Last week, the Muslim Council of Britain, which describes itself as an independent non-sectarian umbrella body of more than 500 domestic affiliates, voiced a powerfully simple idea. The MCB said it would fight extremism with a scheme that would focus on one message and one message alone: no violence.
That’s right. No violence. Ever.
The MCB’s message will be that violence is totally unacceptable whatever your political, social and cultural views about Britain, the West, western foreign policy or any other, more personal quibbles.
This is a crucial departure from what’s gone before. For starters, it spells out a clear message about abiding by the law of the land. Until now, counter extremism strategies have broadly employed a mix of persuasion, pastoral care and mildly theological platitudes about Islam being a religion of peace. The western effort has largely been to counter radicalisation, a mindset and pattern of behaviour that different countries see differently and describe in disparate ways.
This can cause transmission problems and dilute the clarity of the message. At its core, it is meant to discourage violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims. But in the woolly way it’s pursued, the western counter-extremism strategy risks making it a radical act to be a practising Muslim at all or to hold certain political views.
Consider the confusion caused by the different ways in which Europe and the United States regard radicalisation. In 2005, the European Union explicitly stated that the prevention of radicalisation was a key objective of its counterterrorism strategy, though it failed to define radicalisation. In the US, meanwhile, being a radical was not considered strictly bad. As the influential Washington, DC non-profit Bipartisan Policy Center declared in a 2011 report on the prevention of violent radicalisation, “not only is being a radical no crime in America, the very idea of ‘radicalism’ has positive connotations in a nation whose founding principles were seen as radical, even revolutionary, at the time”.
It went on to say that “radicals” are seen as “essential parts” of America’s national story, and on many occasions “they have been drivers of positive change and renewal”.
What everyone — in the US and Europe — can and does agree on, however, is that any and all violence is bad, no matter the provocation. So why not just go ahead and say that rather than send mixed messages about the growing threat of a diffuse form of domestic radicalisation on the part of European and American Muslims?
Britain and continental Europe’s confused attempts to counter radicalisation have had patchy success and sometimes downright dangerous consequences. France has, for decades, pursued tough anti-extremism domestic strategies that indiscriminately monitored anyone considered “radical”, along with most of the country’s Arab and Muslim communities. But it hasn’t been able to prevent terrorist violence on its soil and, from 2012, has suffered more attacks than any other western country.
Equally troubling is the extent to which France has managed to alienate its Muslims and confuse everybody about what is or isn’t dangerously radical.
In Britain, a somewhat similar approach has evolved out of the government’s 13-year-old Prevent strategy. Prevent has gone through multiple iterations since it was instituted in response to the challenges faced by the western world after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In the years since Prevent was developed, praise has generally come from government ministers and functionaries involved in some way in the effort. But Britain’s Muslim communities have largely opposed Prevent, arguing that it has an ideological purity test at its heart. Criticism of western foreign policy, they complain, arouses suspicion that the critics have become radicalised.
There is anecdotal evidence of this and most experts admit to the dangers of such a sweeping, unsophisticated view of radicalisation along with exaggerated and inappropriate scrutiny of Muslim communities in the name of counter-radicalisation.British academic Frank Foley, author of Countering Terrorism in Britain and France: Institutions, Norms and the Shadow of the Past, recently spoke of the absurdity of thinking nothing of a white teenager’s “vociferous criticisms of Israel — but if a young Muslim expresses similar views, he may be reported and then subject to a higher level of scrutiny”.
This is where the MCB’s new idea comes in. It would keep away from doctrinaire arguments about when aggression is justified. It would simply say no to all violence, which is a clearer, simpler message to ram home.
The MCB has declared that it will work with anyone and everyone to deliver the message, including people who oppose some western policies on hot-button issues that matter to Muslims.
The scheme will not seek to liberalise British Islam, but will, again, work with scholars the British government might consider socially and culturally illiberal.
As with everything, there is the very real possibility the MCB’s scheme may not change the propensity for disaffected youth to take the path of violence. We wouldn’t be able to measure it quickly anyway, so reports of effectiveness or otherwise may become, like Prevent, a contested point.
But the basic subtext of the new scheme is welcome: violence is unacceptable whether or not you’re a radical.