Counter-terrorism unit undermines Scotland's struggle against racism

Statement from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC)

The fight against racism in Scotland is being undermined and discredited by a controversial counter-terrorism unit. The new unit, the Scottish Preventing Violent Extremism Unit, has been set up within the Scottish Government's Equalities Unit as a result of a collaboration between the Scottish Government and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland. SACC describes the move as "madness."

The Unit is tasked with implementing the "Prevent" prong of the UK government's re-launched counter-terrorism strategy, officially dubbed "Contest." But Prevent is a fundamentally racist programme that treats the whole Muslim community as a suspect community.

The An-Nisa Society – a London-based organisation led by Muslim women – said in April:

"The failure to drastically overhaul the Prevent strand of the strategy in the light of widespread criticisms and concerns will have devastating long term effects on Muslim communities in the UK. Unless the Muslim community makes a speedy and concerted effort to challenge this strategy it will be ‘sleepwalking’ into disaster."

The An-Nisa Society adds:

"Muslims will be subject to surveillance mainstreamed through the core services of local councils and other agencies."

The Scottish Preventing Violent Extremism Unit held a briefing for "faith and belief community representatives" in Edinburgh on 14 April. It has been seeking meetings this week with representatives of Muslim women's groups. The moves follow a one-day conference on "Community Cohesion and Contingency Planning" held on Monday by Holyrood Magazine, with keynote speakers from the UK Government, the Scottish Police and the Scottish Preventing Violent Extremism Unit.

In a related initiative, a website called Voices Scotland has been launched as an "autonomous third sector project" linked to Prevent. The website says that it will "develop new approaches to combating extremism and connecting communities" and "help people connect with moderate attitudes towards challenge and confrontation."

The SNP says it is opposed to the war. But it has quite needlessly taken responsibility for a controversial counter-terrorism initiative that has been poisoned by an intimate connection with the war. Counter-terrorism policy is reserved to Westminster. The Scottish Government has no power to change the fundamental flaws in the strategy, so it shouldn't have become involved with it. Planting a counter-terrorism unit inside the Scottish Government's Equalities Unit is madness and will undermine all Scotland's progress in the struggle against racism. It certainly won't do anything to protect us from terrorism.

Prevent represents a march of the securitati into civil society that is every bit as deadly and divisive as the march of the fascist BNP into parliamentary politics. Scottish Muslims need to keep working with the wider community. But Prevent doesn't represent the wider community. It represents the intelligence and security communities.

SACC is asking people in Scotland to steer well clear of the Scottish Preventing Violent Extremism Unit and the Prevent programme. We hope that they will turn instead to groups that work in the same spirit as we do – groups like the Stop the War Coalition, Glasgow Campaign to Welcome Refugees, the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the various other groups campaigning for justice for the Palestinian people and for other oppressed groups. Campaigns like these bring people of all communities together in clear opposition to racism, war and injustice and in support of values held dear by all decent people.

What's wrong with Britain's counter-terrorism strategy - a SACC briefing

Briefing from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC), 12 June 2009

Prevent is just one strand of the UK government's Contest strategy for tackling terrorism. Contest was re-launched ("Contest 2") in Scotland at the beginning of May by Britain's unelected security minister, Sir Alan West, a former admiral. The admiral gave a handy tip to anyone worried about terrorism:

"If you see a car with canisters in the back that are smoking, tell someone," he said. "Be vigilant, but don't let it spoil your fun."

The strategy was given a more cerebral gloss this week at a one-day conference on "Community Cohesion and Contingency Planning" organised by Holyrood Magazine ("an insider’s guide to understanding the complexity of Scottish politics"). The event seems to have been a high-rent love-in for Britain's counter-terrorism industry. The conference agenda promised token guest appearances from human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar and Osama Saeed of the Scottish-Islamic Foundation. They must have had an interesting time.

Contest isn't just a crime-prevention strategy. It's a deadly mix of spin, psychological warfare, social engineering and intelligence-gathering. The Government says that Contest includes a "commitment to human rights and the rule of law." But Contest uses and promotes laws that strip us of fundamental human rights. Contest links domestic policy to the Government's wars of aggression in the Middle East. The Government says that the programme "coordinates closely with our counter-insurgency work overseas, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Under the guise of tackling "terrorism", Contest stifles the capacity of the Muslim community to mount an effective political challenge to British foreign policy or to work with the wider British community in opposition to war.

No decent person would object to a straightforward crime-prevention programme that was designed to prevent politically-motivated murder and that respected established human rights principles. But a programme that uses crime-prevention as a vehicle to protect an unpopular war from criticism and to manipulate the values and activities of an entire community deserves no support from civil society.

A particularly worrying development has been the creation within the Contest strategy of a propaganda outfit called the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) , staffed by the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office.

The Government says in its March 2009 counter-terrorism strategy document that "RICU draws together specialists in audience insight and communications; marketing; digital media; anthropology; research methodology and knowledge management; and pan-Arab media." Recognising that "Government voices and Government messaging will not always reach and change attitudes or behaviours" it "works to promote credible alternative voices."

RICU's strategy includes the "use of social media sites by community organisations." It also includes the creation of "internet forums where individuals are encouraged to debate issues within safe environments in order to undercut the violent extremists’ distorted narrative of oppression and victimhood." How a website linked to counter-terrorism policy and policing can possibly be regarded as a "safe" environment isn't explained.

The new Voices Scotland website bears all the hallmarks of an RICU initiative although it has in fact been developed, according to the website itself, by a Glasgow-based company called Digital Media Cast – part of the Jabbar group. Jabbar is a holding company headquartered in Glasgow with offices in Morocco, Tanzania, Dubai and Pakistan.

So-called "violent extremism" is a particular target of the entire Contest strategy, and especially of its Prevent prong. It is intended to encompass activities that aren't criminalised under the vague, far-reaching and politically-charged definition of terrorism used in British law. Yet there is no up-to-date, publicly-available working explanation of the term.

A draft version of Contest leaked to the Guardian in February provoked an outcry when it was found to label as "extremist" views held by many British Muslims – such as a belief in Sharia law or support for the concept of a pan-Islamic state across parts of Asia and North Africa. The result is that the 178-page document published in March on "The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism" contains no definition of "extremism" or "violent extremism." But the terms "violent extremism" or "violent extremist" appear 151 times in the document and the terms "extremism" or "extremist" (without the "violent" tag) appear a further 48 times. What are the people charged with implementing Contest expected to do? Make up a definition for themselves?

On the other hand, the Government's Prevent programme has come under attack from Islamophobes and right-wing policy pundits for providing funding to "extremists". The "Choosing Our Friends Wisely" report in March by the Policy Exchange thinktank claims that "non-violent extremists have consequently become well dug in as partners of national and local government and the police."

The result of all this is that Prevent is simply a mess. It's a mess that belongs solely to the Westminster government. The Scottish Government has no power to clean up the mess, since counter-terrorism is a matter reserved to Westminster. Attaching tartan tassles to the mess accomplishes nothing. The Scottish Government has been unwise, to say the least, in giving the mess a home. Beside being a mess, Prevent is racist. It beggars belief that the Scottish Government has chosen to dump the racist mess inside its Equalities Unit.

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