aimed at British Muslims, most of them are equally applicable to non-Muslims.

The most important contribution non-Muslims can make is to avoid confusing Islam with Islamist extremism and then propagating anti-Muslim bigotry. Doing so plays into the hands of the extremists because it alienates many decent law abiding Muslims and can make it easier for the extremists to radicalise them.


The Disqus comments facility below allows you to comment on this page. Please respect others when commenting.
You can login using any of your Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or Disqus identities.
Even if you are not registered on any of these, you can still post a comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Previous comments

A comment on the above page was received via my blog. Following the introduction of Disqus comments, my blog has been discontinued so the comment is reproduced here with the permission of the author. If you wish to make further comments, please use the Disqus comments facility above.

davidbfpo says:
03/04/2011 at 21:59

In these straitened financial times the Prevent agenda (PVE) now appears to little more than a declaratory policy, with a few changes - to address more threats; it will have fewer partners, notably in the community and I fear little impact.

It has been made clear by universities that they are uncomfortable with PVE, when even a Vice Chancellor comments akin to ‘You are asking me to spy on my students’ and expect academic staff to co-operate.

If more is to be done in prisons one must ask what has been done to date and ICSR have published a report that refers in scathing terms to the British response.

Mosques are rarely seen nowadays as a venue for extremism, as radicalisation has moved to far more private venues; so what is the point of this? Building relationships with mosques takes time and can pay dividends.

What is missing in this ‘new’ strategy is actually having partners, in such places, both the people and institutions that want to cooperate. There are few signs that PVE has many non-state partners, indeed one observer has commented each time they have conducted research there are fewer ready to engage.

Given HMG is currently curtailing funding for many PVE schemes, notably for no longer acceptable partners (due to them being labelled non-violent extremists) I have serious doubts this is little more than a declaration from on high.


Follow @Mohammed_Amin

Tap for top of page