By Paul Goodman
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The death of Bin Laden has been read by some to suggest that the threat from Islamist extremism is over. But whatever the story may be behind this week's arrests in Birmingham, that conclusion is a mis-reading: the danger hasn't gone away.
The Home Affairs Select Committee is currently carrying out an enquiry into violent radicalisation. Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam recently told the committee that "there is no evidence that this new strategy is yet being rolled out on the ground by civil servants to any meaningful degree."
He claimed that there is "no national strategy to challenge non-violent extremism" and that there "is no criteria for engagement with extremists". Is he right? To find an answer, I would start by examining three test cases.
- The Muslim Council of Britain. The last Government ended relations with the MCB after the Daud Abdullah controversy. Abdullah remains a member of the organisation's Central Working Committee. The Minister with overall responsibility under the Coalition's revised Prevent Strategy with dealing with integration, cohesion, community relations and tackling non-violent extremism is Eric Pickles. The Department insists that it doesn't engage with the MCB. It has funded MINAB, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Committee, of which the MCB and the Muslim Association of Britain, usually associated with the Muslim Association of Britain, are two of the four members. MINAB is the main survivor of Preventing Extremism Together (PET) – an initial Labour policy response to 7/7.
- The Federation of Student Islamic Societies. There is a problem with a small number of college Islamic Societies. Five people who have held senior positions in University Islamic Socities have committed acts of terror or been convicted for terror-related offences. The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) – the umbrella body to which college Islamic Societies are usually affiliated – is viewed by the Government as unsatisfactory. The Government's Prevent Strategy document said: "We judge that FOSIS has not always fully challenged terrorist and extremist ideology within the higher and further education sectors. FOSIS needs to give clearer leadership to their affiliated societies in this area." The Home Office has told me that the Government continues to engage with FOSIS.
- Azad Ali. Ali is a former President of the Civil Service Islamic Society – the website of which seems to be down at the moment – and adviser to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He used his internet blog to praise a spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda whose sermons were attended by two of the 9/11 hijackers. He wrote of Anwar Al-Awlaki: "I really do love him for the sake of Allah, he has an uncanny way of explaining things to people which is endearing." When I last wrote about him in June, he appeared still to be the Chair of the Muslim Safety Forum (MSF), although its website does not now show who its officers are. It claims to have "signed a working protocol with the Metropolitan Police and ACPO" and to be "advising the police on matters of safety and security from the Muslim perspective".
Is Nawaz correct?
Nawaz is right to say that there is "no national strategy to challenge non-violent extremism", but this seems to be largely a matter of timing. I understand that the DCLG's strategy integration is ready for publication – I wrote about early contributions to it here, here, here and here – but that a place hasn't yet been found for it in the grid. I expect Pickles to allude to it at the coming party conference.
He is perhaps right to say that there is "no evidence that this new strategy is yet being rolled out on the ground by civil servants to any meaningful degree" (although civil servants aren't usually responsible for implementing strategies "on the ground", and tests for deliverers of Prevent contracts are apparently being applied). But I would question whether one can expect much evidence to have been amassed less than six months after the new Prevent Strategy was agreed.
The civil service and the new Prevent policy
However, as I've indicated, there are clear criteria in the Prevent Strategy document governing non-engagement with extremists. (See page 107, a formula repeated in the larger Contest document). The question is whether or not it is being applied. Nawaz is evidently mistrustful of whether senior civil servants are committed to doing so: the name that keeps coming up in this context is that of Charles Farr, the Director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism.
My judgement that although senior civil servants may not like the Government's shift of policy, they've grasped that David Cameron and Theresa May require it to happen, and are thinking implementation through very carefully. My three examples show how it's working out. On the MCB, the Government is sticking to the view that the MCB shouldn't be engaged with. On FOSIS, it is also sticking to the opposite view, which was prefigured in the Prevent document.
Azad Ali – a test for the Met
The most problematic circumstance is in which an organisation or person which the Government views as extreme is a member of a larger body. The Azad Ali controversy is the sharpest example. Ali's praise for the preacher linked to the Detroit bomb plot and the Fort Hood massace stands on the record, and a judge has ruled that a blog written by Ali can reasonably be read to have supported attacks on our troops in Iraq.
If Ali indeed remains active at senior levels of the MSF, he is an early test case for how seriously Bernard Hogan-Howe, the new Met Commissioner, takes the policy – and of the Home Office's follow-through. It says that it wrote to all police forces after the Prevent strategy was published, and it intends to "hold the Met to the fire" over Ali. Let's see what happens next. By the way, the Home Affairs Committee will find it worth studying Centri's evidence as well as Quilliam's.