It was only a matter of time before a right-wing figure in the West finally revealed the true depth of their agenda by deliberately drawing attention away from the extremists at their end of the political spectrum. That is exactly what William Shawcross, appointed by the British government to lead the review of the Prevent counterterrorism programme, appears to have done.
According to draft extracts of the review leaked to the Guardian, Shawcross criticises Prevent for having a “double standard when dealing with extreme right-wing and Islamism,” calling for it to focus on Islamic extremism rather than right-wing extremism.
The Shawcross review also criticises the programme’s funding of civil society organisations and community projects, which it accused of having “promoted extremist narratives, including statements that appear supportive of the Taliban.” That alleged misallocation of funding, says the review, meant that few of those organisations “could be seen to publicly contest extremist discourse.” Hence, “the government must cease to engage with or fund those aligned with extremism.”
The extracts from the supposedly independent review, which was delivered to the Home Office in late April, even make it a point to focus on that Islamic extremism and the mental health of all individuals referred to Prevent even if there is no actual evidence of extremism. This emphasis in Britain is flawed in many ways, not least because such cases account for only a small minority of Prevent referrals. According to government statistics, barely a quarter of the 4,915 referrals to the programme by the end of March last year were cases of Islamic extremism, three per cent lower than the number of far-right referrals. Over half of the total referrals involved extremism of an unclear, mixed or unstable ideology.
While the veracity of data may be questioned and there will always be inaccuracies and examples which are unaccounted for, such statistics immediately negate the claim that Islamic extremists are the main demographic posing a threat to national security in Britain. That dubious honour belongs to far-right extremists who have been on the rise in recent years, milking various issues such as refugees and the increase in crime rates to create their own twisted narratives of hate.
The threat they pose has already been seen in attacks by far-right individuals, such as the Finsbury Park van attack and the killing of Jo Cox MP. The same has been seen overseas, with New Zealand’s Christchurch mosque shooting and the more recent Buffalo supermarket shooting in the US. All signs point to the formation of a transnational, intercontinental far-right movement with extremist elements across the Western world, which attract a relatively small share of mainstream attention when compared with that paid to Islamic extremists, the majority of whom are condemned by Islamist figures and parties.
The same condemnatory tendency can hardly be said for the likes of Shawcross, who complains in the draft review that Prevent has had an expansive view on right-wing terror, being “so broad it has included mildly controversial or provocative forms of mainstream, right wing-leaning commentary that have no meaningful connection to terrorism or radicalisation.” If only he had such a charitable view of what the review calls “Islamist narratives”.
Putting aside the serious issue of which poses the bigger threat, the credibility of Prevent itself must again be called into question, given the government’s appointment of a controversial right-wing figure like Shawcross to lead the review of the programme. His affiliations and public utterances pushed hundreds of NGOs and civil society activists to insist that he was completely unsuited to carrying out an objective review of Prevent.
In his days as a board member of the anti-Muslim Henry Jackson Society (HJS), Shawcross was known for making negative comments about Islam in Britain and Europe. “Europe and Islam is one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future,” he said a decade ago. “I think all European countries have vastly, very quickly growing Islamic populations.” He openly supported the ongoing detention of terror suspects in America’s Guantanamo Bay prison facility, and defended the use of torture as a “natural response” to the risk of terrorism.
Richard McNeil-Willson, an expert and Research Fellow in critical extremism and counter-extremism, told Middle East Monitor that despite the widespread criticism from the Muslim community and human rights advocates against the Prevent programme and now the biased review, “The UK government, aided by a poisonous culture of neo-conservative think tanks, chose to target only Muslim critics.” He called this “a deliberate attempt to delegitimise British Muslim voices, painting criticism of Prevent as a solely Muslim issue and attempting to divide critics of Prevent.” While the review of the programme was “initially welcomed by voices across civil society as an opportunity to have a positive, constructive debate,” the government’s appointment of Shawcross to lead it “showed hostility towards those who have raised concerns about Prevent. The leaked report confirms this hostility and downplays the threat of the far-right.”
Despite the leak coming only “days after deadly White Supremacist violence in the US,” he said, “reactionary voices within and around Prevent have sought to use the Review as an opportunity to push a hard-right anti-Muslim agenda.” If the leak is proven to be true, then the government must know that it “will undermine any lingering trust in the programme and galvanise civil society opposition against it,” warned McNeil-Willson.
The politicisation of counter-extremism
The impact that Shawcross had upon charities and community organisations during his time as the chair of the Charity Commission – also supposed to be an apolitical, objective position – was seen by the now infamous increase in formal investigations of Muslim charities.
MEMO’s senior editor Ibrahim Hewitt was the chairman of the board of trustees of the British charity Interpal for almost 25 years, and witnessed a definite change in attitudes under Shawcross. The Charity Commission’s scrutiny of Interpal stemmed from allegations that it supported Palestinian organisations regarded by pro-Israel Western governments as “terrorists”, including the 2003 US listing of the charity as a “specially-designated global terrorist entity”, a designation picked up by Canada and Australia “to get Brownie points from George W Bush.” Israel banned Interpal in 1996, but Hewitt was still allowed to enter the country with two British MPs to see Interpal’s projects in 1998.
“Our deep engagement with the Charity Commission pre-dated Shawcross, and was generally at a time when it was there to help charities,” Hewitt told me. “That changed with Shawcross, when the commission took on more of a policing role, rather than advisory and guidance.”
Despite a major investigation and inquiry, the commission’s findings that Interpal was not guilty of any wrongdoing were always questioned by Israel’s far-right supporters. “The absence of any police involvement [in Interpal] is hugely significant,” said one senior Metropolitan Police officer. According to Hewitt, “The fact that Interpal was never sanctioned in this country and has charitable status to this day speaks volumes about the politicised nature of the allegations against the charity.” He pointed out that this political bias was confirmed when the US Treasury told Interpal’s New York lawyer to let the charity know not to spend more money on legal fees trying to be removed from the terrorist list, “Because the designation was a political decision by the State Department which will require another political decision to remove the ‘terrorist’ designation.”
The chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), Massoud Shadjareh, also spoke to MEMO on the Commission under Shawcross. “It became very Islamophobic. Muslim charities were treated with a different standard than other charities,” he explained. “Some Zionist charities were raising funds and openly and publicly sending it to Israeli armed forces, which is unlawful according to British law. You can’t raise funds for armed forces other than the British armed forces, let alone for a foreign government.”
Such open bias by the Shawcross-led Charity Commission “very clearly highlights that this man cannot be in a position to implement a fair policy when it comes to Islam and Muslims” in any review of Prevent. The British government’s decision to appoint him “only highlights one thing, and that is the government’s unwillingness to be looking at Prevent in any unbiased way… it’s like putting the fox in charge of looking after the chickens. It makes a total mockery of the review.”
Shadjareh stressed that the government’s move was no surprise given its past policies regarding counterterrorism and extremism. “It usually makes a decision before any consultation or investigation which ends up as a rubber-stamping exercise. That’s why we, as an organisation [IHRC], stopped taking part in this government’s ‘consultations’ which are simply a tool for it to implement pre-determined policies.”
The primary reason for the demonisation of Muslim charities and organisations within the UK, he stated, is an active attempt “to make ‘Others’ of British Muslims as if they’re not part of wider society. What this does is alienate the Muslim community and basically create a second class of citizenship.”
A key part of that demonisation is the focus on “non-violent extremism”, said Shadjareh. “How do you define non-violent extremism? You could say that the Conservative Party is a [form of] non-violent extremism. And you could put the label on anybody who’s got a deep commitment and who’s not violent – you could call him a non-violent extremist.” He insisted that what the government and its far-right elements are doing with such labelling “is forcing Muslims not to be politically active as Muslims… They have to be subservient to the system. They cannot have an independent mind, because if they do then they are non-violent extremists.”
It is no secret that Shawcross’s advocacy of counter-extremism measures to focus on Muslim organisations and “Islamists” is, on the whole, part of the current government’s overall discriminatory attitude towards the British Muslim community. That attitude has been propagated not only by Shawcross, but also the likes of Home Secretary Priti Patel and doubtless many of the ruling party’s officials, MPs, parliamentary assistants, aides and affiliates in Zionist and Hindutva lobby groups.
If the Prevent programme, the government and the security services decide to act on the draft review’s recommendation by obsessing over a vague and potentially over-exaggerated Islamic extremist threat, then it is clear that they will be complicit in the rise of transnational far-right terrorism.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.