"Hearts and Minds": What more can be done?

Anti-Terrorism Protest in GlasgowWe have sadly been here before. The question on everyone’s lips after the failed attacks in London and Glasgow is: shouldn’t British Muslims be doing more? After all, if one considers some of the key figures, the battle for the “hearts and minds” (a horrid cliché admittedly) of an extremist subculture doesn’t seem to be progressing at all. The number of would-be terrorists under surveillance by MI5 has increased sixfold from 250 after 9/11 to “around 2000” today. [1a] The number of terrorist networks has increased from 30 in 2003 to 219 now (broken down regionally into the Midlands, 80; Leeds, Bradford and Manchester, 60; London, 35; Merseyside, 20; Scotland, 12; Wales, 10; Northern Ireland, 2). [1b] A factor in this increase may well be MI5’s greater ability to monitor already pre-existing networks as its workforce increases from a baseline of 2000 employees in 2004 to 3500 in 2008. And besides 7/7, we’ve had a number of failed or foiled plots: the shoe-bombers, the fertiliser bomb plot, 21/7, the airliner plot in 2006 and the recent car bombs. Similarly, polling consistently reveals a fringe that will justify terrorist attacks in Britain as a reprisal for the US-led occupation of Iraq and a culture of denial that is happy to blame anyone but Muslims for 9/11 and 7/7.

However, Muslim communities have already shown the capacity to take up “hearts and minds” work in at least three areas – deradicalisation, reinforcing mainstream Islam and reassuring the public – which can be strengthened with the right kind of official support.

Deradicalisation needs selected individuals with the knowledge and “street credibility” to work effectively with those who have already become radicalised. Some of the best deradicalisation work is being done on a voluntary, non-funded basis with the knowledge and support of the police, with the very sorts of people that central government would prefer not to be seen to be doing business with, e.g. ultra-conservative Salafis. There are a few schemes like this in prisons and some local communities, but this specialised work is not within the competence of most Muslim leaders, religious scholars or movements and is off-the-radar in terms of publicity.

Reinforcing mainstream Islam entails restating the orthodox viewpoint that opposes suicide bombing and the killing of innocent civilians (and off-duty soldiers and reservists even in time of war) [2] and articulating the theological rationale for active citizenship and engagement. The four basic criteria for success work in this area are (i) contractural and intellectual independence of any agreed project in order to ensure credibility, (ii) capturing the interest and participation of Muslim young people, (iii) avoiding the stoking of community sectarianism, and (iv) a focus on developing the intellectual capital of local religious leaders.

The obvious case-study here is The Radical Middle Way project, backed by the FCO and the DCLG, that, in its first year of operation in 2005/6, succeeded in fulfilling the first two criteria, but more work with local religious leaders on a cross-sectarian basis should now be emphasised. Whatever good impact it may have had has been weakened since last autumn by the unsophisticated promotion by government of a Sufi-Islamist political rivalry that has made the formation of a vigorous, broad front against political violence more difficult. With respect to religious leadership, a recent BBC survey has shown that only 6% of mosque imams speak English as a first language, only 8% were UK-born, and that nearly 45% had only served in British mosques for five years or less. [3] However, there is still a cadre of UK-trained imams who will be invaluable to this effort. In this context, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, now months away from its launch after a protracted two-year gestation, will hopefully do much to improve the management of the whole mosque sector. At the same time, it should be realised that it is opinion formers (including ex-extremists) who should be engaged and not just imams, whose relevance and credibility are often questioned.

Reassuring the public through clear and effective messages condemning extremism is necessary to prevent any lazy connection being made between extremists and Muslims in general merely on the basis of a shared faith identity, which does so much to sap the good will that any “hearts and minds” strategy requires. Continuous reiteration is unfortunately necessary as distinguishing between Muslims and extremists, especially as the latter employ theological rhetoric, seems beyond the wit of many. Consider, for instance, that the violence of David Koresh or Timothy McVeigh is easily understood to be exceptional and so American Christianity is not put in the dock as a result. Last weekend saw perhaps the most effective public reassurance exercises so far with anti-terrorism marches in Glasgow and London, a national press ad campaign and unequivocal public statements from the Muslim Council of Britain and others.

It is important to note the shift from Blair’s Gladstonian moralising about an “evil ideology” to Brown’s more prosaic and procedural language in response to terror raids and attacks has already begun to produce immediate dividends with stronger anti-terror messaging from Muslim leaders, although it is too soon to say whether this will pay dividends in terms of practical policy measures. Government research with focus groups had revealed that ordinary Muslims were being alienated by references to “Islamic” or “Muslim” terrorism, reading such terms as rendering them complicit by association rather than naming the more extreme or even violent tendencies. (Of course, this rhetoric shift has to do with public communication, and not necessarily with the analytical categories used in the formation and implementation of counter-terrorism policy.) Another unheralded factor has been the legacy of the Birmingham raids in January this year. The police had publicly criticised Home Office officials for detailed and sensationalist off-the-record briefings to journalists that jeopardized their investigation and harmed community relations. This time around journalists report that the police have been very disciplined.

Besides this shift in its public communication tactics, the government must do more to support “hearts and minds” strategies financially. “Hearts and minds” has been allocated only 7.5 million out of this year’s 2.25 billion counter-terrorism budget, or a third of one per cent. Six million of that is filtered through seventy local councils with much, apparently, going into existing community cohesion projects. While it would not do to suggest that spending unlimited amounts of money will solve the problem, it still seems pitifully inadequate in scale and unfocused in delivery.

The third measure is trust-building measures between key community stakeholders, the police and the Home Office. Intelligence penetration of cells is apparently still poor, and there has been a reliance on broad-brush measures, like stop-and-search, whose alienating impact is obvious. Rather, the police believe, or so I have been told, that they have relied too much on these measures and on “getting lucky”, and therefore there is considerable fear that they are not on top of this problem. Therefore the political relationship with local Muslim communities needs to be much more regular, frank and direct, replacing the unproductive megaphone courting of public opinion, so that in the end the kind of intelligence needed will be garnered, thereby beginning to turn around the recourse that has been made to invasive policing measures and the unnecessary creation of a parallel quasi-legal system to police a “suspect community”. [4]

Fourthly, in the Blair years, national debate became polarised between entrenched positions — “it’s the evil ideology, stupid” verses “it’s the foreign policy, stupid” — that precluded a measured multi-causal analysis. Over the last two years in particular, that debate has also focused on the problem of the radicalisation of young British Muslims and thus a period of soul-searching over integration, multiculturalism, social cohesion and cultural dislocation of young Muslim people. Yet this has shifted the focus away too much from geopolitical issues that have shaped the current al-Qaeda phenomenon, which is likely to change by the fact that the latest cells were composed of foreign nationals, including Bilal Abdulla, an Iraqi seemingly radicalised, at least from the facts available at present, by the invasion of his country. Unlike the case of Mohammad Sidique Khan, it seems unlikely that we will now be discussing marriage customs or generational dislocation among Jordanians or Iraqis any time soon.

Clearly, Iraq has been an aggravating if not originating factor in the rise of this form of extremism. Equally, however, only an extremist mindset would transform opposition to the Iraq war into murderous indiscriminate violence when otherwise the vast majority have been happy to exercise their democratic rights to dissent and disagreement, and should not be stigmatised for so doing. That unpopular military occupations create blowback is a political fact that remains at the centre of any sensible counter-terrorism strategy – and a healthy dose of realism in these matters doesn’t amount to moral abdication.

Over three decades, major IRA attacks in Britain targeted civilians, soldiers and political figures, and, despite their penetration by the intelligence services in later years, the IRA retained the technical and professional resources to strike multiple targets successfully. By contrast, the “jihadi” cells seem, thankfully, to be amateurish. The major differences between the IRA and al-Qaeda are that a political endgame of peace in Northern Ireland was in sight and a system of pre-attack warnings in later IRA campaigns were designed to minimize casualties. Now attacks come out of the blue and responsibility is claimed by the al-Qaeda franchise which is not a part of a cohesive political movement that can be understood within a single national conflict as could Irish Republicanism.

The temptation in taking on a novel formation like al-Qaeda is to frame this challenge in civilisational, even existential, terms and thus keep ourselves open to the suggestion that this is an endless Orwellian war with no political endpoint. Al-Qaeda operates outside traditional international politics by claiming, as a non-state actor, the basic right to defend the sovereignty and autonomy of Muslim nations, a right it asserts has been forfeited by ineffectual Muslim governments. In this reading, an embryonic al-Qaeda emerges during the early 1990s in the context of seventeen American military strikes in the Middle East, as listed by the US State Department, between 1980-1995. [5] And while nearly all Islamists and jihadists remain nationalists, al-Qaeda uses national or regional conflicts to advance its claim to represent the political interests of Muslims everywhere. It does not have a developed political ideology — a coherent vision of the state — but a strategy of protracted and agile guerilla tactics heavily reliant upon Western military intervention or heightened internal suppression in the Muslim world to bolster its support.

The solution to this strategy is disaggregating the myth of a pan-Islamic menace, instead focusing on resolving a set of local, national and regional conflicts, centred on the Middle East and West Asia. Of course that is easier said than done, as this requires multilateral diplomacy and peacemaking based on the mutual security of all the actors involved. Resolving Iraq and Israel-Palestine requires a regional peace plan based on mutual assurances of security, which needs a complete shift in emphasis from military to diplomatic measures on the part of the United States, Britain and others. It will be very difficult to enfranchise democracy and self-determination in the region without establishing this basic security and recognising the possibility of vernacular democracies in future. Of course, Britain can do very little on her own, but she can still play a leading role in bringing about this transition from war to politics. The return to politics or giving up the aspiration to remake the world in our own image will, in the end, be most effective counter-terrorism policy that we can mount.


In his statement to Parliament on 25 July, PM Gordon Brown announced that:

Over the next three years we will provide an additional £70 million to support local authorities and community groups in improving the capacity of local communities to resist violent extremism. This will include developing leadership programmes for young people, strengthening the capacity of women’s groups, and local projects to build citizenship. [6]

This fund will be run through the DCLG’s Preventing Extremism Unit, which administers the prevent strand of the government’s Project Contest. The funding will most likely be spent at local and national levels, with local funding going through seventy strategic local authorities. This represents a welcome significant increase on spending in the first year of the fund, which was 7.5 million, and which will now rise to approximately 23.3 million per year, if averaged out over the next three years.


[1a] “Around 2000”, Prime Minister’s Statement on Security to Parliament, 25 July 2007, available at http://www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page12675.asp. The PM also noted that there had been 15 terrorist attacks on British soil since 9/11, including the latest three on London and Glasgow.
[1b] News of the World, 8 July 2007, reportedly from an undated MI5 source.
[2] Sheikh Muhammad Afifi al-Akiti, “Defending the Transgressed by Censuring the Reckless against the Killing of Civilians”, jurisprudential refutation published in 2005, and available here online, see http://www.livingislam.org/maa/dcmm_e.html.
[3] BBC News online, “Ban foreign language imams — peer”, 6 July 2007, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6275574.stm.
[4] Helena Kennedy, Just Law (London: Vintage, 2005); Paddy Hillyard, Suspect Community (London: Pluto, 1993).
[5] Mohammad-Mahmoud Mohamedou, Understanding al-Qaeda: The Transformation of War (London: Pluto Books, 2005).

[6] See [1a] for the reference.



Filed under Civil liberties, Ghuluw, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics, war-on-terror

6 responses to “"Hearts and Minds": What more can be done?

  1. samira

    I would agree with most that Yahya Birt has written here, however I would strongly disagree that RMW project is contractually independant from the government, which has led many doubters to raise their eye at the integrity of this project. We have regularly seen Mr Nahdi state that he has the blessings of all the participants, but has anyone seen these so-called contractual agreemants. Please make it available to the public eye. Secondly the RMW has certainly not captured the minds of the Muslims. This can be seen from the fact that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw halls being filled to the capacity with Muslims, but with a line-up that was seen at the finale Westminster lecture series, they barely filled the top part of the hall, let alone many mosques around the county. I remember once sitting in the audience near the front at a Sheikh Hamza lecture, when he criticised the Q-News team for the lack of non-Muslims coming to his lectures, and the response given by Mr Nahdi was that half of the audience were Hindu and Sikh. I mean come on, do we have to fall for to that level of manipulation of facts or are we going to see continually the spin of Mr Nahdi and his Q-News team which they have such talent for.

  2. Dear Sister Samira,

    As-salamu alaykum,

    1. My understanding from the RMW team, which included FOSIS, YMO, Q-News and Muhabba Unlimited, was that the project aims, terms of engagement and management were left in their hands, all of which was mutually agreed, put into writing and implemented. This is what I meant by “contractural independence”. I’m sure that they would be more than happy to corroborate this with you directly; they have nothing to hide.

    2. An independent audit was done of the RMW project and it was found to be one of the most successful “outreach projects to black and ethnic minority groups” (yes, different frame of comparison and, yes, horrid phrase) they had assessed. However, you may very well have a significant point here that attendances were down on British events with the same scholars prior to the inception of the RMW project. Now, if it is true that attendances were down even for events that were now free, what do you (or friends you’ve talked to) think the most important reason or reasons for that was? Cynicism about public funding? The premise of the whole project? The choice of topics? Or even something to do with the speakers themselves becoming less popular for other reasons?

    3. It’s a serious charge to accuse a whole group of people, who have worked hard for the community over a long period, of “spin”. That term is often used nowadays as code for lying, which is a serious charge for which the burden of proof lies upon you to prove it rather than upon them to demonstrate that they are not guilty, as I’m sure you would appreciate.

    May Allah keep you well,

    wa s-salam, Yahya Birt

  3. samira

    My point about spin was not said to accuse, so I ask forgiveness. I appreciate the tremendous amount of work these people have done, but at times there tends to be that ‘New Labour’ effect associated with them. Lying is a bit harsh on spin, but to add clarity to my earlier statement I would say excellent PR that at times can go to far would be the more suitable description. In any case let us have an honest debate.

    About the independent audit. What i found strange, and my sister can attest to this, is the fact that the people contacted for the audit were all names given by the organisers in the first place, hence being friends and so on. So is this really independent? Also there was a lot of severe criticism in the feedback which has not even been seen. Is there anywhere where we can access these findings? I am honestly not here to argue so please forgive me if I have sounded to be a bit harsh. I am happy to listen to the explanation of the Q-News team rather than close my ears. I am awaiting to be convinced.

    In relation to the attendance. Most certainly there is cynicism about government money. I even heard some speakers mentioning that they did feel uncomfortable, however I appreciate the better good as was explained at a latter date. One of the most distinguishing problems was the repeated message at the roadshow’s finale. It got a bit tedious and things were said that were heard before. What’s even more alarming is that 75% of attendees are people I have honestly seen at such events for the past 15 years or so. So what was new?

    While I am not personally suspicious, I think that — for the greater good — it would be far more beneficial to see those contractual agreements in the public eye, as well as see the financial breakdown. Where is the transparency?

    Once again, eagle-eyed Q-News team et al, I am not attacking you. I am merely looking for genuine answers. so please take what I say in that spirit. I personally think that events held on our own platforms were far more effective. The great spurt of the 1990s and early 2000s has regressed with everything becoming too politicised. I would welcome events such as the fantastic event in Birmingham recently with Sheikh Hamza, entitled “The ‘Tahawiya’ Course”, as being far more effective, where he was able to discuss matters openly and touch upon terrorism . Whilst sitting down all day as a student, I saw so many new faces, and then the subsequent cascading effect that has been phenomenal in bringing people closer to practising their religion with an aspect of civic responsibility.

    However I have also seen a problem amongst certain traditionlists and communities. We have seen the harshness of young one-year faqis, who have come back from studying abroad and have not taken to such events very well along with the activities of brothers in a particular mosque in Bradford who have not been fair in giving RMW a chance. I agree there were mistakes and problems however, to be fair, it was best to mention such comments at the end rather during the events. I am all for supporting and giving things a chance, hence my comments now come at such a late stage. In the meantime Yahya I thank you for you wonderful insight and comments that have helped me tremendously over the years, including your dry humour. Keep up the good work.

  4. naveed

    I think the RMW project started off well, but due to a number of controversies that ensued, it lost much of its credibility.

    On a serious level, if a difference is to be made, people will have to see the major ulema of England endorse such projects or engage in equally beneficial ones.

    I think one of the problems has come is that many of the awam here take their ilm from the ahnaf, who in this country are peace-loving but have theological affiliations with their brothers in Afghanistan — which leads to unwillingness to enter into things like the RMW.

    Those young Deobandi ulema would have to also contribute otherwise only a subsection of Q-News readers would benefit from these RMW events.

  5. As-salamu alaykum, Dear Naveed and Samira,

    May Allah reward you for your observations; I’m sure that they will be noted by the RMW team.

    However are you suggesting that the best thing to do is for government to let the ulema get on with it alone, as any sort of public funding (to pay for flights if not for consciences) is viewed with suspicion even by some “loyalists” to these shuyukh, let along the sceptics? Does this consequence of a cynical reaction among some (or many) overrule any intensification in activity that the RMW brought about?

    Another point made would be this, which many ulema have made quite seriously, including Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, that we work together with our government in projects of common good purpose and with clearly agreed contractural terms then that is laudable, so long as it does not stoke sectarianism and brings benefit to society and Muslims generally. Many of the other groups like MAB, MCB, BMF and al-Khoei Foundation are working to create MINAB, and have had the use of public money to set up the process, even though it is an independent community-run project in character.

    Surely we have to distinguish between disagreement in our community between groups/tendencies competing for public money and accusing each other of “selling out” while seeking the same public monies themselves (a very old tactic, believe me), and the basis upon which that public money is used? After all we contribute taxes (i.e. it is not “government” money it is “public” money or “our” money) and we should do our bit to counteract the terrorism issue as lies within our ability, and can do so in co-operation with government so long as it creates good outcomes and is transparent as you say. Using the means of persuasion to counteract violent extremism seems to me to be an unqualified good; otherwise, the state is falling back on rhetorical, policing and para-legal measures that are discriminatory in their application and feed on the sense of alienation.

    On the stoking of sectarianism, I would admit that this is a difficult matter to judge. RMW, in and of itself, hasn’t created differences in our community: they already existed. The difference, I think, lies in the novelty of public money being used to finance the speaking tours of our ulema who have a tradition of arms-length distance from political power so that they feel free to say what they want. Now my observation is not that there is someone going around telling them what to say: in fact many of the speakers commented on the “disaster” that has been Iraq and so on and so forth, but rather that they may be worried about the perception that they have “sold out” or that in some other way they feel constrained in a way they didn’t before.

    Many in our community just don’t buy these sorts of arguments, that we can work constructively with our own elected government at this juncture: they worry that a liberalizing British Islam is on the agenda or the pacification of their ummatic sentiment and so on. But this is precisely the crunch issue here: do we take this cynicism on or do we give into it? It may rather be a matter of confidence and trust: that even if the Muslim community decides to work with government on commonly agreed terms, with transparency and so on, as I believe characterised the manner in which the RMW project was run, even so, cynicism may still rule the day. It was very easy for Ismail Patel and others to run an independent and parallel roadshow (back in 2005/6?) to make the point that they are independent and the true voice of (at least their section of) the community, which touched on very similar themes. I know I attended one of their events. But — and let’s be honest — would they have done it at all in the absence of RMW?

    I think if we are going to move on at all we will need to take “cheap cynicism” on rather than confuse it with genuine worries that should be substantiated and backed by evidence rather than based on fears and underconfidence.

    Naveed, I think it may be very difficult to get all the UK ulema under one tent for a project like this. It might be more practical in any case to have a plethora of projects will similar aims. The Deobandis will most likely want to control their own project, if they agree to it in the first place. There is more than enough need and capacity for it. I would prefer that there were also some long-term benefits like networking and building of professional skills and confidence as well, and not just the counter-terrorist rationale.

    wa s-salam, Yahya

  6. naveed

    Sidi Yahya,

    Excellent points you made .

    Our community has a lot of negativity unfortunately and narrow mindedness.

    I would love to see a britain where muslims just got on with promoting good…and when it comes to Islaam in this country if people spent 99% of their time in amr bil maroof and only 1% of their time in critique and nahi anil munkar it would be better for them.

    Having grown up in the last decade in britain, I also find myself having a mindset looking for …Whats the critique of “….”…Is he a modernist….Whats the radd of fulaan movement..
    As opposed to ..How to I become a good human being.

    It will be impossible to bring all the UK ulema under 1 umbrella….But also the RMW idea is not successful either.
    Probably politics is a divisive issue and muslims can unite under more united topics…Like education…social welfare …etc which can create unlikely alliances.

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