It was seen as a bold and imaginative response to the 7 July 2005 terrorist attacks: a group of internationally renowned Islamic scholars would tour the country to preach a message of moderation to Britain’s Muslim youth. The Muslim Scholars Roadshow remains the one recommendation from the task force on extremism, set up after the London bombings, that has been implemented in full.
However, Whitehall documents obtained by the New Statesman suggest that even this was an elaborate sham. The roadshow was dreamed up by Foreign and Commonwealth Office mandarins in advance of the task force meeting last autumn. It was presented, ready-made, to the task-force members and spun as a grass-roots idea that had emerged from the discussions.
The £5m Preventing Extremism Together task force, which canvassed the opinions of more than 1,000 Muslims, was supposed to provide solutions to the problems of disengagement and radicalisation among Britain’s Muslim youth. The task force carried out its work between August and November, when it presented its report to ministers, which included a proposal to have “Muslim scholars touring the country to address young people and challenge theologically extremist interpretations of Islam”. It has emerged in the past month that the Muslim Scholars Roadshow was the only one of the task force’s 64 recommendations to be implemented.
However, a leaked internal memo shows that plans for the roadshow had been in place long before the task force supposedly suggested the idea in November.
A note dated 16 August from Riaz Patel, an adviser on Islamic affairs at the Foreign Office, to his boss, Andrew Jackson, deputy director of the Engaging with the Islamic World Group, shows that plans were well advanced by the summer. Not only had the Foreign Office already decided to set up the roadshow, but it had shortlisted three Muslim organisations that it hoped would run the event as a coalition. Patel even recommends a name for the coalition, Mahabba Unlimited (mahabba is the Arabic word for love). His note exposes the procedure to select all three groups (the Muslim magazine Q-News, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and the Young Muslim Organisation) as somewhat rough-and-ready. Evaluation, he says, “was conducted through a mixture of basic internet research and direct contact”. What he chooses not to say is that two of the organisations, FOSIS and YMO, are heavily influenced by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group, well established across the Middle East, which is committed to establishing Islamic rule under sharia law.
The memo shows that ministers were informed of the roadshow project well in advance of the task force, and it even suggests they were driving the process.
In answer to the question “Why the Coalition?”, Patel states: “This project is a key ministerial priority and expectations from our own ministers [at the Foreign Office] and those at the HO [Home Office] are very high. We have been given clear direction to accelerate the delivery of the project as soon as practicably possible.”
Under the heading “Next Steps”, he continues: “We have already started preliminary work with the three organisations and will be signing a contract with the coalition to formalise the project within the next few days.”
That plans for the roadshow were so well advanced in August may go some way towards explaining why it is the one task-force recommendation that has got off the ground.
It is an old civil service trick during “public” consultations to give the appearance of openness, while the real policy is being developed behind the scenes.
The Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Falkner, who sat on the task-force working group on tackling extremism and radicalisation, said that she soon became disillusioned with the process: “It appeared obvious that we wouldn’t have time to take evidence or travel around or talk to communities in any substantive manner. And so it seemed to me rather that it was going to be a very hurried, ‘let’s do something’ sort of response, rather than anything substantive.”
She is deeply disappointed that the central recommendations of her working group were not taken on board, including the demand for a full public inquiry into the events surrounding the 7 July attacks. The idea of a Muslim Scholars Roadshow had not convinced her: “I don’t think that . . . young people are necessarily . . . going to rush in large numbers to listen to a few scholars. I thought this was rather odd.”
The New Statesman has also been leaked the government’s media “lines to take” on the roadshow, drawn up after the task force met. These look, when you are armed with the knowledge that the project was signed off in August 2005, like the worst sort of exercise in spin and cynicism. “One of the recommendations to the government from Preventing Extremism Together working groups to counter extremist ideas was for a national grass-roots-led campaign of events targeted at Muslim youth enabling influential scholars theologically to tackle extremist interpretations of Islam.”
So far, so disingenuous, but the sentence that follows is simply untrue: “The FCO, working with the Home Office, has responded to this by facilitating a country-wide ‘Empowering Voices of Mainstream Islam’ roadshow of influential, populist, religious scholars.” We now know the “response” was planned two months in advance.
A third document seen by this magazine suggests that plans for the roadshow were being considered at an even earlier date. The restricted briefing to Downing Street, dated 14 July 2005, was written by Irfan Siddiq, private secretary to the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and prepared by the Engaging with the Islamic World Group. Apart from a series of foreign-policy initiatives, the note contained a number of domestic recommendations. Under the heading “International Scholar Exchange”, Downing Street is informed that Britain should “establish a UK and EU process to help cross-fertilisation of ideas on mainstream Islam between Muslim scholars from the Islamic world and Europe – eg, through setting up new networks, regional seminars etc”.
Intriguingly, the paper also suggested engaging former jihadis to talk to young people. The government should “explore the possibility of tours and messages by ‘reformed’ jihadis to engage young Muslims on extremism and mainstream Islam in the UK, Europe and the Islamic world”. It is not known whether this recommendation has been taken up by Downing Street, though it seems unlikely.
It is too early to judge the success of the scholars roadshow, which began touring Britain in December with events in London, Leeds and Manchester (under the apparently unironic, new Labour-ish banner “The Radical Middle Way”). Although the events are branded with the logos of the three “grass-roots” organisations that form Mahabba Unlimited, it is an open secret that the tour is funded by the Foreign Office. Yet this does not seem to have deterred young Muslims from turning up in large numbers. There seems a thirst for an alternative vision among Britain’s Muslim youth. It may even be that the roadshow can provide part of the answer, despite the reservations of people such as Baroness Falkner. But the clumsy and patronising “top-down” way in which the government set about it does not inspire confidence.
Instead of opening up young minds to the full range of Muslim thought and directing them away from extremism, there is a risk that such a cynical approach to engagement will simply serve to drive disillusioned young men further into the embrace of the radicals.