I was appalled to read the group letter published on the Independent Newspaper’s website on Friday: “PREVENT will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent – The latest addition to the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism framework remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism”.
It reminded me immediately of the 1981 letter by 364 economists criticising the Thatcher government’s economic policy, and I immediately issued the tweet below.
If you don’t remember the letter, The Telegraph had a short retrospective in 2006 at this link.
Academics queuing to criticise PREVENT remind me of 365 economists denouncing Thatcherism in 1980’s. Just as wrong. http://t.co/Bqkl9MbjvO
— Mohammed Amin (@Mohammed_Amin) July 11, 2015
The un-wisdom of multiple signatory letters
I am great believer in the wisdom of crowds. However, this requires each individual in the crowd to think independently.
A multiple signatory letter is the exact opposite; someone composes a draft and all that those approached to sign can do is sign or demur. Amending the drafting is normally not permitted.
That is the only explanation for 280 individuals, many of them highly intelligent and knowledgeable people, putting their names below a letter with such woolly drafting and which displays such poor quality thinking as explained below.
I cannot believe that if, as individuals, they had set out to write their own letter from scratch they could possibly have come up with such drivel.
Instead I would expect some of the signatories, whom I know, to compose a cogently argued explanation of why some aspects of the Prevent strategy need revision. No strategy is incapable of improvement.
What’s wrong with the letter?
The short answer is almost everything. The letter attacks an imaginary PREVENT strategy, which is of course easier than attacking the real one. It reminds me of the way some people regularly cite the Conveyor Belt Theory Aunt Sally, which I address at this link.
While every paragraph contains errors, the heart of the letter’s failure is probably in paragraph 2:
“2. The way that PREVENT conceptualises ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism. Academic research suggests that social, economic and political factors, as well as social exclusion, play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology. Indeed, ideology only becomes appealing when social, economic and political grievances give it legitimacy. Therefore, addressing these issues would lessen the appeal of ideology.”
Whoever drafted this letter has never studied logic, or if they have then they have forgotten it.
Necessary and sufficient conditions
A is a necessary condition for B if B is never found without A. Accordingly if you have B, you must have A. That does not mean A causes B. You can have A without having B. It simply means what it says; to have B you must have A.
C is a sufficient condition for D if having C always means that you have D. One would normally say that C causes D, since the existence of C always means the existence of D. That statement does not mean that other things cannot also cause D. They may or they may not, that is an empirical question.
To be precise, in this piece I am writing about violent Islamist extremism, to use David Cameron’s phrase from his Bratislava speech.
In my view “violent Islamist extremism” is best understood as a compound noun (which the Germans would helpfully write without spaces) rather than two adjectives preceding a noun. That avoids arguments about the meaning of “Islamist” which I regard at this link as being too elastic a word.
Paragraph twoof the letter pays no attention to the logical issues. It asserts that Prevent “is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism.”
I am not aware of the government ever putting forward the view that religious ideology is “the primary driving factor.” Nor have I myself ever argued that.
What I have pointed out on many occasions, most recently at this link, is that a particular set of religious views is a necessary condition for violent Islamist extremism.
Before today I have not felt the need to use words like “necessary condition” because I had the naïve belief that my readers could understand English. Obviously not.
Because this religious ideology is a necessary condition for violent Islamist extremism, if you can get rid of the ideology (easier to write about than to achieve) violent Islamist extremism will cease immediately.
Accordingly, one does not need to consider whether the religious ideology is a sufficient condition for violent Islamist extremism. While one does not need to consider that question, I will address it for completeness.
It is obvious that the religious ideology is not a sufficient condition for violent Islamist extremism; one also needs grievances, as the paragraph in question helpfully points out.
However without the religious ideology no Muslim, no matter how strong their sense of grievance, will kill innocent people or kill themselves in a suicide bombing.
The reason is that, unless their religious beliefs have been contaminated by the false religious ideology, they will regard such actions as contrary to the will of God and as actions that will lead to them being condemned to Hell for all eternity.