The Home Affairs select committee report on Countering Extremism released today covers a lot of ground that has been rehearsed repeatedly in recent months about the failings of the Government’s counter-extremism strategy and the Prevent programme in particular.
In a report noting 24 recommendations for Government, most notable are the remonstrations over too narrow a form of engagement with Muslim communities and the counter-productive nature of policymaking that speaks of partnering with communities but effectively marginalises them.
The report makes mention of a number of interesting details in respect of, for example, the affinity of British Muslims to Britain and their strength of feeling on national identity while media and political discourses are alienating and divisive; the myopic focus on the causes of radicalisation by Government – preferring to focus on ‘religious ideology, when the causes are many and varied across individual cases; and the strategic gaps apparent between objectives and outcomes resulting from the Government’s “disengagement” policy with Muslim community groups.
The report cites evidence from Dr Saffron Karlsen, University of Bristol who noted “Over 90% of Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani Muslims living in the UK think of themselves as British—a higher proportion than in other ethnic groups.”
In relation to the Government’s failing to engage the full range of factors that can contribute to an individual’s gradually adopting a violent extremist position, the report notes:
“If the Government adopts a broad-brush approach, which fails to take account of the complexities, and of the gaps in existing knowledge and understanding of the factors contributing to radicalisation, that would be counter-productive and fuel the attraction of the extremist narrative rather than dampening it.
“The Government must take a much more sophisticated approach both to identifying the factors which instigate radicalisation and in the measures it takes to tackle this. We recommend the Government work with a cross-section of academic institutions in the UK that work on radicalisation, to marshal existing intelligence and research and develop a more effective understanding of the factors leading to extremism. This should include speaking to the families of known extremists to draw on their experiences. Without such a solid foundation, the strategies in the proposed new Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill are likely to approach the issues and entire communities in an unfocussed manner, and therefore ultimately to be ineffective.”
The recommendation on Government working with “a cross-section of academic institutions” is worth considering more closely given the problems that dog the current policy approach which derives in no small part from the disjuncture between empirical research on terrorism and policy rhetoric. Indeed, in October 2015 when the Government announced its counter-extremism strategy, it stated: “to further strengthen evidence base, we will work closely with academics and universities commissioning and part funding research.”
Is evidence-based policymaking on Prevent detectable so far? It would seem not.
The select committee report notes the role of social media as “recruiting platforms for terrorism” and the importance of a wide range of language competencies to challenge the global reach of extremist narratives. It recommends “that the security services address the lack of Arabic-speaking staff, and staff with Urdu, Kashmiri and Punjabi language skills.”
How that will sit with results that show language learning is in steep decline in the UK is not known.
The report also highlights the need for greater transparency in much of this area recommending that social media companies “publish quarterly statistics showing how many sites and accounts they have taken down and for what reason” and urges the Government to adopt a more open approach, stating:
“The Government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal. This will help communities to understand what Prevent is seeking to achieve and help to avoid it being seen as threatening to their culture and religion. As our predecessors have said in previous reports, we also recommend that the Government abandons the now toxic name ‘Prevent’ for the strategy and renames it with the more inclusive title of ‘Engage’.”
A significant omission in the report is any mention of Channel referrals, a major sticking point given the “training” provided to statutory bodies on spotting the “signs of radicalisation” and intervening to challenge extremist narratives before they take hold.
The figures published by the National Police Chiefs Council this year which suggest “five children a day” are being referred to Channel is too great an impact to ignore. The report does state, in relation to Prevent training “We recommend that the Home Office appoint an independent panel to reassess the Prevent training being provided to education and other professionals, to ensure they have the confidence to be able to deliver their Prevent Duty in the context of the environment in which they work, and the need to continue to deliver their primary function.”
How the training is being delivered to date, by whom, and on what merit or expertise, should have featured in the report.
That education remains a potent tool to tackle extremism is noted in the report, as is the readiness of young Muslims to engage in critical discussion and debate.
The report states:
“Engaging with and empowering young people is a critical element of the effort to counter extremism and provide an effective counter-narrative. From our engagement with young people who are most affected by these issues, it is clear that they are willing to discuss their concerns and share their views, and they should be given a safe space to do so…It is only when they are equipped with these skills that they will be able to develop the resilience and tenacity necessary to deal with the complex issues of faith, identity and aspiration, as well as mental health, the role and power of women, the role of prisons, English-language skills and urban pressures. This is also why we have recommended a hotline that is not led by the security services. This resilience programme would best be developed through working with education experts, community organisations, social media companies and policing bodies, including Police and Crime Commissioners and senior police officers, which must all take steps to encourage young Muslims to challenge extreme interpretations of their faith.”
How this can happen under a system where Channel referrals can be instigated on specious grounds is not considered in the committee report and yet deserves crucial attention. The Rights Watch UK report published last month evidences why education is too important an area to fall victim to malpractice.
On the role of the media, never too far away when it comes to talking about British Muslims and feelings of disaffection engendered by negative stereotyping, the report states:
“Islamophobia contributes to young Muslims feeling alienated from mainstream society, as we heard in Bradford and Glasgow, thereby potentially leading to them becoming more susceptible to radicalisation. It is not clear to us that all news editors are taking sufficient care in their handling of these stories and some continue to prioritise sensationalism over facts. They should refrain from using the term ‘so-called Islamic State’, and should instead refer to ‘Daesh’. We also recommend that they do not identify terrorists as Muslims, but as terrorists and followers of Daesh.”
Finally, among recommendations advanced in the report is this:
“The Government needs to have a more effective strategy to help those who have genuinely moved away from extremism and wish to reintegrate into society, just as it should also seek to support those families who have reported radicalisation by individuals or community groups.
“The approaches to counter-terrorism of successive governments have not so far achieved the success we would all have desired…Instead, in some circumstances, they have created suspicion and alienation amongst the very people they need to reach.
“The Government must facilitate regular meetings of the leaders of the UK’s Muslim communities, while also recognising that many communities have no leadership and taking the necessary proactive steps to reach out to them.”
Last autumn, at the Labour and SNP party conferences, we organised fringe events to showcase research we commissioned examining representations of Islam and Muslims in the British nationals, 2010 – 2014. We presented evidence both of the spurious grounds on which current counter-terrorism policy is based and the impact of media output which collectivises Muslims, represents them in media frames dominated by violence and conflict, and reproduces claims of “extremist Islam” being the cause of radicalisation.
According to the research conducted by Professors Tony McEnery and Paul Baker, “When Muslims are discussed as a collective group the most salient pattern is in the context of the radicalisation of young British Muslims” and “Since 2010, the press have showed increasing concern with the process of becoming extreme within Islam.”
So, while the select committee’s report is most welcome the question we must ask is when will recommendations urging the Government to take notice of the problems it has created and commit to a new way forward be heeded?