Extremism is going unchallenged

Government efforts have no impact

We shouldn't be equivocal about it. Since the events of 9/11, Britain has faced a unique and unprecedented threat from al-Qaeda against our society, citizens and way of life. It is not overstating the case to say that we have been under constant and sustained attack, more so than any other country in the western world. More startling, however, is the realisation that every one of those plots has involved our own citizens: invariably men born and raised in Britain, whose experiences have been shaped, not by the madrasas of Lahore, but by the mullahs of London. And, in that sense, the government's attempts to engage young Muslims have been woefully inadequate so far.

In October last year I broadcast a documentary for the BBC's Panorama and travelled to inner-city Bradford to meet a group of young men and women aged 14-18 at the Khidmat Centre, which provides young Muslims with a space to socialise away from the mosques. This is the key demographic the government has identified as being particularly vulnerable to extremist recruitment. But, more than two years on from 7/7, and after £6m had been spent on a "Pathfinder" scheme for preventing violent extremism, no one in the group was successfully able to rebut even the most basic extremist ideas, when asked if they could do so. One of the participants told me, "I was interested in reading up about an extremist group because I thought, 'Yeah, that's right.'"

The government's initial efforts gave way last month to a Preventing Violent Extremism fund (PVE), with £45m of investment. It has already been riddled with difficulties and has made little impact on the ground. Local councils are unwilling to adopt the performance indicators that accompany the money issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Where money has been allocated there is already evidence it is being used in nonsensical ways.

Tower Hamlets Council has backed the Cordoba Foundation, which runs the Muslim Debating Society, with money. It then promptly invited in Dr Abdul-Wahid from Hizb ut-Tahrir and Makbool Javaid, a "legal observer" for the now banned al-Muhajiroun, who told young Muslims that political participation in Britain was futile and that democracy is forbidden in Islamic law. Their supporters flooded the room, drowning out other voices. Herein lies one of the government's biggest problems: communication. It has thus far failed to communicate its vision to young Muslims effectively, allowing extremist movements to spread their separatist agenda unchallenged.

Of course, the government cannot enter the theological debate which drives Islamist terror. That is a battle that needs to be fought by the Muslim community, and there are grounds for cautious optimism. Since the publication of Ed Husain's remarkable book The Islamist last summer, a network of former Islamists has emerged who are, for the first time, uniting behind a common project - to challenge the extremist ideology they once helped proliferate.

Their group, the Quilliam Foundation, will be launched later this month, and is led by Maajid Nawaz, a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir's executive committee in Britain who was imprisoned in Cairo for trying to inspire an Islamist revolution there, before he renounced extremism. The Quilliam Foundation has ensured its independence by raising money from private Muslim donors, while, paradoxically, the government is inadvertently undermining it by funding separatist agendas through the PVE fund.

While it's not the government's place to offer a commentary on the Quran, it can ensure that it does not empower the wrong groups of people. And it needs to ensure its reasoning is effectively communicated to young Muslims on the ground. Without that, a perception has been created that the entire community is under siege and that the war on terror is actually a smokescreen for a war on Islam.

There are signs that this is changing, with the creation last year of a new cross-departmental unit in Whitehall, the Research, Information and Communications Unit. Just how successful it will be remains to be seen. If the debacle surrounding PVE is anything to go by, don't hold your breath.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State