Back to the Future – with Max Hill QC

February 1, 2018

Max Hill QC yesterday appeared in Parliament before the Joint Committee on Human Rights to discuss his role as the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. While stressing that his remit is restricted to four anti-terrorism statutes, Hill nonetheless made clear that he felt able to pronounce on the government’s counter-terrorism strategy in its entirety. He also said that he valued open engagement on these issues in order to understand, “the views of everybody” and told the committee that he was “pleased” to be joined by some of those he had met during the last year, to “give weight to their voices”. The question before the Committee is surely this: can they really be assured that Hill has engaged as widely as possible – or is there the risk that he is listening to communities through partisan and communal ‘gatekeepers’?

Last week, Hill published his first major report since taking up his position. Hill came to the job with a big reputation – renowned for his “formidable” forensic mind, his attention to detail and, relatedly, his successful prosecution of major terrorism cases. It was surprising then that Hill’s first year as independent reviewer has been dominated by controversy – mostly of his own making.

Last autumn, Hill was criticised for deciding to meet CAGE, a group that has advocated for jihadist prisoners and infamously labelled “jihadi john” a “beautiful young man”. Security officials expressed concern that Hill had made a “schoolboy error” and said the move showed a worrying degree of naivety.

Unbowed, Hill generated further headlines when he publicly argued that returning ISIS fighters should not necessarily be prosecuted – some of those who had travelled to Syria out of naivety, he argued, might be reintegrated without resort to criminal law. Hill then followed this by appearing to suggest that much anti-terrorism legislation should be scrapped. In the process, he seemed to take at face value much of the Islamist-led grievance narrative (promoted by groups like CAGE) that this kind of legislation is inevitably seen as anti-Muslim.

Perhaps in light of past controversies, much of The Terrorism Acts in 2016 is rather technical and routine. Nevertheless, in the introduction Hill effectively doubles-down on his earlier decision to meet with a group like CAGE. He states pointedly “engagement does not equate to endorsement”. And he insists that he always tries to make up his “own mind on the important issues” irrespective of who he is meeting.

Unfortunately, this seems rather to miss the point. Those critical of Hill’s decision to meet with CAGE were mostly not worried that he would emerge won-over to the Islamist cause, rather that he was blind to the importance of engagement in and of itself. To groups like CAGE, it is the prize that they seek, bringing validation by virtue of having occurred at all. Hill seemingly remains blind to this point.

Instead, he makes a virtue of the fact that, as Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, he has pursued a process of “wider engagement”, and has “travelled across the country in order to meet with as many people as possible”. And contrary, his earlier disclaimers, he implies that this engagement has indeed helped to shape his views.

One of the concrete recommendations contained within Hill’s report is for the curtailment of the use of Stop and Search powers (based on Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000) at ports and border entry points. These powers are, he says, “a preoccupation for many, including the individuals and organisations with whom I have engaged”.

To prove this latter point, Hill cites directly from the “community roundtables” that he held in Leicester, Bradford, Manchester, London. These sessions, he says, evinced the “general view” that there was “‘one law for Muslims and another for the rest’” and that Muslims were being “disproportionately” targeted for Stop and Search. The “community roundtables” in question were, as Hill acknowledges, conducted by the think-tank Forward Thinking, and helped inform an earlier report, Building Bridges – to which Hill also contributed a foreword.

Forward Thinking is an interesting choice of partner for the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation. It exists, in its own words, to promote dialogue and “inclusive” talks between “establishments” and the “Muslim grassroots” – in the Middle East and closer to home.  In the UK, it has repeatedly advocated for engagement with numerous organisations including those of an Islamist bent.

Moreover, the report to which Hill refers (and to which he lent his name) – Building Bridges – is an extraordinary document, presenting as it does a litany of grievances about the security services in the name of Britain’s Muslim communities: that terrorism legislation is used “disproportionately” against Muslims; that the Prevent strategy is “singling out” Muslims; and that the government is creating a “lost generation” of young Muslims – said to be “characterised by the complete disengagement of young Muslims and young professionals from community and Islamic faith institutions”.

Needless to say, these assertions – presented as statements of fact – are surely open to challenge – not least the question of why young Muslims should have to engage with community or faith organisations. But the report in question evinces little evidence of critical thinking or push-back against these narratives of grievance.

In the most remarkable section, the report presents the views of “representatives” of the Libyan Community in Manchester who “articulated a profound sense of anger and frustration at the consequences of the extensive police raids within the community and a perceived lack of support to deal with these consequences.” The police were criticised for being “heavyhanded” in their investigations and for using tactics that were “overly aggressive” (one might think with good reason, given 22 dead, mostly school children, in a context where there were fears of a wider bombing network – but this appeared lost on this audience). There was concern too about “the potential for a rise in Islamophobic attacks” in the wake of the Manchester bombing. The best way to mitigate all this, it was argued, was through engagement and dialogue with key community leaders – a call that was echoed in the London sessions, which likewise called for a “new process of greater engagement”.

To this was added a call for a change in language – to stop talking about “Islamism” when discussing terrorist attacks; and also, the suggestion that the government might review the use of Schedule 7 of the Terrorist Act 2000. By way of addendum, “some participants even raised questions over the need for specific legislation relating to terrorism”.

Leaving aside the extent to which Hill was, or was not, influenced by these various encounters, perhaps the most interesting section of his latest report is the annex where he reveals who he met during the Building Bridges exercise. In Leicester, two of the four listed organisations that he met with were Friends of al-Aqsa and MEND. In Manchester, he met, inter alia, the European representative of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. And in London, among the seven groups he lists are: the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the Finsbury Park Mosque, the Cordoba Foundation, the London Muslim Centre and the East London Mosque.

Can it really be said that these are dispassionate arbiters of Muslim opinion? Organisations like MEND, the MCB and the MAB have repeatedly impugned the government’s Prevent policy. They also call on the government to embrace them as authoritative representatives of Britain’s Muslim communities. Yet critics of many of these organisations charge them with, at minimum, being inclined to articulate the Islamist narrative of victimhood and grievance. And even the most sympathetic observer might wonder why the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation felt it necessary to meet with a member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood to discuss the experiences of British Muslims.

Moreover, setting aside the question of whether the government and senior officials should be engaging with Islamists and their allies (the Conservative government has, since 2011, set a policy that says ‘no’, given that these groups hold to values that diverge from those of mainstream British society), the big issue here is that Hill seems oblivious to the fact he has primarily met, and listened to, one kind of Muslim viewpoint.

Looking again at London, for instance, there Hill says he talked to the MAB, the Finsbury Park Mosque and Cordoba Foundation. But as the British government’s 2014-15 review of the Muslim Brotherhood makes clear, these supposedly separate institutions show deeply interwoven personal and institutional ties. Senior members of the MAB are/have been senior figures at the Mosque and the Cordoba Foundation; there are no Chinese walls between them; and as the government’s review made clear, they are all associated with the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.

By the same token, the East London Mosque and the London Muslim Centre – here listed as separate entities – are to all intents and purposes, the same body. Furthermore, an earlier government report on Britain’s Pakistani community recorded that the East London Mosque was “the key institution for the Bangladeshi wing of JI in the UK”. The Islamists of Jamat are, in effect, the south Asian equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood. And partly for this reason, the Muslim Council of Britain has been described as, in effect, a partnership between the UK associates of Jamaat and the Brotherhood respectively.

The significance of all this is that Hill’s much vaunted engagement – in London at least – amounted to his listening to the same group of people wearing six different hats. Under the guise of reaching out to Britain’s Muslim population, Hill has allowed himself to be persuaded that one minority section of the UK’s diverse Muslim communities can speak for all.

In truth as various opinion polls show, the Islamists of the Jamaat or the Brotherhood, speak for a constituency that is vanishingly small in the UK. Similarly, the government has estimated that Jamaat-inspired mosques such as the East London Mosque represent around 57 mosques in the UK (out of over 2000) – equivalent to 4% of the total.

The big question therefore is, this: does Hill realise how narrow his source base is? (There is certainly no hint of such an awareness in last week’s publication.) And if not, why not? Groups like the East London Mosque and the Muslim Association of Britain have been the subject of controversy for over a decade. Yet reading Hill’s latest report is like the last ten years never happened.

Hill prides himself on being apolitical and independent. In a narrow sense, this is only right. But while his job requires him to be non-partisan, he must surely be attuned to politics in the wider sense. If he is not, he risks being made into a mouthpiece of the deeply political Islamists who seek to dominate British Muslim life.

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