By Zahir Mughal, counter-terrorism researcher.
Counter-extremism in Britain is a social engineering effort to cultivate docility that is unjustified and doomed to fail.
A report by CAGE entitled ‘Beyond Prevent’ released earlier this year outlines how the government should deal with the threat of political violence.
“The attention of policy makers,” the report said, “should be on those material conditions from which political violence draws its perceived legitimacy”.
This is far more effective for building a harmonious society than “focusing on ‘ideology’ and criminalising a wide range of perfectly nonviolent beliefs and political activity”.
The latter approach, however, is what has characterised the domestic ‘War on Terror’ over the last two decades, and it continues to do so today.
The reason for this, of course, is that the state does not wish to engage in a serious rethinking of its domestic and foreign policy.
The compulsion instead has been to craft an alternative narrative explaining political violence that absolves the state of any responsibility.
The standpoint of counter-extremism is shaky despite the glitz
This has given rise in Britain and the US to the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) apparatus, which has been successfully exported to countless other countries.
The task of stopping political violence, thus, has morphed into a social engineering project. A prime example of this is the Prevent programme, which makes it a statutory duty for public-sector workers to report people they believe to have been radicalised.
Rooted in the obscure (and certainly not evidence-based) science of “pre-crime”, up to 95% of Prevent referrals are false positives — a number which does not even include the countless other cases of people (often schoolchildren) who are subjected to needless interrogation due to the paranoia of one of their fellow citizens.
It is, of course, particularly galling that a strategy which is only very rarely successful even on its own terms has not yet been scrapped.
Rather, in giving the state the power to intervene in the realm of (perfectly legal) ideas, under the more recent banner of “safeguarding”, Prevent is a significant and unjustified expansion of state power.
Turning Muslims against one another to facilitate discrimination
Arun Kundnani documents in his book The Muslims Are Coming how the US-led War on Terror’s “reformists” sought to move away from the concept of a clash between Islam and the West, and rather frame the conflict as being between a violent and threatening version of Islam, and another deemed moderate.
In Britain, this has meant setting a standard which Muslims have to meet to be deemed “good Muslims” rather than “bad Muslims” according to state definitions.
Prevent represents an important component of this project. Initially designed to target Muslims, it remains to this day discriminatory; a recent study, for example, has demonstrated that Muslims are eight times more likely than non-Muslims to be referred to the programme by NHS staff.
The reason for this is simple; in a society in which anti-Muslim prejudice is exceedingly common, forcing ordinary people to identify fellow citizens at risk of “extremism” inevitably yields discriminatory results.
Criminalising a centuries-old tradition of debate and contextualisation
CAGE’s research director, Dr Asim Qureshi, highlights the fact that Prevent “limits public-sector understanding of far-right issues to overt racism and violence” – meaning that it does not “extend into the realm of beliefs and discussions, or even into non-violent engagement with historical figures and arguments”.
The same, of course, is not true for the programme’s approach to Muslims. “Islamist extremists”, according to the government’s Task Force on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism report, “seek to impose a global Islamic state governed by their interpretation of Shari’ah as state law, rejecting liberal values such as democracy, the rule of law and equality”.
As Qureshi notes, under this banner, criminality then includes “the discussion of, interest in, or even exploration of concepts rooted in a 1,400-year jurisprudential tradition which have had a dynamic place within Islamicate communities, and are highly dependent on context and scholarly consensus for their implementation”.
Muslims, thus, are expected to prove their compliance with liberal values and their adherence to an Islam considered acceptable to the powers that be. This is an extraordinary infringement on religious liberty, one that renders the state an active player in regulating and controlling religion.
Covert methods include community and arts projects that push “muscular liberalism”
Consider the recent appearance of two websites, “Stoosh” and “This is Woke”, seeking to influence the behaviour of young Muslims.
Both websites describe themselves as having been produced by a “media/news company” – but were actually created by Breakthrough Media, a communications company under contract to the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, a unit within the Home Office.
Similarly, a furore was caused in 2019 when a number of writers and artists staged a boycott of the popular Bradford Literature Festival after it emerged that it had been part-funded by the Home Office’s “Building a Stronger Britain Together” (BSBT) programme, which “supports the delivery of the government’s counter-extremism strategy”.
These examples demonstrate the pervasive securitisation of British Muslim life and civil society, and the treatment of Muslims as subjects to be monitored and influenced rather than respected as equal citizens.
“Rather than adopting a passive liberalism that says anything goes, for fear of causing offence, schools leaders should be promoting a muscular liberalism,” the chief of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, declared at a 2018 conference held by the Church of England in London.
Such a statement, made against the backdrop of Prevent, should be recognised as posing a threat to pluralism, while the government’s efforts to cultivate a palatable Islam are structurally incompatible with the religious tradition.
Muslim dynasties were unable to mould the Shari’a, so the modern project will fail
In his monumental book The Impossible State, Wael Hallaq lambasts the attempts of modern Muslim governments to enforce Islamic law, arguing that the Shari’a is incompatible with the modern nation-state.
It is a cruel irony that Islam is so often caricatured as being theocratic; as Hallaq demonstrates, pre-modern Muslim judiciaries were generally independent of the executive, while non-Muslim communities were free to live by their own denominational laws.
Rulers came and went, and dynasties rose and fell – but through it all the Shari’a remained essentially independent. Education, too, was denominational, and curriculums were untouched by sultanic authority.
European colonial forces, by imposing the modern state on Muslim polities, created a situation which fundamentally differed from the manner in which Muslim societies had functioned throughout most of Islamic history.
If, then, Muslim dynasties themselves have been historically unable to engineer an Islam of their choosing, on what grounds can the British government attempt to do the same?
Expanding Prevent will only absolve the government further of its failures
Such a project, facilitated by the War on Terror, is both unjustified and doomed to fail; in the words of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Cambridge Muslim College, “non-Muslim think-tankers, social administrators and party politicians have no jurisdiction in matters of Muslim belief, outlook and practice”.
Respecting this principle is necessary to ensure the flourishing of British Muslim communities. The Prevent strategy, which targets legal beliefs and ideas, must be abolished.
It certainly should not be expanded to focus on the “far-right”; fundamentally, the idea of “pre-crime” has no place in a healthy society.
Moreover, as Muslims know very well, it will be working-class white people, rather than Conservative MPs who have openly maligned and demonised minorities, that will be targeted under supposed efforts to “combat the far-right”.
Political violence can be fought, as CAGE’s ‘Beyond Prevent’ report recommends, through the adoption of a more ethical approach to foreign policy, as well as the restoration of social spending without strings attached, and the decoupling of welfare and safeguarding from counter extremism.
In other words, the unnecessary securitisation that we have seen over the last two decades must be reversed.
Pluralism should be maintained and attempts at social engineering – through counter-terror measures and quasi-state institutions such as Ofsted – must be abandoned by the government.
Societal harmony lies in the upholding of civil liberties and the assurance of religious freedom for all citizens. Unfortunately, this government seems to care about neither.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)