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Britain’s counter-extremism strategy is under close scrutiny

Muslim members of the public attend a vigil at City Hall to honour victims of the London Bridge terrorist attack in London, UK on 5 June 2017 [Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency]

The suppression of an important report into the funding of “extremist” activity in Britain by foreign sources is a clear indication of the gap between British foreign and domestic policies. It is an obvious example of the government prioritising sensitive foreign relations over transparency and maintaining public confidence. The decision to release just a brief summary of the report inevitably lends credence to widespread speculation that it identifies the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – an important British ally – as a source of “extremist” funding.

This clearest expression of British double standards in tackling extremism has many ramifications. In immediate terms, it undermines confidence in the government’s counter-extremism approach, as it suggests strongly that the Establishment in Britain lacks the resolve to tackle some of the root issues. At a deeper level, it calls into question the government’s approach of linking “extremism” to terrorism, currently the central tenet of the “PREVENT” strategy.

Foreign connections

The issue of “foreign” influence over British Islam – and specifically over British Muslim institutions, notably mosques – has been a central feature of the national debate for over a decade. This debate is linked to a national obsession with “Westernising” Islam, and more particularly a complaint that British Muslims – unlike their North American co-religionists – are not “Western” enough.

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This mindset originates from the foundational moments of British Muslim institution-building in the 1980s, when the Saudis and Iran competed to gain influence over nascent organisations within the community. However, developments since have far outpaced the primordial concerns of British researchers and commentators. Whilst the institutional landscape of British Islam is far from complete, at least the current institutions are firmly rooted in Britain and are generally free from foreign influence.

Study after study – including the latest report into foreign funding of extremism – has indicated that foreign influence on British Muslim institutions is marginal. The emphasis on foreign influence is often employed by sections of the media and commentariat to apply more pressure on leading Muslims in Britain to forego community-based concerns and adopt the values of the Establishment.

Whilst the press is free to pursue its own agendas, the government should show greater responsibility. By failing to disclose vital information to the public, the government inevitably opens up a Pandora’s Box of speculation and misinformed conjecture. Moreover, the perception that the government attaches more importance to managing sensitive foreign ties than to dealing fairly with an important domestic issue is inimical to both public confidence and community cohesion.

Furthermore, the suppression of the aforementioned report is in keeping with an established government tradition of concealing or distorting key information related to British Muslims. The best recent example of this was the long delay in publishing — and the partial suppression of — the key findings of the wide-ranging government review on the Muslim Brotherhood undertaken by Sir John Jenkins, the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia. It is noteworthy that the government’s review of the Brotherhood was prompted by foreign pressure, specifically a threat by the United Arab Emirates to block a major arms deal unless Downing Street took decisive action against the movement.

A question of extremism

On a positive note, the partial publication of the enquiry into foreign funding of extremism, and the government’s reluctance to disclose all of the pertinent facts, is an opportunity for critics to interrogate the putative link between “extremism” and terrorism. This alleged link underpins the foundational concept of PREVENT and informs much of the government’s attitude and approach to tackling the root causes of terrorism.

A comprehensive critique must begin with a reappraisal of the definition of “extremism” in an Islamic context. Currently the government, the media and the commentariat all deploy an expansive definition which brands a wide range of Islamic trends, currents, organisations and personalities as “extremist”, often without taking into account the context and milieus in which these groups and currents operate.

Read: The perennial dilemmas of British counterterrorism policy

Moreover, the current approach makes little if any distinction between groups who are primarily active in social, educational and charitable fields and those whose focus is mostly political. This conflation is in part responsible for the media outcry over the so-called Trojan Horse scandal – centred on a fear of “Islamist” plots to take over schools in Birmingham — whose focus appears to be spreading.

The link between extremism and terrorism is even more difficult to interrogate, not least because the government is determined to make the connection, in part to suppress a more honest debate on the causal relationship between terrorism and foreign policy.

At a minimum, researchers and activists can lobby for fairer treatment of the subject. The starting point is a recognition that Islamic “extremism” (however it is defined) is but one strand of extremism which poses a potential threat to British national security. Indeed, the terrorism landscape in Britain appears to be shifting, as evidenced by the dramatic rise of far-right agitation and the terrorist attack targeting Muslim worshippers near Finsbury Park Mosque in North London.

At this critical juncture in British national life, as defined by an exit from the European Union and rising domestic political and community-based tensions, it is vital that the government adopts attitudes and policies which raise public confidence in what it is doing. This is essential if the aim is also to promote greater community cohesion.

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