On UK government strategy vs. radical Islam
by Irfan Al-Alawi
On June 9, 2011, the London Evening Standard published the following text:
THE defeat of radical Islam won't come through the efforts of a small industry of report-writers and statistics collectors who try their best either to minimise the problems Islamism poses for the West, or to exaggerate the threat and sow panic.
None of the threats from Islamic extremism to the West can be addressed without recognising their root causes: excessive Saudi wealth without accountability, Pakistani state corruption, and Iranian social pathology.
Irfan Al-Alawi, international director, Centre for Islamic Pluralism
This comment was solicited in response to an op-ed by the leading British journalist Matthew D'Ancona, who wrote in the Evening Standard of June 8, as follows:
For Cameron, terrorism is the new Cold War
Those engaged in the fight against terrorism have learned to regard al Qaeda not as a traditional army or hierarchy but as downloadable "software". This week, Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive officer, returned briefly from medical leave to unveil the computer giant's latest goodies: he remains the corporation's indispensable figurehead.
It is tempting to see Osama bin Laden as al Qaeda's Steve Jobs, and his death as an insuperable loss to the Islamist brand — tempting but wrong. As one of the Government's advisers on Islamism puts it: "It's better to see al Qaeda as a lethal app you can download anywhere, or as a computer virus, than as an identifiable leadership structure you have to infiltrate and destroy. This is predominantly a battle of the mind."
To pursue the digital metaphor, the review of the Prevent counter-terrorist strategy unveiled yesterday by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is intended to strengthen and debug the firewall that stands between our society and the Islamist virus. Viewed from one perspective, this is little more than the reheating of a deeply flawed campaign launched in 2007 by the last government — a campaign that has led in the past four years to some embarrassingly lax use of public money. In fact, Prevent 2.0 is potentially one of the most important documents of the post-9/11 struggle against terrorism, and marks the decisive victory within government of one argument over another.
Broadly, the two positions have come to be associated, respectively, with David Cameron's speech on multiculturalism in February in Munich, and Nick Clegg 's address on similar themes in Luton the following month. As so often in alleged Coalition "splits", there was greater overlap between the two speeches than much of the coverage acknowledged. But over one crucial point the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister did diverge. Cameron rejected entirely the notion of engaging with allegedly non-violent Islamic groups which nonetheless espouse extremist views. "This," the PM declared, "is like turning to a Right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement." Clegg, by contrast, wanted to retain the option: "You don't win a fight by leaving the ring."
The rewritten Prevent strategy marks a decisive victory for "Munich" (Cameron) over "Luton" (Clegg). It is also a tribute to an intellectual battle fought over the years by the modernising think-tank, Policy Exchange — co-founded by Francis Maude, Michael Gove and Nicholas Boles, the senior Cameroon MP — and, specifically, the head of its foreign policy and security unit, Dean Godson. The new Home Office document states explicitly: "Work to date has not recognised clearly enough the way in which some terrorist ideologies draw on and make use of extremist ideas which are espoused by apparently non-violent organisations very often operating within the law." No more funding, then, for such groups, or Government engagement with them.
But what is an extremist? Annex A helpfully includes a glossary: "Extremism is vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and
tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas." This definition embraces a fair number of grass-roots organisations, presently operating with impunity and, in some cases, subsidy.
They will not be proscribed. But — if the new strategy is implemented properly — the party is definitely over for those who lurk opportunistically in the limbo between civil society and terror, hoping to posture as go-betweens. Let's face it: as long as the enemy's core demands are the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate, the destruction of Israel and the global imposition of Sharia law, the role of go-between will remain pretty redundant.
In truth, this struggle more closely resembles the Cold War than the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The most important argument advanced by the rebooted Prevent strategy is that the struggle against terrorism is, at root, a battle of ideologies. Since 9/11, there have been many efforts to resist this perspective. All too often, it has been claimed that Islamist violence is simply a response to Western "foreign policy" or to the actions of Israel. With no less confidence, it has been asserted that terrorism can be explained by specific social and economic factors; or is simply another form of criminality that can be dealt with by traditional detection, prosecution and conviction in the courts. But the new Prevent document is unambiguous in its contention that ideology is the heart of the matter.
From this premise flow two hugely challenging conclusions. The first is that it may often be desirable to intervene pre-emptively where an individual or network appears to be receptive to Islamist indoctrination. Already, this has generated concern on campuses, among GPs and in other public bodies. When does vigilance become a witch-hunt? When does responsible citizenship descend into McCarthyism? These are real questions. But so is the threat that Prevent is intended to address. The dilemmas posed by the strategy are no reason to ditch it.
The second conclusion is that we must be more "confident in our own values". The document demands "advocacy of the very systems and values which terrorists in this country and elsewhere set out to destroy", a task which it describes as a "collective responsibility".
And herein lies the most unsettling question posed by this strategy. Demanding confidence does not make it come into being. Cameron's championship in Munich of "muscular liberalism" was admirable. But — as with the Big Society — the question is whether this most optimistic of Prime Ministers is right to think that his call to action will be answered. The extremists know exactly where they stand. Do we?