Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Government counter-extremism strategy alienating Muslims

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A report by the parliamentary communities and local government committee has criticised the "Prevent" strand of the government's counter-terrorism strategy, suggesting that it sends out a confused message that risks alienating the Muslim communities it is designed to engage with. Under Prevent, government funds are channelled into local projects with the intention of promoting community cohesion at the expense of the message of would-be promoters of extremist Islam, thereby reducing the numbers of young Muslims turning to extremism and, in the worst-case scenario, seeking to emulate the four British Muslims who bombed London's transport network in July 2005.

Committee chairwoman Dr Phyllis Starkey told the BBC that it iss "very difficult to measure" what positive impact, if any, Prevent is having, with the strategy particularly undermined by a widespread perception that it is used by the authorities as an opportunity to spy on Muslim groups and communities. The committee has recommended that the government commission an independent investigations into allegations of spying.

Starkey also points out that the mixing of counter-terrorism work with community engagement sends out a mixed, confused message, and suggests that the two should be separated, with the Home Office covering the prevention of terrorism, and the Department for Communities covering community-cohesion (at the moment, Communities covers both):
"We agree that a targeted strategy must address the contemporary al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist threat, but we do not believe a government department charged with promoting cohesive communities should take a leading role in this counter-terrorism initiative."
Writing for New Humanist this time last year, I looked into the impact of Prevent in my hometown of Blackburn, where a quarter of the population of Muslim. The views of those I spoke to there about Prevent were very similar to those reported by the parliamentary committee today, with Muslims exhibiting a profound mistrust of counter-terrorism work dressed up as community engagement. Prevent was seen as a "carte blanche painting of the community as potential terrorists", and there was a sense that government funds only end up being allocated to Muslim groups willing to conduct their work under the guise of preventing extremism – in the wake of 7/7, "everything Muslim-related is extremism-related". To some, Prevent money was dirty money, and to accept such funding would involve compromising your integrity, perhaps even betraying those around you. This, of course, was not helped by the widespread view that the primary aim of Prevent is to spy on Muslims.

Judging by the conclusions of the communities and local government committee, these perceptions are not just confined to Blackburn, but are present throughout Britain, wherever Prevent funds have been allocated. In terms of preventing terror attacks, it's hard to know how successful Prevent has been – since there have been no attacks here since 7/7, perhaps it has worked. But we have no way of knowing that. But, as I wrote last year:
"If we are to view PVE [Prevent] not just as a means of tackling extremism but as a way of addressing the social malaise affecting Britain's multicultural towns, it seems clear that it is not working - if a policy aimed at Muslims has the effect of alienating Muslims, how can it be seen as a success?"
It seems clear that the mixing of counter-terrorism and community engagement is problematic, and that has been recognised by the committee. If Labour stays in power after the election, it'll be interesting to see if they follow the committee's advice and rethink the strategy. If the Conservatives win the election, it seems there will be some change, with their shadow communities secretary Caroline Spellman telling the BBC that a "complete review" is needed:
"We need a complete review of the Prevent strategy, with an emphasis on removing the confusion between counter-terrorism and cohesion work, shifting the emphasis to funding groups which bring communities together and ensuring compatibility with fundamental rights and freedoms."
Of course, given the confused nature of Labour's work with Muslim organisations, with various groups falling in and out of favour over the years (for instance the Muslim Council of Britain), it'll be interesting to see which groups the Conservatives decide to throw their support behind if they form the next government.


AT said...

You should quote your own work in your own work more often.

David Waldock said...

Have we had any successful terror attacks in Britain since the Prevent strand was put into operation?

See, that's what I call a result!