Controversy in Britain on claims that “non-violent extremism” leads to terrorism
[Arabic translation published in Al-Hayat 1 October 2011]
In Britain a battle is raging over the question of whether “non-violent Islamist extremism” leads to violent extremism and terrorism. British Prime Minister David Cameron believes that non-violent extremism does indeed lead to violence and terrorism. He laid the foundations of the government’s new direction towards fighting violent extremism in his speech in February to the Munich security conference, in which he said: “To those who say non-violent extremists actually help to keep young vulnerable men away from violence, I say nonsense.”
Cameron rejects claims that Islamist terror threats are fuelled by poverty and by foreign policy grievances. He asserts that as evidence emerges about the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences it is clear that “many of them were initially influenced by what some have called ‘non-violent extremists’, and they then took those radical beliefs to the next level by embracing violence.”
He said governments must think much harder about those Muslim groups with whom it is in the public interest to work. Cameron asserts that governments should not engage “non-violent extremist “Islamist groups. They should not receive public funding, should not share platforms with ministers, and “we must stop these groups from reaching people in publicly-funded institutions like universities or even, in the British case, prisons.”
The British government’s new policies within the Preventing Violent Extremism programme – know for short as “Prevent” – announced during the summer reflect Cameron’s drive against non-violent extremism. For example, government funding has been being withdrawn from Muslim organisations and individuals considered to support non-violent extremism.
In a speech on 19 September in New York at a UN symposium on counter-terrorism, the British home Secretary Theresa May outlined the new Prevent programme and stressed the need to defeat not only terrorist organisations but “the terrorist ideology”.
Among the policies Britain is adopting is using “community groups, local councils, health workers, teachers and other professionals to help identify those people who may be vulnerable to radicalisation.”
Solutions to the problems of terrorism and radicalisation must be found in homes, schools, mosques, universities, hospitals and “even in prison”. The solutions “rely on local communities, professionals, families and friends.”
Critics of Cameron and May’s new Prevent policies say they are counterproductive, and unfairly demonises certain Muslim organisations and individuals who have in fact played an important role in fighting Al-Qaeda influence. The prevent policies could further alienate British Muslim communities.
And there is much unease at the government’s saying that for example doctors, university teachers and those working with prisoners should identify those who may be “vulnerable” to Islamist radicalisation. Are doctors, teachers and other professionals, as well as parents and other family members, supposed to become spies and informers - and how are they supposed to identify those who might be “vulnerable” to radicalisation? Won’t this for example destroy freedom of speech on university campuses and destroy relations of trust between students and their teachers?
One of the most outspoken critics against the new Prevent policies is Dr Robert Lambert [pictured], a retired policeman who was for the 30 years 1977 and 2007, a policeman at Scotland Yard. He spent most of that time within Special Branch, which deals with terrorism and political violence in the UK.
It might seem surprising for a former Scotland Yard policeman, with many years of experience fighting terrorism, to be so passionate in his defence of groups and individuals whom many, including top levels of British government, see as non-violent Islamist extremists and thus potentially having a dangerous influence.
But Dr Lambert bases his beliefs on his practical experiences in the last years of his career at Scotland Yard, when he and a police colleague set up the Muslim Contact Unit (MCU). The idea of the MCU was to establish partnerships with Muslim community leaders to assess and combat the spread of Al-Qaeda’s influence in London. This partnership fought the influence of such dangerous violent-minded extremists in London as Abu Hamza, Faisal Abdullah, Abu Qatada, who were convicted and sentenced by courts.
Since 2009 Lambert has been the co-director of the European Muslim Research Centre (EMRC) at Exeter University in south-west England. He is also a part-time lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Now Lambert has written a book on his experiences, which was published by the independent London publisher Hurst and Company on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the US. The book is entitled “Countering Al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership”. It is based on the thesis Lambert wrote for the PhD Exeter University awarded him in 2010.
The book describes in much detail how Muslims in the community played a vital role with the police in challenging and reducing the threat of Al-Qaeda influence in two main projects. One was at the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London which was under the sway of the Egyptian self-styled preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri, who with his one blind eye and his two hooks instead of hands was a familiar figure in the British media. In 2006 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for terror-related offences. (Although he has completed his sentence (he had been held in prison since 2004) he is still held there on remand while the US seeks his extradition on terror-related offices in the US.)
Abu Hamza exerted a pernicious and lasting influence on his followers at Finsbury Park Mosque. In 2003 he was ejected but continued to pray outside in the street with his followers. Lambert examines in detai in his book the joint Muslim-police work that led to the ousting of Hamza’s supporters from the mosque in 2005.
The other major project aimed at countering Al-Qaeda influence was in Brixton in south London where local Salafis successfully countered the influence of Al-Qaeda-influenced violent extremists such as Abu Qatada and Abdullah el-Faisal.
In relation to Brixton, Lambert is today highly critical of the fact that as part of its policy of not funding organisations or individuals it sees as “non-violent extremist”, the government has withdrawn much of its previous funding from the organisation Strategy to Reach Empower and Educate Teenagers, known for short as STREET. STREET combats violent gang warfare in the Brixton area and thereby aims to make young Muslims less vulnerable to violent extremism. The director of Street is Dr Abdul Haqq Baker, leader of the Brixton Salafi community – and under the government’s new Prevent policy a Salafi, even if non-violent, is seen as an extremist. The slashing of funding threatens to undo all the positive work that STREET did in the community – work that earned it much praise last autumn from the think tank Centre for Social Justice which was set up by former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith.
Lambert’s book has received much attention in the media, and among security and political analysts. Among the events related to its publication, the author has made presentations and discussed his book at two prominent London-based think tanks; the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Chatham House.
In an interview with BBC Radio, Lambert declared that British government policy on how to combat Islamist terrorism is wrong. The policy “is demonising [[ie portraying as evil, or as devils]] some of the most effective Muslim groups and organisations against Al-Qaeda,” he said. He worked with such groups while at Scotland Yard and “these were Muslim individuals who showed great bravery in support of the safety of this country and many of them achieved outstanding results. For them to be demonised as extremist is not only unhelpful, it is seriously unjust.” Such people should never be demonised under any circumstances, he said.
Lambert added that such people had been effective partners of the police in counter-terrorism, and had shown bravery in confronting the real violent extremists – people who have been convicted of violent extremism, such as Abu Hamza and Abdullah al-Faisal.
Lambert pointed to the influence on the government of the book “Celsius 7/7” by the Education Secretary Michael Gove. The book was published after the four suicide bombings on the London transport system on 7 July 2005 in which 52 innocent people were killed (the attacks are known as 7/7).
Gove, who is an ardent supporter of Israel, plays an influential part in government arguing for tough measures against Islamists. His book looks at the roots of Islamist terrorism and at the Islamist “threat to civilisation” and warns against the “appeasing” of Islamism.
Lambert noted that to mark his retirement from the police, a celebration was held in Lambert’s honour at Scotland Yard at which the guests included 40 to 50 Muslims “who are individuals who are now being regularly demonised as extremists.”
The book was launched in London at an event at Portcullis House, at the Houses of Parliament.. The event was chaired by the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn well-known for his leftist and anti-war positions and involvement against Islamophobia – the hatred and fear of Islam and Muslims.
Robert Lambert presented his book and outlined its contents. The other speakers were Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU); Ibrahim Hewitt [pictured], Chairman of the British charity Interpal (the full name of which is Palestinian Relief and Development Fund,) and Anas Altikriti, Chief Executive Officer of the Cordoba Foundation. Hewitt and Altikriti are often described as Islamists, and are the type of people the government no longer wishes to work in partnership with.
The European Muslim Research Centre at Exeter University, of which Lambert is co-director, has attracted considerable controversy. The Conservative MP Robert Halfon sought information about the Centre’s Funding under a Freedom of Information inquiry earlier this year, and found that it had received £50,000 from the Cordoba Foundation and £50,000 from IslamExpo.
Halfon complained that these funders of the centre share the political objectives of the Muslim Brotherhood. But a statement from Exeter University said: "No one in the research team has any link whatsoever to companies or organisations with a political interest in the subject. The analysis and reporting of the findings is independent. The University of Exeter is not aware of any relationship between the Cordoba Foundation, Islam Expo and the Muslim Brotherhood."
Halfon also found that the Centre received a gift of £35,000 from Al-Jazeera Satellite Network, and asked for an explanation for this from the university.
Another source of controversy over the European Muslim Research Centre was that it had to publish an apology in relation to the first study it published, on Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime in the UK. The study identified the local MP in the Tower Hamlets area of East London, Jim Fitzpatrick, and some Tower Hamlets Labour councillors as Islamophobic – ie people who hate Islam and Muslims. The apology said that the university had not found the actions or intentions of these individuals were Islamophobic or racist in any way.
The European Muslim Research Centre is opposed to the position of the Quilliam Foundation. Set up as the world’s fist counter-terrorism think tank by two former members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz. They claimed that having been at one time Islamist extremists themselves, they understand Islamism from the inside. Quilliam has received generous government funding and has much influence on government thinking. It stresses the need to fight Islamist ideology; Ed Husain is fond of saying that non-violent extremists provides the “mood music to which violent extremists dance”.
As well as opposing Quilliam, Lambert is also critical of “powerful neoconservative think thanks” such as Policy Exchange, which equate support for the Palestinians with backing for Islamist movements.
Britain continues to face a substantial terror threat, as the recent arrests of seven young men and a woman in the English city of Birmingham in relation to a suspected terror plot shows. The controversy over whether non-violent extremism does or does not lead to violent extremism looks set to continue and intensify given the growing presence of voices on both sides of the argument.