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Dean Godson: David Cameron and Theresa May are to be congratulated for their strategy on tackling Islamist extremism

Picture 26 Dean Godson is Research Director (Foreign Policy and Security) at Policy Exchange.

David Cameron has been criticised by some on the right of the Party for being the least ideological of Conservative Prime Ministers. He has also been criticised for operating according to short term imperatives. Yet he is the first leader to understand the greatest ideological threat of our times – namely Islamism -- and to come up with a long-term strategy for combating it.

That new approach has just been unveiled by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, when she commended the Government’s Review of the Prevent strand of the Counter-Terrorism strategy to the House of Commons.  Although tackling Islamist extremism has never been particularly high on her agenda – she regards police reform and cleaning up the immigration system as her legacy issues – she has nonetheless performed the role allotted to her like a trouper.

She of course first vaulted to prominence as Party Chairman in 2002, when she described the Tories in her conference speech as having been seen as the “nasty party.” Certainly, the alleged nastiness of the old Tory set-up was as nothing compared to the relentless sectarianism and grievance mongering which characterises the world of contemporary British Islamism.  It’s no wonder that the original kitten heeled moderniser would take umbrage at that.

The Prime Minister’s track record on this subject dates back to his period as Shadow Education Secretary, if not before. It’s just that very few people paid much attention to the strength and longevity of these convictions. For example, he told Dylan Jones in Cameron on Cameron that during the Blair years “it was extraordinary that we were both in the vanguard of invading Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet at the same time we were tolerating extremists back at home who were poisoning the minds of young Muslims'.

Cameron thus encapsulated a largely unarticulated Tory, Middle English, sentiment perfectly. He was signalling that he was no neoconservative, but that he would also be no pushover for Islamist totalitarians. Indeed, by couching his rejection of Islamism in terms of its reactionary social views, he simultaneously appealed both to the party’s traditional patriotic constituency and its newer, more socially progressive vanguard. This synthesis could turn out to be very potent with the electorate at large. And its most dramatic manifestation was the Prime Minister's Munich address of February this year, when he made it clear that he regarded Islamist extremism tout court as the problem, and not just violent extremism.

Yet despite the potential for this theme -- both inside and outside the Westminster Village -- it’s remarkable how few Conservatives take a real interest in the subject. There are a number of reasons for this. As Paul Goodman noted when he was Shadow Communities Minister, there were four standard backbench Tory approaches to the issue during the early years of the last decade:

  1. Muslim are terrorists and should therefore be locked up.
  2. Muslims are voters and should therefore be given whatever their loudest self-appointed representatives want.
  3. It's all far too complicated, so please let's not discuss the issue.
  4. A combination of all three

Far from being the product of a genuflection to Tory conference sentiment, the country’s first viable anti- extremism policy has actually been forged by a tiny and supposedly unrepresentative elite of “Notting Hillbillies” – including Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove and Nicholas Boles. From outside that group, Paul Goodman also played a highly significant role. But if the Conservatives are to deliver success in the long run, engagement in the subject will have to extend downwards. The reason for that is to be found in the structures described in the Prevent Review.

Although David Cameron has devoted a large amount of time to this topic before and after Munich, no one could expect the Prime Minister to maintain that level of focus. Prevent stretches into almost every nook and cranny of Whitehall and the public sector: according to one estimate, there are at least 150 Prevent “stakeholders”. Supervising a recalcitrant public sector – which saw off both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they sought to force it to take of the threat of Islamist extremism seriously – will require ministers who understand what is at stake. Which Parliamentary Under Secretary at DoH, for example, will ensure that the NHS actually monitors vulnerable staff properly? In short, the Parliamentary Party needs to be educated about this topic.

The Prevent Review, read in conjunction with the Munich speech, takes the first critical steps towards that end.  It goes further than any previous Government document in fingering Islamist extremism itself as the core of the problem. Certainly, Hazel Blears as Communities Secretary under the last Labour Government, fought very bravely to insert a few references to non violent extremism into the 2009 version of the Contest counter-terrorism strategy.  But there is far more red meat in this new Prevent Review.  

That is why it is so important that extremism -- as well as terrorism -- is flagged up in the glossary of terms and definitions at the end of the document. There was a marked difference on this key subject between officials in the Home Office and the independent overseer of the Review, Lord Carlile of Berriew, a prominent Liberal Democrat silk (further evidence of how this debate cuts across party lines). The argument centred on whether extremism should be included within the remit of the Prevent Review.

The mandarins wanted the glossary to confine itself to terrorism, and specifically to Al Qaeda terrorism. However, Carlile contended that after Munich, it had to include the extremist ideology and world view that leads some people to become terrorists. Cameron backed Carlile. And Carlile also insisted that support for attacks on British troops be included as part of the definition of extremism. Again, this was opposed by officials; once more, Cameron sided with Carlile.

It is a sure sign of how badly the old Prevent had gone wrong that a Conservative Prime Minister had to exert himself in order to get the permanent bureaucracy to accept that support for attacks on UK forces is extremist! When it comes to Prevent, clichés about 'turning around supertankers' are very apt.  Because the same permanent bureaucracy which gave us the old Prevent also wrote the new Review (albeit under ministerial supervision and with Lord Carlile's independent oversight), getting it to admit that anything was wrong with the previous model was like drawing teeth.

There are a few grudging admissions: 'The Review found no evidence to indicate widespread, systematic or deliberate funding of extremist groups, either by the Home Office or by local authorities or police forces. But there have been cases where groups whom would now consider to support an extremists ideology have received funding'. Note the evasions and caveats: classic Whitehall-ese, with officials dancing around like cats on a hot tin roof.

The key word here is 'funding'. What about non-financial forms of engagement with extremists? This has long been a problem. For example, Martin Bright's collection of leaked Foreign Office and Cabinet Office documents When Progressives Treat With Reactionaries (Policy Exchange, 2006) shows very clearly that the Bangladeshi Islamist Delwar Hossein Sayeedi was allowed to into Britain to preach his divisive message as a supposed bulwark against Al Qaeda. Because of his 'credibility' in accessing' angry young Muslims. The same was true of Yusuf al Qaradawi.  An examination of the case of the Indian Islamist Zakir Naik – excluded by Theresa May last year --  demonstrates that senior Home Office  mandarins viewed Naik as a positive force. One senior Home Office official even wanted to show Naik classified material to prove to him that Osama Bin Laden ordered 9/11!

Having reluctantly conceded past mistakes, what does the Review propose? Four key themes emerge:

Ending the reliance upon non violent Islamist extremists as a bulwark against violent extremists:  Funding and other support will no longer be provided to extremist organisations. 'Neither government Departments nor the police will rely on extremists to address the risk of radicalisation,' notes the Review. Also, 'in future, neither Prevent funding nor support will be given to organisations that hold extremist views or support terrorist related activity of any kind, in this country or overseas. This applies irrespective of the source of the funding: central Government, Local Government, or policing'.

Far greater levels of due diligence must be performed on the Government's Muslim partners: The Preventing Extremism Unit of Michael Gove's Department for Education is setting a new gold standard here. DfE needs such skills in order to vet the applications to set up Free Schools and Academies, as well as to monitor what is going on in existing establishments. 'Choosing our friends wisely' is thus the informal motto of the new dispensation.

As Lord Carlile observes in his report to the Home Secretary that accompanies the Prevent Review, this will be a two way process: 'This places a considerable responsibility not merely on government, but on Muslim and other organisations, however ostensibly authoritative or senior, to bring order to their own houses before securing partnerships or other cooperative arrangements with government. They must read the strategy and the definitions within it, and recognise that working within the law involves working within the strategy. Some significant organisations have been less punctilious than they might have been about the platforms they have provided and the people who have appeared on them'.

'Naming and Shaming': the Prevent Review flags up some of the Islamist organisations that fail to 'step up to the plate' (Lord Carlile's term) in the Munich era. It takes this concept beyond anything that has appeared in previous Government documents. Not only does it point to some of the self-evident extremists such as Al Mahajiroun and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT); but it also fingers more plausible Islamists such as the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS). It notes that five senior figures in student Islamic Societies went on to be convicted of terrorism.

Lord Carlile takes the theme of naming and shaming even further in his supplementary report. For example, he takes a dim view of Islamic Forum Europe (IFE) – now a key ideological influence in Tower Hamlets – for its view of society; of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), recently described by a minister in Parliament as 'the Muslim Brotherhood's representative in the UK'; and of the continuing propagation of the totalitarian writings of the Islamist ideologue Maulan Abu Aala Maududi. Carlile urges that 'proportionate care is taken in decision about working with any given group, whether it be the MAB or anyone else'.

Carlile also elaborates on a key theme raised by the Prime Minister in his Munich address: the grievance culture which characterises so much Islamist discourse. He singles out for particular opprobrium the remarks of the then head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Mohamed Abdul Bari – when he likened the position of Muslims in Britain today to that of Jews in Nazi Germany prior to the Holocaust; and the attendant conspiracy theories of some faith leaders who believe that 7/7 might have been an MI5 plot. If young Muslims see their elders peddling these lurid theories, then is it that surprising that a small minority want to respond with more radical options? To what extent does the rhetoric of non violent political Islamists create 'barriers to entry' – making young Muslims unreceptive to the messages of mainstream society?

The media has noted that the Government appears not to have followed through on the pre-election Conservative pledge to ban HuT. In fact, this is sensible: huge political and legal capital would have been expended, with no guarantee of ultimate success in the courts. By contrast, political and social stigmatisation of Islamist extremism would be a far more effective tool – as white racists have discovered over the past decade. The Review approvingly notes the overall effectiveness of such informal bans at the level of civil society, such as the NUS's 'No Platform' [for racists], which targets the BNP, the National Front as well as HuT and MPAC UK.

Recapturing 'ungoverned spaces':  the Review is at its strongest in proposing unspectacular but solid incremental measures -- to ensure that the 'nothing to do with me, Guv' culture of the upper reaches of the public sector becomes a thing of the past.  This malaise was exemplified by the Chief Executive of Universities UK who last week denied that there was much of a problem with radicalisation on campus.

One of the greatest achievements of the Review is the inclusion of a common law duty of care on universities and FE colleges to 'individual students as well as the wider student body' when the authorities suspect radicalisation of an undergraduate. Likewise, the section on the NHS states that 'we believe that clear guidelines are needed for all healthcare managers and healthcare works to ensure that cases of radicalisation whether among staff or patients are given the attention and care they deserve.'

So where next? The success or failure of the Prime Minister's counter-extremism project, signalled at Munich, will depend on implementation. The devil really is in the detail. Some ministers, like John Hayes, who has responsibility for the subject of radicalisation within BIS (and is also in charge of FE) are well-equipped to take up the Munich agenda. Others, frankly, don't want to touch the subject. Downing Street will have to be vigilant to ensure that there is no backtracking on the outcome of the Review when it is incorporated into the new version of the Contest strategy.

Overall, there are real grounds for optimism.  One of the most impressive aspects of David Cameron's premiership is its self-confidence. When it comes to extremism, he believes in the capacity of the British state to reshape and reduce the Islamist public space. The Prime Minister has many levers at his disposal, including soft power. Paradoxically, for all their grievance culture and loudly advertised antipathy to Britain, many political Islamists also crave recognition from officialdom. They fight for invitations to No 10 Eid receptions, for OBEs, for ministers to appear on their platforms, as well as for Government hand-outs. Because of Munich, and the Prevent Review that has flowed from it, the British state will finally be able to assert in a way that is consistent with national self respect. 


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