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2 August 2011

Counter-terrorism versus Counter-subversion

A new report by Spinwatch argues that right-wing think-tanks have understated the rise of Islamophob

By Robert Lambert

Yesterday survivors and relatives of those who died in the 7/7 bombings announced that they were finally abandoning their legal attempt to force the government to hold a public inquiry into the attacks, acknowledging that proceedings would be likely to be unsuccessful and would inevitably cause “further unnecessary distress”.

My own interest in a public inquiry has been to examine the root causes of 7/7 and to assess the legitimacy and effectiveness of UK counter-terrorism. As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and the launch of the war on terror the need for a complete overhaul of counter-terrorism is urgent. What has worked and what hasn’t. In the absence of a public inquiry we will have to make do with a public debate instead.

My modest contribution to public debate, published next month, Countering al Qaeda in London challenges much received wisdom about terrorism, counter-terrorism and public safety in Britain. I argue that the best kind of counter-terrorism remains narrowly focused on the terrorist threat and seeks to avoid stigmatising or criminalising those communities where terrorists seek recruits.

In particular I challenge the popular assumption that many politically active Muslims have either wittingly or unwittingly been part of the terrorist problem – sometimes described as a “conveyor-belt” model of radicalisation.

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This pernicious account of radicalisation has been adroitly promoted by neo-conservative think-tanks on both sides of the Atlantic. Significantly, two neo-conservative think-tanks in Westminster, Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion (recently subsumed by the Henry Jackson Society) are examined in a report published today by Spinwatch.

A detailed and revealing report ‘The Cold War on British Muslims’ perfectly captures the sense in which both think-tanks have a core mission of undermining Muslim individuals and organisations deemed to be subversive by recourse to counter-subversion strategies and tactics employed during the Cold War.

Having worked closely with many of these so-called Muslim subversives for many years I am inclined to suggest that the vast majority are far less subversive to British democracy than some of the individuals funding and implementing this new Cold War strategy against them. Significantly, many of them also have far more impressive counter-terrorism credentials than their counter-subversive opponents.

“Funded by wealthy businessmen and financiers, and conservative and pro-Israel trusts and foundations”, both think-tanks are assessed in the report to be “inspired by the operations against peace activists and trade unionists during the Cold War and explicitly seek to revive this tradition of political counter-subversion”. Their targets are said to be “politically engaged Muslims, liberals and leftists, as well as liberal institutions such as schools, universities and public libraries”.

Of the two think-tanks Policy Exchange is by far the most influential, helping to shape the government’s recent shift towards counter-subversion under the guise of countering non-violent ‘extremism’.

In my book I explain how Policy Exchange has gradually won government backing for a Prevent strategy that is a counter-subversion strategy in all but name. Significantly Prevent no longer purports to be tackling ‘violent extremism’ but simply ‘extremism’. As a result several outstanding Muslim community projects that have reduced the adverse impact of al-Qaeda influence in Britain have been shelved and risk stigmatisation as ‘extremist’ or ‘subversive’ instead.

Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph columnist and former chairman of Policy Exchange, invoked the image of arch subversive Arthur Scargill when warning an audience in 2008 of a threat to democracy posed by several reasonable, mainstream Muslim organisations.

Moore outlined a counter-subversion strategy every bit as clandestine and ruthless as the alleged threat it sought to undermine. Now as then when combating communists like Scargill, embedded supporters within the enemy camp would, Moore argued, be crucial players in efforts to undermine ‘the extremists’.

Thus Moore identified Ed Husain, co-founder of the ‘counter-extremist’ Quilliam Foundation, playing a similar role to Frank Chapple, a ‘moderate’ trade union leader who was willing to tackle Scargill:

“One of the most powerful lessons from Ed Husain’s remarkable book, The Islamist, is that the people most intimidated by Islamist extremism in this country are Muslims themselves….We need to realise that every time the wider society enters into dialogue with the extremists we are not only dealing unwittingly with bad people, we are also empowering them against good people”.

Moore considered it apposite to quote Edmund Burke’s description of revolutionary agitators as a “half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern [who] make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the British oak, chew the cud and are silent”.

In fact the research I present in my book suggests that Muslims targeted by Policy Exchange have more community legitimacy and support than Policy Exchange and their allies in two separate periods of London politics.

Sharing an elitist top-down vanguard approach to politics Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Cohesion share a lack of experience of real urban street life. Indeed, it is perhaps inherent to this kind of top-down political thinking that it is considered legitimate for a small, elite group of Cambridge alumni to forge a counter-subversion strategy against their less privileged political opponents.

As the Spinwatch report concludes, “the policies advocated by the Centre for Social Cohesion and Policy Exchange will have grave consequences for British politics if they are not challenged”. Lets start that debate now.

Dr. Robert Lambert is Co-Director of the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter.