The Left should mobilise against religious extremism as well as the far right

Anti-fascists who happily march against the BNP or EDL rarely show that level of commitment against Anjem Choudhary’s group. Why?

On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York 18 months ago, I found myself in front of the American embassy in London being heckled by Muslims Against Crusades (MAC) activists, and praised by English Defence League members. While our motley group held up placards aimed at Anjem Choudhary’s group, a small group of religious Muslims (sporting beards and hijabs) arrived and set up a table with biscuits and Union flags. Then they started handing out flyers explaining why MAC were distorting Islam. The MAC activists were momentarily confused. Then they started heckling them too. The EDL almost felt ignored.

A week earlier, a friend had called to express his anger that MAC were planning a demonstration that day, and wanted to show that not all Muslims agreed with them. So we organised our own counter-demonstration and made our own banners. EDL members, who had come to throw abuse at MAC, were so pleased by our presence they wanted to take pictures with us (we declined). It was a bizarre day, but we also decided that this had to become a regular thing.

One thing we know – at least one of the key suspects in the Woolwich attack on Lee Rigby was a member of Anjem Choudhary’s inner circle. Before Muslims Against Crusades they called themselves Islam4UK and before that, Al-Muhajiroun. During the Danish Cartoons controversy of early 2006 they held an infamous demo in London calling for the beheading of "those who insult Islam". They are banned from almost every mosque in the country and ostracized by almost every British Muslim community group.

It was Al-Muhajiroun that sparked the formation of the EDL after a protest in Luton as British soldiers marched by. It is always Al-Muhajiroun that pull publicity stunts designed to inflame the media: burning poppies on Rememberance Day, marching on Wootton Basset and so on.

This makes it all the more remarkable that left-wing groups don’t mobilise against these religious extremists as they do against the far-right. Anti-fascists who happily march against the BNP or EDL rarely show that level of commitment against Anjem Choudhary’s group. Why? There even seems to be a reticence to admit that the EDL feeds off Muslim extremists. I’m not saying the Left embraces or even excuses away these clerics, but this strange reticence across the Left not only allows them to fester, but has other consequences.

For a start, taking on Muslim extremists denies a space for the English Defence League to flourish. Sure, many EDL members are looking for any excuse to express their racism, but the far-right group also draws in recruits who don’t consider themselves racist but want to oppose religious extremists. Having a range of Muslims and non-Muslims publicly opposing the likes of MAC is also the best way to silence rightwing critics who use the latter to demonise and generalise about all Muslims.

Secondly, building a broad alliance against religious extremists would also shed light on other unsavoury groups. In recent years university campuses have invited xenophobic preachers such as Haitham al-HaddadKamal El Mekki and others, despite their extreme views on women, homosexuals and integration. Islamic Societies at KingstonLondon South Bank and London Metropolitan universities have all come under deserved criticism, while the UK-based Islamic Education & Research Academy has a whole roster of xenophobic preachers. These groups and socities shouldn’t be banned – after all we must value free speech – but they should be actively opposed by left-wingers who care about the proliferation of bigotry in our society. Otherwise its painfully obvious that we are not applying our principles consistently.

The third and perhaps the most important reason we must do this is to support more moderate Muslims. Take imam Usama Hasan for example. Two years ago he received death threats after giving a talk at his mosque backing evolution and women’s rights. After a futile struggle he was eventually forced out by extremists who made his life hell. He told me he isn’t alone, and that extremists preachers who are less publicity-hungry than the likes of Anjem Choudhary and Abu Hamza are diligently working to take over mosques and oust more moderate Muslims who preach integration. By ignoring Muslim extremists we also abandon the likes of imam Hasan, who want to preach a more incusive version of Islam.

In 2010, after a poppy-burning stunt by Al-Muhajiroun, campaigners from Hope Not Hate adopted a "plague on both their houses" approach, with the approval of their members. But within days they were branded as "Islamophobes" by certain other anti-fascists and came under a surprising amount of criticism. This has to stop. In the aftermath of Woolwich, if we are serious about undermining the EDL and tackling all forms of bigotry, we cannot ignore religious extremism.

Flowers lie outside Woolwich Barracks. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.