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New Statesman: State-sanctioned prejudice is at the heart of David Cameron’s approach to countering extremism

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Last year, Olive Tree Primary School in Blackburn was being investigatedbecause a teaching assistant had allegedly discussed, “stoning for gay people” and “condemned music and clapping as satanic”.

As a consequence, Olive Tree primary, as well as other schools within the Islamic trust, Tauheedul Education, were visited by Ofsted. Although no evidence of extremism was found, suspicion here – like elsewhere in the case of schools affected by the so-called Trojan Horse scandal – has lingered.

Unlike the front page headlines parading schools as hotbeds of Islamic extremism, news that Olive Tree primary and three other schools run by the trust have since been classed as “outstanding” in every category by Ofsted has been much less prominent.

Yet accusations of extremism have seen schools struggle to recruit and retain staff – a reality that Sir Mike Tomlinson, Birmingham’s Education Commissioner, has described as “the biggest issue facing schools” in the area.

Cameron’s decision to deliver his big address on how to tackle extremism from within a school in Birmingham was entirely calculated to set the stage for schools as the battleground for counter-extremism.

The choice of location speaks to the recent so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham, which, despite being debunked by at least five official investigations that found “no evidence of a conspiracy” nor of “a sustained plot”, continues to be used as the basis for seemingly never-ending state encroachment into the private sphere of Muslim citizens – now including Muslim children.

All this is despite a huge backlash from educationalists, teachers, as well asacademics against the increasing securitisation of education and the perils this poses to the very objectives of education – namely, a frank exploration of knowledge, within a trust-based environment.

David Lundie, a senior lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope university, who has actively opposed the new powers of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, points out that the statutory duty now incumbent on teachers to report suspected “extremism” did not apply to educators in the prison system in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, when educators understood the importance of open dialogue in “de-radicalising” the adherents of violent ideology.

But learning lessons from the past isn’t this government’s forte.

The Prime Minister’s address this week was meant to set out a new vision for counter-extremism, but for keen observers of the government’s befuddled strategy (or lack thereof) it sounded decidedly familiar.

But there were a few caveats – the saving graces of an otherwise patronising and ill-advised speech. For a start, the PM recognised the “profound contribution Muslims from all backgrounds and denominations” “in every sphere of our society” and, most significantly, recognised that extremism is a threat first and foremost to Muslims – to Muslims in regions where they hold sway and those in the UK who may be targeted for grooming, or who may come under attack from far-right extremists.

The reality of the latter situation is stark, what with a bomb being left outside mosques as recently as last month, and an Asian man recently hacked at with a machete by a man shouting white power slogans.

Acknowledging Muslims as partners, not a “swamp” harbouring terrorist crocodiles, to paraphrase the rather gauche Michael Gove, is certainly progress.

Some of the initiatives laid out for countering the appeal of Daesh – such as giving a platform to its victims or empowering those communities most affected to speak out – are important in countering its propaganda.

Tackling segregation and discrimination, improving social mobility, and even the proposal to establish a new community engagement forum are constructive ideas.

But while there was some encouraging talk of working with communities, the government’s key failure has been its inability to identify extremism and its causes correctly, a misgiving that can be more than partially attributed to its selective hearing.

Cameron has once again laid out – as in Bratislava last month, and Munich before – a definition of the threat being faced that perpetuates the same tired, misplaced and critically, unsubstantiated notion that “what we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology”.

Ideology – or ideas – do not exist in a vacuum. They are the product of material factors, which, when ignored, reduce the battle against extremism to a cosmic battle of ideas. This is exactly the terrain upon which the terrorists would like it to be played out, rather than in the real world circumstances producing anger and disaffection.

Ideology plays its part; it is the packaging of political concepts to render them accessible and attractive. But it’s hardly the core.

The issue of defining the nature of extremism has been a longstanding government struggle. Most recently, a working definition was set out, the brilliant irony of which was typified by a now classic interview with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, who, when asked to provide an example of the kind of behaviour from a pupil that should trigger an anti-extremism intervention, wriggled nervously before responding – homophobia.

Her intervention might of course have proven more compelling had she not voted against gay marriage twice herself, at least on one occasion in reference to her own religious views as a Christian.

And why not? There are plenty of folk whose views, religious or otherwise, might prompt them to vote against gay marriage, but to suggest this is the basis upon which children – and let’s be honest, Muslim children specifically – ought to be investigated is where comical policy blunder switches to dangerous criminalisation of children.

The speech also reiterated the notion that some ideas, although not calls to violence, are too subversive to be allowed expression. Think carefully about that statement. There are ideas which need criminalising.

Now, I write as someone who frequently denounces what I regard to be institutionalised forms of prejudice – racism. But I have never once suggested that racists should be jailed, unless, of course, they are inciting violence.

I do, however, believe communities and society as a whole have a responsibility to challenge prejudice. Anti-Semitic jokes aren’t funny. Sexist innuendos don’t deserve lockdown, but they should be shut down. The suggestion that we should regard the expression of critical views of anything from liberal democracy to foreign policy as harbingers of extremism should make us all shudder.

In a free society, citizens must be able to express unpalatable views: subversive ideas, counter-cultural perspectives that contribute to challenging the status quo. Shutting down the fringes is counterproductive at every level – it forces such voices underground, limits free speech and fosters a climate of fear in which certain ideas are deemed not simply bad taste, but worthy of police intervention.

The great hypocrisy of Cameron’s speech is of course that the far-right has for generations expressed the sorts of ideas that bear considerable continuity with those who then go on to attack minorities. But groups from Britain First and the EDL, far from being shut down, are permitted to march through some of our most diverse cities in an act of clear provocation.

The parallels being drawn between Muslim extremists and far-right extremists are themselves questionable, not least because Muslim extremists – the limelight-aspiring Al-Muhajiroun aside – don’t tend to be very public. They function underground, often online and, contrary to popular belief, out of sight of the community that has shown itself prepared to ban speakers from premises and flag violent concerns from co-religionists to the police.

The ideals of violent Muslim extremists are not tolerated in your local mosque, nor are they accepted in schools or local community associations. Their voices are not regular contributors to flagship programmes that shape public opinion, such as that of Douglas Murray, from the Henry Jackson Society, who puts a plummy twist on a fascist classic with his view that “all immigration into Europe from Muslim countries must stop” and who has previously argued that the EDL should be “given the benefit of doubt”.

This brings me to the next trope in Cameron’s woolly speech: the idea that Muslims are somehow in the grip of mad conspiracy theories. Who are the overpaid incompetents who convinced the PM that conspiracy theories should top the list of concerns regarding British Muslims? And why only Muslims? Is David Ike about to become a banned entity?

And how about the decision to throw in a host of social ills with no connection to extremism – from FGM to religious councils to forced marriages – none of which are the exclusive purview of the Muslim community.

Nor do they have any discernible link to radicalisation, unless you count the far-right trope that Muslim communities bring with them an array of “problems” – a stereotyping and essentialising of Muslims for which Tommy Robinson himself couldn’t have dreamt up a more prominent platform.

But the most galling aspect of David’s monologue was the attempt to undermine the most academically-grounded, widely-recognised notion that foreign policy grievances play a significant role in motivating attacks by Muslim extremists; what he attempts to recast as “the grievance justification”.

He spoke as if anger at the death of innocent men, women and children in invasions of sovereign nations, or support for brutal autocracies, could simply be rebranded as an “excuse” to cover up that the true source of anger – recast as “hate” – is something within Islam itself.

Cameron also seeks to undermine the very significant concept of alienation, with attendant concepts such as relative poverty, or the disconnect between aspirations and real world expectations. This feeling can, in fact, be greater in highly-qualified individuals who fail to see their hopes matched by reality, and are consequently more open to counter-cultural messages of self-assertion. A Western education and a flat screen TV are hardly a preserve against a sense of discrimination or thwarted dreams.

It is a sad indictment of the government’s attempts to tackle extremism properly that it continues to peddle the same, unsubstantiated, widely-debunked and frankly self-serving “conveyor belt” theory of extremism. This theory somehow holds that anyone with socially conservative views is merely a few steps away from blowing us all up.

The truth is, the profile of those engaging in terrorist activists, those orderingIslam for Dummies online, is less befitting of the notion of pious devotees, and much closer to the classic model of a political radical enamoured by the latest articulation of subversion.

The notion bandied about in Cameron’s speech that “the extremist world view is the gateway, and violence is the ultimate destination” would be true if the definition of extremism wasn’t so broad as to encompass opponents to gay marriage, monarchists, anarchists, communists, Nigel Farage – we’ve now reached a stage where it is no longer possible not to be a liberal within a liberal democracy. Or, more accurately, it is no longer possible to be a socially conservative Muslim within liberal Britain.

Cameron of course would deny that the policies outlined are Muslim-specific, even if, as the Tory insider Paul Goodman clearly indicates on his blog, the speech was “mainly addressed to Britain’s Muslims”.

It is Muslim children being targeted through intrusive questionnaires. It is Muslim majority schools that have become the focus of a witch hunt dressed up as a “neutral” Ofsted inspection. It is Muslims who are primarily affected by our decision to sign away some of our most cherished civil liberties, under the guise of the protection of “British values”, all the while upbraiding those who challenge their “suspension” –  the stripping of British citizens of their nationality, the introduction of secret courts, undermining open justice, and a raft of proposals under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 that civil liberties campaign group Liberty describes as “as unsafe as they are unfair”.

The PM spoke of establishing a “community engagement forum” to marginalise “non-violent extremists” and allow “moderate” voices to be heard, which seems like a perfect antidote if the government weren’t determined to engineer the nature of the discussion by selecting only the types of voices likely not to rock the boat.

We need not look too far back in recent political history to recall the disastrous attempt by Hazel Blears, then Tony Blair’s Communities Secretary, to set up various groups with the intent of socially engineering a politically acceptable form of Islam.

We definitely don’t need more of that, thanks.

For all the berating of community leaders as little more than “professional Muslims”, the fact is their replacement with Whitehall-manufactured voices, dressed up for the sake of legitimacy in half-baked think tanks, is no improvement. Bring back the Mr Khans, I say. At least they actually know where the community centre is.

The notion that government is going to “actively encourage the reforming and moderate Muslim voices” should make any self-respecting secularist shudder. Why is the state meddling in the religious practices of its citizens? And do we really aspire to a state that seeks to dictate the nature of “correct” religious praxis?

This sounds less liberal democracy and more religious autocracy. Unless you’re not Muslim of course, in which case your religious freedom isn’t under threat. And that, I believe, is quite possibly the definition of state-sanctioned prejudice.

“This extremist ideology is not true Islam,” added Cameron – a statement that might have been met with relief were the implication of it not that the government is somehow beholden to the meaning of “true Islam” and prepared to try and enforce it.

“We can’t stand neutral in this battle of ideas. We have to back those who share our values,” he continued. But standing neutral is exactly what the secular state should do.

You can read the original piece on the New statesman website, here

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Written by Myriam Francois

July 22, 2015 at 09:12

New Statesman: The absurd hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists” exposes the extent of anti-Muslim prejudice

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Muslim children are being watched closely for signs of radicalisation. Anything from not celebrating Christmas to shunning art and drama is now grounds for suspicion, and reason enough to invade the “private space” of British Muslims. Nurseries are duty-bound to inform on toddlers they suspect of being at risk of becoming “terrorists”, in a sick reworking of genetic justifications for black criminality that somehow presuppose an inherent dispositions towards terrorism in Muslim kids. Just this month, primary schools – key centres of trust and care in the community – were turned into centres of racial profiling in which nine- and ten-year-old children were asked to complete a questionnaire devised “to identify the initial seeds of radicalisation with children of primary school age” (the BRIT project, which was behind the questionnaire, has since removed any references to radicalisation and violent extremism from its website).

It is hard to comprehend how calls for children to be racially profiled, for mass and intrusive surveillance and a criminalisation of some of the most basic elements of religious practice – such as a “sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol” – could seemingly come to pass with so little uproar.

As a parent I spoke to from Buxton School, one of the institutions targeted by the recent questionnaire scandal, put it: “If these children were adults going for a job, this sort of information about their ethnicity, religious identity and views, etc, would not be disclosed and would be protected – why is such data now being collected about young children who might not even know what they’re saying and yet, who may now be profiled based on information collected when they were in primary school? Who is monitoring how this information is being used?” (Buxton School has since disassociated itself from the scheme.)

Even universities, traditionally bastions of free speech, are now expected to refer students “at risk”, with notions of what constitutes “risk” expanding to include “non-violent extremism”, a term so nebulous universities themselves have voiced concern over what exactly it is they are supposed to be monitoring.

The conclusion many Muslims are reaching is that the perception of a tacit complicity of the Muslim community in terrorist activity has gained such traction that the sorts of measures that might see Orwell turn in his grave – formal as well as more tacit restrictions on the basic freedoms of over 2.71 million Muslim citizens – now pass largely unobstructed. Dehumanisation has reached such depths that society is increasing willing to accept a two-tier system in which Muslims simply do not benefit from the same levels of freedom as everyone else.

In a leaked document in March, the Home Office made clear its focus is no longer violence, but has now expanded to include viewpoints – in other words mere ideas – it considers unacceptable.

As the space for dissent shrinks, the arts take on a critical role in vocalising increasingly unacceptable ideas and challenging the status quo, a vital space to humanise those overwhelmingly depicted in terms of a societal threat – Trojan horse, fifth column, potential radicals. Even the language employed to describe vulnerable young people ensnared by violent cults betrays a sense of complicity in their own exploitation – the use of the term “Jihadi brides” in reference to young women groomed for a life of sexual slavery, a term about as sensitive as referring to the victims of the recent child sex grooming scandals, as “loose women”.

A recent double play in particular, Hurling Rubble at the Sun/Hurling Rubble at the Moon by the British Pakistani poet and playwright Avaes Mohammad, explores the far right and Muslim extremism, laying out the complex and intertwined ingredients which come together to produce violent ebullition. More than anything, Mohammad’s play allows the audience to explore the motivations for violence, without dehumanising its perpetrators, and in so doing, the space to acknowledge the centrality of psychological and human factors, so often ignored. It also highlights the absurdity of a hunt for “Muslim toddler terrorists”, recentering factors common to all those vulnerable to messages of violent empowerment, be it through gangs, cults or religious supremacy.

Given the seemingly inescapable lens of “Muslim terrorism”, which Muslim artists themselves struggle to escape, the simple fact of producing a story about Muslim experience which isn’t about terrorism appears a form of resistance in Ambreen Razia’s debut drama, The Diary of a Hounslow Girl at the Ovalhouse Theatre.

Razia’s play isn’t about extremism. Nor should a young Muslim playwright have to explain why young girls join extremist groups, as Razia was called upon to do in a recent BBC interview. What Razia’s monologue does present, however, are the limitations of life through the eyes of a 16-year-old girl.

Her character, Shaheda, doesn’t end up heading for Syria. Instead, after being filled with no less evocative lies, she ends up pregnant and stuck in her Hounslow bedroom. Her vulnerability to the suave ways of a local reprobate is less about the strictures of her heritage and more about her inability to understand what her expectations of love can or should be. In other words, in transcending the particularities of her Muslim-ness, the audience finds universally recognisable challenges faced by young people today. Like Shaheda, long before they’re “jihadi brides”, these girls are lost schoolgirls, desperate for affirmation, love and recognition.

And so while Razia’s play isn’t about young girls drawn to IS fighters, it does offer insight into the kind of apathy which may lead young, ambitious girls to be drawn in by narratives of cosmic love. Whether running away with the local bad boy or the IS pin up, thwarted aspirations, counter-cultural teenage notions of love and heroism and a desire for more than the limited paths perceived ahead are powerful human motivations, often lost in stale political debates.

As the spectre of terrorism is increasingly used to narrow the space for dissenting voices, be they opposition to foreign policy or anti-systemic views more broadly, art feels – as it has so often been – like the last, shrinking space in which increasingly unacceptable ideas can be truly be aired and possibly heard.

You can read the original piece here, on the NS site.

Written by Myriam Francois

June 11, 2015 at 09:50

BBC Sunday Morning Live: How does Britain deal with home grown extremism

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you can watch the discussion here, featuring myself, Shiraz Maher, Lord Robert Winston, Douglas Murray and Dame Ann Leslie.

BBC London radio, Vanessa Feltz show: Boris Johnson, IS and civil liberties

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I discuss Boris Johnson’s flawed arguments in his Daily Telegraph column about how to deal with the potential threat posed by returning IS fighters – you can listen here (’35min in)

Written by Myriam Francois

August 25, 2014 at 11:21

BBC Daily Politics show: Soap Box “extremism vs social conservativism”

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You can watch me on the Daily Politics show with Andrew Neil and Jo Coburn with Conservative MP Priti Patel and Shadow Wales Secretary Owen Smith, to discuss social conservativism and extremism and whether the two are being confused in the fight against terrorism, here

Written by Myriam Francois

June 25, 2014 at 16:41

BBC Daily Politics: Trojan Horse

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You can watch me and Toby Young (Spectator) arguing about the Trojan Horse debacle and Birmingham schools, moderated by Andrew Neil, here

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Written by Myriam Francois

June 6, 2014 at 20:57

HuffPost: British Jihadis – Turning Mothers Into Informants Is No Solution

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You can read the piece on the HuffPost site here

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In the government’s latest Orwellian measure, mothers and wives of “would-be jihadists” are ‎being urged to report on their loved ones, avowedly to “prevent tragedies”. It won’t escape notice ‎however, that despite protestations to the contrary, a message emanating from the police carries ‎criminalising potential. ‎

This latest strategy to deter Britons from heading to fight in Syria comes despite evidence ‎suggesting most families are oblivious to their relatives’ decision. Abdul Waheed Majeed, who died ‎in Syria in February this year is one of a number of Brits who told his family he was going on a ‎humanitarian mission. Other parents, like those of Abdullah Deghayes were unaware their son had ‎even left the country until it was too late. Ensuring any extremist views acquired by fighters abroad ‎are neutralised when arriving back on British shores is as critical for Muslims as it is anyone else, but ‎relying on Muslim women to undertake the work of the security services is not only likely to be ‎ineffective, it also risks further undermining women in highly patriarchal settings as possible ‎‎’agents’, not to be trusted. ‎

Research in December from the King’s College-based ICSR estimated 1,900 people from western ‎Europe have travelled to Syria to fight, including 366 from the UK. In terms of the threat posed by ‎their return, Shiraz Maher from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political ‎Violence suggests around 1 in 9 returning fighters represent cause for concern. And yet this latest ‎advice suggests all Muslims contemplating travelling to Syria are a possible threat and goes on to ‎place the onus for our national security in the hands of the Muslim community, turning mothers ‎into informants. The call can be situated within an increasingly intrusive state of surveillance and ‎securitisation of the British Muslim community.‎

The Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse plot’ is just the latest indication that when it comes to Muslims, the ‎counter-terrorism lens is applied even before the facts of the case are established. In every facet ‎of life, from teachers and lecturers asked to spy on students, to healthcare workers on their ‎patients, youth groups whose access to public funding has been made conditional on sharing data ‎with law enforcement agencies, to university Islamic societies under pressure to divulge ‎membership lists – Muslims are well aware they’re being closely watched. Who knew even mums ‎would now be roped in! ‎

According to research by ICSR, the profile of foreign fighters is typically male, in their twenties of ‎South-Asian ethnic origin and with recent connections to higher education. Interestingly, this is also ‎the profile which overlaps significantly with those most likely to be unemployed – unemployment ‎among Muslims under the age of 30 is 23 per cent (compared to a UK average for young people of ‎‎17 per cent), stopped and searched, detained at airports , to struggle with poor educational ‎achievements, to be over -represented in our prisons. It is certainly telling that another British fighter, ‎‎23 year old Mohammed el-Araj from Notting Hill, had spent 18 months in prison before he was ‎killed in Syria in November last year. ‎

If you want to know the real reason the prospect of death can seem more appealing than life, then ‎look at the quality of life these young (predominantly) men are facing. Young men of that ‎demographic have a bleak future ahead – hit harder than most by austerity, they can anticipate ‎joblessness, discrimination, police harassment, possible incarceration. To many young men the ‎jihad may seem appealing because it provides ultimate meaning to a life which might otherwise ‎seem hopeless. ‎

The UK today has some of the most draconian “anti-terror” legislation in the developed world and ‎these disproportionately negatively affect Muslim Britons. Harassed and coerced into becoming ‎informants, what kind of a relationship do you expect young Muslims to have with a police force ‎which bulldozes its demands through dawn raids and indefinite detentions, yet seemingly fails to ‎tackle rising anti-Muslim hate crimes? What trust can you expect them to have in a system which ‎has demonstrated clear double standards in the extradition of Muslim British citizens and stripped ‎‎37 UK nationals – many of them Muslims, of their citizenship? Despite polls showing that British ‎Muslims strongly identify with the UK, you could hardly excuse a luke warm commitment to ‎Britishness from citizens who could essentially be stripped of that very identity!‎

Ifthekar Jaman, 23, a customer service rep, whose parents run a takeaway restaurant and who was ‎also killed in Syria described his feeling of disconnect from a society he felt rejected from in one of ‎his final posts on Twitter, he said: “It is better for the authorities to allow these Muslims who want ‎to migrate & do jihad. This way, we’re out of your way.”‎

Young people, Muslim or not, need a stake in the system. They need to feel that legal, mainstream ‎routes to success are open to them and ultimately they need to find a means of asserting their ‎self-worth. When such avenues are closed, other paths to criminality or extremism can begin to ‎seem more attractive. The UN’s counter-radicalisation programme advises “a package of social, ‎political, legal, educational and economic programmes specifically designed to deter disaffected ‎‎(and possibly already radicalised) individuals from crossing the line and becoming terrorists”. ‎Where are these initiatives?‎

In 2010, the communities and local government committee warned the Prevent programme was ‎backfiring and advised that the Department for Communities should devote itself instead “to ‎dealing with the underlying causes of all forms of extremism and division”. Instead of providing ‎young Muslims with new opportunities, the government has formulated a revamped PREVENT ‎strategy which Civil liberties group CAGE has described as “cradle-to-grave” levels of surveillance ‎and discrimination. ‎
In the Muslim community, we don’t need studies to tell us that PREVENT has been counter-‎productive in alienating, rather than engaging people. PREVENT is our bête noire. Muslims may not ‎agree on much, but the failure of PREVENT rouses surprising unanimity.

‎ According to Dr. Alex P. Schmid, Director of the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI), “where (young) ‎people have alternative forms of expressing grievances and dissent, where they have other and ‎better occupational options than joining an armed, underground organisation, the appeal of ‎terrorism is likely to be smaller. ” The problem is the government would rather invest money in ‎counterproductive policies virtually designed to alienate the Muslim community than address the ‎need for better schools (clue: not through removing state regulation), jobs, opportunities and ‎more broadly a stake in the system. ‎

Polls indicate that Muslims are even more concerned than the broader public by the risk of extremism, ‎but the current breakdown in trust between the police and the Muslim community means ‎assurances about helping, not criminalising young Muslims are unlikely to be audible. If someone ‎you love is in jeopardy, you stage an intervention, you don’t add to their sense of alienation by ‎convincing them even their family members can’t be trusted. In other words, you rely on proven ‎methods of social work used for people in crisis. Not criminalisation. The asinine nature of this ‎latest ‘surveillance strategy’ is evidence of the problematic lens through which Muslims continue ‎to be filtered. In order to confront extremism, the police needs to forge trust with the very ‎communities they consistently casts blanket suspicion over, and ultimately we as a society need to ‎create sufficient stakes for young Muslim men to believe they have a viable future here in the UK.

Written by Myriam Francois

April 26, 2014 at 13:57