Concerns of the ummah

Some faiths are global. Nation states must come to terms with this.

In the first part of Peter Taylor's fascinating new BBC 2 series, Generation Jihad, we heard, time and again, young British Muslims voicing their concern and outrage over attacks on Palestine and the military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I'm sure that at least some viewers were thinking: why should Britons, UK passport-holders, people born and brought up here, feel quite so strongly about what happens in countries thousands of miles away?

Why should they feel that the death and destruction visited upon Palestinians, Afghans and Iraqis are also attacks on them? Shouldn't they be British, and espouse "British" values, first and foremost?

I can quite see why this is hard to understand for secularists, used to -- and insistent upon -- the church-state divide that characterises most European nations, and which continues in the supranational institution of the EU. I can also see why it is hard to understand for many Protestants, especially those belonging to churches that specifically describe themselves as being national sects -- the Church of England, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, etc.

What they fail to see, because it is not emphasised with the same force in their belief systems, whether religious or not, is the truly universal nature of other faiths, membership of which binds their adherents from different countries and continents together in a way that secular nationalism and Protestantism do not.

As the Islamic scholar and former Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi put it in a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies in 2004:

What the west needs to learn about the Muslim world . . . is that Muslims see themselves as a collective ummah. Unlike [with] western individualism, Muslims have a strong sense of fraternity as a community of believers.

This means empathy. This is why Muslims who are not affected by poverty or who have nothing to do with Palestine feel so strongly about this issue. This is why without addressing and identifying the root causes of terrorism the war against terror will not succeed.

You can find the full text here (and I would advise anyone interested in learning about a less confrontational view of Islam to do so. Badawi was a weak and ineffectual PM, but very wise when it came to how religion and modernity can coexist).

It could also be added that awareness of the ummah has been enormously heightened in the past few decades, not least by the mass spread of all forms of communication.

This is why, for instance, as the US senator Christopher Bond points out in his new book, The Next Front: South-east Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam, Muslims in the southern Philippines can watch Israel's attacks on Gaza and Lebanon and feel affected, and angered, in a way they did not in the years before even the poorest households had access to a television set. And there, this knowledge of the suffering of fellow Muslims has had the unfortunate consequence of allowing some to turn a long and legitimate struggle for autonomy within, if not outright independence from, a Philippine nation, into part of a wider religious war.

It is no use railing against this sense of connectedness. It is simply there. For me, brought up in one of the other global faiths, Roman Catholicism, it is far from alien.

Even though I lapsed a long time ago, I still feel a connection with Catholics around the world, and have always known that I could walk into a Catholic cathedral in any country and feel at home. Culturally, it is part of my DNA. It is also why, when politicians such as Ruth Kelly are criticised essentially for being religious -- her links to Opus Dei were regarded as being particularly suspect -- I can't help feeling at least a twinge of sympathy.

For those who demand that UK-born Muslims, or Catholic ministers like Kelly, sign up to a secular interpretation of Britishness and consign their embarrassing beliefs to some hidden place where they need not intrude into the political sphere are asking the impossible.

Nearly everyone agrees that human rights are universal. Well, some faiths are truly global, too, and have existed and will continue to exist while nations and empires rise and fall. Denying this is useless. Understanding this, and allowing for this, would be better.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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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.