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Government’s battle against extremism

By Richard Norton-Taylor

December 24 2016


Byrne writes, ‘the starting point for radicalisation may in fact be rage rather than religion…it’s not the madrassa that is the problem, it’s your mates.’ Book review.

For years successive UK governments under the ‘PREVENT’ programme have tried to tackle ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalisation’ – that is to say, stop individuals, mainly youngsters, supporting or becoming jihadists. The latest tactic, promoted by UK communities secretary, Sajid Javid is to get those holding any public office to swear an oath of allegiance to British values. Far from promoting ‘integration’ this would be more likely to provoke hostility and resentment. It certainly will not help discourage anyone from embracing violent Islamic ideology.

Prevent has manifestly become counter-productive. Two recent books help to explain why, very welcome contributions to what is still a much-needed debate. One is Radicalized, New Jihadists and the Threat to the West, by Peter Neumann (published by IB Tauris), an extremely useful guide by the Professor of Security Studies at King’s College, London and director there of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) providing the context and background of the latest wave of terrorist groups.

Neumann traces the different roots and strands of modern terrorism, from the late nineteenth century anarchists, to anti-colonialists, the New Left, then to al-Qaida, and finally to Islamic State. While al-Qaida and IS share the ultimate goal of a caliphate, their strategies were very different, says Neumann. Al-Qaida’s strategy was first to attack the ‘far’ enemies – the US and its western allies – because they were crucial in propping up secular dictatorships in the Arab world. For IS leaders, it was the other way around: ‘the process of state building had to come first, not at the end.’

Yet that strategic difference may now become irrelevant as IS loses territory in Syria and Iraq as a result of US-led air strikes and advances on the ground by a US and UK-trained Iraqi army – attacks which, as western security and intelligence chiefs now predict, will increase the terrorist threat in western countries, notably by lone wolves.

For those living in corrupt regimes, extremist ideology had the attraction of providing certainty and order. For those in the west tempted by jihadism, the causes are different. Their anger was fuelled by western foreign policy – something Tony Blair strongly denied, though his claim was roundly rejected by MI5 and Home Office.

Both Neumann and Liam Byrne, former Labour cabinet minister and author of the second book, Black Flag Down (published by Biteback), emphasise that many of the most extreme and violent jihadists/terrorists are not motivated by religion at all. Indeed, they are totally ignorant of Islam and its teachings, however they are interpreted. ‘Those searching for meaning, ‘Neumann writes, ‘are chiefly motivated by neither politics nor religion, but are part of a booming jihadist counterculture that meets their needs for identity, community, power and a feeling of masculinity.’

Byrne convincingly shatters the view, propagated by David Cameron among others, that there is a ‘conveyor belt’ route to radicalisation. ‘There is only one problem with the conveyor belt theory. And that is that it’s wrong, ‘ Byrne writes. He points to a MI5 paper, leaked to the Guardian in 2008, titled ‘Understanding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism in the UK’. MI5 concluded there was no single pathway to extremism. A subsequent Whitehall study concluded: ‘We do not believe that it is accurate to regard radicalisation in this country as a linear “conveyor belt” moving from grievance, through radicalisation, to violence…This thesis seems to both misread the radicalisation process and to give undue weight to ideological factors.’

What is becoming very clear, writes Byrne, ‘is that the starting point for radicalisation may in fact be rage rather than religion…it’s not the madrassa that is the problem, it’s your mates.’ Neumann refers to the British programme, ‘Channel’, described by the government as a key part of its Prevent strategy, a ‘multi-agency approach to identify and provide support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorism’, and says: ‘A new, comprehensive approach is necessary – and that includes not only the traditional tools of foreign and domestic security, but also a credible and strategic policy on prevention, intervention, and deradicalisation.’

Lip service?

But there is little credible point in the government, any western government, paying lip service to the principle of tolerance, of pledging allegiance to, say, ‘freedom from abuse’, or ‘a belief in equality’, as Javid suggests, when immigrants are threatened and treated as outsiders, data is collected on children whose parents are born abroad, inequality and poverty are increasing, and overcrowded prisons become incubators for extremist views.

Byrne – whose Birmingham constituency has afforded him much first-hand experience, warns that ‘frontline is online, and it is here that we confront a new digital danger slide, like a roller-coaster, capable of taking a young person from rage to radicalisation…’ Yet websites of the conventional media encourage Islamophobia, as other websites encourage jihadism. Many who support the British government indulge in hostile rhetoric that encourages extremism on all sides, which the government says it abhors. Promoting the tolerant society ministers say they want needs more than lip service.

Byrne’s book is the more lively read, and the author in the end strikes an optimistic note. Neumann offers a stringent analysis and pleads for an effective ‘national prevention strategy’ before it is too late.

The question of how to achieve it still goes unanswered. It will require profound changes in British civil society, not strategies promoted by a government, or even a parliament, which still has no realistic idea of what Britain’s future role in the world could be.

Originally published by Open Democracy

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