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Issue 235, Friday 28 November 2008 - 30 Dhu al-Qa'dah 1429

Government’s PVE agenda is failing to tackle extremism

By Salma Yaqoob

The recent convictions of three young Muslim men on charges of conspiracy to cause explosions highlight the ongoing and real threat of terrorism. In video messages explaining their motivations the culprits make a clear and explicit linkage between their intentions and the impact of Western foreign policy in Muslim lands. Yet despite it coming from their own mouths that it is anger over foreign policy driving their hate, the Government continues to deny it as the primary factor. Instead it blames a “dangerous Islamist ideology” for creating “a hatred of the Western way of life” as if such ideology is free standing and exists in some kind of vacuum. In this discourse all Islamic political or social activists who are critical of the Government, from whatever political hue, get lumped together with the sinister description of ‘Islamists’. The impression is created that all Muslims who are critical of the impact of foreign policy - and certainly any Muslim who recognises the rights of those in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq to resist the occupation of their countries - give succour to those who preach the language of violent extremism here. This thinking runs through the Government’s PREVENTING EXTREMISM AGENDA (PVE). It has dangerous implications. By denying the legitimacy of democratic opposition to Government foreign policy from Muslims, and by promoting and recognising only those Muslims who toe the line, Government policy is serving to strengthen the hands of the genuine extremists; those who say that our engagement in the democratic process is pointless or wrong. The Government now increasingly tars all Islamic organisations and individuals that openly oppose Western oppressive polices in the Middle East with the ‘extremist’ brush. Hence, their recent attacks on the mainstream Islam Expo event in London. This was attended by 50,000 people, and combined a celebration of Islamic cultural life with political debate. But rather than engage with discordant, but much more representative voices, from within the Muslim community, the Government very publicly boycott it. Instead they are keen to promote on PVE platforms ex-Islamic radicals like Ed Hussein, author of The Islamist. Hussein is happy to pronounce his support for the invasion of Iraq, denies the existence of Islamophobia, and routinely describes his and Government critics as ‘Islamofascist’. As such he is regarded by most Muslims as a Government stooge interested only in his self advancement. The danger of this approach is that it serves to squeeze the democratic space for dissent within the Muslim community. If Muslims organisations are reluctant to provide the space for sensitive discussions for fear of extremist’s accusations, where are these young people to go? Where will their views and concerns get an airing? The answer is obvious. They will be expressed in private and secret, with the genuine extremists keen to be provide listening ears and simplistic solutions. I regularly speak to young Muslim school students. In my discussions with them they often express their sadness at the way events post 9/11 have cast a shadow over their world. Teachers are often surprised at the depth of feelings expressed and the negative impact the current climate has on their students. It highlights to me the lack of opportunity for Muslim students to express how they really feel. Many are angry because all you need to get angry is to switch on a TV or pick up a newspaper. Instead of trying to deny or sweep under the carpet the real impact of Government policy on the Muslim community, we need to consciously engage with it. We must create the space within the community where our young people feel free to speak openly about how they feel as young Muslims growing up in a country where their identity is constantly contested. The best antidote to the appeal of extremism is to create a model of critically engaged citizenship. That will only happen when more young Muslims engage in the political process and are confident and assertive about expressing their concerns, irrespective of whether it offends the Government or not. To that end we need more Muslim role models prepared to speak out, not stooges prepared only to do their masters bidding. It is a waste of PVE funding if it is used simply to finance tokenistic, window dressing initiatives that simply reinforce Government spin and increase cynicism in the democratic process. I welcome the fact the money is being made available to tackle the threat of violent extremism. This is undeniably a public safety issue which we all have a duty to minimise. But this money needs to be spent effectively. That’s why in Birmingham I have raised my concerns in the city council at the manner in which the PVE agenda has been implemented in the city. I complained about the lack of transparency in this whole process and the lack of engagement with elected representatives. I have also highlighted the manner in which the funding has become a gravy train for some private consultancy firms who have no particular expertise in counter terrorism but do have close links to Government. The result, at best, is funding for a hotch potch of projects which may be worthy in themselves but have little connection to tackling violent extremism. At worst, the agenda is encouraging a climate of self censorship in the community whereby only those who buy into the Government framework are accepted and the rest are marginalised. These issues need to be aired in public as does a critique of the politics running through the PVE agenda.

Salma Yaqoob is a Councillor for Birmingham Sparkbrook and is a vice-Chair of Respect, The Unity Coalition Party.

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