BRIEFING: UK / Anti-Terrorism - Whose Hearts and Minds? Contest 2 in Context

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This briefing seeks to provide an overview of the updated version of the ‘Counter-Terrorism Strategy of the United Kingdom.

Summary

This briefing seeks to provide an overview of the updated version of the ‘Counter-Terrorism Strategy of the United Kingdom’, also known as ‘CONTEST’, as published on the 24th of March 2009 [1]. CONTEST is one part of the first United Kingdom National Security Strategy, published in 2008.

Additionally, the briefing will consider plans formulated by the government, that were in the end shelved and not included in the latest release of CONTEST in March, which intended to widen the definition of what should be considered “extremist” views. These abandoned plans, given the working title ‘CONTEST 2’, were leaked by the Home Office to the Guardian newspaper which in turn published them on February 17th 2009 [2]. Controversially, the leaked document touched upon various issues that, if adopted into the revised anti-terrorist strategy document, would render not only the vast majority of Muslims in the UK as holding “extreme” views by targeting their religious beliefs specifically, but would also severely curtail the universal right to freedom of expression as well as the right of other faith groups to observe their own religious beliefs. The leaked document included, but was not limited to, considering views supporting armed resistance anywhere in the world (including Palestine) and the failure to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan as indicative of extremism.

Attempts by the government to define extremism in this polemic manner have largely been criticised as counter-productive and anti-Islamic in nature, yet the pursuit of such a strategy raises questions about a policy formulation process that has resulted in such a radical government agenda. The final part of the briefing will explore these questions and the role of organisations which have played a pivotal role in influencing the direction and content of government policy vis-à-vis the Muslim population in Britain.


CONTEST


The original ‘Counter-Terrorism Strategy of the United Kingdom’ was released in 2003 and elaborated upon in 2006 when the strategy was split into four distinct strands; ‘Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare’. Of the four strands, the thinking behind the ‘Pursue’ strategy has been extensively responsible for the introduction of draconian anti-terror laws, racial profiling and the arbitrary arrest and detention of an overwhelming number of Muslims who have by the end of their ordeals been found innocent [3].

The inability to recognise and understand the detrimental effects of the arbitrary application of such legislation upon Muslims in Britain is reflected in the ‘Prevent’ strand of CONTEST which, whilst seeking to ‘actively promote shared values (including democracy and the rule of law)’, fails to see that the prevention of violent extremism is wholly dependent upon not only an understanding of the reasons behind it, but a subsequent rectification of flawed policies that result in it.

In quite a revolutionary step, the latest version of CONTEST does, for the first time since its inception, recognise that foreign policy concerns are at the forefront of factors causing violent extremism:
‘Real or perceived grievances, some international and some local, including in particular: a perception that UK foreign policy in the Muslim world (notably military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan) is hostile to Islam; the experience of wider conflict in the Muslim world and conflict involving Muslims (often attributed either to western intervention or to western indifference); and a range of domestic issues, including racism, inequalities and the experience of criminality and migration.’ [4]

Unfortunately, this hesitant, quasi-recognition of foreign policy as a factor alienating Muslims in Britain today is instantly dismissed as a ‘perceived grievance’ and rather than proceeding to engage in an open and honest debate about British and western foreign policy, the government is instead seeking to identify as ‘extreme’ those who criticize government policy abroad and support what they see as legitimate resistance and liberation movements in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world.


‘CONTEST 2’


The most disturbing aspects of the updated counter-terror strategy are not what is now included, but what has been omitted from the final, official version. On the 17th February 2009, just over a month before the updated strategy was published, the Guardian newspaper released details of a leaked Home Office document entitled ‘CONTEST 2’. The article pointed out that the government and civil servants were planning to widen the definition of exactly what beliefs constituted extremist views and sought their incorporation into the revised anti-terror strategy. The leaked document mentioned specifically the following issues as of particular concern to those attempting to define extremist views:

• They advocate a caliphate, a pan-Islamic state encompassing many countries.

• They promote Sharia law.

• They believe in jihad, or armed resistance, anywhere in the world. This would include armed resistance by Palestinians against the Israeli military.
 
• They argue that Islam bans homosexuality and that it is a sin against Allah.

• They fail to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. [see endnote 2]

Whilst it is of little surprise that none of the above found expression in CONTEST as released in March 2009, the very fact that the document in which they were contained was leaked to the press to assess their viability and acceptability warrants a consideration of the extent to which they would be extremely counterproductive if included in any future governmental definition of ‘extremism’, and succeed only in alienating Muslims further, as well as violating fundamental universal freedoms.


The Caliphate

The desire to form an entity comprised of a diverse range of Muslim societies is not in itself an extreme idea or belief. At least it is no more extreme than the idea of a pan-European community as epitomized by the European Union, or even a cohesive and coordinated military force such as NATO. As the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair considers a possible bid for the EU Presidency it would be worth remembering that many people, including Muslims and non-Muslims alike, believe that nation-states possess the sovereign right to form supra-national alliances and organizations which represent their collective socio-economic and political interests, with an individual leader acting as a figurehead of that entity. The advocacy of a caliphate system is therefore all the more pertinent an aspiration in the eyes of many Muslims who believe that repressive dictatorships and monarchies in Muslim lands are not acting in the interests of their people, and that precluding any further military interventions in Muslim lands by hostile foreign powers is dependent upon the formation of a united geo-political entity. Often misconstrued as an offensive and bellicose concept, the advocacy of a caliphate is based upon a realist understanding of international relations and the desire for collective defensive security that organizations such as NATO, the EU and the United Nations are themselves premised upon upon.  


Shariah


The view that the promotion of shariah law is an extremist stance is in itself ignorant of the fact that, due to its compatibility with the legal systems of law in the United Kingdom, not only Muslims turn to one of the numerous shariah tribunals in the country to solve civil disputes that standard legal institutions may not necessarily be as appropriate in judging [5].


Armed resistance


Of particular concern is the belief that support for armed resistance constitutes an extremist view. The vast majority of Muslims, not only in Britain but around the world, believe that Palestinian armed resistance against Israeli occupation is legitimate. The western desire to monopolize the use of violence has long been resisted by oppressed peoples and liberation movements throughout history. Nelson Mandela, an individual now revered by western governments (who once labeled him a terrorist), was a member of the African National Congress, an organisation which utilized violence from 1961 to end South African apartheid (which incidentally was supported by the United States at the time), and the revolutionaries who fought against the US-backed dictatorship in Cuba during the 1960’s had the support of large swathes of domestic and world opinion. The American revolutionary war itself in the eighteenth century pitted a resistance movement fighting for independence and freedom against British colonialism. Unless western powers themselves are now willing to renounce the violence which gave birth to their own independence and freedom, legitimate resistance movements across the world will continue, using all means at their disposal, to fight oppression and injustice whilst continuing to receive the support of Muslims, however impolitic governments who provide support to the oppressors find it, both in Britain and around the world [6].


Homosexuality

The inclusion of the issue of homosexuality being considered as a sin by Islam was quite a peculiar aspect of the leaked CONTEST 2 document as it represented the discussion of an entirely apolitical issue in the context of preventing violent extremism. As it stands, the religious belief that homosexuality is a sin is not exclusive to Muslims but also orthodox Jews, and most Christian denominations share this view.


Failure to condemn the death of troops

The failure to condemn the killing of British troops in Iraq or Afghanistan is inextricable with the points made earlier in regard to contesting the view that support for armed resistance constitutes an extremist belief. First of all, the majority of Muslims condemn the government policy of sending soldiers to war, in the case of Iraq illegally, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people as well as the death of soldiers who have been sent there. It is the right of peoples that have been invaded to decide upon the legitimacy and viability of their own resistance to foreign occupation, as it is the right of people within Britain, be they Muslim or not, to agree with or criticize government foreign policy without being branded extreme.


Government and anti-Islamic think tanks

Explicitly anti-Islamic in nature, none of the aforementioned points within the document leaked to the Guardian are included in the final counter-terrorism strategy document released in March 2009, and upon closer analysis it has not been particularly difficult to discern why. Yet the very fact that the Home Office considers these to be the key points of concern, and was willing to leak them  to the Guardian to gauge the reaction of public opinion towards the controversial measures, raises some serious questions about the direction in which the future of UK counter-terror strategy is heading and who is helping direct it.
 
The desire to de-politicise British Muslims specifically and the wider general public in general has been a corner stone of government policy since the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003, the same year in which the original CONTEST strategy was released. Instead of engaging with mainstream Muslim organisations with at least some semblance of credibility in the eyes of Muslims in the UK the government has, often haphazardly, sidelined such organisations and instead turned to ‘independent’ think tanks for policy advice [7].

The neoconservative-leaning think tanks engaged by the government are all too willing to reinforce false and negative stereotypes of Muslims in Britain. This results in a perpetual relationship of denial constructed and reinforced by the government and the think tanks that completely evades the root cause of what the government and its selected think tanks identify as radicalism; namely foreign policy decisions made by the government of the United Kingdom as well as its support for the foreign policy of the United States, specifically in relation to Muslim countries across the world. Domestically, as previously mentioned, the introduction of counter-productive anti-terror measures have further alienated Muslims in Britain who are becoming increasingly disaffected by the effect it is having upon their lives, families and communities [8].

The Quilliam Foundation is one such reactionary body that promotes exclusivity and elitism instead of engagement and understanding. Launched in April 2008, Quilliam accredits itself as ‘the worlds first counter-extremist think tank’ and admits that it does ‘not aspire to being a representative body’ with ‘mass support’ and in this vein plays an influential role in shaping government policy [9]. Former members of Hizb ut-Tehrir Ed (Mohammed) Hussain  and Maajid Nawaaz lead the organisation which was provided with almost one million pounds of taxpayers money by the government in January 2009 to counter ‘radicalism’ in Muslim communities [10].  Throwing enormous amounts of money at a think tank so far divorced from the reality of Muslim opinion on the ground is indicative of the wider insistence of the government upon neglecting legitimate grievances articulated by Muslims. The Quilliam Foundation Progress Report 2008-2009 attempts to justify its insider status and massive state funding, yet all evidence points towards a largely vacuous document with little or no evidence of having engaged with any of the issues that Muslims feel strongly about. In this regard Quilliam goes further than the Home Office CONTEST strategy which at least recognises that ‘perceptions’ of foreign policy may cause violent extremism [11].

The problem with organisations such as the Quilliam Foundation is not that they are unrepresentative and elitist, as they themselves go some way to admitting, rather their true danger lies in their influence upon government policy. For organisations which pride themselves upon their intellectual credentials they are startlingly dismissive of evidence which points towards foreign policy as the major cause for concern for the vast majority of Muslims in the UK and the overriding cause of violent extremism in Britain and armed resistance around the world [12].

For those anticipating a change in policy with a possible future Conservative government, it would be useful to recall that the right-wing Policy Exchange was once described as David Cameron’s favourite think tank - an organisation which has attracted severe criticism for its alleged fabrication of evidence in reports published about Islam in Britain [13]. Policy Exchange seeks to influence policymakers and commentators on the right and its hierarchy reflects this. The Head of the Terrorism & Security Unit at Policy Exchange, Dean Godson, worked for the Reagan administration in the US. Charles Moore, the former Daily Telegraph and Spectator editor who has made the case for public debate about whether the prophet Muhammad was a paedophile [14], is the current Chairman. He replaced Policy Exchange's co-founder, Michael Gove - author of the definitive text for British neoconservatives Celsius 7/7, who is now Cameron’s Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and special adviser to the Quilliam Foundation [15].

What the government, and Conservative opposition, and the aforementioned think tanks have in common is a lack of engagement with the overwhelming evidence and a propensity for promoting the politics of fear and ignorance, rather than engagement and understanding.
 
The targeting of Muslims by the hard right is carried out with the aim of seeking to validate the neoconservative assertion that it is not western foreign policy that Muslims stand against but the very notions and principles of freedom that the west associates itself with. The cultivation of these groups by mainstream political parties represents a wider erroneous belief that Muslims are unwilling and/or unable to engage in British society whilst maintain their Muslim identity. Part of an underhanded approach that includes virulent criticism of the hijab and defamatory campaigns against Islamic scholars, members of the hard right in Britain are pushing the government agenda of keeping discourse regarding Muslims as far away as possible from the issues that matter and into the realm of polemics and obfuscation.
 
What Muslims in Britain do represent is a clarion call for change, in both domestic and foreign policy, a call that as of yet remains unrecognised and unheeded by the government. What is required is a radical re-think of government strategy attempting to deal with the problems facing Muslims in Britain. Keeping foreign policy and the detrimental effects of its anti-terror policies upon British Muslims off the agenda represents a fundamental flaw at the heart of the CONTEST strategy and is evidenced by the engagement of think tanks such as the Quilliam Foundation. It must be accepted, even if it is disliked in some quarters, that Muslims in Britain feel directly connected to the suffering of other Muslims across the world. A denial of this basic fact, based upon the desire to keep foreign policy out of the spotlight, will result only in further and more prominent discrimination against Muslims in Britain caused ostensibly by a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what they truly stand for and against.


Endnotes

[1] Full CONTEST document available online at http://security.homeoffice.gov.uk/news-publications/publication-search/general/HO_Contest_strategy.pdf

[2] Guardian article (17.02.2009), ‘Anti-terror code 'would alienate most Muslims'’ at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/feb/17/counterterrorism-strategy-muslims
 
 [3] For further information see http://www.ihrc.org.uk/publications/briefings/6565-United-To-Protect-Our-Rights

[4] See Part 2 Section 9 of CONTEST.

[5] For further information see the TimesOnline article (21.07.2009), ‘Non-Muslims turning to Sharia courts to resolve civil disputes’ at http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article6721158.ece and also http://www.matribunal.com/

[6] The principle of the right to resist is set out in depth in ‘Towards a New Liberation Theology: Reflections on Palestine’ (eds. A. Merali and J. Sharbaf). Available at http://www.ihrc.org.uk/publications/reports/4561-towards-a-new-liberation-theology-reflections-on-palestine

[7] As CONTEST was released in March, Hazel Blears launched a completely unjustified campaign of exclusion against the Deputy Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, Dr Abdullah and was soon forced to retract her inexplicable stance. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/mar/25/islam-terrorism and http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/mar/25/hazel-blears-daud-abdullah

[8] A comprehensive study of this legislation and its effect upon Muslims in Britain is provided in ‘British Anti-Terrorism: A Modern Day Witch-Hunt’ by F. Ansari. Available at http://www.ihrc.org.uk/publications/reports/6193-British-Anti-Terrorism-A-Modern-Day-Witch-hunt-Revised-July-2006-

[9] See http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/faqs.html

[10] TimesOnline (20.01.2009), ‘Government gives £1m to anti-extremist think-tank Quilliam Foundation’ http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article5549138.ece

[11] The full report is available online at http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/acatalog/Books.html

[12] See: Pape, R.A. ‘Dying to Win, the Strategic Logic of Suicide Bombing’ (2006), Barkawi, T. ‘The Pedagogy of Small Wars’ (2004),

http://www.yougov.co.uk/extranets/yguk/content/kellnerMain.asp?jID=3&aId=3470  and http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/sep/02/alqaida.politics

[13] See http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/2008/05/policy_exchange_dispute_update.html

[14] See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/charlesmoore/3613495/Is-it-only-Mr-Bean-who-resists-this-new-religious-intolerance.html

[15] See http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/dec/15/poisonousanddangerous

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