January 10, 2016


Battlefields of the mind : To defeat Islamic extremism in the intellectual arena, Britain must understand it better (Bagehot, Jan 9th 2016, The Economist)

Such thinking has been circulating in Whitehall for a decade, but the radicalising effect of IS and the exit of civil libertarian Liberal Democrats from the government in May have given Mr Cameron the impetus and political freedom to pursue it more forcefully (in Downing Street this is seen as one of the four main issues that will define his second term). So last July the anti-extremism "Prevent" programme was expanded to give public bodies like schools, universities and prisons a statutory duty to shield their charges and monitor them for signs of radicalisation. In a speech a month later Mr Cameron pledged more, adding: "Let's not forget our strongest weapon: our own liberal values." [...]

The answer is for schools and councils to work with Muslim leaders. But which? Sifting out those energetically committed to fighting radicalism can be beyond well-meaning but strained local branches of the British state. Consider the Prevent grants that end up in the hands of ideologically contentious groups. Or the revelation in November that a community centre in north London was inadvertently hosting proselytising sessions for IS. Or the blind eye turned by local authorities to the recent infiltration of some Birmingham schools by Islamists.

Many of the more exciting anti-radicalisation initiatives are led by Muslims themselves and take place outside the Prevent framework. Mr Mahmood, wary of its brand, independently mentors young men. Alyas Karmani, a Bradford imam who has aptly compared the psychological function of IS guns to penis extensions, is similarly sceptical of Prevent. Abu Khadeejah, a Birmingham-based Salafist, posts theologically justified critiques of IS on his blog. Yet such types face intimidation and even physical danger. One anti-jihadist Muslim activist tells how a critic threatened him by drawing a finger across his throat.

What to do? In the short term the government should consider renaming and relaunching Prevent, a good programme with a bad reputation. But a generational struggle over ideas and minds requires a generational answer: a dramatic improvement in mutual understanding between different parts of an increasingly diverse society. That means more briefing on the nuances of British Islam for local authority figures (Ms Bowen's book, "Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent", is a good start), arm's-length liaison bodies for Muslim moderates uncomfortable about engaging with the state, efforts to reverse the decline of religious studies and better policing of fashionable but often unaccountable "faith schools". One Prevent officer in London jokes that more students should be encouraged to study theology. Why not? In a battle of ideas, knowledge is the most powerful of weapons.

Posted by at January 10, 2016 8:23 AM