LBWF’s Preventing Extremism Strategic Summary for 2015-16

Despite LBWF insisting that its Prevent programme should in general remain secret, it has recently divulged to me a nine-page ‘Preventing Extremism Strategic Summary’ for 2015-16, and this makes for interesting (if, as will be seen, ultimately dispiriting) reading.

The document begins with some scattered remarks about the challenge to be faced. The current evidence, it states, ‘indicates that the most significant threat relates to Islamist extremism which looks to further the Al-Qaida…narrative’. However, it also warns that ‘The profile of radicalized individuals in Britain that go on to commit acts of violence has changed’, and there appear to be ‘an increasing number of lone actors that have no connection to proscribed groups and who self-organise.’

The following section speculates as to the causes of radicalisation and extremism – in council-speak, what makes individuals ‘vulnerable’. Here, the central argument is that that ‘there are many potential causes’. Indeed, the discussion ranges from ‘alienation’; through psychological need, youthful resentments, intergenerational mis-communication, exclusion and victimisation; to ‘wider economic and social factors’ such as unemployment; and finally  ‘political issues’, for example ‘military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan’, ‘perceived western inaction in Palestine’, ‘recent disputes in North Africa’, and ‘the belief that western states fail to respect or understand Islam’.

Last, the document looks at how to combat extremism, and suggests a number of key principles. The ‘vulnerable’ need to be ‘safeguarded’ from those who would exploit them. This, in turn, demands that agencies work in a multi-faceted and integrated way, ‘responding to the needs of our communities as well as those of policy makers’. Finally, interventions must be both ‘proactive/preventive’ and ‘reactive/disruptive’, meaning in practical terms that Prevent has necessarily to encompass everything from ‘Giving an open and regular platform to community groups to help explain their grievances’ all the way though to enforcement activity and arrests.

What should we make of all this? It does not help that the Strategic Summary seems to have been composed in a rush (perhaps in advance of an official gathering or visit, as happened with the Gang Prevention Programme); is disfigured by jargon; and on occasion seems vague or muddled. Nor is the evidence underpinning the document exactly impressive. Indeed, the only source acknowledged is ‘a series of work programmes’ which took place as long ago as  2011/12 and ‘drew on the views and experiences of a large number of Muslim residents’. Moreover, it is disappointing to find anyone in authority regurgitating the lone-wolf thesis, since Jason Burke, amongst others, has comprehensively demolished any such notion, pointing out that ‘lone wolves are not really lone but embedded within a much wider and deeper culture of Islamic militancy’ (Jason Burke, The New Threat (2015), p.21).

However, it is two matters that the Strategic Summary leaves out which appear most puzzling. First, there is no mention at all of the local mosques and the varieties of Islam that are practiced therein. The implication is that they have little relevance to the issue at hand. Yet this is by no means obvious.

It should be clearly stated from the start that support in Waltham Forest for strident Islamism seems to be confined to the fringes. The clownish activities of Anjem Choudary, needless to say, have attracted considerable press attention, as have the efforts of those who allegedly want to create ‘sharia law zones’. That said, the mainstream unarguably remains unimpressed. Indeed, several local mosques have made denunciations of terrorism that are both forthright and comprehensive.

Nevertheless, this is not the end of the story.  For combating extremism must necessarily mean confronting the ‘narratives’ that can give it succor – the conspiracy theories about ‘the West’ and ‘the Jews’; the  partisan history of the ‘Muslim lands’; the prejudices concerning the ‘kuffar’; the open hostility towards apostates, atheists, feminists and gays; the religious sectarianism; the claims to victimhood; and so on. The question that needs to be asked, then, is whether the local record here is equally as positive.

Discovering what is taught and discussed in local mosques is far from easy. One example is illustrative. The Waltham Forest Council of Mosques (WFCOM) has recently attracted public attention by its strong opposition to bombing ISIS in Syria, and denunciation of Prevent because ‘It is racist, and overtly targets members of the Muslim faith’. What makes these statements especially significant, according to the Guardian, is the fact that WFCOM ‘represents up to 70,000 Muslims’. However, if the organisation’s own website is consulted, the interested inquirer finds nothing to substantiate this specific claim, nor indeed much about anything else. There are pictures of leading personalities, including some who either have made appearances on this blog (Cllr. Johar Khan, and ex-Cllr. Afzal Akram) or are well known luminaries of the local hard Left (ex-MP Neil Gerrard, and Canon Steven Saxby). There is brief reference to WFCOM’s campaigns against ‘Israeli State terrorism’ and ‘compulsory Sex and Relationship Education’. And there is fleeting reference to the eight mosques that appear to be constituent members. But as to what WFCOM really stands for, how it is constituted, who elects its leadership, or where it gets its money from, there is nothing. The fact that (as of the date of this posting) the website’s buttons for ‘About’, ‘Members’, ‘News & Events’, Media’, and even ‘Contact’, are all dead speaks for itself.

That said, information already in the public domain is certainly enough to give pause for thought. There are 17 mosques in the borough, and of these, seven, with a total capacity of 4,700, adhere to Deobandi Islam, making it the dominant sect (see www. mosquedirectory.co.uk). In general, Deobandi Islam is austere, and conservative, illustrated by the fact that six of the Deobandi mosques are described as catering principally for men. As to teaching, Deobandis tend to have little truck with suicide bombing or the killing of innocents. Nevertheless, the picture that emerges of Deobandi dogma as a whole is hardly reassuring. There is a spectrum of beliefs, certainly. But TV and music are often frowned upon, and women advised not to travel without male escorts. The superiority of Islam is habitually reinforced.  Indeed, in her recent encyclopedic and largely sympathetic study of Islam in Britain, Innes Bowen interviews one moderate imam from London who observes of the Deobandis that from a young age their children are subject to a ‘“subtle demonisation” directed at the wider society’, and adds: ‘“Re-inculcating that humanity concept – to be compassionate to all because God is compassionate – is going to take some time”’ (Innes Bowen, Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent (2014), p.27-8).

Beyond the Deobandis, there are other legitimate grounds for concern. Take the Salafi orientated Al-Tawhid Mosque in Leyton. In 2007, this was investigated by Channel Four’s Dispatches team, and linked to international extremism. A document still available online – ‘Help requested to prevent an extremist takeover of Al-Tawhid Mosque’ – recapitulates much of the evidence. Subsequently, the Charity Commission has first launched an inquiry into the mosque’s governance, and then directly intervened. Meanwhile, a close partner of the mosque, the local Islamic Sharia Council (ISC), has also attracted criticism. In 2013, Panorama went undercover and showed that the ISC’s rulings were ‘not always in the interests of women’ and could ‘run counter to British law’. More recently, it has emerged that one of the ISC’s trustees until 2015 was Haitham al-Haddad, someone perhaps best known for his You Tube outbursts on the subject of homosexuality, his reported opinion that ‘“A man should not be questioned why he hit his wife, because this is something between them”’, and his assertion that ‘there is a big conspiracy around ISIS…what is the agenda behind it?’ (Evening Standard, 19 February, 2014; www.standforpeace.org.uk). There is also the depressing fact that in a forthcoming study, Choosing Sharia?, Dutch academic Machteld Zee concludes that even now the ISC continues much as before (Independent, 4 December 2015).

It is true that responding constructively to this array of attitudes and practices is not straightforward. All UK citizens have an absolute right to both freedom of speech under the law, and freedom of worship; while espousing illiberal views is self-evidently not a crime. There is almost limitless scope for legitimate disagreement about both home and foreign policy. In addition, local authorities do not have free rein, and are anyway increasingly constrained by lack of resources. However, all that said, if LBWF was minded to, it could play a much more effective and beneficial role than is currently the case, for example, by vigorously supporting the case for democracy, law, liberty and tolerance; supporting moderate and progressive voices in the mosques; ensuring that public facilities are never given over to extremist activities; and emphatically distancing itself from those who propagate sectarian or supremacist ideologies. That LBWF is apparently unwilling to even consider such initiatives as possible components of Prevent is concerning.

The second omission in the Strategic Summary is stranger still. It is axiomatic that any attempt to defeat terrorism will only succeed if the populace as a whole is fully in support. Put bluntly, local people are a resource: a moral force, of course, but also a vital channel for the collection and transmission of the kind of intelligence which will directly limit the terrorist’s room for manoevre. Yet, in Waltham Forest, Prevent is conceived of in very different terms, essentially as a matter for the statutory agencies, and the grown ups – in other words, council officers, councillors, ‘community leaders’, consultants, and so on. The rest of us are, by implication, politely requested to sit and watch.

The consequences of such a top down stance are entirely predictable. Shut out from participation in, or even influence over, what is going on, many residents feel increasingly frustrated, even cynical. Thus, a recent Open Society Foundations report on community integration in Waltham Forest, based upon focus groups, finds white working class respondents to be ‘jaundiced’ about politics, and convinced they have ‘neither voice nor influence’ – they see themselves as ‘a forgotten community’. And, interestingly, Muslim respondents are apparently equally disenchanted, critical of local leaders who purport to represent their interests (‘Consistent complaints included the poor quality of political representation on the local community. It was suggested that some Muslim councillors did not have the capacity to advocate and some could not speak English’), and sceptical of  the mosques, which they characterise in terms of ‘a parochial approach to faith and politics, little participation and periodic infighting’ (Open Society Foundations, Building Bridges. London Borough of Waltham Forest (2014), p.43-5). A less propitious starting point from which to construct a united and popular campaign against terrorism is hard to imagine.

The conclusion which emerges from the preceding paragraphs is that the Strategic Summary has obvious flaws, and accordingly is unfit for purpose. For reasons which remain inexplicable, LBWF is considered in some quarters to have expertise in counter-extremism. In fact, as this post and its several predecessors have shown, the reality is very different.

Exactly why LBWF has arrived at its current stance is unclear. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to hypothesise. The Labour administration in the Town Hall has never been keen on public participation, nor is it known for its willingness to engage in political debate. The leadership seems keener on meetings with allegedly key individuals behind closed doors than appearing in forums where it will be challenged. In addition, it appears that the Muslim block of councillors (so well identified by the Institute of Community Cohesion) both retains considerable influence over policy in this area, and is jealous in safeguarding it.

However, the chickens may be about to come home to roost. Prevent is becoming a significant local political issue. LBWF’s determination to keep what it is doing under wraps inevitably – and quite reasonably, it must be said – provokes suspicion and misunderstanding. Those with their own agendas make hay. Unless the Council changes direction, there may be serious trouble ahead.

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