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Barking up the wrong tree - the Prevent strategy and the Muslim Community

Glasgow City Chambers

Speech given by SACC Chair Richard Haley at the seminar on "countering extremism" held by the Muslim Council of Scotland in Glasgow City Chambers on 2 March 2016 . This is the text of the speech, corrected from memory. It may differ slightly from the speech delivered.

Other speakers on the panel were Mazhar Khan (representing MCS), Haq Ghani (speaking about the role of mosques), Sajid Quayum (representing the Islamic Society of Britain), Khadija Elshayyal (representing Al Waleed) and  AbdulAhad Hussein (representing FOSIS). Earlier in the morning the seminar had heard from Scotland's  Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson MSP (who left before the panel presentation) and local government representatives.

All of us on this panel have been asked to respond to some questions provided in advance. Some of the questions sound rather like the opneing gambit of a Prevent training session. My response is in the handout that's being passed around. But now I'm going to talk about the issues in a more general way.

We've been talking all this morning about "extremism". It's difficult to do becasue it's difficult to pin down what "extremism" means.

The Government's definition, in Prevent documentation that applies across the UK, is that  extremism is "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values."

That amounts to: "we don't know what extremism is, but we know it when we see it."

Counter-extremism interventions operate in what the police call the pre-criminal space, and the rest of us should call the lawful space.

The Government vehicle for countering lawful extremism is the Prevent strategy. Prevent focuses particulary on what it calls "Islamist extremism", which of course it doesn't define. Prevent also refers to a continuing risk from Northern Ireland related terrorism, and a risk from far-right terrorism that it say is low. But it repeatedly makes clear that the main thraet is thought to be from "Islamist extremism".

So the answer to the question earlier, about why Prevent is perceived to be directed at Muslims, is that that's what it says in the Prevent documentation.

The University and College Union is strongly opposed to Prevent. So is the Students' Union. Both of them have passed conference resolutions that amount to calls for their members to boycott Prevent. Other public-sector unions are also likely to be developing policies opposed to Prevent. These are the people who are meant to implementing it. That ought to give anyone - including the Scottish Government - pause for thought.

Prevent is part of an over-arching counter-terrorism strategy called 'Contest'. Like the rest of 'Contest', 'Prevent' is closely linked to foreign policy and military strategy. To see what the "extremism" idea means for foreign policy you need to listen to a speech given by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in Bahrain at the end of October. He said:

"We have confronted extremist ideologies in the past - most notably, fascism and communism in the 20th century - and we’ve overcome them.

But the threat we face today is of a different nature.

Because the ideology that underpins the extremism we face is not an invented one, like communism or facism, but is rooted in a corrupt interpretation of one of the world’s great religions; because of that, it has deeper roots and wider reach - and it is harnessing the power of the internet to spread its message across the world in a way that has not been available to any previous extremist movement.

Countering Islamist extremism is, perhaps, the great challenge of our time."

Our foreign secretary believes that extremism is a bigger threat then the Luftwafe or the Red Army were, bigger than the threat from global warming now is.  So when the Government or its trainees tell you that countering extremism is about welfare or safeguarding vulnerable people, just remember that in the Government's own eyes countering extremism is D-Day, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Global Warming all rolled into one.

We can't let this kind of craziness rule our lives.

At home extremism is anything that seems un-British. Overseas it is anything that threatens established international borders (you'll find that in Philip Hammond's speech too) or threatens the domestic status quo in countries that Britain treats as allies.

The point of the idea of "extremism" is that it does away with law and politics in favour of a concept of "bad stuff" versus us.

Is Prevent effective?

The Government's terrorism threat level is at its highest possible level short of an imminent attack. The number of people in England and Wales being being reported for potential referral to de-radicalisation programmes is growing rapidly - almost 800 in England and Wales over a 3-month period last year.

Prevent is supposed to stop people from turning to terrorism. It has been running since about 2007, and has been quite active in England since then. It's had plenty time to take effect. The facts I've quoted are nothing more than straws in the wind, but they don't point to success.

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

Prevent is also supposed to deal with far-right extremism. Far-right groups in Britain are fragmented, but that has nothing to do with Government counter-extremism strategies and everything to do with the strategy of anti-fascist mobilisation followed by Unite Against Fascism, often in the face of police efforts to disrupt it and discourage people from going on demonstrations.

Racist, anti-immigration and Islamophobic ideas, on the other hand, are gaining ground and moving from the extreme to the mainstream. Is that any surprise when the Government is running an Islamophobic programme of mass intervention and social engineering?

I'm tired of hearing that opposition to UK foreign policy by Muslims is a pathway to terrorism. UK foreign policy - a weasel phrase for bombing and war and torture - is a pathway to terrorism. Opposition to it is a pathway to peace and justice. 

What should Muslims do?

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.

SACC's response to questions proposed for discussion at the seminar is here.

Photo: Glasgow City Chambers, © Sebastian Ruff. Some rights reserved.