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[Image] Arun Kundnani

Faith and Policy - Session 4, Preventing Violent Extremism

01 July 10

Listen to extracts of the conference: scroll down the page to access podcasts.

Is theology to blame? Listen here

Earlier this year the government’s own Communities and Local Government Committee had published a report “Preventing Violent Extremism”. It had questioned the prominence given to theology as a cause of violence, proposed a possible decoupling of Prevent from other initiatives like Cohesion, and challenged government interference with theological matters.

“… we believe there has been an excessive concentration on the theological basis of radicalisation in the Prevent programme.” - Communities and Local Government Committee report ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’

Philip Lewis (Honorary Visiting Lecturer, Dept of Peace Studies, Bradford University) spoke from a perspective gained from long experience of inter-faith relations in Bradford. He praised the theological literacy demonstrated by the parliamentarians behind the report. He was impressed by the range of evidence cited, but noted too a surprising gap. They had not mentioned the excellent work of the Muslim Contact Unit [MCU] in London, run by the Special Branch, which had contacted around 200 mosques, developed local knowledge and built trust.

“Government interference in theological matters must be avoided. The Government's current approach to engagement with Muslim organisations has given the impression that there are 'good' and 'bad' forms of Islam—some endorsed by the Government, others not.” - Communities and Local Government Committee report ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’

MCU had found within mosques themselves a lack of understanding of the dynamics of violent extremism. Government characterisation of “good” and “bad” Muslim, “cuddly Sufi over politicised Islamist” as Philip Lewis put it, had been unhelpful and alienating. He did however praise the Prevent programme for bringing forward previously unheard Muslim voices, and for showing how the Muslim community failed to challenge in its own ranks the sympathies to violent extremism.

“Whatever criticism can be levelled against Prevent funding, it has supported and rendered visible a huge range of Muslim voices, hitherto unheard, especially young women and professionals.” – Philip Lewis

How not to prevent violent extremism Listen here

Arun Kundnani researched the Prevent programme and wrote an evaluation and critique entitled “Spooked: How Not to Prevent Violent Extremism” [2009] published by the Institute for Race Relations. The report concluded that there were strong reasons for thinking that the programme constructed the Muslim population as a ‘suspect’ community, fostered social divisions among Muslims themselves and between Muslims and others, and was counter-productive in reducing the risk of political violence. In addition, it had been used to an elaborate surveillance system.

He introduced himself as an atheist who tries to think about religion. He reiterated Philip Lewis’s observations that Prevent divided Muslims into good and bad, moderates and extremists. It used theological messages, mapping, propaganda and surveillance.

He asked of the Prevent programme:

• Does it work in terms of its own objectives? The use of professionals [teachers, youth workers, mental health workers] to identify young Muslims “at risk” of radicalisation, and to pass those details to the police raised a serious human rights issue.

• Is it consistent with liberal democratic norms? He believed the focus on Muslims amounted to a form of racial profiling which could be challenged under Race Relations law.

“the Government’s search for ‘moderate’ Muslims is not, as it presents itself, the search for a particular kind of cultural identity but rather the search for political allies; and this is why moderate Muslims turn out to be so hard to find – and so desperately needed.” – Arun Kundnani

• What does this policy say more generally about the relationship between the state and a particular religious group in today’s Britain? It raised questions about views of religion as private or public; it confused theological questions with the adoption of modernity and with approval of western foreign policy; it had enabled the state to subject religion to its own purposes.

• Identifying some Muslims as “good” or “moderate” was, in effect, a search for political allies. This elevated Al Qaeda to the religious realm, when in fact its threat is political.

• He gave an example of a recent incident in Bolton where moderate Muslim leaders had been engaged by the police to control a protest, which was a disturbing use of a religious leadership. It was a threat to the right to demonstrate, and put leaders in a position where they might lose the trust of their communities.

Debate Listen here

Atif Imtiaz, Bradford, disagreed with Philip Lewis’s depiction of Bradford, saying things are a lot fairer now and more equitable. He asked how Philip Lewis would personally respond on an ethical basis to an approach from security services [MI5 or the Counter Terrorism Unit], saying that Philip Lewis was regarded by some in the community as having anti-Muslim views. Philip Lewis, responding, said he was glad that Atif’s assessment was more upbeat than his own. He explained that his base was in Bradford’s Peace Studies Department, which after 7/7 was approached by the police. He has now worked with them a few years. Police, he said, do want to understand but do not understand the complexities, and he had assembled a range of voices they need to hear. He saw himself as a kind of midwife to a new generation of Muslim academics and practitioners, and felt no need to be defensive about it.

“What I’m seeing in my own research … is that what is essentially a response to Islam and Muslims in Britain and Europe is in fact having a downward pressure … on all types of religious difference” – Maleiha Malik

Shahnaz Ahsan [Coexistence Trust] said the question “What do we do to keep ourselves safe?” derived from a security perspective. The Prevent programme had failed to motivate Muslim collaboration by opening up the ownership of the programme. Maleiha Malik [Law School, King’s College London] spoke from experience researching law across Europe, and wanted to agree with what Arun had said about cultural issues. What had been happening to Muslims in labelling “those who are different and are among us” was now happening to Christians as well. John Wolffe [Open University] suggested there were parallels in the labelling of “good” and “bad” Catholics in the 19th century. Both platform speakers responded.

“To be Muslim has become racialised. It’s no longer seen in policy terms as a religious belief so much as a kind of ethnicity” – Arun Kundnani

Report and podcasts compiled by Norman Winter. Recordings of conference sessions have been internally edited.

Click here for the full conference summary.

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