The Prime Minister is right to assert that Islamist ideology is one of the key threats of our time

Jun 5, 2017

Theresa May hit exactly the right notes in her statements on successive days on the weekend’s atrocity in London. Language is important — and three aspects of her carefully chosen words stand out.

First, the Prime Minister asserted that Islamist ideology is one of the central threats of our time – and she implied that ideological challenge was on a par with the physical force threats posed by jihadism at home and abroad.

Second, she asserted that that there has been too much tolerance of Islamist extremism per se – and not just violent extremism — within this country.  Adding 10,000 uniformed officers, however dedicated, would do little to deal with that “upstream” threat.

Third, she stated that “we cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are. Things need to change, and they need to change in four different ways”.

Her remarks deserve to capture the public imagination and to galvanise her fellow politicians, as well as national and local bureaucrats.  But there are many barriers to success within Whitehall and beyond — as she knows from her years as Home Secretary.

The last four Prime Ministers have all sought to combat Islamism – and all have come up against Whitehall’s and much of the public sector’s institutional view of how to handle Islamism. Successive Prime Ministers have sought moral clarity on the entirety of the Islamist spectrum — violent and non violent alike; but the preference of much of the permanent bureaucracy has been to partner up with a range of “credible” non violent extremists as the best bulwarks against the violent extremists. This debate has played out again and again, in different forms, over the last dozen years.

As David Cameron often observed, this approach is like relying on the BNP as the first line of defence against Combat 18 – because it has the racist “cred” to persuade angry young white supremacists not to bomb mosques. This is to deal with symptoms, not causes – and, in the former Prime Minister’s view , gives a free pass to much of the grievance-mongering Islamist ideology that poisons the mindsets of young  Muslims.

So it was that Tony Blair declared after 7/7 that “the rules of the game have changed”, and that the “yes, but” tone of some Muslim leaders after terrorist attacks was beyond the pale –but his Task Forces never obtained much traction (partly because there were so few Blairites on the issue of Islamism to staff the Task Forces  — and anyhow he was too weak after Iraq to do much about it).

Gordon Brown’s refreshed Contest counter-terrorism strategy of 2009 emerged after a brutal battle between then Communities Secretary Hazel Blears and then Justice Secretary Jack Straw. It was a messy compromise, but thanks to Blears it did at least finger Islamist ideologues such as Maududi and Qutb for the first time as part of the “upstream” problem that poisoned the minds of some Muslims.

David Cameron’s Munich speech of 2011 — and the subsequent Prevent Review overseen by Lord Carlile of Berriew QC – unambiguously placed the problem of Islamist ideology at the top of the Coalition’s approach to these matters. Cameron acknowledged the influence of Policy Exchange’s seminal work by Martyn Frampton and Shiraz Maher, Choosing Our Friends Wisely – which stipulated rigorous criteria for engaging with Muslim groups.

This included a new definition of extremism – denying Prevent support for those who called for the death of British troops whether at home or abroad. And after another brutal bureaucratic battle, Lord Carlile began the process of “naming and shaming” – identifying the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) for not always fully challenging terrorist and extremist ideology within the HE and FE sectors (at least four senior leaders of student Islamic societies have been convicted of terrorism or killed in during an attack in the UK). The Government’s subsequent spotlight on Cage, a charity which extolled “Jihadi John”, is a more recent iteration of this (still) under-utilised approach.

Cameron thus cleaned up the upper echelons of the public sector: grants were cut to Islamist groups that failed to live up to the then Prime Minister’s standards and few of their leaders made it over the No 10 threshold for consultations. But the policy was never embedded throughout the Government system – and it was only as good as the individual minister implementing it.

At the grassroots, there were too rarely enough “boots on the ground” to do that, too – as was illustrated by Peter Clarke’s Trojan Horse report on Islamist infiltration in schools in Birmingham of  2014 and Ian Acheson’s review on  Islamist extremism in gaols, probation and youth justice of 2016.

Acheson described a pervasive culture of “institutional timidity” in dealing with Islamists within what is now known as HM Prison and Probation Service. “Institutional timidity” is a fair description of how much of the public sector behaves towards Islamism — wherever it is encountered. As the Prime Minister observed yesterday, this will now require some difficult and embarrassing conversations.

These conversations will need to start within the British State – not least with the Security Service, which insiders have dubbed “the independent republic of Thames House”.  For many years, it has doggedly resisted devoting great attention to non violent extremism; MI5’s senior management frequently pleads lack of resources in the face of the “downstream” challenge of violent extremism, let alone “upstream” non violent extremism.  Or, to employ the phrase favoured by a previous Director-General, the Security Service can only hit the crocodiles nearest the boat.

Senior figures in MI5 also sometimes claim that the Security Service Act 1989 places severe restrictions on Thames House in dealing with what used to be called “subversion” . This is disputed by some in the Service; and, as they point out, for the bulk of its existence, MI5 most often dealt with non violent extremism in the form of Fascist and Far Left attempts to undermine the country. The self-tasking Security Service appears recently to have slowly begun to change its spots; but Prime Ministers still enjoy constitutional prerogatives to encourage it to do much, much more in this department.

Other key Whitehall units also need to be subject to renewed scrutiny now. Do they choose their “credible,” Muslim friends wisely — and on what basis? What is their definition of “credibility” – and “credible” to whom? For example, why do organisations such the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), within the Home Office, and the cross-governmental Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU) sitting within the Home Office’s Office of Countering Extremism, consider engaging with groups such as MEND – which have done so much to tarnish the Prevent policy in Muslim communities?

Do these “gatekeepers” to Muslim communities really enjoy the sway on the ground that Home Office officials assert they possess? Are they really the kind of Muslim community organisations we want to see emerge in positions of influence?

The police have also long gone largely unsupervised in their choice of Muslim partners—from individual borough commanders, through to specialist formations such as specialist community engagement teams in the  Metropolitan Police, to Chief Officers. For example, who are the Muslim partners of the Greater Manchester Police/North West Region Counter Terrorism Unit – and what, for example, have been the results in the Libyan community?

Who audits the wider effects of this approach on the internal balance of forces within Muslim communities in Manchester and beyond?  What signals does all this send to ordinary Muslims on the ground? How many Muslims are deterred from reporting suspicious activities to the police because they fear that the constabularies round the country are too deferential to one particular ideological strand within their communities? When and where does such Muslim outreach constitute a barrier to entry – for other Muslims? How counter-terrorism police are used matters more than Labour’s and the Liberal Democrat’s red herring of the effects of shrinking police numbers on counter-terrorism efforts.

Much of this does not need legislation – with the exception of online radicalisation; it requires willpower (see Hannah Stuart’s piece below). As is noted in the Conservative Manifesto, the model for dealing with Islamist sectarianism and supremacism is the State and civil society’s struggle against racism in the 20th century, achieved less through statutory imposition than through moral and cultural change. And the vehicle for real institutional change is there in the Conservative Manifesto in the form of the Prime Minister’s new Extremism Commission — with the potential to become a kind of OBR for Islamism of all varieties, holding Ministers and other sectors (such as Universities UK) to account. That could go a long way to breaking open the “safe spaces” for Islamist supremacism which the Prime Minister avers have had their day.  But it will of course only be as good as those who run it, both on the board and amongst the officials. Personnel is policy.

That will be hard enough to do. David Cameron forged the best policy on Islamism in the world ; but as George Osborne once observed, barely a handful of people, even in the Cabinet, knew what it was. Theresa May needs to pick up the Disraelian theme of “educating the party”. More to the point, with her steely determination, she needs to make it clear that careers will be made and broken by delivering in the struggle on Islamism – as has never been done before.

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