The media should engage with "conspiracy theorists"

Dismissing Japanese politician's concerns over the September 11 attacks gives credence to believers'

Since 2008, the Japanese Diet member Yukihisa Fujita has been voicing concerns over the US account of the events of 11 September 2001. His much-documented conversion to the "truth movement" via dubious internet videos such as Loose Change is a cause for concern, and it is tempting to dismiss him as an irrational fantasist.

Yet, beneath his recourse to contestable evidence, and his affiliation with sacred cows such as David Ray Griffin (with whom he co-authored Questioning 9/11 in Japan's Parliament), is a critical faculty absent from too much of the political class. Fujita may have deflated his own arguments with "facts" culled from the net, including doubts over whether the Pentagon was struck by a plane at all, but the knee-jerk reactions of the media have been equally counterproductive.

Yesterday's Washington Post insisted:

Mr Fujita's ideas about the attack on the World Trade Center, which he shared with us in a recent interview, are too bizarre, half-baked and intellectually bogus to merit serious discussion.

But why? Surely one of the functions of the media is to inform through reasoned debate. Such refusals to engage with "bogus" ideas only serve to fuel the believers' conviction. If they are wrong, why not prove it with evidence, instead of trying to force consensus with nothing but bullying language?

The Post accuses Fujita of being "fact-averse", and casts those who question the official account as members of the "lunatic fringe". But crucially, it identifies the MP's views as rooted in the rising tide of anti-US sentiment in Japan. If so, dispelling the myth of US complicity in 9/11 should help ease relations between the two countries.

Agree with him or not, Fujita is an articulate and intelligent politician. His criticisms of Japan's failure to carry out a full investigation of US claims for war in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks are sound. And his insistence that there is a distinction between acts of war and crime is a creditable contribution to the debate on war in the Middle East.

That such an influential figure -- the director general of the Democratic Party's international department, no less -- could succumb to the lure of "truther" polemics shows how inflated the issue has become.

The tarring catch-all that is the term "conspiracy theory" is inadequate as a tool for meaningful debate. Less strong-arming from the media, please, as well as the Loose Change set.

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Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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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.