Britain's New Counter-Terrorism Policy and Its Drawbacks

Jun 14, 2011 | Updated Aug 14, 2011

It was argued by a number of commentators that there were two issues that the Prime Minister (David Cameron of the Conservative Party) and the Deputy Prime Minister (Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats) had to agree to disagree on in their coalition government in the UK. The first was the proposed change of the voting system in the UK -- the second was the British state's strategy on preventing radical Islamist extremism in the UK. Where we go from here remains to be seen -- and our security depends on it, as well as the security of our allies in Europe and America.

In the end, it seemed one side won over the other. The latest review of the UK's 'Prevent' counter-terrorism strategy was delivered on the 7th of June 2011, a month before the 7th July anniversary. Up until the publication of this review, it seemed plausible that the British state would deal with a range of Muslim groups in order to counter violent radicalisation -- including, if appropriate, groups informed by a non-violent form of Islamism. In the weeks and months after the bombings in 2005, it was clear that our government had been working with groups who were ideologically related to political Islamism. Much of the UK Muslim population is, after all, of immigrant origin -- and a huge proportion of the early migrants came to the UK at a time when many of the key civil society groups in their countries of origin were Islamist. As such, it was hardly surprising that members of the Jammat Islami or the Muslim Brotherhood found their way to the UK, or that such political ideologies provided a backdrop to how they would organise in the UK.

As an academic and policy specialist, I knew all of this when I was asked to be Deputy Convenor of the UK Government's 'Working Group on Tackling Radicalisation and Extremism' in August 2005. It did not surprise me that many of those that the government was dealing with were not so far removed from Islamism -- but it also did not worry me. They were organised and non-violent and as such, could play a key role in counter-terrorism initiatives. After very little time, however, it became clear that this was an incorrect assertion -- most of these groups were not as widespread as we thought, nor did they have the inroads in their communities to do what we hoped was necessary. They were lobby groups -- they were not representatives.

What is more, it seemed patently obvious that the real trouble makers in their communities were far removed from them -- because they viewed such groups, who were trying so hard to be part of the mainstream, to be sell-outs. When we asked these groups to explain the dynamics of violent radicals, they could not really answer -- because they really did not know.

There were a few that did, and the Muslim Contact Unit in the Metropolitan Police engaged with them frequently -- without any illusions about their value in terms of social cohesion activities, focusing on their utility in counter-terrorism work, which was not debatable.
After this review, none of this is any longer possible. The reviews suggests that there is an over-arching ideology that is shared by both non-violent Islamists and violent ones, and that anyone that partakes of it should be considered part of the problem as 'extremists' -- and should certainly not be engaged with by government on any level.

Yet, I supported, and with consideration, I continue to support that if government wishes to continue engaging with Muslim communities for the purposes of counter-terrorism (and I think it must), these types of non-violent lobby groups, even if Islamist in origin, should not be put out in the cold for the following reasons.

Firstly: While I understand that many may fear these lobby groups out of concern for their original influences from Islamism, we already have laws in place to ensure that any individual or group that incites to violence or hatred can be prosecuted. These groups have not attracted any such threat of prosecution -- so our litmus test has already been passed.

Secondly: All good counter-terrorism specialists will remind us that in order to fight this kind of war, we need the Muslim community on our side. My fear is that by the publication of this review, Muslim communities at large will deem government to be engaged in social engineering across their community -- already, the community media I observe from Sufi communities (far removed from Islamist organisations) are objecting to the review, considering it a veiled attempt to get them to alter their religion.

Thirdly: The definition of 'extremist' is simply unclear in this review, and would allow many genuine partners against threats to our security to be sidelined, and provide real troublemakers a badge of honour within a wider audience. What guidelines do exist suggest that many could be sidelined for simply holding illiberal views on women, for example -- that would problematise a lot more than Muslim communities in our country.

And finally: the review does not take into account that the conversation within Muslim communities has been changing for years now. The prominence of even non-violent Islamism has been declining progressively, owing to organic discussions taking place within the Muslim community -- this is clear to any specialist observer of that community. We frankly risk undermining that conversation, and providing 'street cred' to elements we would not favour, by publically marginalising them in this way.

Six years on, our security services inform us that we still face a threat to our national security. Our European and American allies watch what we do closely, and in many cases learn from what we do positively. We need to get this strategy right -- it affects more than just Britons and the UK, and we need to be careful about how we proceed in terms of implementation of this new review. Otherwise, we could find ourselves in a far worse situation.