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Walking the streets of Manchester, I find tolerance rather than hatred

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Originally published in The Sunday Times

At about 7am on Tuesday, I awake to several messages on my phone from friends asking me to text them as soon as I could. I wonder what I have done until I go online. Not Manchester, I think. Terrorist attacks happen everywhere else, but not here, not in my home city.

I spend the day on social media and watching the news. I feel sad and angry. How could anyone target children? But a part of me feels hope. Mancunians are coming together in their grief and solidarity while the world watches and gives support.

The usual suspects are wheeled out for television and radio interviews, hailed as “moderate community leaders”. Among them are commentators who have supported blasphemy laws in Pakistan and whose organisations have played host to extremist preachers.

If these are the moderates, I think, then we are well and truly up the creek without a paddle. Sometimes the media really are to blame. In an age of 24-hour news, there’s a need to fill airtime with commentary, even if it is from undesirable people.

Wednesday
I have a conversation with a Muslim friend; we start exchanging stories of our childhood going to the mosque to learn about the Koran and Islam. “Let’s face it, we all learnt that going to concerts is haram [forbidden] and listening to music is wrong,” he says.

He is right. I remember one of the mosque teachers told me and the other young girls that the famous Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was once exhumed and his tongue was found wrapped around his body.

This was a punishment from Allah, the teacher explained, because of the way he would sing about Allah; it was wrong. I felt scared, as any child would. And I felt confused because my family and everyone I knew listened to Khan.

But Sunni Muslims are taught that music is generally forbidden, only vocal music is permissible (halal) and instruments are haram. And these views are considered mainstream, not necessarily extreme.*

This is why I get frustrated when people simply blame British foreign policy for creating terrorists. What do teens at a concert have to do with British foreign policy? These people simply hate this “heathen” lifestyle.

They have bought into an ideology that hates anyone opposed to them. So why are we surprised when extremists act on their hate and contempt?

Think about it; if they were really angry about Muslims dying then why aren’t they “radicalised” by the slaughter caused by Isis, al-Qaeda and other jihadists? If they cared about Muslim lives, they would have taken up arms against the Taliban in Afghanistan for starving their own people, or against Isis for killing fellow Muslims in Syria and Iraq, or Saudi Arabia for bombing Yemen.

Sometimes we are told that jihadists and extremists are disenfranchised. Give me a break. Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, was not disenfranchised at all.

He was born and brought up here, given all the rights and privileges of every other British citizen. His family was given shelter in the UK after fleeing Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s regime in Libya. And this is how he repaid Britain?

Thursday
This afternoon I go out into Manchester city centre. Other than a few police officers in Market Street, which is where all the shops are, it seemed like any other day. Hundreds of people were in St Ann’s Square laying flowers in tribute to the victims.

Where’s the hate, I wondered? The vast majority of people in times such as these come together and offer support. Do not believe the loud voices shouting about “Islamophobia” and the backlash against Muslims.

British people, on the whole, are marvellous and tolerant. If a few dirty looks and the odd incident of someone being spat at (for which there is no excuse, by the way) constitutes a “backlash”, then British Muslims are overwhelmingly fortunate to live here.

I meet a friend, a student originally from Iraq. We sit in a cafe discussing the terrorist attack. He says blasts are pretty much normal in Iraq, but he’s surprised when it happens here.

He tells me about some of the foreign fighters who have gone over to join Isis in Iraq; the converts are the most vicious ones, he explains.

The local fighters often join Isis for money. But the foreign recruits, he says, will kill mercilessly and have bought into the vicious ideology of Isis completely.

Friday
Jeremy Corbyn makes a speech that links UK foreign policy to extremism. It seems we can’t win either way: both our action and inaction in
the Middle East are direct causes of terrorist attacks here in the West.

I wonder what foreign policy led to the Taliban massacring children in Pakistan Or the murder of Copts in Egypt. With Corbyn as leader, I am never voting Labour again.

My friend tells me she cried several times when she heard about the attack. On Tuesday she went into a cafe where the people there were slightly cold towards her. She wears a hijab; perhaps they blame all Muslims for all terrorism, and that hurts, she says. I suggest that perhaps they were subdued after the recent incident and were like that in general, rather than just because she is Muslim. I hope so, anyway.

All week we have heard journalists and presenters asking: why did this happen and how can we prevent it? After all this time we are still not having an honest conversation about the role ideology plays in recruiting potential terrorists.

The next attack will see this same debate and the same commentators recycle this debate again. Sometimes I wonder: why do we bother?

 

*NB: Just to elaborate on this point. I do not mean to imply that anyone taught music is haram will go on to kill someone for going to a concert. But I was trying to demonstrate the clash of values there are sometimes with British Muslims. The friend I had a conversation with also said he was taught that in the afterlife anyone who listened to music would have boiling lead poured down their ears. Sometimes people will feel guilty for doing things which are considered trivial but, Islamically, they are told is wrong.

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Written by Iram Ramzan

May 31, 2017 at 7:21 am

Prevent strategy – misconceptions vs the reality

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Heard the one about the three-year-old jihadi? No seriously, have you? The Daily Mail and various other newspapers ran a story last month about a toddler from Tower Hamlets who is apparently among thousands of Londoners identified as “at risk” of radicalisation by police.

According to a report by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), 834 under-18s children were referred to Channel, the government’s counter-radicalisation authority, at a rate of one per day between April 2012 and June 2014. Around 10 per cent of the children were under age 12.

Don’t worry – tots are not turning into terrorists. The toddler in question was clearly not an extremist, but part of a family that was at risk, and hence needed to be safeguarded. Very few will understand that just by glancing at the headlines.

For several months now, various organisations and commentators have been inflaming the fears and paranoia about the government’s counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST), ever since wide-ranging powers were brought in under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, meaning  that teachers, social workers, prison officers and NHS managers will need to report signs of radicalisation.

There are four strands to CONTEST:

Pursue – to stop terrorist attacks;

Prevent – to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism;

Protect – to strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack;

Prepare – to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack.

Of these four, Prevent is the most controversial one which has dominated the majority of the headlines, including a letter that was sent to the Independent newspaper last month.

“Prevent will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent”, it said, quoting a point made in the letter, which was signed by 280 academics and public figures.

Either this letter was a knee-jerk reaction with most of the signatories not having read the full letter, or they are willingly complicit in pushing the narratives of extremists. Or both. One of the academics claims the letter was penned by the advocacy group Cage, whose research director, Asim Qureshi, came under fire earlier this year for describing Mohammed Emwazi, or ‘Jihadi John’, as a “beautiful young man”. Cage has a record of defending convicted terrorists, even inviting hate preacher Abu Qatada to speak via a video link at their recent Ramadan dinner. The group was identified in Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on extremism last month as being part of the problem.

One of the signatories is the extremist scholar Haitham al Haddad, who believes in killing those who renounce Islam, that Jews are the “descendants of apes and pigs”, and homosexuality is a “crime against humanity”.

Another signatory, Azad Ali, was suspended as a civil servant in the Treasury in 2009 after he praised Osama bin Laden’s key mentor. He has called Hamas “a true resistance movement”, and suggested that the killing of American and British troops in Iraq would be justified.

The aforementioned people will naturally be staunch critics of Prevent because the strategy is aimed at, well, preventing the influence of such people. If the likes of Haddad and Qureshi are against Prevent then that tells you which side you should be on.

Of course, there were some initial problems with Prevent when it was first introduced after the July 7 bombings 10 years ago, the main one being that it ended up becoming a cash cow for “airy fairy” community cohesion projects, sometimes with extremists being on the government payroll. One such person was Asim Hafeez, who has strong links to hardcore Salafi groups.  In 2009 Hafeez spoke at a controversial International Conference in India.  Other speakers at the conference included Zakir Naik, Bilal Philips and Hussain Yee, all of whom are banned from entering the UK for their extreme views.

They signatories of the letter – and other Prevent critics – go on to argue that it is not ideology but socio-economic factors that turn young Muslims into extremists. If ideology plays no role then how does that explain the increasing number of white converts who are going off to fight jihad?

The 7/7 bombers and the likes of medical student Nasser Muthana – who fled Cardiff to join ISIS – were most certainly not deprived. In fact, they lived affluent middle class lifestyles, taking advantage of all the freedoms and benefits of living in Great Britain. Denying the role of ideology is absurd.

The signatories believe the government’s strategy will lead to Muslims feeling criminalised simply for growing a beard or wearing a hijab. Owen Jones wrote in the Guardian that the policy will “seal the mouths of Muslim pupils”. Giles Fraser, also in the Guardian, suggested recently that “signs like going to the prayer room too much, or wearing modest clothing” could somehow lead the individual to be reported for being an extremist.

At best, such simplistic claims are inaccurate; at worst they are inflammatory and stoking fears. The majority of those who are critical of Prevent have little knowledge of the strategy; sensationalist headlines about “spying on toddlers” do nothing to alleviate the paranoia.

In fact, the Prevent strategy even states that converting to Islam or growing a beard is not necessarily a cause for concern. Far from stifling speech, debating difficult and challenging topics is mandatory under Prevent.

Everyone I have spoken to who has worked in this field insists that there is very little opposition to the Prevent strategy. One such person is Kalsoom Bashir, now the co-director of the counter-extremist group Inspire, who was the lead Prevent officer for Bristol City Council from 2008-2012. She was then seconded to the South west counter terrorism unit as the regional prevent trainer, delivering prevent training to staff in the NHS, police, local authority and schools as well as members of local communities.

“In the early days of Prevent the government was looking at promoting cohesion projects but Prevent really shouldn’t be about that,” said Kalsoom.

She explained that far from spying on Muslims – she also happens to be a practising Muslim as do many other Prevent trainers – the strategy is about bringing together all resources and agencies for safeguarding young people.

“Now Prevent sits in the right place,” she went on to say. “How we prevent or raise awareness, how we prevent people or persuade them from not going down the path of extremism, not cohesion projects. The local authority should still be promoting strong cohesion projects but not under the lens of counterterrorism.

“Sometimes I think academics don’t have a clue what’s happening in grass-roots communities. The anti-Western, anti-Kuffar (non Muslims) rhetoric is out there. I‘ve had people say to me, you’re too close to the kuffar. That rhetoric is becoming so widespread. Groups like Cage are abusing the laws we have for free speech to support their own ideology.

“They spread hysteria and fear by conflating Pursue, a completely different strand of the counter terrorism police with Prevent. Pursue is what happens when the law is broken and police need to disrupt terrorist activity. Prevent is protecting people from going down the path of criminality.”

As for the many teachers who are supposedly frightened what impact this could have on their students? “The overwhelming feedback from teachers, once they’ve heard what Prevent is and it really challenges myths and misconceptions, is positive, and they’re confident after they’ve had the training,” Kalsoom continued. “They ask us to come back for follow up training. The chances of teachers ever having to report students are really low, but they need to be aware of any worrying signs.”

Kalsoom gave the example of Isa Ibrahim, a 20-year-old man who, in 2009, was found guilty of plotting to carry out a suicide bombing at a shopping centre in Bristol. There were so many worrying signs – asking his biology teacher about weapons and showing his drugs worker disturbing footage on his phone – but because he hadn’t broken any laws, nothing was done to stop him from going down the criminal path.

“If all these people had shared their concerns with with Channel for example, they would have the bigger picture,” she added. “They could have sent him a mentor. He had mental health and drug issues, so mental health services could have got involved. he needed sound faith advice and a strong mentor. This is what Channel does. It is a group of experts and practitioners that have the well being of the individual at heart.”

The Times ran a story last week about a 14-year-old IS supporter who pleaded guilty to plotting to behead an Australiam police officer. The teenager had been referred to the Channel de-radicalisation programme after expressing desires to become a martyr.

Court papers revealed that the boy’s uncle had been aggressive when an officer from the programme approached the house for an appointment, and refused to allow him in.

This case demonstrates that Channel is a voluntary process and nobody can be forced to engage against their will. Far from highlighting the failure of Channel, what it does show, sadly, is the failure of the family to safeguard their own child.

Student Rights, a group that monitors extremism on campus, published a detailed report ‘Preventing Prevent? Challenges to Counter-Radicalisation Policy On Campuswhich found that since the 7/7 attacks, student unions and organisations have actively sought to hinder the Prevent strategy.

A motion passed at the National Union of Students Conference in April this year pledged to oppose Prevent delivery on campus because it is “attempting to monitor and control Muslim students”.

In June 2013, the report goes on to say, the Federation of Islamic Societies (FOSIS) annual conference hosted a “Preventing Prevent” event, where words such as “McCarthyism” were thrown around. Ibrahim Ali, who was the vice president of student affairs at FOSIS in March this year, gave a speech at a Cage event in which he declared that “Prevent itself is a racist agenda; it’s an Islamophobic agenda”.

The perception is that Prevent is somehow anti Muslim, despite the fact that around 10% of referrals to Channel were in relation to far-right extremism. The report also highlights that of the 2,297 arrests on suspicion of terrorism offences between September 2001 and August 2012, 1,066 were listed as “Muslim” and 1,231 were listed as other or no religion, or unknown religion.

“Even when Prevent highlights other forms of extremism, CAGE dismiss it because it doesn’t support their argument,” said SR director Rupert Sutton.

“They portray it as an attack on communities. The big push for them is normalising their beliefs to say, when you attack us, what you’re doing is attacking Muslim communities in the UK. Extremists are trying to make their views mainstream.”

The Prevent strategy might not be perfect – which strategy is? – but it is the best we have at the moment. It does not help that there are people who are actively undermining it and helping the extremist agenda either willingly or out of fear that they might fuel anti-Muslim bigotry.

There are many people now speaking out against extremism and ISIS, keen on doing workshops and media interviews as often as they can. Perhaps I am being cynical, but it would not surprise me if they are doing this to merely to get funding

In order to ensure it is effective, the government firstly needs to defend its policy more robustly and dispel any misconceptions. This would explain why the Northamptonshire  Police Prevent officers have become active on Twitter. The people who run the account should be commended for hitting back at absurd claims about Prevent in a calm and rational manner which invites people to engage with them, rather than turning them away. They even appeared on Radio 4 to give an insight into the work they do.

Finally, the government must also ensure that the right people are given money to deliver Prevent training rather than allowing non violent extremists to slip through the net as they did in the past, who did nothing to counter the poisonous ideology turning our young people into extremists going abroad to join a death cult.

Originally published for Harry’s Place on 16/8/2015

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