Asked by the Muslim Council of Britain’s Research and Documentation Committee and the editor of ReDoc’s Soundings website to write a short response to the government’s Prevent review which was published recently, I wrote the following:
The Failed Paradigm of Prevent
There are a number of problems with the government’s recently revised Prevent strategy for tackling the threat of homegrown terrorism. Two particular issues concern me in the government’s explanation of its new strategy. The first is the confused and ambiguous conceptual paradigm it continues to evidence. The strategy and its supporting documents are infused with discredited and nebulous terms like ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’, and seem to view these as both readily identifiable characteristics and causative of political violence. The fact is that ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’ ideas are contextual and based on value-judgments, not objectively identifiable features of someone’s belief system or rhetoric. For example, given that the belief in the superiority of Islamic law is probably the majority opinion of the world’s billion Muslims, can it really be characterized as ‘extreme’ or ‘radical’? Is it extreme or radical to believe that Britain acts in an imperialist and violently aggressive manner around the world, that it is wrong to try and bomb other countries into adopting democracy or human rights standards, or that unilateral nuclear disarmament is a moral necessity? I believe all these things; does that make me an extremist? Similarly, is the desire for an Islamic homeland or Caliphate an extreme or radical viewpoint in itself? Was it also extreme to believe in a Jewish homeland? The point is that determining which of these constitutes ‘extremism’ is a matter of subjective viewpoint, either historical or geographical.
Also inherent to the language of the Prevent strategy is a very simplistic and problematic notion of a generic process by which individuals go along a pathway which eventually leads them to violent extremism. This notion of the ‘radicalization’ process is presented as being both undesirable and a kind of linear development with identifiable markers. Neither of these assumptions is necessarily true: in some cases (such as environmental awareness) it might actually be socially desirable to radicalize people, and more of them. At the same time, individuals rarely follow a linear line of development from ‘moderate’ to ‘radical’. Rather, everyone holds a variety of views at different times and places in their lives, on different subjects, which are usually a mix of ‘moderate’, ‘radical’ or in the case of the many millions of conspiracy theorists, downright ‘loony’! Moreover, people’s viewpoints are continuously being revised through interaction with others and are always in a state of evolution.
An important point sometimes forgotten is that some ‘extremists’ and ‘radicals’ have in the past been the drivers of positive social change, from anti-slavery proponents, to the anti-colonial movement, the suffragettes and environmentalists; in their time, they were all considered radical extremists. The fact is that today’s radicals may be honoured tomorrow with a commemorative statue. In addition, radicalism and extremism are wrongly assumed to imply an association with violence: given my opposition to war and militarism, some might call me a ‘radical pacifist’. A policy that seeks to challenge extremist ideology therefore must clearly provide some guidance as to what political viewpoints it is that are considered unacceptable, and show when a viewpoint crosses the line from ‘moderate’ to ‘extremist’.
A second serious problem with the government’s approach is its lack of a basis in, or even knowledge of, the evidence and research on the causes of political violence. The notion that extremism or radicalisation is the main ‘driver for terrorism’ or the reason why people support violence is simply not supported by the evidence academics have gathered thus far. At the most basic level, the notion that ideas cause actions is simplistic and rarely the case – as most people reading this article will know from their own experience when their beliefs about the value of healthy eating and exercise more often than not failed to result in desired actions! In fact, this paradigm represents a fantastical belief in the power of ideas to magically transform otherwise normal individuals into psychotic murderers. It is akin to the belief that rock music can make ordinary teenagers commit suicide, a notion now thoroughly discredited. From this perspective, there is little point to banning certain websites or burning books.
The evidence we actually have is that choosing to use violence is largely unrelated to an individual’s political beliefs, and often, individuals choose to give up using violence while still retaining their commitment to their original political goals. This also explains why there are so many armchair radicals – people who express a belief in revolutionary action but are unwilling to go the final step and engage in action due to fear or laziness. At the same time, the converse is also untrue: people do not support or participate in violence solely because they are extremists. People support and engage in violence for a great many reasons, including fear, insecurity, anger or love of country. In Britain, many support military violence out of patriotism, while in colonial America and Palestine today, people have supported violent struggle for love of freedom and justice. Others support violent humanitarian intervention out of a desire to protect human rights. Finally, it is important to note that individuals are not like computers who are programmed by their beliefs to act in certain ways, but can always choose to act in ways contrary to their earlier beliefs at any given moment. This is why there are numerous people in Israeli prisons today who at one time volunteered for a suicide mission, submitted to a period of training and indoctrination, made all the necessary psychological preparations, but then backed away at the final moment and surrendered; they chose to act against all their deeply-held beliefs.
In other words, the real problem is not that certain individuals or small groups believe that Northern Ireland should be free from all British imperial influence, or that Britain is engaging in a violent war against Muslims around the world, or that Muslims should have a homeland where they can live under their own legal system, or that all animal testing must be eradicated – and then this belief compels them to act violently. Tens of millions of people believe all these things without ever considering joining a terrorist group or engaging in violent behaviour. The real problem is when individuals or groups go on to choose to use violent as opposed to non-violent methods to try and advance their goals. And at the root of this choice of violence as a tactic is the unquestioned belief that violence works – that violence can achieve positive political goals when applied strategically. It is therefore pointless (and counter-productive) to try and convince people not to hold certain political viewpoints, because that is not the real problem; holding what may be considered ‘radical’ ideas has little or nothing to do with the strategic choice to use violence.
At this point, it becomes obvious that the British government faces a serious problem in its efforts to try and prevent people from pursuing their aims through violent means, not least because it has to try and convince people and groups to ‘do as I say, not as I do’. The fact is that the British government chooses to use violence as the primary means of achieving its political goals all the time, whether it is regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya, or securing its colonial possessions in the south Atlantic. This belief in the efficacy of violence is a powerful lesson to individuals and groups wanting to achieve political change; in many ways, the ‘violent extremists’ the government wants to influence are simply following the example of British foreign policy. The government is thus faced with two options: either it must try to demonstrate a more moral, non-violent foreign policy which will then make its message to homegrown terrorists far more believable, or it must make a much better case for why it is entitled to use violence to achieve its political goals but others are not. This latter option could be possible but it would entail an open and robust public debate about the morality and purpose of British militarism, foreign military engagements and the utility of military force in the contemporary international system.
A related point raised in the government’s new strategy is the contradiction between the ‘values-based’ approach Prevent takes, and the actions of the British government. For example, the document states: “We will not work with extremist organisations that oppose our values of universal human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in our society. If organisations do not accept these fundamental values, we will not work with them and we will not fund them.” The problem with this is that British actions in support of the war on terror, support for Israeli actions, involvement in torture and rendition, draconian counter-terrorism measures directed at the Muslim community, lack of equality before the law for terrorist suspects, and the failure of successive governments to follow the democratic will of the country in pursuing foreign wars, budget cuts and the like, make such statements appear deeply hypocritical. This gap between words and actions creates frustration and undermines the government’s message.
In the end, I suspect that the real, hoped-for purpose of the new (and previous) Prevent strategy is actually to produce docile subjects who will accept British foreign policy without seriously questioning or opposing it, rather than engaged citizens willing to challenge and contest democratically the government’s right to act in our name in certain situations. To my mind, one of the key dangers of the Prevent strategy is that denying robust and open debate on controversial issues of foreign policy, and securitizing particular political viewpoints, will actually drive many individuals and groups underground where their anger and resentment can fester and their decision to adopt violent tactics goes unchallenged. It will thus encourage the very outcomes the government says it wants to prevent. Paradoxically, the report recognizes this very point, at the same time that it seems to want to close down certain kinds of debate. It states: “In the UK, evidence suggests that radicalisation tends to occur in places where terrorist ideologies, and those that promote them, go uncontested and are not exposed to free, open and balanced debate and challenge.”
In full agreement with this, I believe that encouraging real open debate, political activism, and genuine democratic engagement is one of the best options we have for discouraging further political violence. Apart from repairing the growing democratic deficit in our system, which would be a valuable goal in itself, it would also remove one of the key reasons groups sometimes decide that violence is necessary – because they see little chance of engendering policy change through the limited democratic channels that currently exist. More importantly, it would provide an empowering and safer alternative to the use of clandestine violence.
Taking this perspective, I would recommend that the government abandons any elements of the new Prevent strategy which seek to restrict speech and instead embarks on an alternative ‘Radicalisation Programme’ in which young people, students and anyone who feels aggrieved, are encouraged to debate, contest, and challenge the government on any of its policies without fear of reprisals, and to protest, demonstrate, write letters, join a political party or start an activist group. The added value of this might be the emergence of new solutions to some of our most pressing contemporary problems. After all, we cannot rely on traditional thinking and ways of acting to solve the present challenges posed by climate change, poverty reduction, weapons proliferation, human rights protection, economic recession, quagmire in Afghanistan, and the like. Seriously, it is time we recognized that it is only ‘radicals’ and ‘radical’ solutions which can save us now.
For more great commentary on the government’s new Prevent strategy, please visit the ReDoc’s Soundings website.