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.