A tense autumn to come in the Middle East

The international community must do everything possible to prevent further escalation across the region.

Across the Middle East, the Arab Uprisings of the last two years have given way to an atmosphere of continuous uncertainty and growing tension, in some areas marked by incidents of violence, sometimes prolonged, sometimes sporadic. The outlook in the months ahead is dark.

Darkest of all is the prolonged conflict in Syria. There are real fears that the intensifying battles there may spill over into other countries in the region. Turkey watches, deeply concerned. Together with Jordan, it is struggling with a huge influx of refugees from Syria. Protracted violence in Syria can only destabilise the region further and, the longer the factions war in Syria, the less likely it is that a single, unified and strong Government will succeed the morally bankrupt Assad regime.

Lakhdar Brahimi has impressed in his first days as UN envoy. But, as Kofi Annan discovered, the task in formulating a coherent international response to a growing crisis is immense. This is especially true within the UN Security Council. But we cannot allow the present position to continue: if we do so, the situation will worsen, not stay the same.

The particular danger is that conflict will spread beyond Syria's borders. Increased activity by Iran in emphasising its support for Assad has added to tension and violent incidents, such as that which happened in Turkey earlier this week, act as dangerous individual sparks in a flammable environment.

In Egypt, a similar, tense atmosphere prevails. President Morsi's dismissal  of individual members of the military establishment form part of a longer stand off between emerging democratic forces and a residually strong, but perhaps weakening, Army. The tide of Egyptian affairs appears to moving towards more openness but broad suspicion remains about the new Government's views on women's rights in the context of a new constitution. Concerns have been intensified by the recent violence in Sinai between the Egyptian forces and extremist elements, events which precipitated Morsi's personnel changes.

Israel had expressed concerns previously about extremist elements in Sinai, warning of increased instability there. It has added to Israel's increased anxiety at developments following the Arab Uprisings. Far from making Israel more amenable to dealing with Arab regimes with a more democratic mandate, events have caused Israel to be more concerned at trends in the region posing increased threats to its security. The perception is not helped by contacts between Hamas and the new Egyptian Government and also by intemperate language about Israel which, if stability is to prevail, must be recognised and accepted as a permanent, legitimate state in the region.

The next months, in the lead up to the US Presidential Election, are crucial. There has been strong concern expressed by Israel over many months over the lack of progress in securing Iran's compliance with its non-proliferation obligations. Rhetoric is intensifying once more and speculation of a pre-emptive military strike against Iran is increasing, not diminishing. It is a time for rational assessments and cool analysis. The impact of an attack at the heart of this, most sensitive and unpredictable of regions, is impossible to predict. The international community must take all steps it can to ensure that it does not take place.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham

Protestors in Yemen in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

Photo: Getty
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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.