Muslim Council of Scotland Looks at Counter-Extremism Policy

The Muslim Council of Scotland held a seminar on countering extremism on Wednesday 2 March. The seminar, attended by about 30 invited participants, took place in Glasgow City Chambers.  Glasgow City Council leader Frank McAveety gave a speech welcoming the seminar, and emphasised that Glasgow has a tradition of tolerance.

Michael Matheson MSP, the Scottish Government's Cabinet Secretary for Justice, then spoke about the duties created under the statutory Prevent strategy, saying the "duty is to keep people safe." The Prevent Duty Guidance for Scotland was issued jointly by the UK and Scottish Governments under the UK's Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

Michael Matheson said that the strategy is being "challenged by people who wish to spread division." There has been an increasingly strident UK-wide  campaign to de-legitimise opposition to Prevent, for example through a series of articles in the Daily Mail that has presented opposition as being driven by Muslim organisations, and has presented these organisations as "extremist".

The Prevent strategy is regarded by SACC and many others as Islamophobic. But Michael Matheson said "we will not tolerate Islamophobia."

Asked about the role of the media in spreading Islamophobia, Micheal Matheson referred to a meeting with media editors and others that had dealt with reporting on mental health issues, and suggested that a similar approach could be taken to reporting matters related to community relations and Islamophobia. He appeared to be concerned particularly with reporting that highlighted the religious or ethnic identity of people involved in violent incidents.

Asked why there has been no Scottish involvement in the Westminster debate on the Prevent Duty Guidance for Scotland (no Scottish  MPs participated in the debate), he said he could not comment on Westminster matters.

He was asked at the same time why, in view of the Scottish Government's acknowledgement that Prevent involves devolved as well as reserved functions, there had been no debate at Holyrood and, in particular, why the statutory Prevent guidance had not triggered a Legislative Consent Motion (Sewel Motion) in the the Scottish Parliament. He said that a Legislative Consent Motion was not possible because terrorism policy is reserved to Westminster.

A representative of the Muslim Council of Scotland then said that Westminster had been invited to send a speaker to the seminar but had declined to do so, saying it was a matter for the Scottish Government. Michael Matheson was unable to explain this.

Asked to explain how the Prevent guidance for Scotland differed from the guidance for England and Wales, Michael Matheson said that Scotland doesn't have a Channel programme, but instead has a programme called "Prevent Professional Concerns." Channel is a strategy to indentify individuals "at risk of radicalisation" and provide "support" for them (eg by providing  "deradicalistion" courses). Michael Matheson emphasised that the Prevent Professional Concerns (PPC) programme takes a "multi-agency approach". The Channel Duty Guidance also describes Channel as a "multi-agency approach".

A Prevent training video for Scotland says:

"P heads up his borough's Channel panel. In lots of ways it's similar to the multi-agency PPC meetings in Scotland."

Michael Matheson left to attend the Parliament after responding to questions.  Councillor Archie Graham, representing Glasgow City Council local authorities (including education) then spoke.

He said that Prevent was not something new and that Glasgow City Council had been involved in it for a number of years. He emphasised that it is important not to "drive this debate underground." He said that most teachers would be getting Prevent training at the end of the summer holidays.

Frank Deas, a senior Glasgow City Council officer, said that the number of PPC referrals to date, across the whole of Scotland, was "just into double figures."

Concerns were raised that staff participating in PPC meetings might not be sufficiently well-informed about Islam to distinguish between individuals showing an increased interest in Islam, and those whose behaviour might reasonably warrant concern. Archie Graham emphasised that the changes in an individual's behaviour that might trigger PPC were not necessarily specifically associated with devotion to Islam, but could be almost anything, including apparently minor changes.

Afer a break, presentations were made by community organisations. Speakers on the community panel had been asked to focus on two questions:

Question one:
What are the major drivers of, and risk factors for recruitment to extremist movements?
What are the priorities when dealing with these issues?

Question two:
How effective is the current strategy on responding to the challenges of extremism?
What alternative mechanisms can there be to the current strategy
What role can the community play in counter extremism measures?

Mazhar Khan spoke on behalf of MCS, Haq Ghani spoke about the role of mosques, and Sajid Quayum spoke on behalf of the Islamic Society of Britain. Richard Haley provided the seminar participants with a written response to the two questions, and then spoke on behalf of SACC.

He said that it is difficult to talk about extremism because extremism is hard to define, but is for the moment defined in UK Government policy as "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values."

Arguing that Prevent had been implemented very actively in England and Wales for some years, but appeared to be ineffective, he said:

"A dog barking up the wrong tree keeps barking. That won't turn the wrong tree into the right one."

Summing up, he said:

"The trade union campaigns against Prevent are becoming the biggest and most serious organised campaign of solidarity with Muslims that this country has ever seen. They need you to take a position that won't look as if their solidarity isn't wanted. More than anything, they need the oxygen of a living connection with the Muslim community. Please give it to them. Don't help Theresa May to marginalise you. Don't be confused by the Scottish Government's failure to understand the problem. Reject the counter-extremism confidence trick."

The seminar then heard from Khadija Elshayyal, speaking on behalf of Al Waleed, and AbdulAhad Hussein, speaking on behalf of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS).

AbdulAhad Hussein said FOSIS is affiliated to the NUS and accordingly supports last year's NUS Conference decision to oppose Prevent.  The resolution passed at the conference instructs NUS officers not to engage with Prevent. AbdulAhad Hussein argued that Prevent takes a misguided approach to countering extremism, and said that FOSIS would like to help in constructing a better strategy.

Speaking to the media outside the seminar, MCS Director Salah Beltagui said Prevent "inhibits the community from being honest, direct and saying what they believe in" so it takes "some time to find out if somebody is going down the vulnerable way".