Category Archives: Terrorism

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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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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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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Don't repeat this mistake

It may be tempting fate to say so, but the conviction of the ringleaders of the airliner plot last week represents the end of an era. MI5 believes that al-Qaida has no “semi-autonomous structured hierarchy” in the United Kingdom, and there have been fewer “late-stage attack plans over the last 18 months”.

Back in the 90s and even after the 9/11 attacks, Britain allowed radical preachers such as Omar Bakri Muhammad, Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada to promote global jihad. The warnings that community leaders gave at the time largely fell on deaf ears; and we British Muslims failed to stop the growth of this radical fringe, which was galvanised by the tragedy of Bosnia.

Around 2000, the alienation of one young muslim I knew was so powerful that he felt he could only opt for the cause of global jihad – a utopian struggle divorced from the urban realities he was failing to deal with.

Since the government crackdown on the original radical preachers, we have been dealing with their disciples, who don’t have a political ideology as such but a simple metaphysical struggle, of good verses evil. We have also come to understand that these plots were loosely linked in the UK, with three-quarters of them directed by al-Qaida and its affiliates in Pakistan.

The intelligence penetration of violent extremist networks and the clampdown on their propaganda are reducing effective recruitment into terrorism, in spite of the wave of major terrorist plots directed at Britain after the invasion of Iraq. Yet, despite our relative success, al-Qaida still intends to strike this country and we should be prepared for a change in tactics.

Social division over the Muslim question in Europe is becoming more important, and our approach to preventative policies needs rethinking. After the airliner plot was foiled in 2006, the government called for a change in direction, aiming to partner Muslims who actively confronted violent extremism. But this approach has proved too wide in focus, wasteful of resources and has damaged social solidarity.

Under the Home Office’s Prevent policy, aimed at countering violent extremism, local authorities have had to prioritise counter-terrorism. Youth services, community safety and neighbourhood teams, social inclusion and regeneration teams are all being inveigled into this cause. Community workers are concerned about how to preserve relationships of trust with those they are helping, particularly with Muslim young people. One youth worker I spoke to complained of police intrusion into his work, of being pressurised to reveal details about his clients and to breach his professional code of confidentiality. Youth services, he said, were being driven towards counter-terrorism and away from drugs and criminality.

In addition, the policy has treated Muslims as an “at risk” set of communities, rather than simply citizens. The polarising dynamic between the far right and groups such as al-Muhajiroun has led to a string of anti-Muslim demos and anti-fascist counter-demos with clashes in Luton, Birmingham and north-west London. The newly formed English Defence League is planning further demos next month in Manchester and Leeds. In July, a far-right terrorist plot with a huge cache of arms and a plan to bomb British mosques was uncovered.

This weekend John Denham compared today’s far right to Oswald Mosley’s 1930s fascists, and announced a drive to counter the extremists within white working-class communities. Yet it won’t do for the government to extend its current counter-terrorist policies to treat the white working classes as another “at risk” category. It should first reflect on just how effective the policy has been.

The vast majority of Muslim institutions that have signed up to Prevent are too distant from the violent fringe – their response has always been to kick the al-Muhajirouns of this world out of the mosques. They have felt more comfortable using Prevent funds for pet projects that have little direct impact: a government-commissioned audit found that only 3% of projects targeted those “glorifying or justifying violent extremism”. Why would this blanket approach work any better in preventing far-right terrorism? We need universal reasons – not counter-terrorist ones – to tackle inequality on a basis that all British citizens can accept as equitable and fair.

Prevent must be refocused, to employ only those with the know-how and credibility to persuade alienated Britons to turn away from violence and extremism. Last week, the imam giving the Friday address at the Harrow mosque invited those outside, who were calling for no more mosques in Europe, inside for talks. That would be a good start: polemics cannot be a substitute for understanding and reconciliation.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 14th September 2009.

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Just how big a threat is "Islamic" terrorism?

How big a threat is “Islamic” terrorism (note the scare quotes) to Europe? It’s a valid question, and not one that we should assume we already know the answer to.

Since 9/11, politicians have had a ready answer and portray terrorism as the primary, existential threat, even in an age of global warming. For Tony Blair it was “the greatest twenty-first century threat”, for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “the greatest threat facing democracies”, for George W. Bush, “the greatest threat this world faces”, for the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, “no challenge is greater”, and for Vladimir Putin, the former Russian President, “the greatest threat to world peace”. [1]

From 7/7 until May 2007, there have been around 25 statements on UK threat levels from MI5, “Whitehall sources”, the police and politicians to the national and foreign press. Al-Qaeda “supporters” ranged in number from 200 to 120,000 based on unscientific polling; Al-Qaeda “terrorists” from 200 to 4000; and numbers of plots, networks and those who trained in camps were variable. In May 2007, Lord Stevens gave two contradictory figures of 2000 and 4000 UK terrorists. [2] Even if Gordon Brown now determines that such announcements should be formally made to Parliament, it may be some time before politicians will be judged to have handed these announcements responsibly.

Facts and statistics have a way of undermining such rhetoric that, some have argued, is more designed to promote a politics of fear and a “war on terror” in which securing peace and stability for some is underwritten by ongoing military intervention and the planetary curtailment of fundamental freedoms for others. Certainly the two Interpol reports assessing the terrorist threat across Europe makes for sobering reading in this regard. In 2006, one out of 498 terrorist attacks were “Islamist”; in 2007, four out of 583: that’s rather less than one per cent of the total. [3] By contrast, nationalist separatism is statistically a much more pressing terrorist problem in Europe.

The rejoinders might be that these isolated attacks aim at mass civilian casualties, there is no gentleman’s agreement of pre-warning that did exist, albeit imperfectly, in Northern Ireland and that no political endgame exists if terrorism is still understood as the outcome of local grievances, anti-imperialist insurgencies and frustrated causes of nationalist self-determination. The global franchise of al-Qaeda, while it feeds on these, is the child of the Internet, globalisation and the devolution of the state monopoly on the use of large-scale violence in the name of a deterritorialised ummah. We therefore face a failure of the political imagination to think through what a better endgame might be when the dominant metaphor is that of an endless struggle against an abstract noun, “terrorism”, that allows the rulebook on conflict resolution to gather dust on the shelf.

But is al-Qaeda an existential, first-order threat? For a generation that lived through the Cold War that seems overblown. The Interpol figures allow us to make an assumption and to ask a question. The assumption is that intelligence penetration into frankly amateurish terrorist cells is better than we are often led to believe and that prevention is working rather effectively. On the radio programme Desert Island Discs in 2007, Dame Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, the former Director-General of MI5, said that, even if patchy and incomplete, intelligence was being garnered.

This assumption then leads the argument for prevention in two possible directions: firstly to say, as governments do, that such initiatives are measured and equitable or secondly to question whether preventative measures are fair and proportionate even if they are always necessary. Again the Interpol figures show that the impact of anti-terrorist measures outstrips the actual threat level. For instance, in 2006, a third of all terrorist arrests involved “Islamists”; in 2007, a fifth did. In 2007, 44 per cent of terrorist convictions featured “Islamists”, mostly for membership of proscribed groups, financing, recruitment and propaganda. Only a fifth of these related to preparatory acts of terrorism.

Let’s add on top of that the observations that too much media coverage links Muslims to terrorism and cultural backwardness (as the recent survey by the Cardiff School of Journalism on the British press between 2000-08 showed) [4] and the rightward shift in European politics stokes and reflects anti-Muslim sentiment, then we can hardly operate in a political context amenable to question if preventative, legal and policing measures have been proportionate or fair. Indeed, for a European Muslim to pose such a question is to risk being branded as an apologist, but – believe it or not – there can be other motivations at play like the desire to protect fundamental liberties and the concern that discriminatory treatment feeds the sort of alienation terrorist recruiters like to exploit.

To get it right, the question – how big is the terrorist threat? – should always be asked.

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

A version of this article was first published by Emel Magazine, Issue 47, August 2008.

Notes

[1] C. Abbot, P. Rogers and J. Sloboda, Beyond Terror: The Truth about Real Threats to Our World (London: Rider, 2007), 5. The authors (part of the Oxford Study Group) view climate change, competition over scarce resources, the marginalisation of the majority world and global militarisation as more pressing security threats.

[2] Steve Hewitt, The British War on Terror: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism on the Home Front since 9/11 (London: Continuum, 2008), 81.

[3] The EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Reports (TESAT) 2007 and 2008 are both available online.

[4] The Cardiff School of Journalism’s report is available here: http://www.channel4.com/news/media/pdfs/Cardiff%20Final%20Report.pdf

Update (10th Aug 2008)

S. Lodhi kindly pointed out an inaccurately reported figure from the 2007 Interpol report. It should have been one “Islamist” attack out of 498 (not 424), TESAT 2007, p. 13, Table One. Thanks, Yahya

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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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Britz: A Review

Nasima and the police in BritzPeter Kosminsky, well-known for his topical political dramas, has taken on post-7/7 Britain in his latest offering, the two-parter, Britz. This is the story of a brother, Sohail (Riz Ahmed, the single “Post-9/11 Blues”, Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo), and his sister, Nasima (Manjinder Virk, Neil Biswas’s Bradford Riots), both born and bred in Bradford, and caught up on opposite sides of the “war on terror”. Predictably, the film is attracting controversy even before its broadcast. Community leaders, unnamed government sources and media critics are already accusing the drama of pandering to extremists and reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists. As Channel Four were kind enough to send me Blitz in advance, here’s a (p)review (with a few spoilers, so don’t read further if you want to wait!).

The first part tells the story from Sohail’s perspective. Instead of continuing his studies for the bar, he decides on a more exciting, secret career with MI5. Keen to break out of the “community ghetto”, Sohail tells MI5 that he wants to put something back into Britain, a country that has given him everything. He does so without illusions, also telling his interviewer that the so-called war on terror is driven by the need to secure oil and gas supplies. From the start, it is an uncomfortable journey as Sohail alternates between two views: the pragmatic need to get tough with the terrorists themselves, yet seeing the impact of anti-terror legislation on family, friends and community. He accepts the use of rendition and the torture of a former acquaintance to get information that could save lives and stop an impending attack, but strongly criticises the heavy policing of the community under anti-terrorist legislation. The police are shown as uncaring and racist throughout in their treatment of British Muslims. They call them “F**king Pakis” or offer to force-feed them ham sandwiches washed down with a pint of beer. With Sohail on board, a new plot to attack Britain, linked with earlier attacks, is uncovered by MI5.

The second part tells Nasima’s side of the story. A trainee doctor, she is a committed civil liberties activist, protesting against the “war on terror”. She becomes disenchanted with activism when a close friend is placed under a control order and later, out of desperation, commits suicide. A radical recruiter challenges her: has political activism overturned a single piece of anti-terrorism law, or did the anti-war movement prevent a war on Islam? She cannot answer him and starts down a darker road to becoming Britain’s first female suicide bomber in the plot that Sohail is seeking to uncover.

The first part is very quick-paced and sharply edited, conveying Sohail’s energy and lack of introspection. From the start he seems to know what he wants: his frustrations are with his family, the community, the police or the intelligence services who seem to be getting it wrong in his view, not with himself. But the viewer is not led to understand how Sohail came to find this already well-marked out path. Why does he take up the role of a spy? We are never really given an in-depth answer.

The second part, especially in its second half, is more languid, almost meditative. Nasima, even after taking her chosen path as a suicide bomber, as a mother of Usama (“umm Usama”) seems tortured, in anguish at her decision. Her eyes convey dismay, and she becomes mute, untalking, in sharp contrast to her fiery eloquent indignation as a civil rights activist. There is only resignation at the political logic that has taken her to the path of violence, not joyful fanaticism.

Like a lot of political dramas, the situations and characters seem engineered to get a political point across, and the interweaving of the personal and political is not as artfully done as it could have been. So what are the big points that Britz tries to make?

The stripping away of civil liberties is creating a new suspect community, a situation that is directly exploited by extremists who argue that political protest doesn’t work. Far from being mindless, the terrorists can represent some of the brightest, most committed people around, the natural leaders of a generation. Talk of theology is a distraction. This is fundamentally a political struggle, in which the ends justify the means. Nasima is one of those recruits who “isn’t doing this for God” but because political means have failed and there is only “the propaganda of the deed” left as the final course of action.

Despite the dramatic devices used to heighten the tension, like setting brother against sister, Britz attempts an authentic portrayal of post-7/7 Britain to raise these political issues credibly. Most interesting here are the murky worlds of underground extremism and MI5, both of which seem ridiculously easy for Nasima and Sohail to penetrate. Open recruitment to domestic suicide attacks appears to go on university campuses — this seems incredible in 2007 when surely it is much more undercover. If there are any stringent vetting procedures to get into MI5, we aren’t shown them here: Sohail seems to breeze in after a few gentle questions about his personal life. The world of al-Qaeda, from its recruitment to its training regimes, seemed fantastically feminised too. Nasima and other women implausibly train together with grim bearded men to strip an AK-47 blindfolded and make bombs while wearing red lipstick and dupattas. Al-Qaeda’s religious puritanism has been overlooked here.

More chilling and credible are the banks of Urdu-speaking Aunties in MI5, transcribing bugged Urdu and English conversations from Dewsbury and elsewhere. (A running joke in the Muslim community is that every time your mobile phone clicks, you assume that the spooks are listening in.) Also featured is a huge Star-Trek-style computerised map of the Operation Crevice network, in real life the largest anti-terrorist investigation conducted in British history. The real case established the current premise upon which the authorities say they are now working, namely that the British-based terrorist cells have loose connections with each other, ideological, social or otherwise, often with links back to Pakistan.

In this network analysis, Mohamed Sidique Khan’s charred sim card thus becomes the “crown jewels” in Britz, by which the deceased “node” is seen as the key to the rest of the “network”. The tiresome trawling through networks and contacts portrayed here seems closer to the routine world of intelligence work than Spooks is. Sohail derides the discovery of five new “clean skins” from a paintballing session involving three of the 7/7 cell as a fuss over nothing, but they in fact turn out to be behind a new attack that MI5 later manages to avert. The high-tech portrayal aims, perhaps, to allude to a lack of human intelligence, in which the cultural insights and expertise of Sohail are fatally devalued.

Yet despite these flaws, Britz remains a powerful and watchable drama that does not shy away from the crucial point that no amount of cultural and religious stereotyping will make the politics of the war-on-terror go away.

Britz will be broadcast on Channel 4 on Wednesday 31st October at 9pm (part one) and concludes on Thursday 1st November at 9pm (part two).

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