Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Is this a joke?

I am still rubbing my eyes in disbelief - UPDATED

So what are the odds? The week I write a cover story for the New Statesman, arguing that President Obama has turned into "Barack W Bush" and is emulating his predecessor's policies on human rights, civil liberties, Afghanistan and a host of other issues, the bloody Norwegians go and give him a Nobel Peace Prize. You couldn't make it up.

Over the past couple of years, the cult of Obama has elevated him to a godlike, saint-like, superhuman position in the global political landscape. He is a celebrity, he is an icon, he is a political phenomenon. And just when you thought his international sheen was rubbing off, with his failure to win the 2016 Olympics for his adopted city of Chicago, he goes and wins the world's most prestigious civil liberties award. Obamaniacs, rejoice!

So why has he got the prize? Here is the flaw in the Norwegians' groupthink, as reported by the BBC:

Asked why the prize had been awarded to Mr Obama less than a year after he took office, Nobel committee head Thorbjørn Jagland said: "It was because we would like to support what he is trying to achieve".

"It is a clear signal that we want to advocate the same as he has done," he said.

So the Nobel guys are giving him an award for peace before he has actually achieved peace -- specifically, they say, in the field of global nuclear disarmament and the Obama resolution at the UN last month -- which, of course, they have a bad track record of doing. Remember when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in 1994? Perhaps the news hasn't reached Oslo yet but, 15 years on, the Holy Land remains mired in bloodshed, hatred and conflict, with no Palestinian state in sight.

And then, of course, there's Henry Kissinger. His receipt of the prize in 1973, in the wake of his war crimes against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, prompted Tom Lehrer to remark: "Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize."

I'm not sure what the satirists will say this time round, but I eagerly await Jon Stewart's take on The Daily Show on More 4 next week . . .

UPDATE I (10 December): So Obama has accepted his prize this afternoon, in Oslo. Since I last blogged on Barack and the Nobel [above], the US president has decided to heed the advice of his generals and send 30,000 extra troops to fight and die in the valleys and mountains of the Hindu Kush. The Times headline says it all: "Barack Obama accepts Nobel Peace Prize with stern defence of war". How absurd. And depressing. The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner had to start his speech by acknowledging the controversy over the choice of a wartime president for the prize. When Henry Kissinger was awarded the prize in 1973, Tom Lehrer remarked: "It was at that moment that satire died...There was nothing more to say after that." Touché.

UPDATE II (10 December): Simon Reid-Henry has blogged from Oslo for the NS here.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.