Category Archives: Ghuluw

Playing the sectarian card: Britain’s Ministry of Justice is unfairly targeting Muslim prison chaplains

Yesterday, news came of a soon-to-be-released Ministry of Justice (MOJ) report, which will argue that Muslim chaplains are part of the problem of radicalisation in UK prisons. Given that the government has trailed the report in the Sunday Times (“Most jail imams teach anti-western values”, 07/02/2016, p.7) and the Mail on Sunday (“Majority of prison imams are ‘teaching anti-western’ values that promote gender segregation, study claims”, 07/02/2016) and played the sectarian card, it is a highly premeditated political intervention. Pointing fingers at chaplains of the Deobandi Sunni persuasion, who are said to make up 140 of 200 Muslim prison chaplains, a senior Whitehall official is quoted as saying that, “It is of great concern that the majority of Muslim chaplains in prisons propagate a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic scripture which is contrary to British values and human rights. Such imams are unlikely to aid the deradicalisation of Islamists in prisons and could potentially even make them more firm in their beliefs.” And in his major speech on prison reform today, the Prime Minister promised that he was prepared to make major changes if necessary on the basis of the recommendations of the MOJ report. The appointment of Peter Clarke as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons this month, Scotland Yard’s former head of counter-terrorism whom the government has previously deployed as a counter-extremism troubleshooter in the education and the charity sectors, signals the MOJ’s intent to construe prisons in the same light: as a hotbed of “extremist entryism”, with the potential to look at Muslim inmates without terrorism offences and Muslim chaplains in the same light as convicted terrorist offenders.

The Quilliam Foundation has stepped in to support the MOJ in identifying Deobandi prison chaplains as a particular problem. Usama Hasan, a senior researcher there, is reported by the Sunday Times as saying that “[t]he Deobandi movement is generally anti-western and anti-integration in its spirit … Imams in the prison system have to be more progressive and open-minded in terms of being supportive of modern, multicultural and cosmopolitan Britain.” The Foundation has prior form in this regard: its 2009 report on prisons, Unlocking Al-Qaeda, made essentially the same claims about Deobandi prison chaplains (pp. 33, 42, 101) and recommended a reduction in their numbers (p.108).

Reading between the lines, it seems as if Ahtsham Ali, the current Muslim Advisor to the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), is being set up as the fall guy for appointing many of these Deobandi chaplains. A damage limitation exercise on behalf of Ali is already under way to argue that he is neither an extremist nor of a particular sectarian persuasion by anonymous sources quoted in the Sunday Times. That is all very well, but what about some damage limitation on behalf of these Muslim chaplains who have rendered a great deal of public service in prisons for many years? Who is going to speak up for them?

It is naïve to expect fair play and even-handedness, or a reliance on evidence or the measured conclusions of academic research, especially where the incumbent minister, Michael Gove, is concerned. The news reporting and, one must surmise, the forthcoming MOJ report rely on the fallacious idea that the Deoband school is stuck in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, in the context of its original anti-colonial foundations (ignoring massive transformations since, both in the Subcontinent and the diaspora). It also seems to have discounted the findings of the three-year AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ research study on Muslim chaplaincy in Britain (2008–2011) carried out by the University of Cardiff. That study acknowledged the conservative orientation of Deobandi chaplains but also found that pastoral practice in the challenging prison environment and working within a multi-faith chaplaincy team had a transformative effect:

Muslim chaplains working across most sectors learn new attitudes from their experiences. While they often tend to start with normative, didactic approaches that are directed towards their co-religionists, their experiences of working with all kinds of people in a multi-faith environment seem to inculcate within them attitudes of empathy, person-centredness, equality, broad-mindedness, openness, approachability, supportiveness, tolerance, non-judgementalism, non-directedness, compassion, patience and humility. (Gilliat-Ray, Ali and Pattison,Understanding Muslim Chaplaincy, p.175)

The Cardiff team also found that, when called to do so, Muslim chaplains provided genuine pastoral care for non-Muslim inmates. Furthermore, the study established that Muslim chaplains’ pastoral training and experience was having an impact on the mosque imamate in Britain, giving more profile and credence to the pastoral dimension in serving local communities. It also argued that the preponderance of Deobandi seminarians among Muslim prison chaplains was largely due to the huge investment in imam training that this denomination has made in Britain, more so than any other Sunni or Shia group.

Another factor that the Cardiff research team did not mention was that, after 7/7, the government wanted Muslim prison chaplains to have theological training as part of the professionalization of the sector and for them to possess the wherewithal to tackle the arguments of violent extremists. Again, this policy shift favoured Deobandi applicants who already had the necessary qualifications to hand. That said, the main formal role of Muslim chaplains remains pastoral and aimed at the spiritual welfare of the general Muslim prison population, yet they have made informal efforts to tackle extremist ideas within this primary remit, and have facilitated greater cultural awareness and understanding of prison staff about mainstream Muslim beliefs in the context of radicalisation (Gilliat-Ray et al, p.110). Overall, however, they have not been formally involved in theological deradicalisation efforts aimed at inmates with terrorist offences, for which outside specialists have been brought in with the collaboration of the authorities (HM Prison Service, Muslim Prisoners’ Experiences, 2010, p.35, Para 7.12).

For all those who agree that Muslim prison chaplaincy in Britain has been a growing and largely successful sector over the last two decades with a solid track record of public service and professional development, now is the time to make your voices heard. There is genuine fear that the government is now going to smear this sector as “extremist Muslim entryism”. Is the government going to brush aside all this dedicated public service and experience and start getting rid of people on the basis of lazy and pernicious sectarian labels? Where is the due process? Where is the expectation that professionals should be treated in a meritocratic way on the basis of their individual performances?

From my sources, I am hearing that many Muslim prison chaplains are feeling resigned to losing their jobs, and that, as public servants, they have no right to speak out if Mr Gove — who is ultimately their boss — is going to sack them. How terrible it is that even high-achieving Muslim professionals feel so isolated and demoralised that they cannot defend themselves against such baseless smears? And more importantly where will that leave the pastoral and spiritual care of Muslim inmates who sadly now make up 12% of the prison population? It is hard not to see this as anything other than institutional Islamophobia being sanctioned at the highest level, which could have really damaging and deleterious effects. Now is the time to speak up and set the record straight.

Update One: In mid-March, Middle Eastern Eye reported that Sir Michael Spurr, Head of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS)  wrote a letter to prison governors, responding to the newspaper stories, describing allegations of extremism as ‘disgraceful’. While he would await the recommendations of the MOJ report, he defended the existing vetting and recruitment process for Muslim chaplains and commended their service, and praised the ‘characteristic resilience and dignity’ of Ahtsham Ali in response to the pressure he had been put under.

A month later, some of the MOJ’s report’s findings were leaked in the Times (19 April 2016, pp.1, 6, 29 (£, paywall)), although it had not been cleared for release by Number 10. Apparently the report ‘pulled no punches’ and offers 69 recommendations, stating that NOMS suffered from managerial weaknesses when it comes to tackling extremism.  The headline conclusions leaked to the Times were:

(i) Extremist literature was found in more than ten prisons, and there was ‘little or no assessment of the suitability of Islamic literature before it was distributed to “impressionable minds”.’

(ii) Chaplains at several jails were found to have encouraged prisoners to raise monies for Islamic charities that had links to international terrorism.

(iii) Prison chaplains were judged to be under-prepared for counter-radicalisation responsibilities: ‘sometimes they lacked the capability, but often because they didn’t have the will.’

(iv) The report claims to have found evidence that chaplains from other persuasions felt ‘marginalised, bullied and intimidated’ by the dominant Deobandi viewpoint in prison chaplaincies.

Sir Michael Spurr and Ahtsham Ali as well as the Bury Dar al-Ulum came under renewed criticism in these Times articles.

Whatever the merit of these serious allegations, only minimal details have been leaked, so it is too soon to know how substantive they are. That said, it should be noted that the MOJ has again demonstrated its predilection for politically-motivated leaks, and that the political focus has intensified in the last month with the BBC’s two-part investigation ‘The Deobandis‘ on Radio 4.

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

Telling or Censoring Our British Muslim Stories?

Self-Censorship

Can the moral panic about Islam in Britain today affect how we tell our own British Muslim histories? Yahya Birt reflects on his surprise about how much contemporary politics is casting a veil over even this relatively uncontentious area of Muslim cultural life.

In October 2014 I started a doctorate at the University of Leeds. I’m aiming to illuminate an important part of the complex history of post-war Muslim Britain – its political activism. We can understand Muslim community politics today better if we tell important parts of its history that date back to the sixties. I hope to find out more through a combination of archival research and interviews.

In June 2015 I began to contact people and organisations directly whom I had identified as holding important records. So far as British Muslim institutions are concerned, this is necessary because few organisational records have been professionally archived. Notable exceptions include the new East London Mosque archive and the records of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking held at the Surrey History Centre.

One of my goals is to begin a discussion about how best to preserve these unarchived records with a view to finding workable solutions. There is some urgency because records are being lost. For instance, one important post-war Muslim women’s activist organisation neither holds its records nor a complete run of its magazine, which is tragic.

When I’ve approached people, their response has been overwhelmingly positive. One community statesman said he had been waiting to tell the story of his generation and pass on important records responsibly.

It was not surprising that another activist cautioned me about negotiating the contentious elements of this history. Differing accounts reflect the various perspectives of those who lived through those times. This is of course true of history in general and is hardly unique to our community. I can only strive to ensure that I portray each perspective fairly and accurately.

But what has really surprised me is that David Cameron is having an effect on my PhD. I didn’t expect the Prime Minister’s current drive against extremism to be affecting how British Muslims tell their own history quite so sharply. It is apparent in practices of silence and self-censorship.

The silence comes from the reluctance of some to talk about what they perceive as their radical pasts. This is particularly true of Muslim millennials – the generation that came to political prominence after 7/7. They regret what they see as a misspent youth, have no wish to advertise it now and prefer to pass over it in silence. This of course is their right. But it is revealing that the tolerance shown for youthful radicalism in British politics – either on the left or right – seems less likely to be forgiven or forgotten for Britain’s publicly active Muslims.

Self-censorship emerges for a similar reason, namely from the wish to preserve reputations to enable continued and effective public participation. Normally British Muslim organisations with long track records of community service hold commemorative events and may even mark a milestone anniversary with a publication about their history, contribution and achievements.

However, I was told recently that a community organisation dispensed with such a publication for fear that it might foster perceptions that it was “extremist”. This has become a live consideration in recent years for Muslim community organisations, most of which are charities, as the charity sector’s regulatory body, the Charity Commission, has new responsibilities and powers to tackle extremism.

It is shocking that the government’s counter-terrorism policy not only chills political dissent and free expression about contemporary issues but also how Muslim communities might preserve, record and pass on their own histories to future generations. It is very important that we consider the potential effects of silence and self-censorship and how we might find ways as a community to combat and overcome them in order that important aspects of our history are not lost forever.

Yahya Birt is undertaking a doctorate at the University of Leeds. If you have any materials or records relating to political activism in the British Muslim community between the 1960s and 1990s and wish to get involved then please contact him via prjjb AT leeds.ac.uk

This blog was originally published at the Everyday Muslim website here.

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by | August 21, 2015 · 9:55 pm

Channel referrals are shrouded in too much secrecy – we need better figures, and more transparency and accountability

Yesterday Richard Wheatstone of the Daily Mirror offered some new and alarming statistics about referrals under the government’s Channel policy, the government’s main counter-terrorism instrument. It is officially described as a multiagency approach to identify and then support individuals being drawn into terrorism, in which the police play a central role. From April 2012 to April 2015, the article “More than 900 British children identified as potential extremists at risk of radicalisation from ISIS and terror groups” (16 July 2015) revealed that 912 children have been referred to Channel.

An easily missable word in the article’s title is the qualifying adjective “potential”, but it is crucial not to skip over it. The official Channel guidance advises that, if in doubt about the merits of a case of “extremism”, the designated professional in a statutory public body (e.g. a school or a hospital) should refer it to a Channel Panel as a matter of precaution and not refer the case to another agency, e.g. social services, in the first instance. An earlier set of Channel referral figures from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) that covers the early years of the policy (2006-13) shows that four-fifths of referrals were rejected by Channel Panels (analysed here). Assuming that this proportion has not changed radically in the last two years, it is therefore fair to conclude that this article is scaremongering. Of course we all have legitimate concerns about how we could best stop serious cases like those of Talha Asmal (Dewsbury) or Zahra and Salma Halane (Manchester) happening again in future but Wheatstone’s failure to mention that 80% of referrals are rejected because they do not raise any serious concerns means that this piece is grossly misleading.

Secondly, the piece features a regional breakdown for referrals and uses these figures to provide a macabre “extremism” league table of sorts. (Channel Referrals 2012-15 (Under 18s*): North West 191, South East 151, London 126, North East 120, West Midlands 117, East Midlands 106, Wales 41, East of England 53, South West 13.) However, keeping the principles of transparency and public accountability in mind, I think they tell us very little unless these gross figures are accompanied by the referrals rejection rate in each region, or, better still, for each Channel Panel. It is also important to know what kinds of extremism we are looking at in each region: Daesh (ISIS, ISIL, or IS), far right, etc., to put this regional breakdown into a proper context; otherwise, it is erroneous to make a quick assumption about Muslim terror hotspots as Wheatstone does. This alarmist theme of local terror hotspots has been picked up and run in similar terms by regional outlets such as the Birmingham MailWales Online or the Chronicle (Newcastle).

Thirdly, Wheatstone says that “the majority of the cases” relate to what he refers to as “Islamic extremism”. He does not provide a figure. In the most recent figures in the public domain for 2012-13, 57% of those referred were Muslim. Has this figure changed substantially or not? Are we still looking at a simple majority in the average rate for the last three years or not?

Finally, some broad trends can be discerned by comparing the aggregated sets of figures, although they are awkward to work with. The two sets of figures overlap by a year and the age breakdown also differs between them. For the period 2006-13, children aged 13-16 accounted for 645 referrals out of 2653 or 24% of all cases. For the period 2012-15, children aged 12-17* accounted for 834 referrals out of 2335 or 36% of all cases. For the period 2006-13, children aged 12 or under made up 4% of all cases (113 out of 2653); for 2012-15, children under 12 also made up 4% of all cases (84 out of 2335).

Despite the awkwardness in comparing these two sets of figures, perhaps a few tentative observations are in order. In the last few years, the numbers of teenagers being referred has increased somewhat, while the numbers of under-12s being referred has remained roughly the same. Between 2006-13, a fifth of referrals came from schools, so It is reasonable to assume that, with the growing number of teenage cases, the percentage of school referrals is likely to have increased in the last two years. Since the introduction of the statutory Prevent duty in July 2015 it is likely to climb higher still, particularly when our kids go back to school in September after the summer holidays.

To conclude, whatever one’s overall assessment of Channel, I would hope that everyone might agree that it is shrouded in far too much secrecy, something that becomes ever more apparent as it grows in size, reach and impact. It is in the public interest therefore that proper information about referrals, that includes a detailed breakdown of rejction rates, region, age, religious affiliation, gender, and kinds of “extremism”, is regularly released into the public domain in the interests of transparency and public accountability. (Comparing “apples” and “oranges”, as this exercise in analysing sporadic information released under Freedom of Information requests shows, is obviously limited and unsatisfactory.) Clear and comprehensive information would allow for the proper democratic scrutiny of Prevent’s impact and performance from civil society groups, academia, the Home Office Affairs Select Committee or the still-to-be-initiated (according to one appointed member, Lord Carlyle, on the radio the other week) Prevent Oversight Board, the government’s own internal monitoring mechanism. Otherwise, how else are we to know for sure that referrals under Channel are either proportionate, fair, effective, non-prejudicial, or (ultimately) justified? Bland assurances from politicians, the police and Prevent industry insiders will not suffice. In a democracy, one rightfully expects much more.

* Assuming that Wheatstone is referring to the legal definition of a child in England and Wales as being someone under 18 years of age, when he uses terms like “children” and “kids”.

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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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The Perversity of Tom Holland’s Argument that ISIS is authentically Islamic

The history writer Tom Holland has waded into the argument about how Islamic the Islamic State is, originally sparked by an article in the Atlantic. His argument is that their rhetoric is full of pious references to scripture and that they faithfully apply the rulings to be found in the classical jurisprudential (fiqh) texts. In other words, Da‘esh is very Islamic; in fact, Islamic in a way that is too embarrassing for Muslims to acknowledge. Instead, “apologists” apparently muddy the waters by denying that ISIS is authentically Islamic, an exercise that mirrors the futility of the Catholic Council of Trent trying Canute-like to hold back the tide of the Protestant Reformation.

There are at least four reasons why this line of argument is simply perverse and dangerous.

One argument is political. Holland simply takes ISIS’s claim to be Islamic at face value, and buys into their propaganda. In doing so, he thereby gives succour to the narrative that ultimately Islam is the problem, and that the West and Islam are irreconcilable and doomed to remain in conflict. He goes beyond the well-worn language of good Muslim versus bad Muslim of the “War on Terror” years, and is closer in spirit to neoconservative “clash of civilisations” rhetoric (and ironically to ISIS’s bipolar worldview).

Another argument is historical. Holland reanimates the tendentious notion that the history of Islam can be understood through the history of Christianity, almost in a deterministic way. Thus Salafis are Calvinists and Sunnis are Catholics, and neither can hold back the tide of reform, violent or otherwise. Of course this simply elides some important differences. To name two obvious ones, that Islam has no equivalent of the Magisterium, and notwithstanding the Ottomans that Reformation Europe was not subjected to such intense extra-continental foreign invasion and occupation as nearly all Islamdom was during the era of European colonialism. We can enable a more serious debate by recognizing the claim that Islam needs to replay the history of Christianity and of Europe is ideological, rather than dressing it up as serious history.

A further argument is hermeneutical, as Holland’s position does away with any notion of orthodoxy. All Muslims can read the sources and their interpretive literature and stand in equality to them: they can all interpret them and so we cannot privilege one reading over another. But this conflates mundane ability with authority. It ignores the fact that when Muslims read the text they do so as part of a socially-embodied community of believers that worries over its present condition. This community extends into the past by its attachment to authoritative readings, exemplars, institutions, sensibilities, aptitudes and symbols, and it looks forward in arguing over what might constitute the good in the future.

For Muslims, what constitutes the good lies somewhere in the dynamic interplay between Muslim scholarly opinions and Muslim public opinion in general. Each major grouping in Islam has a notion of regulative authority and possesses an orthodoxy that shapes but does not set in aspic the tone and terms of the debate over what constitutes tradition, authority, and the good. On the other hand Muslim publics challenge their respective religious authorities on the grounds of justice, relevance and adequacy, and in the final analysis it is the umma (the body-spiritual of the believers) that regulates what is orthodox through weight of opinion.

In other words, the umma cannot be dictated to from the fringes. And on this basis the fact that a murderous cult has captured territory in Iraq and Syria and claims the mantle of Islamic normalcy and even the caliphate is neither here nor there. Rather the point is that virtually everyone has rejected ISIS’s claim to be Islamic – even other deviant extremist groups such as al-Qaeda have done so. What Tom Holland is doing is denying the right of Muslims to police deviancy and extremism in the name of Islam and is misconstruing the regulative mechanism of orthodoxy itself – Muslim public opinion – as mere apologetics.

The more salient questions that Holland alludes to but obscures are how can Salafism regulate its extreme jihadist elements and how do Sunni Muslims regulate Salafism? This is really another kind of question, namely what kind of regulative health do Islamic orthodoxies currently enjoy? I don’t want to pretend that anything other than a long and detailed reply would do justice to such large questions, and I am only going to provide the briefest of answers here.

I would posit the argument that there is a very loose regulative hierarchy of orthodoxies in Islam (see the attached diagram from S.H. Nasr’s The Heart of Islam, p.111). The Spectrum of IslamDespite their differences, their respective notions of the tradition, authority and the good bear enough of a family resemblance of overlapping congruities to recognize each other as bearers of the same living tradition. This is recognized in a de facto way, in notions like that of the ahl al-qibla or the issuance of Hajj visas in a non-sectarian way (for the most part). There are even convocations, such as the Amman Message in 2004, which provides an example of a relatively rare formal statement of this minimal reciprocal recognition. This particular initiative used the Sunni language of legitimate jurisprudential differing to recognize eight schools as orthodox: the four Sunni, two Shi‘i (Ja‘fari and Zaydi), the ‘Ibadi and the Zahiri (the latter a circumlocution for Salafi).

But it is global and mundane social processes of acclimatization and living together rather than official proclamations alone that would prove more potent. Sunnis could accommodate Salafis if there was greater mutual amity and recognition in everyday interactions along with some reduction in the militancy of Salafi thought and action. More formally, for Salafis the trade-off would be Sunni acknowledgement of them as a discrete school of law, probably to be construed as an outgrowth of late Hanabalism, under which Ibn Taymiyya and his students became primary referents. The prospects for this seem distant but less unrealistic currently than does rapprochement between Salafis and their militants, engaged as they are in a war of anathematization. This hot war of words extends to the Salafi jihadis themselves and the fallout between al-Qaeda and ISIS in 2014; it is always your former allies at the moment of betrayal who are more hated than anyone else.

Having said all this, it must be recognized that the regulative health of Islamic orthodoxy is under pressure from far more than Sheikh Google or Wahhabis, as Holland argues. In no particular order, the disruptive effects of colonialism, the intellectual challenges of European modernity, the rise of Muslim nationalism, the nationalisation of the endowments (awqaf) system that debilitated independent higher Islamic education, the shift to print from scribal culture, the change to promulgated law from law as responsa, the emergence of Islamic movements that challenged the ulema’s role, and general intellectual stagnation, have all been factors in weakening orthodoxy. Shi‘i orthodoxies being both more centralised and less historically tied to imperial state structures have tended to survive the transition to modernity more successfully than Sunni orthodoxy has. Today, both Muslim publics and their scholarly elites are under the continuous pressures of internecine national rivalries and new “Great Game” proxy wars in Islamdom that stoke sectarian conflict more so than it does encourage living together or reconciliation. To my mind, however, any right-thinking Muslim regards the weakening of orthodoxy as a serious challenge and she would regard the giving up any regulative moral role for the umma in policing its militant fringes as suicidal.

The fourth and final argument is contextual. There is a kind of pious thinking on the part of some atheists and believers alike that is wilfully blind to factors like the failure of politics, and the recourse to terrorism and invasion. In a recent interview with Vice, Obama has broken with normal “War on Terror” rhetoric to acknowledge the “unintended” causal connection between the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and that of ISIS, its bastard child. Yet it’s all about decontextualized ideas with Holland. Years into the War on Terror that’s an unsustainable position for a history writer to take. Seemingly the invasion and occupation of Iraq has less bearing for Holland than it does for Obama. Sustained asymmetric warfare over time creates brutal outfits like ISIS, who have made the propaganda of the vile deed an essential element of their credo. But of equal concern is that we have normalized a continuous state of emergency, a normalization that reduces the Muslim enemy to a subhuman status. There are continuous attempts to make legitimate their rendition, detention without charge or trial, torture, bombing, hunting by drones, and so forth. The massive projection of Western military force requires continuous war propaganda, one strand of which argues that our foe’s enmity towards us lies essentially with his Muslim identity and in nothing else.

By asking Muslims to own up to ISIS being authentically Islamic, Tom Holland is asking us to surrender Islam to ISIS. And that is wrongheaded, dangerous and perverse and serves no good outcome that I can see.

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Conversion and Betrayal

Today we live in an age when the boundary between two allegedly monolithic entities, “Islam” and the “West” appears to be rigid, politicized, ring-fenced. So the question arises as to the motives of converts to Islam. Are they converting to faith or to an anti-West political cause? Such questions get asked after terrorist incident involving converts like Richard Reid, Don Stewart-Whyte, and Germaine Lindsay.

Such examples reinforce the view that conversion to Islam is an act of joining an anti-West political cause rather than one of the world’s great religions. If conversion to Islam was dubbed “turning Turk” to the Elizabethans and the Stuarts confronting Ottoman naval power; “turning Terrorist” is its twenty-first century variant.

It can be observed that cultural boundaries between these two so-called worlds can, with time and circumstances, grow more or less rigid, or conversely become more or less permeable, with conversion seen as less threatening, as less remarkable. John Walker Lindh, dubbed “the American Taliban”, provides an iconic illustration of the tensions around conversion today.

Lindh converts to Islam in 1997, and sets out for the next few years to master Arabic and to memorise the Qur’an, in trips to the Yemen and secondly in Pakistan, to a simple madrasa in the NWFP. Exposed to the idea of global jihad, he signs up with Harakat al-Mujahidin for basic training in May 2001 and is then sent to Afghanistan in  to fight jihad there. In June 2001, Lindh, now fluent in Arabic, is sent to one of the Arab traning camps, al-Farooq, run by Bin Laden. Fighting for the Taliban he idealised against the Northern Alliance, Lindh never fires his gun once. He is shortly captured and incarcerated at a basement in the Qala-i Jangi near Mazar-i-Sharif. Of 330 men, only 85 come out alive, Lindh included. Lindh comes to global attention in a CNN interview just after he is captured but not yet in full American custody, as “the American Taliban”.

At the end of his trial, all charges relating to terrorism were dropped and Lindh was charged with carrying a rifle and grenades for the Taliban, for which he was sentenced to 20 years, and forbidden by a court ruling to speak Arabic in prison. In his final court statement Lindh repudiated terrorism, and al-Qaeda’s ideology and approach.

Lindh was the first prisoner to be “Abu-Ghraibed”, to be photographed naked and bound, blindfolded with the word “sh*thead” written across it, to be denied access to the Red Cross or to a lawyer. His was the first test case for the Bush adminstration’s creation of a legal state of exception by which international and constitutional rights were suspeneded.

Frank Lindh, John’s father, says that his son was born Muslim, always focused and disciplined from a young age. Throughout his journey to and through Islam, Lindh comes across as driven, but also as passive, as innocent to the complexities of the wider world around him. Lindh comes across as a majdhub, drawn to faith, to good practice, almost as if by a bestowal of Divine grace. He has an idealism, a divine foolishness, a fatal incuriosity for the practicalities of the world and the messy realities of politics. Tom Junod’s remarkable prison portrait leaves the unmistakable impression of itmi’nan, of Lindh being at peace with himself, in serenity at his lot in prison, reliant upon his Creator and constantly prayful. He is never known to miss the fajr prayer or to fail to offer his tahajjud devotions in the night. As the prison librarian he devotes himself to ancient Arabic texts. As a constant target for violence and abuse, Lindh cannot afford to leave himself in unsupervised parts of the prison. As Junood, puts it, despite being described as a global villian, as a modern-day “renegade”, “in response to what America has done to him” Lindh “has become more Islamic — more himself, and a better Muslim.”

Lindh is portrayed as an insider, the innocent American abroad, naive to political realities, touched by a simple profound faith of the heart, that divorces his intentions from his acts. But Lindh is also an outsider, one who has took up a task and a choice that few converts have: the cause of jihad on behalf of the Taliban. He is the terrorist, one for whom the basic dignities  and human rights afforded a prisoner of war and a citizen were suspended.

Lindh’s story indicates that choices away from liberal self-enlightenment can only be seen as acts of betrayal. But betrayal of what? Of enlightened morality and sound reasoning, as conversion enacts a reversal of the process of reformation and enlightenment. Such a choice might have been seen, in kinder times, as naive or eccentric, but today are seen as subversive, defiant, traitorous. Converts to Islam must be deconstructed as moral persons to make safe the boundary around liberalism (and indeed Islam), marked by words of rejection and acts of violence, such is the dangerous ambiguity of free choice, of acceptance and betrayal, that the convert represents.

Yahya Birt is Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing and blogs at http://www.yahyabirt.com.

This article first appeared in Emel Magazine, Issue 44, May 2008.

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