Lessons to Learn From the Failures of Britain's Attempt to Engage Muslims
In its efforts to fight terror, Britain has got one thing right: it has understood that success does not depend on killing or arresting terrorists. That is a short-term solution at best. Success is about reducing the motivation to radicalize.
One thing it has got wrong, however, is how to go about doing that. A Parliamentary committee has just finished a six-month investigation into a program set up by the British government to engage Muslims and help prevent radicalization. It was supposed to help us Muslims stand up to any young people who are tempted by extremist perversions of Islam into violence, and to encourage them to turn away from that path. But it has concluded that it is not working. Worse, in fact, they claim that it is actually doing exactly the opposite of what it was meant to do.
The main problem they found was that most Muslims regarded schemes funded by the program as a way of covertly policing the Islamic community. It argues that its methods leave many feeling "alienated and stigmatized." At the same time, many successful community cohesion projects which are seeing some successes in their fight against extremism are feeling "tainted," by their use of government money, which reduces their credibility and arms their critics.
There are some signs that the US is looking to these kind of programs to see what lessons it can learn. In that spirit, here are three.
Number one – trust must be earned. That also means that police and politicians alike must understand how they are eroding it. Aside from foreign policy, number one on the list is data. Clearly, people will be reluctant to get involved in any program if they suspect that it is feeding information to the security services, or that their details will appear on some database. Yet in Britain, that is what has happened. Personal information concerning the private lives of almost 1,000 British Muslim university students was given to the police, who passed it on to foreign intelligence agencies. In terms of community engagement, that is about as big an error as you can make.
After the Christmas day bombing attempt, which was carried out by a former President of the University College London (UCL) Islamic Society, police seemed to have thought it appropriate to collect data on all students who were members of that society.
Detectives visited the campus in January to ask for the information. The society's president said that when asked what they would do with the information, they said that they would share the data with other intelligence agencies if asked. Of course, the police have the right to use information on people they are investigating. But they do not have the right to use information on people they are not investigating, but that is exactly what they were asking for. The justification that the subjects of the data were members of the same student society as the Christmas Day bomber is unbelievably flimsy. If you ever wanted proof that the deep-rooted British love of liberty lives in the breasts of these young Muslims, there is no better quote than that of nineteen year-old Sayyida Mehrali, a first-year neuroscience student: "It is a bit extreme that my information has been passed onto the Metropolitan Police," she told one paper, "as I joined UCL after Umar Farouk had left. There was never any opportunity to meet this individual and I think it's shocking that they have my details on a database." How do the police argue with that?
The point, though, is the damage it does to trust. Many Muslims told the Parliamentary Committee that they believed the purpose of the government's program was to "spy" on Asian communities. Lesson one is that trust between the police and the Muslim community must be earned. Operational decisions on a day-to-day level must be made in that context.
The second lesson is that the police must not blend engagement and intelligence-gathering. For engagement to be successful, people have to feel that the police are on their side, providing them with a service, and protecting them as a community. This is about the police winning trust.
But for intelligence-gathering to work, individuals or groups from the community have to be willing to come forward and tell the police of any suspicions that they have. This is about the police asking for cooperation.
You can't do both at once. You have to build trust before you can ask a favor. Many in the Muslim community found themselves at events around the country, with a representative of the police trying hard to win their trust. This was the right move on the part of the police. But at the same time, they were being asked to report on any neighbors, friends, or even members of their family, who were acting suspiciously. This is like someone you have never met coming up to you, engaging in five minutes' worth of small talk, and then asking you your bank details. You can only expect cooperation once trust has been built.
I do have faith that the strategy was carried out in good faith. Indeed, I do not blame the police. They are just proceeding by trial and error. But trying to gather intelligence at the same time as trying to engage communities for the first time was an error.
The third lesson is that the credibility of Muslim leaders and teachers is essential. Much of the strategy involved doling out money to Muslim educators who did not have credibility with the community. Thus the government money further tainted them. Through the SOLAS program – a program of Islamic engagement which I and my friends have set up – Islamic educators with impeccable credentials teach young Muslims that true Islam is about peace and justice, and inoculate them against those perversions of the faith which want to present our religion as one of violence.
So, community engagement in the UK has thus far been flawed. But it is important to put the program's failures in context. At least the UK is trying. The US would do well to accept that heavy-handed policing can never be as effective as successful community engagement. There are signs that the lesson is being learned. Former head of the US Department of National Security, recently asked me to advise him on how we could replicate the program in the US. With any luck, the lessons from the failures of the Britain's attempt to engage Muslims will be learned.
Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.