Cameron’s counterterrorism strategy divides UK Muslims
London - Britain’s new counterterrorism strategy has divided the Muslim community as for the first time it links non-violent extremism to terrorism and orders schools and universities to monitor students for signs of extremism.
Some Muslims have applauded the government’s more nuanced strategy and its determination to tackle non-violent extremism and ask difficult questions about British “values” and identity. While others warn that this could lead to further disenfranchisement among vulnerable British Muslims, claiming there is no causal link between non-violent extremism and political violence.
For many, such as Britain’s first counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, the link between extremist ideology and political violence is obvious. People do not become terrorists overnight; after all, they must first be radicalised, whether directly at a mosque or indirectly over the internet. Belief in an extremist ideology, albeit a non-violent one, is just the first step in the long road towards joining the Islamic State (ISIS) or carrying out a domestic attack.
“Naming and shaming the Islamist ideology is a key step forward,” a Quilliam statement said, stressing that “British values” can serve as a “powerful primary prevention tool to inoculate people against radicalisation”.
What has been acceptable forms of non-violent extremism in the UK include calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate or rejecting democracy. Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for the establishment of an Islamic emirate and is banned across the Middle East, is legal in the UK.
“Extremist is the secular word for heretic. It means that you don’t subscribe to certain political and social norms,” Hizb ut-Tahrir leader Abdul-Wahid said in an interview with the Guardian on July 24. But when “political and social norms” include the rule of law and democracy, then perhaps questions need to be asked.
Taking a diametrically opposite view is CAGE, which describes itself as an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the war on terror and founded by ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg.
The group has been the subject of unflattering media scrutiny after research director Asim Qureishi described ISIS executioner Mohammed Emzawi, better known as Jihadi John, as a “beautiful young man”. CAGE has lodged a formal complaint with the United Nations over “sustained and coordinated attacks” by the British government and the Charity Commission, calling for a full investigation into Prime Minister David Cameron’s government.
The group is focusing its anger on the new beefed-up Prevent strategy, which makes it statutory for public bodies, including schools, colleges and universities, to monitor its students for any signs of extremism. CAGE takes issue with superficial indicators such as growing a beard or wearing hijab that will be viewed as signifiers of a potential terrorist threat, according to Prevent, something that has also raised concerns among British Muslims not aligned with the group.
“The last 14 years of the war on terror have been based on the idea that somehow the existential threat of terrorism and political violence can be defeated by a secularised approach manifested in the government’s toxic Prevent strategy. This approach has not only failed, but it has actually made us all less safe than ever,” Qureishi said.
That view is echoed in a July 11th open letter signed by 280 academics, lawyers and public figures that criticised the government’s strategy of equating religious ideology with terrorism and focusing on superficial symbolism and solutions. “Social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology,” the open letter said.
CAGE spokesman Cerie Bullivant said: “What we see Cameron doing is trying to, criminalise normative parts of Islam.
This isn’t going to bring us all together in shared values. This is going to do the opposite. This is going to make people feel more disenfranchised and more separated from society.”
“Muslims are worried about school teachers spying on their children. They’re worried about their kids potentially being taken away. And this is creating a situation where they don’t feel that they’re safe and connected in this country,” he said.
The British government is facing a difficult task in clamping down on extremist ideology, while at the same time not pushing angry young Muslims down that same path. Opponents of the new strategy are right to say that many factors play a role in driving political violence, but ideology must certainly be among them. The government would be remiss if it allowed extremist ideology to spread and did nothing to counter it.
At the same time, it must endeavour to use a lighter touch and do more to listen to and work with local Muslim communities and groups. Ultimately, it is the British Muslim community itself that must do the heavy lifting. Cameron is right that this is the “struggle of our generation” but it is not one that he can win alone.