What Britain needs to fight terrorism is evidence – not ideology
by Sayeeda Warsi (2017)
Image Copyright: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty
We need to think afresh about the Prevent strategy: the Muslim community wants it, and Theresa May’s four-point plan is a step in the right direction
Malign voices have been heard in the past 48 hours – blaming a community of 3 million for the indiscriminate violence of three men. Calls for internment, Muslim bans, treason charges and even an end to Islam in Britain. Commentators on the extreme fringe have used the emotional state of the nation to peddle hateful agendas.
As news of the London Bridge atrocity filtered through, I was at St James’s Church in Piccadilly, central London, at an interfaith event to celebrate Ramadan and our shared values, and what struck me most was the raging anger of the young Muslims there. As one simply put it: “I despise these men who kill our fellow citizens in the name of my faith.”
British Muslims face what I call the double whammy of terrorism. They are as likely to be victims or terrorism, because these attacks are indiscriminate but they also face the inevitable backlash. A sentiment which further feeds the hate. And it’s this vicious cycle of violence feeding violence and hate feeding hate that the next government must address.As the investigations of the Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge attacks unfold we are seeing some common features. The perpetrators were people of interest – known to the security services or police as people who had been radicalised. And at least three of the five had been reported to the authorities by their families, friends and communities. I take some comfort from that. We knew who they were, we knew they were a problem, and the community reported them. So the desire from communities to work together is there. That’s what we need to build on. Out of the horror of this weekend, we have a unique opportunity to get this right.
Theresa May has set out her four-point plan to tackle terrorism. I agree with much of it. We need to close down the space online and offline for terrorists to recruit and radicalise, and we must challenge the ideology that preachers of hate use to justify violence. I welcome the prime minister’s call for a review of the counter-terrorism strategy, Contest. But most of all we must think afresh about the Prevent programme.
For many years, I have said that the concept of Prevent – upstream intervention led and trusted by communities – is a fantastic idea. But the implementation has had huge flaws. The only definition of extremism that exists in government is Islamist extremism, even though over a third of the referrals to the Prevent or Channel programmes relate to far-right extremists. The definition is a symptom of a longstanding problem in counter-terrorism where policy has been made not on the basis of evidence or expert opinion but on the ideological whims of individual politicians. And if we think the definition we have now is bad, you should have seen the one that was proposed.
I know, too, that it is one that May wasn’t entirely comfortable with. She knew the framing did not accurately reflect the problem. Respected organisations such as Rights Watch and Open Society – and even the government’s own independent reviewer of legislation – have voiced concerns about the science underpinning the Prevent strategy, the government’s understanding of what makes a jihadi, and the quality of the training. I’m pleased these concerns have been heeded.
Prevent was intended to be the strand of Contest that dealt with terrorism by dealing with the root causes of terrorism. It was always supposed to be a programme led by the community and a genuine battle of ideas. Unfortunately it’s become a policy distrusted by a large number of the communities within which it operates.
May is a pragmatic politician, and on Friday she will probably find herself in a strong position with the time to get this right. She can, within the first 100 days, insist on a return to evidence-based decision-making, sweeping away a legacy of ideological thinking in government shaped by others whose view of the world she does not share. She can put an end to the disengagement with British Muslim communities, a ruinous policy which has put more and more groups and individuals on a “beyond the pale” list for ministers and Whitehall officials. We must hear more voices, including more from younger people and women.
There can be a genuine commitment to work on integration. A policy I call Promote, which would focus on positive narratives about all who make up this Island nation and ensure that all our citizens are afforded the opportunities that this country has to offer. Segregation and separation are sometimes a choice, most often they are the product of economic exclusion.
And finally she must be intolerant of intolerance in all its forms. We must find a consistent approach towards dealing both with those who distort Islam into a hateful ideology to commit carnage but also those who – online, in print, in broadcast media and in thinktanks – demonise British Muslims.
May has often said “this hateful ideology has nothing to do with Islam itself”, so when her new government cracks down on intolerance, it must be hard on those Muslims who claim that Islam justifies violence while also challenging those right-wingers who say Islam itself is the issue, that we need “less Islam”. A crackdown like that would benefit everyone. For what greater recruiting sergeant could there be than telling a community that they do not belong and do not matter?