After Finsbury Park: Tackling Islamophobia as ‘extremism’ will compound Prevent’s failures

By Yahya Birt


Finsbury Park, North London, 19 June 2017 (Reuters / Kevin Coombs)
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In the wake of Theresa May’s promise to take Islamophobia more seriously after the Finsbury Park attack, Yahya Birt urges British Muslims to be more cautious about the implications of what she is proposing to do.


Like many, I was shocked but not surprised by the attack on Muslims outside the Muslim Welfare House in Finsbury Park on 19 June, especially given the recent atrocities in London and Manchester. One man died at the scene, and ten people were injured.

The suspect, 47-year-old Darren Osborne, was apprehended at the scene by worshippers exiting the mosque and handed over to the police, who have charged him with attempted murder and the preparation and execution of terrorist offences.

At the time of writing, we know little about Osborne’s motives except for his shouting out at the scene that he wanted to kill Muslims, but understandably the debate has focused on how the rise in Islamophobia has contributed to an attack like this.

There have been over a hundred cases of vandalism on British mosques since 2013, and in that same year far-right extremist Pavlo Lapshyn targeted three West Midlands mosques with explosive devices with thankfully no casualties.

No doubt chastened by what has widely been seen as her maladroit and emotionally distant response to the Grenfell Tower disaster last week, the Prime Minister was quick to meet community members at the mosque and gave a brief speech responding to the attack, highlighting the importance of tackling Islamophobia.

The debate among British Muslims these last two days about her response to the Finsbury Park attack has been lively. Some of the PM’s measures are obviously sensible and to be welcomed such as an increase in police protection for mosques (especially important until the end of Eid) and the extra monies being made available for mosque security measures.

That said, on the PM’s promise to take Islamophobia more seriously, the weight of British Muslim opinion seems to be that whatever the Prime Minister is promising to do now is “too little, too late”, to quote journalist Mehdi Hasan.

Muslim activist Siema Iqbal is asking for a national strategy to tackle Islamophobia. That’s a good and necessary call. But, as Mehdi Hasan and Peter Oborne have pointed out, the government would be wiser to start closer to home by rooting out Islamophobic policies and attitudes within the Conservative Party.

The Tory government’s active policy of malign disengagement with Muslim communities and demonisation of sections of it since 2010 is too well known to rehash here. It is understandable that there is scepticism about the PM’s change of tone in her speech, given this recent history.

It is welcome that, after the attack, the spotlight has fallen somewhat on media Islamophobia with respect to (a) its enabling of anti-Muslim ideologues like Douglas Murray, Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson, and (b) more importantly, the blatant double standards when it comes to reporting Muslim terrorism versus far-right terrorism. The former is dominated by ideology, religious and cultural factors, and community culpability, while the latter is characterised by contextual factors like poverty, isolation or mental health, with no corresponding calls for community responsibility.

In the heat of the moment after this attack, it is understandable but not laudable that, in seeking parity of treatment, we British Muslims argue that others should be mistreated in the same way that we are, rather than saying we should be treated in the same way everyone else is.

But if we pause and reflect on matters for a moment, is it really in the interests of our community to wish for the security agenda to reign supreme over everything? To securitize matters even further? As it is not working out very well for British Muslims, why do we think it would work out well for anyone else?

I want to focus on two measures the PM has promised to undertake in the speech that appeared in the manifesto and have been confirmed in the Queen’s Speech — a review of the Prevent policy and the proposed new Commission for Countering Extremism — and to caution British Muslims against being too quick to embrace them.

The PM said:

As I said here two weeks ago, there has been far too much tolerance of extremism in our country over many years — and that means extremism of any kind, including Islamophobia.
That is why this Government will act to stamp out extremist and hateful ideology — both across society and on the internet, so it is denied a safe space to grow.
It is why we will be reviewing our Counter-Terrorism strategy and ensuring that police and security services have the powers they need.
And it is why we will establish a new Commission for Countering Extremism [CCE] as a statutory body to help fight hatred and extremism in the same way as we have fought racism — because this extremism is every bit as insidious and destructive to our values and our way of life and we will stop at nothing to defeat it.

Firstly, on the police and security services, in the wake of the recent London Bridge attack, the debate has focused on lack of resources not lack of powers, which are generally acknowledged to be comprehensive but also draconian and too wide-ranging in parts. The government has only promised to review powers but not resources, the latter having been flagged as serious issues by Labour and the Mayor of London.

So why no reconsideration of resources? Is austerity making us more unsafe?

Secondly, Prevent critics either want reform of the policy or going back to the drawing board and starting from scratch. But while they may disagree on the extent of change needed to have a more effective and just prevention policy (I intend to write on this separately), they all agree that any review must be truly open and consultative and include all parts of the communities most affected by the existing policy, who have often been targeted and stigmatised.

But the PM is not giving us a fundamental review that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have called for, as have many other civil society and human rights organisations. Instead, it seems to be another internal or tightly controlled review, with a very narrow remit, designed to extend and entrench Prevent further.

Besides a review of powers for the police and intelligence services in the Queen’s Speech, the government has promised only to consider stiffening sentencing for terrorist offences and looking at online radicalisation. For there to be any chance of ending a failed policy in view of the now unprecedented level of attacks in Britain it has to be opened up fully. It’s time for a truly honest conversation. We can’t mess around: lives are literally at stake.

Thirdly, the PM’s new Commission for Countering Extremism will seek to centralise and entrench the Prevent policy further. Its fundamental flaw is that there is no agreed legal definition of extremism. The government’s Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill sank without a trace in January this year because government lawyers could not agree on a legal definition of extremism without infringing free speech.

As the government originally wanted to work off the statutory definition of extremism used by the Prevent policy to inform a legal definition, this infringement is highly revealing — as the chilling effect on free speech under Prevent has been widespread. Instead, it appears that with the failure to pass that Bill, the government has decided to enforce a statutory definition of extremism through this new commission, which will only further entrench existing problems further.

Fourthly and finally, let me give one example to illustrate what I mean about seeking a critical parity of treatment rather than foisting the ill-treatment of Muslims on to others. The academic Chris Allen has argued that the Prime Minister was wrong to say that Islamophobia should now be seen as a form of extremism. The temptation is to dismiss his argument for on the face of it Islamophobia is an abhorrent thing, and in the normal everyday commonsense notion of “extremism” it should be seen as such. It has been normalised and has to be rendered as taboo: that much, I hope, every decent person would agree with.

However, we should be very careful not to jump in and agree vigorously with the PM on this point. The reason is that in the context of her speech yesterday the threat in policy terms and institutionally is moving Islamophobia away from an emphasis on equalities and anti-discrimination, towards security and counter-terrorism.

Presently “religion and belief” is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010 and its enforcement is overseen by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Now, without going into detail on this, “religion and belief” has had for a number of reasons the lowest profile among the various protected strands. The Commission is noteworthy for its silence in an age of rising popular and institutional Islamophobia, and it is telling that most British Muslims will never have heard of it. And it is safe to say that as a New Labour project, the Commission has been unloved and underfunded by the Tories since 2010, and chaired until 2012 by Trevor Phillips, who was actively hostile to a serious anti-Islamophobia agenda.

Additionally, the Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 slashed legal aid and and made many of the poor unable to seek legal redress for breaches of the Equality Act. But notwithstanding these deficits, I hope my general point stands that Islamophobia sits most naturally at the EHRC within a basket of other forms of prejudice and discrimination. Tellingly, the Prime Minister also made no mention of the EHRC in her speech in relation to Islamophobia, but instead has proposed the creation of the Commission for Countering Extremism.

In her speech, May is very clearly defining Islamophobia as extremism in terms of counter-extremism and counter-terrorism policy and is proposing this new Commission to oversee its extirpation. Her speech builds on the Counter-Extremism Strategy of 2015, which includes not only Islamophobia but also anti-Semitism and racism within its remit. So what will be the real political weight given to these protected strands within the EHRC, which absorbed the old Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in 2006? If anything, she is not, contrary to her claim, learning the lessons of the anti-racism movement in this country from the 1970s all the way up to the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry and institutional racism in the noughties, but is rather in danger of subverting its substantive achievements with this new emphasis on counter-extremism.

So what at first glance looks like an acknowledgement of Islamophobia as a public scourge is, after a second look, quite insidious. As I argued above, the CCE is already a threat because it will entrench the Prevent policy in its statutory form, as promulgated since 2015.

However, I want to make an additional point here about the proposed CCE in the light of what I’ve argued above.

My additional point is that May is proposing to securitize Islamophobia. (Securitization describes a politically-initiated process to make something, e.g. a domain of life or a class of people, a matter of security such that it allows for the use of extraordinary measures to control it.[1]) The institutional logic of the CCE is that it is Muslims as a security threat who are largely to blame for Islamophobia, which, in this bad formulation of the concept, is a rational and legitimate response. What is ruled out are its more hateful or violent manifestations but not its legitimisation by the government more generally through policies like Prevent and institutions like the CCE.

As Professor David Miller and colleagues have argued in What is Islamophobia? Racism, Social Movements and the State, the state is the backbone of Islamophobia in this country and this commission would be the clearest manifestation of it that we have yet seen. This is why I believe that Chris Allen is right to point out that, in this particular context, Islamophobia cannot be seen as an form of extremism as May is defining it.

Anti-Islamophobia policy cannot sit within the remit of the CCE, which is in itself an unworkable proposal, but rather it should be ramped up at the EHRC and given the resources and powers it needs to tackle the problem seriously under the aegis of a revamped national strategy on Islamophobia.[2]

Notes

[1] For a more detailed discussion than can be entered into here please see, Michael C. Williams, “Securitization and the liberalism of fear”, Security Dialogue, 42(4–5), 2011, pp. 453–463.

[2] With thanks to Robin Richardson, Bill Bolloten, Sarah Haworth and Abu Ahmed for comments and corrections. Of course, all opinions and errors are mine alone.


Yahya Birt is a tutor and PhD candidate in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. He was previously Commissioning Editor at Kube Publishing, specialising in books on Muslim history, current affairs, and religion; and has served in various trustee and director roles for the City Circle, Cambridge Muslim College, Oxford Research Group, among others. Yahya was the lead researcher for the UK in-country report on the beliefs, narratives and ideologies of violent radicalisation for the Justice, Freedom and Security Directorate of the European Commission (2008) and a member of the European Network of Experts on Radicalisation (2008–10) that acted as an expert resource for the Directorate. He has taken part in the Contextualising Islam in Britain project led by the Universities of Cambridge, Exeter and Westminster (2009–11) and the Preventing Extremism Together consultations (2005) in the wake of the 7/7 bombings.