Duran Duran's Girls on Film.
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Who’d have thought I’d learn the meaning of life from an Avaaz petition?

Englightenment via Avaaz, Duran Duran and Bananarama.

A visit from my great friend J—. We’d been out of touch for decades but one afternoon a few years ago I was walking in a desultory fashion through the snow in Regent’s Park, looking sadly at the frolicking youngsters, when her phone number popped into my head. I remembered the number because when we were at school I had the most debilitating crush on her, and while such things are on the whole no good to anyone, they do at least have the virtue of making you remember phone numbers, whose first six digits you have dialled often and on flimsy pretexts.

It is a long shot that she is still in the same place but as it’s round the corner I think: why the hell not, and she answers it, which she says is unusual for her as we have reached that period of western civilisation where landline use is largely confined to scammers. We meet up again – and so, every few months, she pops round to the Hovel for a chat and a glass of wine and a game of backgammon.

This time she’s asked to come round at very short notice but as I am at a loose end and could do with some company this is a most pleasant surprise. I had been brooding over a petition that a friend had asked me to sign – for Avaaz, of all people. While its deeper purpose escaped me, the immediate goals of the petition were clear: it laid out three principles for living in 2015 – to show kindness and respect, strive for wisdom and “practice [sic] gratitude”.

“We will show kindness and respect towards ourselves and others whenever possible . . .” it began.

They sort of lost me at the words “towards ourselves”, on the grounds that thinking you’re groovy just for the hell of it is an obstacle to self-knowledge. I mean, Prince Charles thinks he’s pretty amazing and look where it’s got him, the meddling fool. After this, the petition invited us to promise that: “We will seek to be wise in our decisions, listening deeply to ourselves and others, and balancing our heads, hearts and intuitions in a harmony that feels right.”

I glance at the photo. In a crowd of happy disposable- cagoule-wearing people there is a young woman with a circlet of flowers in her hair and a heart painted on her cheek. I also notice that we are to listen deeply to ourselves before we listen to others. Would I want to act on the wisdom of a woman who paints a heart on her cheek and sticks flowers in her hair? That boat sailed in the Sixties. The third plank of the petition, in which we are invited to “practice gratitude”, I have no problem with, but one out of three isn’t enough.

As I’m thinking about this, I get an email asking me if I’d like to be interviewed for a forthcoming television programme. The world has gone mad, I conclude.

J— comes round with a nice bottle of white. I rustle up a couscous and invite her to talk because I gather she has been having a rotten time of it lately.

As she talks, a suspicion that had begun to form a few days earlier – while I’d stared at that meaningless petition – grows, like a crystal in a kid’s chemistry set. The details of J—’s tale will remain private but they involve legal matters, which, unusually even for legal matters, defy all notions of common sense and make the word “Kafkaesque” seem laughably inadequate. She pauses to say that, on the bright side, a plaque is to be put on the wall of the recording studio she runs, acknowledging the important contribution made to local culture by, among others, Duran Duran and Bananarama.

Now, I will not hear a word against these bands, and such a plaque will be an adornment to the area and bring a smile to the lips of many who pass that way. What with one thing and another, and considering all I’ve heard over the past few days; what with the stupid hippies, my ridiculous existence, lawyers, death, Prince Charles, the continuous underlying vapid mutterings of idiocy everywhere, I tell J— that I no longer think that life is meaningless, or a waste, or so on, but that it is, simply, silly.

I think, fleetingly, of the bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when Arthur decides, after an impromptu song and dance routine, not to go to Camelot, because it’s a very silly place. I wonder if I have offended J— after all she’s been going through but she sighs and says, “Yes, it is silly. I think that’s the word.”

Which makes me wonder: have we inadvertently achieved, as that petition urged us to, wisdom?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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.