Changing the world takes more than a flash-in-the-pan campaign

Good things come to those who wait.

Changing the world isn’t like an instant weight loss programme. Campaigning to make our surroundings a bit more bearable is not a quick win. Nowadays, if you want to lose weight there is a huge buffet (excuse the food reference) of options available to you, from not eating sugar to the tasty cabbage soup diet. Equally, if you want to change the world there are a host of “quick fix” campaigns.  “Like” this link on Facebook, sign this e-petition or occupy one Vodafone shop on one day for one hour and everything will be just fine.

The problem is that we have evolved at an alarmingly fast rate to want, want, want, now, now, now. Take 38 Degrees' latest campaign to force McDonalds and Coca-Cola not to dodge their Olympics tax. It flew off the shelves like the latest miracle diet pill, getting 165,000 signatures in days and forcing two corporations to pull out of the scheme. One little snag - tax avoidance and the dilemmas of corporate sponsorship have not been won. 38 Degrees is a great tactic and tool for campaigning but it is not the answer to systemic change.

It might, however, be the answer to the public's need for a quick fix campaign that takes five seconds to do. But change doesn’t happen with a few Facebook likes. Just imagine if those 165,000 people actually got up and did something!

Yes, active campaigning is hard, time-consuming and often we won’t see the results in our lifetime, but it’s worth it, right? These days a sustained campaign is one that lasts about three months whereas the suffragette movement lasted about 30 years! 30 years! And women are still fighting for equality.

On the other side, UK Uncut has been fighting the cuts for 21 months and has kids, people with disabilities, single mothers, activists, old aged pensioners and people from varied backgrounds on their actions that happen offline and in real life.

Of course it's nice to be able to pop along for a quick rally or sign a one-off petition, but it's just not enough. Campaigning might not be for everyone, but neither is poverty and injustice. Of course we need balance. A balance between the "quick hit" protest  junkies and those entrenched campaigners that harp on about the same old thing day in and day out.

The key is finding something tangible, real, exciting, new and possibly that captures people’s spirits for the long haul. It’s like exercise and a good diet versus not having carbohydrates for a week; we all know which one is the winner in the long-term.

Molly Solomons is a UK Uncut activist.

 

A woman holds a banner outside a branch of Vodafone in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images
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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.