Haras Rafiq is a former Director of CENTRI, an organisation that specialises in countering extremism
It is clear that the horrific murder of a solider yesterday in Woolwich was an Islamist-inspired terror attack. A terrorist is defined by MI5 as "someone who uses or threatens action designed to influence the government…for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause." This morning's reports suggest that the terrorists clearly made political statements after the murder – which was corroborated by eyewitness reports. In the words of one onlooker: “they didn't run off. They just stood there as if they were waiting for the police.”
David Cameron described the incident as "truly shocking". But how much has he and the Coalition government done to try and combat Islamist extremism? I have praised the Prime Minister for rightly making the distinction between Islam and Islamism. In 2010, I urged the Coallition Government to overturn the failed policy of using extremists to combat violent extremists. I was heartened when the Prevent review, published in 2001, pledged to implement the change I hoped for. Has it really happened?
In March 2012, Andrew Gilligan reported in the Daily Telegraph that the practice of funding extremist organisations had not substantially changed, and the civil service had solicited “fast-stream” recruits from an organisation which had hosted and continues to host extremist speakers – including, in the past, Anwar al-Awlaki and Azzam Tamimi, who have both, though in different ways, voiced support for suicide bombings. This organisation, FOSIS, has been condemned by Theresa May and Nick Clegg for its failure to “fully challenge terrorist and extremist ideology”
Another body linked to the extremist sect Hizb ut-Tahrir -the public funding of which Mr Cameron condemned as long ago as 2009 – was still receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money, to educate primary-age children in Hizb ut-Tahrir ideology. Fast forward to April 2013, and Ministers are still attending events organised by the very same FOSIS: Baroness Warsi attended and spoke at an event it organised in the House of Lords.
Islamist extremists believe that the west is at war with Islam, and that British society as a whole is anti-Muslim. The selective observation of political issues as grievances leads them to believe that violent ideology is the appropriate response – and that this ideology is the only valid ideology. They promotes a reading of religious texts that fits this narrow framework.
There are people who consequently think that Islamist ideology is the only one that Muslims can validly accept. They believe terrorism is a form of jihad to remove governments and their supporters. This presumably explains why one of the terrorists is quoted as having said to onlookers: “Remove your government, they don't care about you” . This type of attack is not new in the UK – just ask Stephen Timms, the Labour MP, who was the victim of an Islamist terror attack while conducting his local surgery.
Some Conservative Home readers may be asking why am I having a go at the Government. Surely Ministers are doing their best under difficult circumstances? One of my main reasons for my concern is that the problems and dangers in 2013 are in some ways more difficult than they were when the 7/7 bombings took place in 2005. As those who are on Twitter – or follow others on Twitter – will have seen yesterday evening, the network can too easily be exploited by those who want to worsen relations between different groups of people.
Some of the comments left yesterday, from extremists who are non Muslim as well as Muslim, were simply disgusting. The Twitter Age means that not only does news break out quickly, but that cooler heads do not always prevail – as their calmer remarks aren't deemed worthy of “re-tweeting.” In short, Twitter can and often leads to the polarisation of ideas and beliefs. The nuanced debate that was once the pride of Britain, on the issue of Islamist extremists as well as other issues, may simply be squeezed out, and be replaced by warring viewpoints that tar whole communities – British Muslim and British non-Muslim – with the same brush.
In other words, the policy stakes are higher in some ways, and since reaction to events can be so fast, it's important for politicians to get it right and keep their promises. Strong, fair and consistent leadership is required if we are to truly eradicate the threat of violent extremism – and the extremist ideologies that underpin it.