Policy Exchange exposed

First published by the Black Information Link

Last night, Newsnight broadcast a disturbing film on the recent report issued by the influential rightwing think-tank Policy Exchange entitled 'The Hijacking of British Islam: How extremist literature is subverting Britain's mosques. The study, which hit the headlines when it was published back in October 2007, purported to "reveal the worrying extent of extremist penetration of mosques and other key institutions of the British Muslim community".

The report was introduced as "the most comprehensive academic survey of its kind ever produced in the UK... based on a year-long investigation by several teams of specialist researchers into the availability of extremist literature". Over a hundred mosques were surveyed. Of these, 25 were said to have been found to be "disseminating extremist literature". But Newsnight's examination of the evidence that underpinned these findings exposed a string of shocking irregularities.

The think-tank produced a number of receipts implicating mosques in the sale of extremist literature. Some of these appear to have been fabricated. There was a receipt from a non-existing mosque book shop (North London Mosque bookshop), receipts printed entirely on inkjet -when usual procedure for such pieces of paper would be mass printing, as well as a receipt for one mosque (Euston Mosque) with the address of another (North Gower Street). Forensic tests found two separate receipts from two mosques 40 miles apart with the same handwriting. The writing on one receipt had been done on top of another for an entirely different mosque.

Edinburgh mosque was one of the mosques allegedly surveyed. A stash of leaflets calling for the killing of apostates was said to have been found on its premises. The story topped the BBC's news bulletins across the UK. A few days later the mosque was vandalised. However, an investigation by the mosque authorities revealed that the material in question appears to have been dropped inside the doorway to the mosque a week after the report's publication.

Policy Exchange  defines itself as a think-tank "committed to an evidence-based approach to policy development. We work in partnership with academics and other experts and commission major studies involving thorough empirical research of alternative policy outcomes". Newsnight's findings cast serious doubts on such claims, unless, of course, for its directors -headed by the controversial Charles Moore- requirements of honest, transparent, scientific research can be dispensed with if the subject is the Muslim minority.

On the basis of the evidence presented by Newsnight, what we appear to be dealing with here is not flawed methodology, errors or inconsistencies, but wilful distortion and fabrication committed not against an individual, or an institution, but against an entire social group. The consequences go beyond the community in question to the wider society, given the report's exploitation by the media and political class, and aggravation of the existing climate of tension, anxiety and suspicion.

Given their associations with Policy Exchange, the conservative party is heavily implicated in this scandal. The Tories seem unable to shake off their traditional hostility to ethnic minorities, in spite of their recent attempts to recycle their discourse and assume a more liberal appearance. The report raises serious questions about the Conservatives and their positions and policies towards the country's 1.5 million Muslims.

Coming on the heel of another report on extremism among British Muslim youth, the report is yet another attempt to erase distinctions between mainstream and extreme Islam. Targeting mosques is no coincidence. With the majority of Muslims associated with one mosque or another, the implication is that all Muslims are hateful, fanatics, xenophobes, and anti-semites and that every Muslim is a threat or potential threat to society.

Islamic bookshops are a far cry from Waterstones or Borders. Some of the books on sale on djinns, angels, dreams, signs of the day of judgement, and hellfire often make me laugh/ cringe/ both. I'm sure similar titles can be found in Jewish and Christian bookshops. Just like other religions, Islam boasts a vastly diverse library, covering myriad tendencies, areas, and subjects at all levels of culture high and low. Each has its audience. I may be repelled by some of the volumes on the shelves, but does this give the government the right to police what gets published and what people read and do not read? Unless we want a return to the Reconquista and its terrifying interventionism, the answer should be a resounding no.

In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion the powerful network of rightwing think-tanks led by the American Enterprise www.aei.org issued one report after another on the Iraqi chemical danger. All turned out to be little more than lies and fabrications. Policy Exchange seems to be engaged in the same dirty game of distortion and falsification, this time on the home front and against an internal enemy. No longer should its findings be taken for granted; no longer can it be allowed to hide behind the cover of objectivity, expertise, and academic research.

The newsnight program can be viewed on the BBC Newsnight website.

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