Quite understandably there has been a fairly frantic response to the terrible and terrifying events last night on London Bridge and in the Borough. As ever the story is one of shock mixed in with tales of bravery from police, medics and the public. It will have refreshed the barely faded memory of Manchester in those recently scarred by that atrocity and reminds us that Islamist terrorism is a real and substantial threat in the UK as well as across Europe.
The Prime Minister responded and did so in a more robust, almost angry, manner when compared to the statement after Manchester - 'enough is enough' was the message as she talked about 'safe spaces' online, the continuing problems with ISIS's insurgency in Syria and Iraq, and the need for a renewed counter-terrorism strategy. The response suggests a subtle shift in what happens in the UK on this issue and indicates that the Prevent strategy becomes more significant in that overall counter-terrorism strategy:
"But it also means taking action here at home. While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is – to be frank – far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out – across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations, but the whole of our country needs to come together to take on this extremism – and we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities but as one truly United Kingdom."The challenge is, as always, to transform this rhetoric into some sort of strategy that works on the ground and which has the buy-in (not mere 'support') of local government, education and police establishments - I'm guessing that this is what the Prime Minister alludes to when she says 'across the public sector'. Right now strategies to identify and respond to nascent extremism are widely disregarded, even opposed, by local political and bureaucratic leadership especially in those places where the strategy is most needed and important. This situation needs addressing and represents a failure in the strategy as well as a continuing preference of those elites for political posturing and cultural indulgence rather than the tough job of challenging extremism especially within Muslim communities.
Some are saying the right thing but, I suspect, aren't thinking about their response when the actions they propose are carried out:
I'm guessing that I'm a councillor in a city that might be considered one of those 'breeding grounds of terror', certainly a place that will feature in the thinking of those drawing up a new counter-terrorism strategy. The question I have for Kevin Holland and many others suggesting that we need to get into the communities where Islamist ideology is transmitted is whether they are prepared for the reaction from those communities to our 'interference'.
The Prevent strategy is pretty mild. It doesn't single out Islamism as its sole target - referrals through Prevent into the wider 'Channel' anti-terror programme show that just over half are Muslims referred as a result of activity linked to Islamist extremism. This hasn't stopped some politicians arguing, in effect, that Prevent is some sort of national anti-Muslim policy:
The government's anti-extremism programme Prevent should be paused, Baroness Warsi has said.It is true that the image of the Prevent strategy in Muslim communities - at least in Bradford - is pretty poor but we should appreciate that this is a consequence of many Muslim commenters echoing a dominant Islamist discourse. Here's writer Sara Khan:
The former foreign office minister said the scheme had "huge problems", including the quality of its training, and said its "brand" had become "toxic".
She called for an independent review to look into where the programme had failed or proven successful.
While there are legitimate concerns about the delivery and effectiveness of Prevent, I evidence how British Islamist organisations have led on delivering a highly effective campaign in deliberately misinforming not only British Muslims but wider society about what Prevent is and is not. These Islamists have not only partnered with teaching unions, students, lawyers, teachers and academics in an attempt to end Prevent, they have sought to malign the many Muslim organisations who do support it creating a “toxic” climate where many Muslims do not want to openly admit their support for Prevent. As a result the loud anti-Prevent lobby end up dominating the discourse – and narrative about Prevent.You only need look at the persistent vilification of moderate Muslim voices like Maajid Nawaz - by both Islamist apologists and left-wing opponents of US and UK foreign policy to appreciate how this works:
But Murtaza Husain at Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept site felt so aggrieved, so agitated, so angry at my decision to talk to those with whom I disagree, about my own religion, that he posted a photo of Sam and me in conversation using the words “nice shot of Sam and his well-coiffed talking monkey.” When challenged the writer doubled-down, deciding that I was in fact a “native informant,” and nothing but Sam’s “porch monkey.”This doesn't means Nawaz is right in all he proposes but he does represent a voice that sees Islam within a pluralist, liberal world rather than as an absolute truth to be imposed on the unbeliever, by force if necessary. I've a feeling that most UK Muslims (if not those in some parts of the Middle East and South Asia) would rather be in this place but find it difficult to endorse such a position with an Islamic academe dominated by Wahhabi and Deobandi traditionalism.
So when an actual Muslim arguing for a more moderate understanding of Islam is reviled as some sort of Muslim 'Uncle Tom' those arguing that politicians like me should 'take to the streets in the breeding grounds of terror' need to be ready to provide cover for us when we're called Islamophobic, bigoted and racist by both the Islamist apologists and also a set of left-wing agitators who support Islamism because it positions itself against the 'neoliberal' world order.
ISIS have a concept of the 'grey zone' - where Muslims and non-Muslims coexist more-or-less peacefully - and the destruction of this 'grey zone' is close to the centre of their ideology. Here's another moderate Muslim writer, Nafeez Ahmed:
The imperative now is for citizens around the world to work together to safeguard what ISIS calls the "grey zone" – the arena of co-existence where people of all faith and none remain unified on the simple principles of our common humanity. Despite the protestations of extremists, the reality is that the vast majority of secular humanists and religious believers accept and embrace this heritage of mutual acceptance.The extremists on the new right who call for expulsion, internment and limitations of Muslims in Europe or the USA are straightforwardly doing precisely what ISIS want the West to do - here in the terrorists own words:
“The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize and adopt the kufrī [infidel] religion propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy, and Hollande in the name of Islam so as to live amongst the kuffār [infidels] without hardship, or they perform hijrah [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens... Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes for a place to live in the Khilāfah, as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands so as to force them into a tolerable sect of apostasy in the name of 'Islam' before forcing them into blatant Christianity and democracy.”The whole point and purpose of Prevent (and other anti-extremism programmes) is to prevent - get it - this polarising of Islam and Not Islam in our society. And in doing so to allow Muslims to confront the evident division between the majority who are content to live in a plural, liberal society and the minority who want to create an absolutist, sharia-led polity. It isn't our job to try and control or direct that debate within Islam but rather to insist that we remain an open culture and a free society in which Muslims are welcome. And that we will act firmly to protect pluralism, liberty and secularism.
This will be a long slow process and I will close with a Tweet from historian Tom Holland that reminds us this is a theological debate as much as it a political challenge.