The Labour Party has swung from the absurdities of both ends of the spectrum when it comes to finding a solution for dealing with home-grown radicalisation.
The counter-terrorism policies of Tony Blair made a bonfire out of civil liberties, but Ed Miliband’s wish to ban Islamophobia felt like censorship. In both cases, these felt like acts of appeasement, giving in to some kind of fear quietly bubbling away around the edges of society.
For Blair, hard action was needed after 9/11 and later 7/7. For Miliband, he needed something to galvanise a demographic of millions in the British Muslim community that seldom turned out to vote. It was also a pitch to the more liberal folk of Britain who were incensed by Labour’s talk of immigration controls.
In the absence of a Labour government (get used to that), the Conservatives have run on a strong mantra of security and British values. In the context regarding Muslims, the Prevent Strategy surfaced. Report signs of radicalisation and ban speakers from public places. For many in society this was seen as necessary to report possible beginnings of extremism and to stop it before it starts.
But it did something else. It criminalised thought, especially amongst the youth. It stifled free expression and created a withdrawal from discussion within classrooms and elsewhere. Muslim youth are now often too fearful of expressing opinions regarding foreign policy, Palestine and other issues.
Rather than allowing their views to be aired, challenged and defeated – they are essentially censored and silenced. Muslims in workplaces and schools are living in a surveillance society, feeling as though they are spied on by others. This simply deepens a sense of alienation and social isolation in a time when integration is desperately needed.
Stories have already circulated of young Muslims referred to Prevent for innocuous acts, others referred for researching things related to terrorism as part of their academic studies. These are people who are left deeply shaken by these experiences and word travels fast within the Muslim community. Soon everyone hears and their backs go up against the wall. They feel besieged and, in that moment, they retreat away from others.
The reality we must accept is this: to prevent radicalisation, to prevent a British Muslim from seeing this country as his or her enemy, stopping alienation is crucial. A discussion on Islamophobia spewing from newspapers will one day be needed, for the fear and anger they whip up amongst both Muslims and wider society. But the Prevent Strategy has only created discord and distrust. The Labour Party need to be clear on this: to fight radicalisation we need to work with the Muslim community but they will not do so against what they perceive draconian policies.
For extremist preachers and socially conservative leaders within British Muslim society, the Prevent Strategy supplies proof to their narrative that Britain hates Muslims. Why else are Muslims being spied on, they ask? As Muslim youth shy away from what they regard as an increasingly hostile society, their vulnerability to extremist rhetoric is made easier.
The Tories have refused to work with Muslim organisations, particularly the MCB in this regard. Labour need to offer a different route than this. Prevent needs to be scrapped and working with local Muslim charities and youth centres to help integrate Muslim youth better in their local communities is a much better way forward.
Will it be easy? No, it will not be. But the current mentality of dealing with terrorism and extremism has been poor. We have sacrificed liberal values in its very name to stay safe. And in doing so we have transmitted a terrible message to those who threaten the liberal foundations of our civilisation. We told our enemies that our values were not that strong. We were willing to cast it aside to defeat the same enemies who reject it.
So how does this come across to Muslim youth who were told that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were done in the name of freedom and democracy? The political inconsistency in applying these values in practice is not lost on many within the British Muslim community and it is ruthlessly exploited.
There are many who write alienation off as simply the excuse of those who are poorly integrated. As a liberal left-wing, working class, proudly British Muslim, I’d like to disagree. As irreligious as it gets, I find myself alienated heavily by Islamophobia. How will others react to it? The Prevent strategy entrenches this culture of fear and paranoia.
There are certain measures that compromises must be reached upon. In a secular society, one needing integration, there is no moral basis for religious schools: be it Muslim, Catholic, Jewish or Sikh. Moreover, questions need to be asked of groups like Mend, 5Pillars and others. What are they doing to encouragement integration on part of Muslims? They have almost never helped engagement with wider society, even though that is supposedly what Mend are about.
Rather, they entrench the siege mentality that orbits the Muslim community. Yes, Islamophobia exists, but these are not the only issues which concern young Muslims. Poverty, the housing crisis, job inequalities and other factors do. Yet Muslim groups rarely encourage young Muslims to become involved in these causes and conflicts that affect them and wider British society. Integration requires a proactive effort on the part of the Muslim community and does not need Muslim organisations and activists sparking cultural withdrawal and teaching young Muslims that Britain can never be its home.
The Labour Party must be brave and bold in tackling this. There is a fear that criticising Prevent or foreign policy or even Islamophobia in a bid to be sympathetic to British Muslims will come across as being weak in the face of extremism. It is up to Labour to argue that the current attitude has been weak in the defence of our values. At the same time, Labour must take a clear message to key actors within the Muslim community: work with us or deal with the Tories in five years’ time.
What is clear is that Prevent has not lived up to its name. And what is also clear is that liberalism is only as strong as its defenders. Right now, its defenders are reacting in fear.