Why the UK's Approach to Anti-Extremism is Counterproductive
A CROSS-PARTY committee of MPs has just finished a six-month investigation into the government's anti-radicalisation programme. It is supposed to help 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. Its conclusion? It's not working. Worse, in fact, the committee claims it is actually doing exactly the opposite of what it was meant to do.
The main problem the MPs found was that most Muslims regard schemes funded by the programme as a way of covertly policing the Islamic community. They argue its methods leave many feeling "alienated and stigmatised." At the same time, many community cohesion projects that 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.
This is, unfortunately, not surprising. Here are three simple lessons which the government and the police could learn to help the strategy work better in the future.
First, 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 programme if they have the slightest suspicion that it is feeding information to the security services, and that their details will appear on some database. If that security service is foreign, especially American, the danger to trust is even greater.
And yet that is what has happened. The Independent reported on 1 April that personal information concerning the private lives of almost 1,000 British Muslim university students was given to the US intelligence agencies.
After the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit, which was carried out by a former president of the University College London 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 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 would-be 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 Sayyida Mehrali, 19, a first-year neuroscience student. "It is a bit extreme that my information has been passed on to 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 communities and local government committee they believed the purpose of the government's programme 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 they have. This is about the police asking for co-operation. You can't do both at once. You have to build trust before you can ask a favour. 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 neighbours, 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 co-operation once trust has been built.
I do believe 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 programme — a programme 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 that want to present our religion as one of violence.
So, community engagement in the UK has been flawed. But it is important to put the programme's failures in context. On this, the UK as a country is far ahead of the US, where this kind of active police engagement with Muslim communities does not happen.
It is another sign that, for all the failings of the programme, we should not lose sight of the fact that we are lucky to have a police force which at least understands the importance of making an effort in this area.
Azeem Ibrahim is research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a board member of the Institute of Social Policy Understanding and the chairman and chief executive of Ibrahim Associates.
This article was also appeared on the Harvard's Belfer Center on April 6, 2010: