Journalist, Producer & Researcher

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Preventing Violent Extremism Programme: Winning Hearts and Minds?

The Preventing Violent Extremism Strategy (usually known as Prevent) has been subject to constant debate since its roll out by the Labour government. The agenda was launched as a community-led initiative to engage with members of the community to ‘stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorist activity.’ This was supposed to be achieved by establishing partnerships with Muslims communities and ultimately winning their hearts and minds. However, the response to this strategy was not how government had envisioned. Although the Prevent programme has been criticised as being counter-productive and alienating Muslim communities, it has also been perceived to be promoting community cohesion, community development and preventing terror attacks.

Recent events, such as the failed Stockholm suicide bombing attack have led many individuals across Britain to question what exactly the £60 million investment has achieved.

I decided to find out how Prevent was operating, and the extent to which it was being counter-productive or preventative, through my Masters thesis. I did this by engaging and speaking to many Muslim individuals, Prevent managers, Prevent workers and community leaders across the country. As the negative feedback on the strategy was dominating the media, I expected to find a similar argument. However, this was not exactly the case

While the agenda has its flaws, the overall findings of my study indicated that the Prevent agenda has played a part in combating violent extremism. The projects delivered under Prevent have been successful in promoting cohesion within Muslim communities and empowering many Muslim women and youth. The trust and rapport between the police and the Muslim community has also improved tremendously due to the Prevent work of the police leading to more engagement with Muslim communities. Muslim individuals, mainly women and youth now felt a sense of empowerment and unity after participating in these Prevent programmes and were seen to be rejecting violent extremism by partnering with many local institutions to try and combat this threat.

However, the link between these community-based projects and actually preventing a terrorist attack is weak. While there is no supporting evidence to assert that Prevent projects have prevented terror attacks, there is also no evidence to indicate it has not. Moreover, the measures that have led individuals to reject violent extremism, such as improved rapport and trust with Muslim communities, education and empowerment are all cohesion based and have been as a result of cohesion work. This suggests they could equally be achieved if placed within a cohesion agenda.

The findings also highlighted other downfalls of Prevent. The major barrier being its language singling out the Muslim community. This is the reason why many individuals have refused to be a part of the agenda and many human rights organisations have been quick to criticise it. The danger here is that once a particular faith group is targeted in government rhetoric, it portrays them as a problem community and sets the tone for the majority of the population to do the same. The quick allocation of the strategy, its control by central government and interventions in Islam are also other downfalls which are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim community.

Along with this, I also discovered that central government is the major stakeholder in this agenda. While the strategy emphasises the community-led approach, it is predominantly led by central government and has been right from the start. After 7/7, the need for an approach to tackle the emerging threat of home-grown terrorism became one of Labour’s top priorities and the first measure to deal with this was the implementation of a Preventing Extremism Taskforce. This taskforce involved over one thousand Muslim community representatives coming together and producing sixty-four recommendations on what should be done to tackle extremism and terrorism in Muslim communities. However, out of these recommendations, only four out of the sixty-four were implemented by the Blair government and further applied in counter-terrorism policy.

Throughout the years of Prevent, we have seen similar scenarios like this occurring. The establishment of the Muslim Women’s National Advisory Group and the Young Muslims Advisory Group were devised by central government to act as consultation boards to represent Muslim women and youth. However, these groups are said to be merely a publicity stunt with central government not listening or acting on anything these members had to say, but rather engaging with one particular group, the Quilliam Foundation. Quilliam, has received over £1m in counter-terrorism funding and claims to represent the Muslim population of Britain, but has little credibility within Britain’s Muslims communities.

If this community-led mantra is ever to be established, consultation and engagement with Muslim communities needs to be as wide and diverse as possible. By only engaging with, and allocating millions of pounds of funding to those Muslim organisations who are ‘moderate’ and ‘pro-Prevent’ is dangerous and will never reach those most needed to engage in the fight against extremism. From my research and engaging with many Prevent workers and managers, it was discovered that local authorities are doing the best they can out of this situation. However, the issues with Prevent lay with central government and its approach to assessing and implementing this strategy.

The review of Prevent is expected to be in early 2011. It has been rumoured that changes such as ending funding to the Quilliam foundation and incorporating right-wing extremism into the strategy will be key priorities for this new coalition government to ultimately win the hearts and minds of the Muslim community. Let’s hope that this time round, lessons will be learnt and this new and improved strategy will really be ‘community-led.’ It will be the only way the government can ultimately ‘stop people from becoming terrorists and supporting terrorist activity.’

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Radicalisation and Foreign Policy

The recent Stockholm suicide bombing incident and the many thwarted Islamist terror attacks across the UK post 7/7 has left many to ask why and how individuals are becoming radicalised and where does it stem from?

David Cameron in his New Year’s speech questioned how Britain could allow ‘the radicalisation and poisoning of the minds of some young British Muslims who then contemplate and sometimes carry out acts of sickening barbarity.’

Here’s one suggestion; British foreign policy.

If you take a look at the investigations and analysis into those individuals who go on to commit terror offenses, the major factors which always spring up as to the sole reason why individuals are drawn into such behaviour are Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

So why does the government constantly deny that foreign policy has little impact on the radicalisation of an individual? Yes, many studies have shown that radicalisation can stem from a range of factors, whether it being extremist influence, racism or societal exclusion and this is point I too agree with. No individual can be radicalised by one single method like watching YouTube videos or being exposed to extremist views. I too believe radicalisation is a result of a range of influences. However, if you look into the reasons that motivate individuals to be drawn into violent ideology, the issues of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine always emerge as one of the causes.

Roshonara Choudhry’s motivation to stab MP Stephen Timms was purely out of revenge for his vote in the war in Iraq; yet reports published in the aftermath indicated the major factor for radicalisation was the influence of Al-Awaki’s YouTube seminars. The 7/7 bombers motivation was also due to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009, three Britons attempted to blow up planes using liquid explosives because of the injustice in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

While each individual presented different circumstances, foreign policy always emerges as the main motivation. Yet, government’s counter-terrorism policies, specifically that of the Preventing Violent Extremism agenda have failed to address these grievances in detail, purely focusing on ideology, Islam, community cohesion and societal exclusion.

While these may also be a major factor in preventing an individual from taking that violent extremism path, there exists today a strong wave of young British Muslims who are angry with the invasion of Iraq, the biased media coverage of the ‘war on terror’, the government’s refusal to take action against Israeli war crimes and let’s not forget the rising popularity of the English Defence League (EDL) and increasing Islamophobia tensions.

While mainstream media outlets such as the BBC and SKY news promote biased coverage and continuous updates on soldiers being killed, other networks such as Al-Jazeerah are showing the mass casualties of civilians. More and more Muslims across Britain are now tuning into these media outlets as their prime source of information.

I’m not suggesting that foreign policy has to have the Muslims communities’ approval, but extremist groups use these events as a major tool in their recruitment campaigns. Thus, measures to involve and listen to Muslim individuals’ views on foreign policy can play a vital role in combating Islamist extremism.
However, this cannot occur if the government constantly blames radicalisation on the lack of integration into ‘British’ society by Muslim individuals.

While stressing the need for a counter-terrorism agenda in the UK, Cameron also saw no problem in defending this so called ‘war on terror’ and let’s not forget keeping silent on Israel’s barbaric actions in Gaza. These decisions I believe will further the radicalisation movement and worsen relationships between Muslim communities.

With the review of the Prevent Violent Extremism Agenda underway, will there be a slight alteration to take a closer look at the relationship between foreign policy and radicalisation or will there be more constant statements of British Muslims needing to become more ‘British.’ 9/10 the latter will prevail.