The politics of fear: how Britain’s anti-extremism strategy has failed


Tower bridge in London

Source: The Guardian


With Prevent, the government couldn’t be further from winning the fight against radicalisation

The British government, like its European and US counterparts, has been struggling to find an effective strategy to counter “radicalisation” within Muslim communities. When programmes like Prevent were established, they quickly came under heavy criticism, both for their approach and for their poor results. Over a decade on, it is clear not a single anti-radicalisation scheme, either in Europe or the US, has proved effective.

There are several reasons for this. To begin with there is the terminology employed. Religious radicalisation is described as a process through which individuals pursue a continuing trajectory, leading from a “moderate” understanding and practice of religion, to an increasingly violent or extremist involvement. Nothing could be further from reality.

The religious practice of the overwhelming majority of those caught up by Isis propaganda is weak at best, and mostly partial or very recent. This diagnosis has been reconfirmed time and time again since 11 September 2001. Far from being “radicalised”, such vulnerable individuals slide into terrorist action not because they are supportive of Isis and its claim to “Islam”, but for mostly non-religious reasons. To respond to a complex phenomenon only by pointing to signs of increased religiosity in a given individual, or by targeting a community or a specific religious profile, is unlikely to work.

Undoubtedly religious interpretation plays a role: extremist and literalist readings of Islam’s source texts exist, and can only be countered by solid arguments produced by Muslim scholars whose credibility is widely recognised. Individual profiles are also a crucial factor, as are social status, unemployment, drug use and psychological imbalance.

Young people may be drawn to a cause that purports to lend new meaning to their lives, allows them to overcome their daily frustrations, and even gives them feelings of pride. But in such instances they must be seen more as propaganda victims than as consciously responsible for their actions, however extreme.

At the European Muslim Network, a thinktank I chair in Brussels, we have heard many testimonies of young boys and girls being manipulated via the internet or through dubious social contacts, who are completely disconnected from Muslim communities. Such individuals should be dealt with according to their background; if we focus solely on security concerns related to religious expression, any action will fall short of its target.

Politics must also be singled out as a prime cause of citizens slipping into violence – an issue on which deradicalisation programmes are almost entirely mute. Acts of violence do not take place in a political vacuum. As early as 2005, the then prime minister Tony Blair refused to admit any connection between British foreign policy and radicalisation. Though nothing can justify the killing of innocent civilians in London or Paris, any more than in Damascus or Baghdad, it’s clear that western policies in the Middle East have led to high levels of frustration and may well explain why some individuals have adopted extremist views.

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