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Five lessons from Prevent - following today's Home Affairs Select Committee report

By Paul Goodman
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I haven't yet had the opportunity to read today's Home Affairs Select Committee report in to Prevent in full, but the Home Office presumably has: it says that the committee "broadly support[s] the outcome of the Prevent review and the revised strategy".

The Committee's alertness to the dangers of neo-nazi terrorism - which the BBC has swooped on - and the need to remove violent extremist material from the net seem sensible.  I look forward to reading the whole report.

Its publication is as good a moment as any to ask what lessons can be learned from the history of Prevent - and recent events in relation to violent extremism and extremism more broadly.  I draw five conclusions.

  • Government knows more about Britain's Muslim communities than it did before 9/11.  Britain's three million or so Muslims are extremely diverse in terms of their theological, national and ethnic background.  It follows that no single organisation speaks for them.  Whitehall has always hankered after a single phone number for British Muslims (the parallel is with Kissinger's alleged desire for a single phone number for Europe) and before 9/11 it looked to the Muslim Council of Britain to provide it.  The events of that day and what followed gradually brought about change.  During Labour's first term, Tony Blair said that the MCB was "doing a lot of impressive work making the voice of the Muslim community heard".  During Labour's third one, Hazel Blears ended dealings with it during the Daud Abdullah controversy.  The present Government has no official relations with the MCB.  Whatever one's view of the organisation, polling has found that only 6 per cent of British Muslims believe that the MCB represents them.  Whitehall didn't know this until fairly recently, but has grasped the point thoroughly now.  In short, government may not know all that much about British Muslims, but it knows a lot more than it did.
  • The Coalition has learned lessons from Labour's Prevent failures.  Blair's reaction to 7/7 was first to commission the Preventing Extremism Together together project, then abandon it in favour of a twelve-point plan which was never fully implemented (and of which his Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, may not have been aware before its publication), and then introduce a revised Contest policy, including the overhauled Prevent.  Labour spent £70 million on it over three years.  Goodness knows what the bill for the whole programme has totalled.  I doubt if there has ever been a full audit, but some of the money was unaccounted for (as both I and the Taxpayers Alliance pointed out) and parts of it spent on activities distant from counter-terrorism: the Coalition pointed out in its revised Prevent Strategy that 19% in one year went on arts and cultural activities ("local theatre production") and 13% on sports and recreation ("boxing clubs, football clubs").  In other words, much of Labour's Prevent programme securitised integration and cohesion policy - a tangling which this Government has begun laboriously to unknot.
  • Big majorities of British Muslims reject Al Qaeda.  The most authoritative polling to date reported that only 7 per cent of British Muslims admired the organisation (and the author of the report concerned, Munira Mirza, found that "it is is difficult to know how to interpret such statistics").  And the last big terrorist attack in Britain took place the best part of five years ago.  It is reasonable to conclude from what's happened since that there is less support for terrorism "on the ground" than there seemed to be in the aftermath of 7/7.  That conclusion comes with a warning.  It is impossible to know how many plots the security services have thwarted.  There were convictions in relation to one last week.  There has been at least one narrow escape.  But given the drama of the last decade - Afghanistan, the promotion of Wahhabiism in Britain from abroad, Iraq, the self-serving clashes between the English Defence League and Unite against Fascism, Israel's incursions into Lebanon and Gaza, the antics of Anjem Choudary, and so on - it is worth reflecting on how little Islamsist terror there has been in Britain, not how much.  Like everyone else, most British Muslims have political views.  And like everyone else again, these are less important to them than  home, work, family and getting on with their lives.
  • The Arab revolts against dictatorship present fresh challenges.  I don't like "Arab spring", which suggests that all will inevitably turn out well in the middle east, or "Arab winter", which does the opposite.  What we know is that the Muslim Brotherhood is now the main governing force in Tunisia, is set to play the same role in Egypt, and is leading the government in Morocco.  The brotherhood is playing a significant part in the opposition to Assad in Syria and is evidently a rising political force in the region.  The agony of Syria is a reminder that the revolts and the strife between two extremisms - one Shiite, emanating from Iran, the other Sunni, emanating from Saudi Arabia - are impacting on each other.  Labour was clearly not ready for the knock-on effects of Israel's 2009 incursion into Gaza on community relations in Britain.  It is worth asking whether this Government in general - and DCLG in particular - is prepared for the possible consequences of, say, a sudden Israeli attack on Iran (anti-semitic incidents would surely rise), a "lone wolf" neo-nazi strike on a mosque or an Al Qaeda-inspired terror bomb with mass casualties (Muslims would rightly be fearful of the consequences): the Government's draft integration policy suggests not.
  • Britain is set to begin a new relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. Parallels beween western democracies and the middle east are misleading, but one way of describing the turn-around in the region is that a year ago the brotherhood was in opposition and today it is in government (or on the way there).  Some of those who until very recently were languishing in exile - or prison - now sit behind Ministerial desks.  In time, they will surely urge the British Government to be less suspicious of - and perhaps even enter into partnership with - their friends and allies in the UK.  This would put Conservative Ministers in a difficult bind.  On the one hand, they will not want to help build up the position of Islamism in Britain; on the other, they will not wish to offend countries with which we trade and do business.  The decisive factor will be how Muslim Brotherhood-led governments actually govern - and in particular, what happens to religious freedoms and the position of women.  If the countries concerned turn into Sunni Irans, British Christians will become more outspoken about the plight of their co-religionists abroad: as I've noted before, the volume has gradually been rising for some time.  If, however, the Brotherhood lives up to its progressive and pluralist rhetoric, doors that are shut to it in Britain may open.

We shall see.  The only Tory position to take is to learn from the past and prepare for the worst, hopeful that matters may turn out better than expected.  But until or unless they do, prepare in particular for the churches to become more vocal about the treatment of Christians abroad.

Above all, the most crucial area will probably turn out to be not the middle east but Afghanistan and Pakistan - given the size of our Pakistani and Kashmir-origin communities.  Were Pakistan to collapse, or war to break out between it and India, the consequences here would be serious.

Whatever the merits of the Home Affairs Select Committee's report may be, it is time for its counterpart, the DCLG Select Committee, to try to establish the facts about the scale of anti-Muslim hatred and violence in Britain.


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