Last week, BBC's Panorama broadcast a documentary on "The Battle for British Islam" by John Ware, a journalist and film-maker. Ware followed this up with an extended op-ed in this weekend's Independent on Sunday, covering much of the same ground. Together, they provide an insight into the disturbing assumptions and consequences of current, official 'anti-extremism' policies.
The first problem in Ware's approach is that no evidence is offered for one of the key contentions: that 'non-violent extremism' leads directly to 'violent extremism'. Instead of academic research or case studies, Ware unquestioningly repeats unsubstantiated claims from the four Muslim interviewees he chose to (uncritically) feature.
For example, Ware writes how one interviewee, Sara Khan, believes that a "puritanical strain" of Islam "takes young Muslims to the front door of violent extremists." Another participant, Manwar Ali, is even broader: apparently, simply "dividing the world starkly into 'them' and 'us' (believers and non-believers)" is "the first step on the road to violent extremism."
In a recently-launched report by think tank Claystone, Prof. Arun Kundnani – author of 'The Muslims Are Coming' – debunks this line of thinking, and describes how this "official narrative" of what causes terrorism simply "does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny."
A better account of the causes of terrorism would acknowledge that radical religious ideology does not correlate well with incidents of terrorist violence and that terrorism is best understood as the product of an interaction between state and non-state actors.
So it is not true, as Ware claims, that "four British Muslims told the BBC's Panorama why they believe the government is right to identify "non-violent extremism" as the ideology that helps lays the ground for violent extremism." In fact, they (like him and like the government) did not explain "why": they just regurgitated a version of the discredited 'conveyor belt' theory as fact.
A second problem is the portrayal of Ware's four Muslim interviewees as threatened and isolated dissidents. "It is rare and brave for British Muslims to speak with such candour", he writes; the interviewees "have put their heads above the parapet" and "lost their fear of confronting their extremist co-religionists." Yet the only example given of any backlash was "abuse" on Twitter.
A more complete picture would note that the four interviewees are part of well-connected institutes, appear on the media, sit on government committees, and enjoy academic fellowships. Meanwhile, however, there are Muslims in Britain today who face the closure of their bank accounts, and are harassed and monitored on campus. Muslim charities are targeted by the Charity Commission and government, while police arrest raids traumatise – and produce few convictions.
The third problem is the treatment of foreign policy, and here we come to a central element in the formation and propagation of this 'counter-extremism' model. In the Independent on Sunday, Ware wrote the following:
A British version of Islam that embraces British culture, rather than seeking to eradicate it, will need to dispel the perception among Muslims that western foreign policy is the root cause of violent extremism….The fact that Islamist terrorism pre-dates Iraq and Afghanistan and that there are many millions of non-Muslims just as aggrieved at foreign policy who do not resort to violence, points to toxic theology as the real culprit.
For Ware – and here he is channelling the state's line too – the only 'non-threatening' Islam is one whose adherents disavow the argument that "western foreign policy is the root cause of violent extremism." The only Muslim citizens whose 'Britishness' will not be doubted or even denied will be those who stay quiet about colonialism past and present, and its consequences.
Such is Ware's refusal to discuss western foreign policy that he is able to refer to the role of Saudi Arabia in exporting "puritanical Sunni Islam" without a word about the intimate alliance between Riyadh and London, Washington, and other western capitals. Similarly, Manwar Ali is described as an "ex-Afghan jihadi" without even the briefest of reflections on how, from the West's point of view, those were the 'good' mujahedeen.
There is a profound irony in Ware quoting Baroness Manningham-Butler, as he does in his article, for it was the former MI5 head who when addressing the Chilcot Inquiry in July 2010, stated that the invasion of Iraq was what had "radicalised" a number of the new generation, and "undoubtedly" increased the threat. Masking this impact of British and Western foreign policy is ultimately the key motivation behind the narrative Ware has embraced.
In 2007, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani gave a lecture on 'The Politics of Culture Talk in the Contemporary War on Terror'. Addressing the public discussion in the US "about good and bad Muslims", Mamdani points out that "good and bad were not adjectives describing the attitude of Muslims to Islam. They were actually adjectives describing Muslim attitudes to Western power."
At the launch of Claystone's report in the Houses of Parliament, I overheard an attendee discussing counter-terrorism policies before the event. He told his companion how the problem with those who go on about foreign policy is that all you're left with is the need to change foreign policy. It's precisely that sort of conclusion Ware and Whitehall want to stop people reaching.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.