All too often, and particularly in the highly debated sphere of counter-radicalisation, there can be a tendency to focus on negatives, rather than working together on providing solutions. Since the Prevent strategy was introduced some quarters have sought only to criticise it as a policy to challenge radicalisation. At the same time, there has also been equal criticism that the authorities and civil society have not done enough to tackle the reality that some young people are being radicalised and groomed, resulting in some travelling to join Daesh and other terrorist groups, and others planning to commit acts of terror in this country.
This week the Guardian reported that Muslim groups and the government have been actively working to prevent young people from joining Daesh. The report claimed that because some groups had not publicised full details of that relationship or that the government had not named all the parties it was working with, somehow implied that the British public had been duped. Following on the tails of this report, almost simultaneously in fact, was an ‘expose’ by self-proclaimed advocacy group CAGE naming organisations that have worked tirelessy to stand up to extremists and challenge the violent ideologies propagated by groups like Daesh.
These organisations named by CAGE work to empower young people and women to be active within their neighbourhoods, aim to bring together communities for the common good, encourage young people to become involved in politics at a local and national level, and endeavour to empower the marginalised and disadvantaged. Some of these organisations have been doing this work for years and have made it their mission to care for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the communitites they serve. Having worked at the beating heart of their communities, these organisations know first hand how young individuals are vulnerable to the message of the extremists and work constructively to offer alternative views and support.
These are individuals like the 15 year old from my city of Bristol who is now believed to have become a ‘jihadi bride’; another girl from the same city who was stopped at the airport travelling to join Daesh in Syria; the young woman serving a sentence for terrorism related charges and has thrown away a promising career because she turned down help when it was offered from Prevent when those around her became concerned. She believed the lies spread by the ‘anti-Prevent’ lobby and refused to engage with the very people who could have helped her. All she was offered was help and support, and instead spent a year in prison.
‘Going to join ISIS is a fast track ticket to Heaven’ one mother of a 12 year old boy told me – after having lost a cousin in Syria he believed he needs to reserve his place in heaven, and this was the only route. His mother admitted she was at a loss as to what to say to him. Then there was the 13 year old girl that made plans to leave her family: online extremists told her she would have a jihadi hero for a husband and would live like a queen in a mansion with a swimming pool. She could not however object to being the second, third or fourth wife because God and the angels would curse her. She was made to believe this – she did not after all want to be a so-called ‘bad’ Muslim.
These are all real cases that I am personally aware of. They are not made up to peddle some kind of government narrative. My organisation, Inspire, and many others across the country are aware of the very real threat and we have been working tirelessly to safeguard not only these children but also protecting our coummunitites and country from terror attacks.
It is precisely because of Prevent that some of these young people have been supported at the time they most needed it. Of course neither CAGE nor the Guardian this week reported on the stories of young Muslims and their families grateful for the support that Prevent has provided them. Those that oppose Prevent have every right to do so, but they offer no alternative strategy to help those vulnerable people that need it the most. It is, afterall, easier to criticise than come up with solutions and work together to provide them.
It is public knowledge of Inspire’s involvement with Prevent since its inception. It is precisely because of this we have endured incredible levels of hostility and abuse by trolls who care little about countering extremism or society as a whole. In this context, it is clear why some Muslim groups might be reluctant to shout about their working with Prevent. This was demonstrated further when, after the ‘expose’ published by CAGE, many of these Muslim civil society groups were the targets of abuse and hostility specifically because of their important work preventing radicalisation. There is little appreciation of this toxic climate by the Guardian, which appears to have consciously ignored the context as well as the fallout.
A subsequent Guardian editorial on so-called counter-terrorist propaganda stated “The answer to the jihadis, and anyone else who seeks to divide society, is to uphold the values that liberal democracy relies on.” I echo this sentiment and expand on it to propose that the answer to the extremists, and anyone else who seeks to divide society, is to uphold the values that liberal democracy relies on. The Muslim groups ‘exposed’ by CAGE have willingly worked with the Home Office in a partnership, recognising the need for collaboration in countering extremist messaging that seeks to spread hate and discord.
Crucially, it is these Muslim organisations who are in reality working to uphold the very values that the Guardian itself writes about. We need to support these Muslim civil society groups and not allow their vital work to be undermined by critical voices that seek to disparage their positive efforts and tarnish their reputations. Through real world on-the-ground experience, these civil society groups know the true extent of the issues we face from extremism and are working to resolve them. These groups go beyond just highlighting problems, they are part of the solution.