by Sufyan Ismail
With extremism in our midst, David Cameron unveils a 5-year plan, with four planks, to tackle one major extremism threat.
David Cameron’s speech on his 5-year plan to tackle extremism covered a huge amount of ground to say the least. From parents cancelling children’s passports to Cameron financing his brand of ‘good Muslims’, it was all on show today.
So what’s my take?, well the good, bad and pretty ugly are all in here. Let’s start with the good:
British Muslims travelling to Syria to fight for ISIL is undoubtedly a detestable problem; lets be clear, nobody likes ISIL, their philosophy or methods, and on countless occasions Muslims like myself have condemned them. So a genuine desire by the PM (and I believe it is genuine) to tackle the problem head-on is heartwarming. Equally encouraging is the PM’s description of Islamophobia as “sickening” alongside the numerous references to the sickening far-right. Some might, (rather justifiably), say talk is cheap, what has he done to tackle Islamophobia? The Tories pre-election promise to ensure Islamophobia is recorded as a separate category of crime by police forces in England and Wales (similar to racism and anti-semitism currently), has yet to materialize. Equally powerful is the accusation pertaining to the far-right with justified accusations that the Tory government and PREVENT policy has done precious little to tackle the threat of far right extremism and the radicalisation of young people safeguarding them from white supremacist ideologies; verbal condemnation is never enough. For now though, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume ‘intention is the first step to action’.
So now the bad and as the old saying goes, ‘if you start off in the wrong place you will almost certainly end up in the wrong place’. Cameron has a fixation with “ideology” being the primary (arguably even sole) driver of radicalization. This is deeply troubling when empirical analysis tells such a different story.
The Guardian yesterday published an article by Professor Andrew Silke, an academic and advisor to the OSCT on counter-extremism. Silke argued that factors driving individuals to extremism was not ideology but “identity issues”.
Silke said the government’s Prevent strategy for tackling terrorism was too focused on extremism with no research to back up such an approach.
Silke wrote: “This theme of fighting on behalf of others and in reaction to the suffering of others … recurs frequently in accounts of the personal motivation of individual terrorists.”
This is, of course, not just the view of Professor Silke but that of renowned academics, such as Professor Marc Sageman, and the many other academics who signed an open letter last week in a major national newspaper calling on the Government to recognise its Prevent policy failure and set about a strategy based on dialogue with Muslim communities.
Equally important is the anecdotal evidence derived from the mass of British Muslims who also feel ideology is just one (less significant) factor amongst many others causing radicalization. And if the PM wants to “empower” moderate voices among British Muslims, he should acknowledge that the majority of Muslims are moderates, not the few as is mistakenly trumpeted by interest groups who have made a cash cow of “counter extremism”.
One of Cameron’s planks is “identity” and while he posits the appeal of ISIL to young minds who lack a “sense of belonging” to Britain, he does not unpack why young Muslims may be acutely affected by alienation and a lack of attachment to the UK. The lived experience of Muslims looks something like this: –
- Rising Islamophobia in Britain – Data published by the Metropolitan Police coupled with FOIs submitted by MEND (Muslim engagement and Development) detailing the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes year on year show that Islamophobia is rising. Something must be done to curb this trend and police recording Islamophobic hate crimes is one advance but not near enough.
- Deeply negative press coverage on British Muslims – An academic study by Lancaster University shows that for every one mention of “moderate” Muslims in the British Press, there are 21 mentions of “extremist” Muslims. This tendency for disproportionate negative coverage of Islam and Muslims has a corrosive effect on British Muslims and their treatment by wider society.
- Employment discrimination – The ‘double ethnic penalty’ faced by Muslim communities has been policy knowledge for over a decade and despite newer research cementing evidence of the level of employment discrimination faced by British Muslims, the highest of all minority groups, we have seen next to no policy interventions to address the issue. The Tory manifesto paid reference to making the labour market “more inclusive” but said nothing about the worst affected group: Muslims.
- Inconsistency in the incitement to Race and Religious Hatred law – The burden of proof required to prosecute incitement to racial hatred crimes, covering communities such as Sikhs, Blacks and Jews, is far lower than the threshold required for incitement to religious hatred which is virtually unworkable due to the ‘burden of proof’ required (proof of intent). Suffice to say that since the law has been in existence, not a single offence has been successfully prosecuted under the religious incitement provisions.
- Foreign policy – what Cameron called “grievance justifications” are more than grievances and certainly warrant serious attention given the evidence base of its being an important causal factor. No less than the former head of the security services, Dame Eliza Manningham Buller has spoken about the impact of the Iraq war on radicalising young Muslims.
- A lack of proactive engagement by Muslims with non-Muslims – Yes, I firmly believe this to be true. Successive studies show that non-Muslims who have come into contact with Muslims tend to have a better opinion of Islam and Muslims. Muslims definitely need to do more to cultivate ties of friendship.
So with the best will in the world, which I don’t deny Cameron has, you can’t solve a problem without diagnosing it correctly in the first place. Factors such as Islamophobic attacks, discrimination in employment, relentless stereotyping and sensationalizing of Muslims in sections of the British press, and of course foreign policy, all play a role here.
Before I offer concluding remarks, I want to touch on the ugly in Cameron’s speech and there certainly was some of it.
Trojan Horse (Hoax) – Cameron reiterated the fictitious Trojan Horse plot (or as I may put it Trojan ‘Hoax’ plot). When theParliamentary Education Committee concluded that with “the exception of one isolated incident in one school, there was no plot”, what on earth is the PM doing reiterating this nonsense? It’s shocking to find a false premise reiterated to justify interventions of the sort proposed in yesterday’s speech. Policy based on no evidence base is not just bad policy, it is bad reasoning.
Attacks on NUS and Muslim organisations – This was really underhanded I felt and not befitting a Prime Minister. In fact I’m trying to remember the last time any PM stooped this low and publicly had a pop at an organization like the NUS. It just doesn’t feel right. He attacked the NUS for ‘allying itself with CAGE’ and then criticised CAGE for the ‘Jihadi John’ saga. I’ll let CAGE defend themselves on the Jihadi John front but if the PM was going to attack the NUS for allying with CAGE then surely he should have balanced his analysis by praising the NUS for its sterling work in exposing the Henry Jackson Society’s erroneously named ‘Student Rights’ organization which the NUS concluded was a ‘anti-Islam’ organization, stating “Student Rights are not a legitimate organisation, with a total lack of transparency and have been the source of many sensationalist stories demonising Muslims”.
The PM derided the NUS for not living up to its history of championing good causes – well, exposing Student Rights was the NUS acting at its best so credit where credit is due.
Good Muslims, Bad Muslim – If the PM and his advisory team had started off in the right place, then playing the ‘good muslim, bad muslim’ game is not a bad idea. But if your calibration is deeply deviated from the start and diametrically divergent to empirical evidence, academic analysis and Muslim community experience, then not only are you unlikely to achieve your overall objective of reducing extremism but in truth you could wind up being totally counter-productive and defeating your own cause. As Cameron is obsessed with ideology, irrespective of any proof to back this approach (and worse still so much academic research pointing to the contrary), he is playing in to the hands of the ‘self-appointed’ experts on counter terrorism like the Quilliam Foundation, a deeply neocon supported initiative with precious little experience in counter terrorism and virtually no credibility amongst British Muslims. One can also add the likes of Inspire (a Muslim womens’ empowerment initiative) in this sphere too. The frequent pairing of thse two organisations is not accidental, it is calculated, to project the idea of “moderate Muslim”. We already know, from the previous Prevent strategy and the heavy endorsement of Quilliam and the Sufi Muslim Council which flowed from it, what “moderate Muslim” means in policy circles. What’s worse is that Cameron is threatening to potentially bankroll his type of Muslim. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire!
A FINAL DELIRIOUS JUMP FOR JOY!
There was, however, one part of Cameron’s speech which sent me delirious with excitement and I almost jumping for joy. Mid-way through the intense sweaty encounter Cameron expressed his disgust at those who believe ‘Muslims are secretly taking over the Government, and we should not work with them’.
The idea is often articulated as ‘entryism’ and is regularly levied against Muslims simply wanting to engage in the system as should be perfectly compatible with the PM’s mantra about democracy and British values. This ‘entryist’ allegation is a favourite tactic used by neo-con organisations and detractors to demonise mainstream British Muslims and keep them out of mainstream politics (a tactic which ultimately is in nobody’s interest). Most recently the Islamophobe Andrew Gilligan littered one of his articles with ‘entryist’ references against mainstream Muslims organisations. Thank you Mr Cameron for standing up to such people!
Sufyan Ismail is the CEO of Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND). On the advocacy front, MEND is involved in media engagement, lobbying, and policy research. On the community empowerment front, MEND regularly works with grass roots Muslims to help them tackle Islamophobia locally and to increase their media and political literacy.