Working to educate the youth

Doug Harris, member of the <a href="http://www.reachouttrust.org/">Reachout Trust</a>, explains the

My job, simply put, is to convince as many people as possible that cults and occult practices are potentially dangerous. It's obviously not your typical nine-to-five gig. Recalling my childhood daydreams of what I would do when I grew up, this certainly wasn't even on the list.

Just how I got to this point began in the early 1980s when Reachout Trust was born, initially to “reach out” and provide help to local people who had suffered as a result of their being involved with one cult or another. However, in just a few years we had expanded geographically and also philosophically. We ultimately realised that we needed to help those still involved in occult practices.

The creation of Reachout Trust drew responses from a few young people who realised that they needed to be free from the spiritual powers that had trapped them, and could achieve that freedom by turning to the greater power of the God of evangelical Christianity.

Since then, the work of Reachout Trust has often been maligned as being negative and hopelessly idealistic, but we maintain that what we do is positive; we help people find a better life. Also, what some people consider idealist rhetoric is actually some very sound advice that has helped many people. Nevertheless, there are an increasing number of young people today, who do not or will not accept this.

At first, this rejection was perplexing. We were, after all, trying to help them, but all they wanted to do was criticise and contradict us. However, over the years we have come to understand why young people are often hard to reach. Throughout their largely secular and media-influenced lives, they have not received any clear Biblical Christian education. They have instead been bombarded, or at least showered, with various aspects of the occult and other do-it-yourself religions. How can they understand and accept a message that has not been on their radar during their formative years?

Keep in mind that we are not accusing parents of falling asleep on the job. Starting in primary school nearly everyone warns his or her children about with stranger danger and the risks associated with playing near railway lines. As children grow the dangers of drugs and promiscuous sex become relevant. All this amounts to one big list of prohibitions, a list of what not to do. Yet is this advice perceived as negative? Certainly not! Then why shouldn’t we, in a similar vein, share information on the dangers of the occult, which can also yield negative consequences?

Unfortunately, such a warning is seen as too religious, and is discarded in favour of a more liberal stance on youthful experimentation. Most young people, however, do not content themselves with just a small dabble into the occult. They start to wade in to the excitement, intrigue and mystical paths that are explained in magazines, TV interviews and, of course, the Internet.

This is the struggle that Reachout Trust has been increasingly facing for the past 25+ years. It certainly isn’t going to get any easier and as long as society continues to label our efforts and intolerant and conservative.

Should we give up? Certainly not; that is the worst thing we can do. We will adapt to the situation in which we find ourselves, speak with a reasonable and considerate voice, make clear well-constructed arguments and continue to educate all those who will listen on the dangers of the occult. We will, in the same way, seek to show that there is a far safer way to experience spiritual enlightenment: through the tried-and-tested beliefs of the abundant life in the Jesus Christ of evangelical Christianity.

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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.