Anti-Muslim racism is on the rise. Arun Kundnani, author of Spooked: How not to prevent violent extremism talked to us about how the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme casts Muslims as a ‘suspect population’

Spooked coverWhat is the Prevent programme?

The Preventing Violent Extremism programme was set up by the government following the 7/7 terrorist attacks. The rationale behind it is that alongside counter terrorist legislation you need something that engages communities.

Some people talk about it as being designed to increase trust in the police and the state; others talk about it as building resources at community level, or as a kind of battle of ideas, challenging the ‘ideology of terrorism’. Sometimes it’s presented as a way of getting to people before they’re radicalised into terrorism – going ‘upstream’, as they call it. Whichever way you look at it, it’s designed to draw in a much wider group of people than those who come under anti-terrorism legislation.

It’s run through local authorities in partnership with police counter terrorism units, in areas which are seen as having a risk of terrorism. Each of those would have a local board which allocates funding to voluntary sector partners, who run projects in the community. They also target individuals who are considered ‘vulnerable to radicalisation’, and train teachers and youth and community workers to recognise them. Every area where there were more than 2,000 Muslims in the 2001 census has been given funding for this, in proportion to the number of Muslims in that area, so it’s clearly targeted at the whole Muslim population.

What effect does this idea that the whole Muslim community is somehow suspect have on the community organisations in those areas?

There’s a dilemma that Muslim voluntary sector organisations have. They have a whole range of needs in their communities, whether that’s around drugs and young people, women’s empowerment, or whatever, and they’re struggling to get any attention for them. Then along comes Prevent, which offers them huge sums of money, as long as they reinterpret those issues through a counter terrorist lens. They have to decide whether to trade off their understanding of what really lies behind those issues to get the funding.

The crunch has really come in the last 12 months, as a result of two things. One is a series of statements made by Hazel Blears, where she started to talk about this programme as part of a systematic attempt to change the values of the Muslim population in general. The second was that it became increasingly clear that expectations were being put on the voluntary sector and community projects to collect information about Muslims, in particular young Muslims, effectively carrying out surveillance. A number of people I spoke to had refused to continue accepting funding, despite the financial difficulties that put their organisations in.

How does Prevent affect individuals? How are young people ‘at risk of radicalisation’ being picked out, and what happens to them afterwards?

The criteria for identifying people supposedly ‘at risk’ are extremely vague. I interviewed an officer in the counter terrorism unit in the West Midlands who was going out to schools, including nursery schools, and he talked about needing to look at children as young as four. The indicators are things like children saying that the West is the source of all evil, or that Christians are bad people, or even just drawing pictures of bombs. From the data I’ve seen, there is at least one 7 year old who’s been identified in this way, I think for having a video on his mobile phone.

There was another case where young people expressed sympathy in a school discussion for the use of political violence in other countries, whether that’s the Middle East or Afghanistan, and they were being identified as ‘at risk’ simply because of their opinions. One youth worker I spoke to calls this the ‘naughty Muslim syndrome’, where any Muslim in a school who behaves badly is seen as a terrorist risk. When he speaks to them, it turns out that they just have issues with alcohol, or bereavement or anything else that teenagers might be affected by, not ‘radicalisation’.

We don’t know what happens to the information about these people. It goes to a multi agency board, which includes the local council and the police, who will, one assumes, share it with the intelligence services. Over 400 people have been identified in this way over the last 18 months, almost all of them Muslim. The police say this is no different from multi agency programmes for things like drugs and gangs, but I would be much more worried about my son being identified as at risk of terrorism than at risk of using drugs. I might well welcome that attention around drugs, but we know that the British government has facilitated torture of its own citizens in the name of national security. With the ‘at risk of terrorism’ label, I’d be very concerned that in five years time, another set of indicators that don’t mean anything might ring alarm bells and it would end up with my son being pulled aside at an airport somewhere. That’s why we need to have a lot more openness and accountability around where this information is going.

How does the state view organisations and individuals who don’t want to be involved with Prevent?

The counter terrorism agenda brings the police into the area of community development and with the police comes a culture of secrecy, national security, and this doesn’t translate very well into community work. But when the manager of a voluntary sector organisation makes an argument to the police about the need for trust with the young people he’s working with, that looks to them like someone who is refusing to engage with them on this counter terrorism programme. For them this can only be for one reason: that he’s in some way sympathetic to Al Qaeda. So you start to get a culture of ‘them and us’ and suspicion developing very quickly.

What do you think is the root of the government’s thinking on Prevent?

They’re starting from the assumption that the Muslim community is caught in an ideological battle, and within that community everyone is either on one side or the other. Their view is that every Muslim in Britain needs to be mobilised in following the government’s counter terrorism agenda actively. If for entirely legitimate reasons people say, ‘actually, no, I don’t think that’s right, I disagree with you’, then they’re immediately seen to be on the other side.

Underlying all this, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding. The government view this as an ideological battle based on a religious conflict, in which we need to take sides and support the moderate voices against the extremists. This means elevating the terrorists to a theological religious phenomenon, rather than seeing them as people who are pursuing a path of political violence, and this in turn means involving the state in a whole load of theological questions which it’s not really competent to engage in. It takes us down the road of what a lot of governments in the Middle East have historically done in the face of opposition, which is to sponsor their own religious leaders, and it’s a very dangerous thing to do.

It’s striking in Spooked how views like opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as evidence of terrorist sympathies when held by Muslims. That’s also been happening on the streets and in the courts, with Muslim Gaza protestors being sent to prison for violent disorder.

What we’re seeing here is institutional racism. Because you’re Muslim, your act of throwing a bottle is fundamentally different than a non-Muslim’s bottle-throwing, because it’s seen as potentially a first step on a slippery slope to becoming a terrorist,. That’s the thinking behind the sentencing on the Gaza protests. You saw exactly the same with what happened after the Bradford riots in 2001. The view was that it was a community out of control.

It’s obviously counterproductive. In Bradford, young people who had never been involved in crime, who were about to start university ended up going to prison. They learnt how to steal cars, became angry, came out, got involved in petty crime and then a couple of years later they’re back in prison for an even longer sentence. But the point of the sentencing wasn’t to try to deter young people from crime, it was about sending a message to the community as a whole, as a collective punishment.

We’re seeing the EDL on the streets in cities around the country with an explicitly anti-Muslim message. How do you think policies like Prevent intersect with the rise of the fascists?

The interesting thing about the EDL is that they use exactly the same language in describing Muslims as the government. They also make the distinction between moderate and extremist Muslims. There’s a process that we’ve seen with the BNP as well, where the media and the government actually educate fascists in how to present their arguments. The lesson I would draw from the whole history of anti-fascism is that you need to fight the fascists on the streets, but you also need to fight the wider climate of racism from which they draw their support and their language.

The real danger isn’t so much those fascist groups, which are always going to be marginal, but the way the ideas they represent enter into actual policies of the state and into the wider culture. In the current climate, the issue around anti-Muslim racism is central, because it is the key thing that the EDL are drawing on. It’s reflected on the streets by the EDL, but it starts with the government policies.

Elaine Graham-Leigh and Narz Massoumi

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.