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Is Al Qaeda no longer Britain's main Islamist problem? Lessons for the Prevent Review

By Paul Goodman
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It's arguable that Al Qaeda is no longer the main security threat to Britain.  After all, Irish Republican dissidents are now back in business.  And there is some evidence that the former is in decline -

  • Other domestic Islamist terror problems have emerged.  Even if bin Laden had such an role, Al Qaeda is as much a brand as an organisation.  And Islamist terror has other role models.  One of the most atrocious terrorist assaults in recent years was the one on Mumbai.  It was carried out not by Al Qaeda but by Lashkar-e-Taiba.  There have been claims since and concern about Mumbai-style attacks in Britain.  There's no reason why people trained for violence in Pakistan's badlands should have a monopoly of Islamist terror in Britain.

Such judgements are necessarily tentative.  An Al Qaeda attack in Britain today would force reappraisal - which must be continuous in any event.  But given the merciful lack of domestic Al Qaeda terror assaults in recent years, the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq (the last ones returned home two weekends ago) and Afghanistan (the last ones will be out by 2015, if David Cameron has his way), it's possible to ask: could the Al Qaeda threat to Britain be gradually drawing to a close?

This is a question which the politicians and civil servants drawing up the Prevent Review - which was due to be published in the late winter, and which Cameron is chewing over while holidaying in Ibiza - will have asked themselves as they sweat over the draft.  They will appreciate (or ought to) that there are at least three major factors which work against the benign trends I've tried to describe, make the conversation between Britain's Muslims and non-Muslims more difficult, and have significant implications for the review.

  • The first are the headline-grabbing antics of Al-Muhajiroun.  Call them what you will - Al-Muhajiroun, Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah, Al Ghurabaa, Islam4UK or Muslims Against Crusades - this tiny band of fanatics and their placard-waving, poppy-burning, Wootton Bassett-protesting antics have created a media furore far out of proportion to their size.  I don't know of any study which examines where British non-Muslims get information about Islam from, but it is depressingly likely that all a significant proportion know of the religion is what Al-Muhajiroun claim it to be.  At best, the media has passively given repeated platfoms to Al-Muhajiroun.  At worst, it has actively collaborated with its main spokesmen.  Either way, it has thereby suggested that the organisation's voice is the authentic representation of British Islam (which it isn't: see here).

Al-Muhajiroun will continue to exploit such international incidents as the Danish cartoons controversy.  And it will try to manipulate the reactions of some young Muslims to the controversies surrounding Israel/Palestine, Kashmir and so forth.  However, the western military withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan will lessen the number of grievances it seeks to abuse.  And whatever one's view of Britain's present role in Libya, this undoubtedly saved many Muslims from massacre by a secular dictator, and will have given some British Muslims who believe that all western foreign is reflexively "anti-Islam" food for thought.  Al Muhajiroun are the least problematic of my three factors.

  • The second is the treatment of Christians in some Muslim-majority countries.  The main issues at stake are religious freedom plus equality under the law.  As Peter Oborne's reporting from Nigeria suggests, it would be wrong to suggest that the blame for tensions between Christians and Muslims can exclusively be laid at the latter's door.  And the role of western Christian fundamentalism in the Iraq conflict, and elsewhere, has been the subject of more media attention in the middle east than here in Britain.  However, there is a fundamental lack of parity in terms of religious freedom.  Muslims are free to practice their religion in western liberal democracies.  Christians are not always so free in Muslim-majority countries.  No Place To Call Home, Christian Solidarity Worldwide's report, contains a mass of detail on the matter, and is worth reading.

Once, there was more religious freedom in Islamic countries than in the west.  Now, this is no longer the case, and some of the trends are negative.  The Arab Spring has brought new problems for Egypt's Copts.  In Tunisia, a synagogue has been the target of anti-semitic demostrations.  Neither country has strong communal links with Britain, but this isn't true of Pakistan, where Shabaz Bhatti, the country's only Christian Cabinet member, was recently murdered.  Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in Scotland, afterwards criticised the Governent for increasing aid to PakistanA mood change may be taking place within Britain's churches.  Certainly, a wider sense of resentment about the treatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries is the most problematic of my three factors.

  • The third is the drive for pre-modern law.  As Rashad Ali and Haras Rafiq have explained previously on this site, there's no necessary connection between the sharia, the religious law of Islam, and Dawla Islamiyya, an Islamist state.  Islamic religious law is flexible enough to accomodate western secular democracy, in much the same way as Jewish religious law is.  This helps to explain why the phrase "sharia law" conceals more than it reveals: it's usually used to imply an instrinic connection between sharia and such a state, and for this reason is best avoided.  I prefer the term "pre-modern law", which suggests exactly the replacement of secular law by religious law which Islamists support.  But call it what you will, there is a big movement within contemporary Islam for pre-modern law, stretching from Al Qaeda through the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jammat-e-Islami abroad to some of their British supporters.

The polling I've seen confirms that the majority of British Muslims want to live under both secular law and their own religious law, in the same way that the Jewish community does.  However, some polling suggests that a significant minority, especially of younger Muslims, would prefer to live under pre-modern law, at least in part (see my correspondence with Matthew Goodwin).  Because of the way Britain's Muslim population is concentrated, this implies Islamist enclaves rather than an Islamist state.  There is some evidence that activity aimed at such an end is already happening in Tower Hamlets, and that there is no coherent response from the authorities.  Though the problem shouldn't be exaggerated and is managable, it forms the third of my factors.  It's now possible to ask whether it's a bigger one than Al Qaeda.

This returns us to the Prevent Review.  It will take one of two approaches.  The first is a narrow one, which holds that this arm of Contest, the Government's counter-terror strategy, should aim to prevent violent extremism alone - in other words, acts of terror themselves.  It would seal off the counter-terror approach from other considerations, such as policy to promote integration and cohesion.  The second is a wider one, which sees Prevent in a broader context - which takes into account not only the acts of terror, or even the ideology than underpins them too, but the effects of policy on cohesion and integration.

The last Government oscillated between the first approach and the second.  Thus it came about that, for example that, Azad Ali, a Treasury official who used his internet blog to praise the spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda, provided advice to the Director of Public Prosecutions.  The same man was and remains Chairman of the Muslim Safety Forum, which is used by the Metropolitan Police "as a consultation body to help formulate policy or practice".  Mohammed Ali Harrath, who was on an Interpol "wanted" list, was used by the Met as an adviser: Pauline Neville-Jones, the former security Minister, called for him to be sacked.  There is much more.

David Cameron's Munich speech was a clear signal that "the rules of the game should change".  Cameron rightly condemned Islamophobia.  (For reasons I've previously explained, I prefer the term "Anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry", into which there should be a Parliamentary enquiry undertaken by a select committee.)  But he also made it clear that Prevent should take a broad approach to its remit, not a narrow one.  Turning to extremists to fend off violent extremists, he observed, was "like turning to a right-wing fascist party to fight a violent white supremacist movement".  And he went on to sketch out a series of tests for groups that seek to establish partnerships with the authorites or receive taxpayers' money.

Nick Clegg didn't much care for the Munich speech.  Nor do elements in the security services, the civil service and the police.  The test of the Prevent Review will be whether or not Cameron returns from holiday determined to ensure that his Munich vision prevails.


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