Monthly Archives: June 2015

This Dance between “Extremists” and “Formers” is Past Its Sell-By Date: A Review of ITV’s “Jihad” Documentary

A lot of British Muslims who watched the Exposure documentary “Jihad: A British Story” on ITV last night probably did so with a powerful sense of déjà vu. But not for the emotional reasons one might think, not with feelings of collective guilt or shame. Rather I would hazard a guess that feelings of jadedness and ennui predominated instead. That sounds shockingly cynical, uncaring, even delusional, given that we have a very frightening and real problem of some British teens and even families going over the Turkish borders to join ISIS.

So why is there such a reaction? Well, we have been here before. Former extremists dramatize their personal stories to overshadow all of our community’s multifarious and untold human stories to feed a dominant meme of the post-9/11 world: namely, that this complex geopolitical crisis is really all about maladjusted Muslim men. The stories about the marginal Hizb ut-Tahrir and the minority Salafi movement have cast such a large shadow that almost nothing else about British Muslims in the eighties and nineties gets through into popular culture or the public debate nowadays, except perhaps the Satanic Verses Affair, which is problematic for different reasons.

Imagine for a moment that the retelling of Britain’s recent past is dominated by tales of splits on the hard left during the Cold War or the Militant Tendency and entryism, these being the only stories that get attention in popular culture and public life. Imagine even that parts of it were ghost-written by the Kremlin and sold as gospel truth to the British. It would be ridiculed and called out immediately. Let us at least pause therefore to consider why it is so much more difficult for a beleaguered minority community to call out a similar level of misrepresentation in any sort of impactful way. Its impotence at challenging this myth effectively explains why many British Muslims are jaded and bored by a documentary like this. Pretty much everyone I speak to in the community feels irritated and exasperated: these stories are not our stories and the resentment at being misrepresented by them is palpable.

The everyday Muslim is hidden in these narratives: she who never ran to answer the call for the caliphate or  jihad, or took up the condemnations of traditional Muslim piety as false innovation, polytheistic and the like, who never had to grow up and later regret a misspent youth. She is an invisible cipher, present yet absent, a cardboard cut-out, an intangible rhetorical device used to gloss over the serious ramifications of putting marginal stories on the centre stage rather than in their proper context. She who has to put up with endless reiterations of the stale dance between the “extremists” and the “formers”. No wonder she is less than impressed.

These stories get marketed heavily through the publishing giants or the media companies. Such high-level exposure of one’s personal story remarketed as everyone else’s story too is the golden ticket for a now well-trodden and lucrative path towards a future career as a wealthy and feted “former”. The pitch to government is the same: we have a unique psychological insight into extremism and we know best how to counteract it. That proposition might even be tolerable if such work were done quietly and sensibly, but these “formers” (with no scholarly credentials) often then take on the mantle of great “reformers”, tasked with dragging Islam kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. The message may have changed but the modus operandi often has not: it is often hectoring criticism from the margins of community, oddly distant from the very people it seeks to transform and save from their benighted condition. Such a transition from “extremist” to “former” does not appear to be informed by repentance. For the most part, the “formers” are still angry with themselves and contemptuous and detached from their community. They do not forgive their community its many failings and weaknesses or love it despite its human frailties: they want to break it and transform it in their image, an image that is itself prey to their own nomadic, confused and tortuous journeying in search of belonging and a home.

However, the striking thing about Abu Muntasir in the documentary was that he has not forgiven himself. I know that there will be cynics out there but for me his tears were unquestionably real, and not staged. His sorrow about his role in the jihad is not new: it has been well-known for the last ten years in the community and was reported in the national press. And, publicly at least, this is rare among “formers”. They are for the most part still self-righteous, vocal and angry, and not repentant, humbled and happy to work quietly to make a better world.

My biggest objection to the narrative of the programme is that it provided no context for Abu Muntasir and his erstwhile camp followers. In the story of the British jihad, it is true that he was a pioneering figure and that he was not a minor character. He did have influence but only precariously so in the setting of a complex and disaggregated scene of small jihadi peer groups and networks in ferocious competition with each other. But it is a gross exaggeration to describe him as the “godfather of the British jihad”, as the filmmaker Deeyah Khan did. The British jihad was never centralised. It did not have a pyramidal mafia-style power structure. Yet this is the moniker for Abu Muntasir that the British and the international press has now run with. The mobster overtones were reinforced by filming these middle-aged British Muslim men with lighting and backdrops strongly redolent of how former gangsters lamenting their misspent youth are shot on camera. The ex-criminal visual tropes were all there. One has to ask why Abu Muntasir should acquiesce to this rebranding. This is a critical point, just as it was when the ex-Hizb ut-Tahrir members who formed the Quilliam Foundation sold themselves as central to the story of radicalization when their group was in reality quite distant and distinct from the various strands of Salafi jihadism.

In the documentary, another student of Abu Muntasir’s Alyas Karmani (disclaimer: an old school-friend of mine) did a lot to frame these stories as ones primarily about psychological maladjustment, for instance, sexual frustration (again, a theme that has cropped up over many decades to belittle all kinds of Muslim political agency, violent or non-violent, and discounted by terrorism experts such as Marc Sageman). I would not want to deny there are psychological issues but that these should not be assessed in such a way as to preclude politics, whether that is micro-, organisational, community, national or global. And it seems to me that to preclude (or even disparage) a political sensibility is one of the tacit preconditions for becoming a “former”. Yet such an apolitical stance fails to recognise let alone negotiate a complex multipolar world of clashing interests and conflict, a world after American hegemony. It not only infantilises “extremists” and “formers” but is also a roundabout way of occluding Muslim political agency in general. It absolves “the West” by removing it from the story entirely. Indeed, the psychodrama played out in the documentary between “extremists” and “formers” perpetuates a fiction that this story is only about a clash within the House of Islam.

The documentary went one step further in decontextualizing and depoliticising the story of the British jihad. It used the eighties and the nineties, the years before the al-Qaeda network became politically significant, to talk to our contemporary situation where a younger generation of jihadi millennials is being drawn to ISIS, which itself is in deadly competition with an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. However, Da‘esh, unlike al-Qaeda, is a highly centralised organisation that runs a proto-state the size of Britain. ISIS is offering an alternate society not just endless armed struggle like al-Qaeda did. It is neither smart nor wise to preclude politics and historical context to such an extent that we miss what is new and important about this generation or the appeal of ISIS.

So if we Britons care about our shared future we cannot therefore allow the stale waltz between “formers” and “extremists” to predominate, especially if it precludes any sort of intelligible political analysis or historical context. We need to be less tribal about narrow causes and narrow solutions, but that is easier said than done when big forces have become entrenched and self-interested in perpetuating and propagandizing one narrow solution or another. We all really need to step back and have a more honest and searching debate if we are to have any chance of getting purchase on the perplexing and frightening problem of ISIS’s current success and appeal.

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Filed under Culture and the Arts, Ghuluw, UK Muslim Politics, war-on-terror

Safeguarding Little Abdul: Prevent, Muslim Schoolchildren and the Lack of Parental Consent

There are a lot of things that could be said about the new statutory guidance on Channel under Prevent issued in April for local authorities, nurseries, schools, universities, social services, health care services, the criminal justice system and the police. There are many hot-button issues here, but I want to focus on the impact of all this on under-18s. Half of our community is under the age of 25 and, according to Census figures, something in the order of 800,000 Muslims under 18 potentially fall within the remit of these policies. From the official guidance (pp.16-17, Paras 77-79) it seems that informed parental consent for under-18s referred under a counter-radicalisation scheme called Channel comes very late in the process. The mainstay of Prevent after 2010, Channel is a multiagency approach to identify and then support individuals being drawn into terrorism, in which the police play a central role. And Channel is not a low impact policy. The trend line for referrals presently is upwards from seven in Channel’s pilot year (2006-7) to 748 in 2012-13. Under an FOI request to the Association of Chief Police Officers, there have been 2653 referrals under Prevent up to April 2013. For ages 13-16, there were 645 referrals, and for 12 and under there were 113. In one case, a child as young as three was referred as part of a whole family. Where religious affiliation data was collected, from 2007-10, 67% of those referred were Muslim and in 2012-13, 57% were Muslim (their percentage in the population being 5%).

In Britain today, all these things could happen to the child of Muslim parents without their consent. Let’s take a hypothetical situation, elements of which are based on the official Channel guidance and on incidents a lawyer told me about who deals with such cases. There is of course a particular focus on schools (which accounted for a fifth of referrals up to 2013). Since February, schools are obligated under the Counter Terrorism and Security Act to prevent pupils from becoming radicalised.

Imagine your child is named Abdul, aged 12. He is taken out of class and questioned as to his views and behaviour by a member of the school’s senior management team. He might be asked about his beliefs, his political views, his associations, and so on. His case could be referred to the multiagency Channel Panel run by the local authority for assessment on the basis of the school’s investigation, and it would initially be assessed for risk by a police representative, and accepted or rejected at that point. The Panel could assess Abdul’s case and agree a series of interventions under Channel for Abdul. Only after all this referral, assessment and decision-making is completed is the Panel obliged to contact you for your consent in two matters (and only if Abdul’s case is not deemed high risk): (1) that you agree to interventions for Abdul under Channel that the Panel recommends, and (2) that you agree that information about Abdul’s case can be divulged to relevant agencies. It should be noted that the Panel reserves the power not to seek your consent if it deems Abdul’s case serious enough. There is also a further option left to the Panel if you do not agree to Abdul being put into the Channel programme. It can refer Abdul if he is deemed as “high risk” and “in need” to various forms of intervention from social services from financial and pastoral support all the way up to an “emergency protection order” under sections 17 and 47 of the Children Act 1989. This option adds an element of coercion to the informed consent asked of parents very late in the process of referral and assessment under Channel.

There have been instances where parents first realise that their child has been referred under Prevent because the child tells them he or she has been pulled out of class and questioned about his or her views and behaviour. In such cases, it is clear that some schools are assuming an implied consent on the part of parents to have their children questioned and assessed in this way. They have not heard formally from the school or from the Prevent Panel. Cases like these have not yet come to light because these parents are frightened of speaking out. They are worried that they will be labelled as extremists. Of course we have heard of reported cases where parents were completely unaware of the fact that their children had been radicalized without their knowledge. However, notwithstanding this issue, there are many genuine reasons to worry about how fair or proportionate this policy of referral and assessment under Channel is or will be in future. Let me conclude by sketching out a few of them.

The main concern is that we are heading towards intensified policing of regular conservative Islamic religiosity and dissenting politics among Muslims. Recent comments by Mak Chishty, the Metropolitan Police’s Commander for Engagement, that identify Muslim children not celebrating Christmas or supporting the boycotts, sanctions and divestments movement by not shopping at Marks & Spencer as potential indicators of extremism are very alarming. At the time of writing, the Met has not responded to calls for proper clarification of these remarks. Last week, it was found that a pilot survey (later scrapped when it was exposed) in east London primary schools was asking intrusive questions about political and religious issues from children as young as nine, without anonymizing the data.

The new Extremism Bill (pp.62-63) goes further in the direction of policing non-violent “extremism”, which includes measures like banning groups, gagging individuals, closing premises, employment blacklists and censoring broadcasts. Our Home Secretary Theresa May could not define “extremism” when pressed to do so by John Humphreys on Radio 4’s Today programme. Her response hardly seemed a step above an arbitrary rule of thumb that one would know an extremist if one saw one. This loose notion of extremism is predicated on active opposition to a simple checklist of British values, namely as set out in the guidance: “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” While I don’t want to get into an extended discussion of this point here, these values are not parochially British nor are they unsubstantiated in the Islamic interpretive traditions or unpractised throughout the long and rich history of a world religion with 1.6 billion adherents. More importantly such values do not resolve conflicts in themselves. Rather, they define the very ground upon which we agree and disagree as to their meaning, application and commensurability.

To touch upon the point about commensurability further, David Cameron recently opined in promoting the new extremism bill that the British value of tolerance had been too “passive”. To quote him, the notion that “as long as you obey the law, we [the state] will leave you alone” was now to be abandoned. For many British people, including myself, this is in fact a cherished notion that needs to be protected at all costs rather than abandoned. So while tolerance is a value, what it really entails at any particular moment in the life of our nation will be up for debate. Values frame our national discussion but they do not define a monoculture. This contentious and unproductive debate about British values is going on against a background of anti-immigration politics, Tory triumph and UKIP gains in the election, the fragmentation of the left, and indeed the growing appeal of ISIS to some Muslim young people. Around 700 or so are believed to gone over to Syria and Iraq.

In this atmosphere of suspicion and fear, what are Muslim parents going to do to protect their children? They are after all the first “safeguards” of their own offspring, to use the current professional jargon. There are lively discussions on social media among Muslim parents about this. A widespread view seems to be striking a balance between bringing up your children with a positive view of themselves, their faith, their community, their society and country and the world at large while engaging them in an informed way about the very complex issues around terrorism, extremism, ISIS, the war on terror, racism, Islamophobia, grooming, sexism, etc. It is a daunting task. Hardly any Muslim parent I know thinks it is either easy or avoidable. Continually talking things through, listening, and offering support and guidance to our children is clearly essential. Dealing with teenage hormonal changes and challenges like depression and so on are more than enough for parents to deal with, without a kneejerk presumption that Muslim teens are converts on the jihadi “road to Damascus”.

Equally, a lot of Muslim parents I’ve talked to are concerned that the government is really overdoing things. The lack of parental consent is a massive issue. The government has set up an ill-advised process that implicitly excludes and alienates Muslim parents under an ethos of presumed mistrust. As I’ve outlined above, the school and the Prevent Panel can make major judgements and decisions about your child without even talking to you. We all have reasons to doubt how competently these Panels will make decisions about Muslim children. If they exhibit anything like the cultural ignorance of Commander Mak Chishty then we have every reason to fear that a lot of bad calls will be made.

Therefore, I would propose that it is in our collective interest to safeguard our children by pushing for consent and consultation to be at the heart of this policy. Those most affected by this policy – Muslim children and by extension their families – have been pushed to the margins. There is no requirement for Prevent panels to have any form of community representation and as a matter of course parents have no say in the referral or assessment process. I am aware of one case where a representative from a mosque council in a London borough has been offered a place on a separate advisory body, whose remit seems very limited and whose continuance is subject to the review of the Prevent Panel. This is obviously far from satisfactory: it seems tokenistic and is in danger of merely providing some kind of community rubber stamp for a referral and assessment process under Channel largely unaccountable to the community that it most affects. And then there is the fact that four-fifths of referrals are not taken further by Prevent Panels, according to ACPO’s own statistics. The negative conclusion from this low adoption rate is that children are being pushed towards Channel without sufficient cause. As parents we have to ask at what price? What impact will all this scrutiny at school have on Abdul’s sense of well-being and belonging, his confidence, his aspiration, or his happiness?

My personal judgement is that Prevent has gotten to a stage where it is institutionalising a “them and us” mentality that will reap a harvest of suspicion, distrust and doubt on all sides, and will drive the tiny pro-ISIS youth subculture further underground while conflating it with both conservative Islamic piety and Muslim radical politics. In my view it is better that we abandon Prevent in its new statutory guise and go back to the drawing board. In the interim, however, so long as Prevent is on the statute books, it may be wise to seek greater safeguards for our children against a system that has great potential to be stigmatising and discriminatory. There is obviously a lively debate to be had about which mix of tactics will work best to avoid innocent Muslim kids being mislabelled as extremists in schools.

Abdul deserves a better future. One in which he is treated a citizen rather than as a suspect. Where he can disagree, sometimes even be bold and radical in disagreeing if he chooses to do so, without being labelled an extremist. Where he can be proud rather than be ashamed of being a Muslim. He deserves to be inspired at school, opened up to new possibilities, for his autonomy to be nurtured and respected. This is the kind of schooling and the kind of country that we need to fight for.

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Filed under Civil liberties, Ghuluw, Terrorism, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics