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The Government's new Prevent Strategy - A missed opportunity

July 7, 2011 3:18 PM
By Issan Ghazni
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

The government has just launched a revamped version of the old failed and worn out counter-extremism strategy initiated by Labour whilst it was in power. Prevent was originally launched after the 7 July bombings in 2005 to stop the spread of home-grown terrorism. Labour's approach failed, proved divisive and also led to inevitable alienation in Muslim communities. Can the new
hardline approach succeed in preventing acts of Islamist violence on the streets of Britain?

The new framework runs counter to the liberal and sensible arguments proposed and hard fought for within Government by Nick Clegg and Andrew Stunell for a more tolerant attitude to Muslim groups, to maintain a distinction between violent and non-violent extremism, to engage rather than alienate and better understand risks of withholding support to groups engaged in community cohesion programmes working under difficult conditions. The new policy takes an uncompromising approach by redefining extremists as simply those who hold "un-British" views and is centred upon the notion that violent extremism is incubated within the ideology of non-violent extremism.

Central to the new approach is a broader definition of extremism that will be extended beyond groups condoning violence to those considered non-violent but whose views, such as the advocacy
of sharia law, fail to "reflect British mainstream values". These groups have been defined as people and organisations who disagree with "core values" including democracy, equality before the law, and universal human rights. Teresa May has said that "If organisations do not accept these fundamental values, we will not work with them and we will not fund them."

This policy shift creates a challenge for liberals of every hue - it has the potential to undermine individualism, freedom of speech and expression of thought. It is one thing to say that central government will stop funding extremist groups, and even to marginalise them. It is quite another to demand that universities and internet providers intervene actively against groups or individuals who "do not share our core values".

There is a specific section on universities, which asks them to monitor and take action against "people or groups involved with terrorism" - which they may feel vaguely comfortable with - and also requesting that they monitor and take action against groups who disagree with our "core values" - which they will surely have difficulty contemplating. There are equally worrying sections on the internet, which talk about blocking online content which may be considered "unlawful" - matter of fact and fairly benign - and blocking online content which is "harmful" - which is clearly a matter of subjective judgment, and potentially a highly divisive issue.

The other key challenge is the alienation of potential allies within Muslim communities in Britain. Muslims who work tirelessly to oppose the influence of extremist ideology deserve to be
recognised - not labelled subversive extremists.

As a result of Prevent 2, many Muslims who are regarded locally as serious and credible opponents in the battle for young hearts and minds could be hampered in their important counter-terrorism
work. Fortunately, this decision to deny effective Muslim community initiatives legitimacy and funding will not entirely halt effective local community funded grassroots work against extremist influence, but it may reduce its scale and impact. There is however, potential to make life difficult for local partnerships where Muslim community groups are branded extremist and subversive by the government. As a consequence, trust and mutual respect between police and Muslim community projects will most likely be replaced by relationships of control and distrust, or no relationships at all - both outcomes serving extremists better than counter-terrorism. The policy shift will also do little to stem the significant and worrying growth of Islamaphobia and far-right political violence and intimidation against Muslims and their places of worship and congregation.

A liberal solution would be about gathering people together around a common cause, building relationships between distant communities, giving a sense of common ownership. Dialogue and
involvement are the key words. The alternative is to leave fearful, alienated and isolated communities to their own devices whilst occasionally bringing to court some hate-filled, mindless ringleader, guilty of inciting violence and threatening community cohesion.

Robert Kennedy spoke after the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles - America's first inner city riots - arguing against the latter approach: leaving people socially alienated in ghettos had led disaffected communities to end up "having nothing to do with the rest of us."

We must seriously consider a strategy for dialogue as a far more likely approach to stem the spread of radical Islamism which breeds on grievances, stereotypes and inter-cultural ignorance, than one which refuses to touch them from a mile away. We need to find a space in which all our conflicting interests can be heard and our political will can be used to ease cultural tensions, forge
solutions and build bridges between all our communities, whether they be Muslim extremists or EDL supporters.

In our new muscularly liberal Britain, which policy is most likely to spread a sense of separation and hate filled minds? One which aims to promote respectful dialogue and communication bringing people into the circle from outside, or one which seeks to quarantine those sections of society that we find objectionable?

Issan Ghazni

Former Liberal Democrats National Diversity Adviser

Chair of Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD)