"Finish at least one of your projects"

For William Keenan, Opus Dei's teachings in St Josemaría Escriva's book for meditation <em>The Way</

I first came into contact with Opus Dei when a doctor in my parish began holding monthly social gatherings for parishioners at his home. One day he invited a priest of Opus Dei to give a talk. I seem to recall, that the talk wasn’t received too well with many of the liberal Catholics at the meeting. But I found the idea of finding holiness in everyday life and ordinary work fascinating.

I was then a journalist on the Daily Express in Manchester editing and laying out the feature pages, which included the City pages, the Leader page and the William Hickey gossip pages. My working hours were from four or five in the evening until around three a.m. the following morning. If I went straight home and to bed I would often have difficulty getting to sleep. I would find myself looking at the ceiling and redesigning pages and rewriting headlines in my head.

Several times a week when we finished work we would drive to the Press Club in Albert Square for a couple of pints of beer. This would mean getting to bed about four in the morning and rising about lunch time. After lunch I would try to do some writing. Then it was time to go to the office again.

I decided I would like to know more about Opus Dei and finding holiness in work and everyday life. The doctor who had organised the meeting was not a member of Opus Dei but used to go to the monthly evenings of recollection at Greygarth Hall, the Manchester centre of Opus Dei. He said the next time he was going he would take me with him. But he was unable to make it in the next few months so I took myself off to Greygarth for an evening of recollection.

Recollection, I discovered, consisted in a priest giving two meditations followed by Benediction. Afterwards there were tea, cakes, and biscuits. After that evening of recollection what impressed me very much was not what had been said during the meditations but the happiness and cheerfulness of the people I met and chatted to over tea and biscuits. That was the reason I continued attending over the next few months.

One person I seemed to get on particularly well with was a student from the Basque country of Spain who I think was doing a doctorate in electrical engineering. One day he asked how my writing was going and I told him about a play I had just started working on. He looked a little puzzled because the previous time we spoke I had told him about a novel I was writing whose central character was a northern detective called John Marne whose ankle had been crushed by a thieves' get-away car so he would always walk with a limp.

When he asked what had happened to the John Marne novel I explained that I had decided it wasn’t working, that it was no good and that I would be better doing a play. He then produced a copy of The Way -- the book for meditations written by St Josemaría Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei -- which is now a best selling spiritual classic. He showed me Point 42 which says, “Why those variations in your character? When are you going to apply your will to something? Drop that craze for laying corner stones, and finish at least one of your projects.”

The point really went home. I kept thinking about it and realised that of my many unfinished writing projects the detective novel was the nearest to completion. So I sat down and finished it.

I sent it off convinced that it wasn’t good enough, and it was immediately accepted. This led to two other novels and a biography and about eight plays for BBC Saturday Theatre. Many times when I was three quarters through writing them, I wanted to start something else and had to struggle to put the finishing touches to each particular project.

Since then I have met many writers who, when they were three quarters through what they were working on, would decide it was no good. And I would repeat the point in The Way and get them to finish it. A good friend of mine had been commissioned by the BBC to write a television play. One day he rang me to say he couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t working, it wasn’t good. He was going to send the BBC their money back. I took him for a pint and persuaded him to keep the money and finish his play. He did and it was broadcast without need for a rewrite.

I think it only fair to say that the point in St Josemaria’s The Way has not only helped me but also many of my friends and fellow writers.

William Keenan first encountered Opus Dei in Manchester in the 1960s. He is a writer and journalist and he worked for many years on the Daily Mirror as a feature writer, television critic and investigative journalist. He has also written several detective novels and radio plays for the BBC.
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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.