David Cameron’s deradicalisation strategy depends on guiding potential jihadists away from Islamic extremism. But can the mentors be trusted?
“Your values are our values,” intoned a sombre British Prime Minister in solidarité with the people of France on the morning after the bloodbath in Paris last month. Maybe, but until recently the two countries have taken a markedly different approach to trying to prevent such massacres, the second in Paris this year.
The Paris attacks mark the latest in a series of increasingly successful strikes by French jihadists since 2012. Less sensitive to Muslim sentiment than Britain, the French have sought to counter jihadi terrorism with more draconian legislation than us, while expecting the country’s almost 5 million Muslims to assert the robustly secular values of la République française.
The Cameron government, by contrast, has taken a more interventionist approach when it comes to Britain’s “precious” progressive values. Permanent agitation by Islamists to inject ever more of their version of Islam into public life, overpowering more mainstream Muslim voices, means tolerance, freedom of speech, free religion, free thinking, democracy, and gender and sexual equality can no longer be taken for granted.
Even as the IS slaughterers in France were strapping on their suicide belts, that same night on this side of the Channel British values were being dismissed as “junk” at a debate about Islam at the Corn Exchange in Bedford. “Every single one of these speakers is a caliphate-advocating Islamist,” commented Maajid Nawaz, the co-founder and chairman of the counter-terrorism think-tank Quilliam.
Since the Charlie Hebdo attack that led to the murder of 17 French citizens (four of them Jews) last January, the French have followed a counter-terrorism policy that has moved towards the British approach. Like its British counterpart, the French ministry of education now actively promotes the values that underpin French society, in its case the French Enlightenment that laid the foundation of the Republic.
Not before time. Iannis Roder, who teaches history at a school in one of Paris’s deprived banlieues (suburbs), said those killed in January “didn’t mean much” to most of his Muslim pupils. So convinced were they that their co-religionists could not possibly have slaughtered their fellow citizens, they thought the shootings were staged, much as some Muslims were convinced Jews were behind 9/11.
Swallowing fantastical conspiracy theories — especially about Jews — is an early sign of vulnerability to radicalisation, and is symptomatic of the marked grievance narrative that says the West is persecuting Muslims. At its most extreme it ends with the Paris massacres. No slaughter quite satisfies the jihadists’ appetite unless Jews are included in their crosshairs, and so it may have proved with the Paris attack. The Bataclan theatre, which the jihadists turned into a charnel house with 89 dead, had previously been a target. Why? Because it was until recently Jewish-owned.
The grievance narrative that Muslims are the eternal victims of Jews and the West is known to set David Cameron’s eyes rolling and is one of several extreme but non-violent drivers that can lead to radicalisation. Others include disdain for parliamentary democracy, sectarianism, and regressive attitudes to equality. The entire extremist narrative is now the target of the government’s counter-extremism strategy published this autumn, a narrative which Mr Cameron has exhorted the nation to fight “every day at the kitchen table, on the university campus, online and on the airwaves”. So how exactly are we doing on this side of the Channel?
At the heart of the strategy is financial support for what Number 10 describes as “mainstream” Muslim voices to “strengthen community resilience and promote a coalition to speak out, challenge and ultimately defeat extremism”.
One organisation singled out for praise is an east London youth centre called the Active Change Foundation (ACF). It is one of several “grassroots” organisations which will benefit from a £5 million grant “to challenge all forms of extremist ideology”.
Number 10 says the money will help fund ACF’s Young Leaders Programme, which trains teenagers in how to mentor youngsters to help prevent street, drug and gang crime, as well as domestic violence and bullying, and also gives them “the tools to assist them in preventing radicalisation and violent extremism”.
ACF is run by an alleged former jihadist, Hanif Qadir, who has certainly been unequivocal in his denunciation of Islamic State. “Any Muslim with an ounce of faith . . . will condemn them,” he says. Indeed his organisation’s powerful “Not In My Name” campaign accusing IS of “hiding behind a false Islam” was singled out by President Obama in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2014.
But a search through Mr Qadir’s tweets also reveal intemperate comments that feed into the grievance narrative. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, for example, he told his followers: “BBC interview re 9/11 & the current situation 10yrs on! Same old questions & nothin abt the millions killed since George Bush war on terror!” So George Bush is responsible for “millions” killed since 9/11?
Then this: “Lots of youth askin abt who’s rememberin the hundreds of thousands innocent women & children killed by Western forces since 9/11? Any takers.” Hundreds of thousands of women and children? Have we really been worse than Bashar al-Assad?
Casualty figures are notoriously difficult to assess and highly disputed. Only estimates are available for the numbers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and range wildly from the low to high hundred thousands. One thing, though, is clear: the overwhelming majority were Muslims killed by Muslims — not Western forces. You may say Mr Qadir’s statistical conflation doesn’t matter much if his overall message is one that rejects violent ideology, which it does. But as the Prime Minister has said, extremism can grow out of a “warped world view.”
Hanif Qadir is also a Home Office approved mentor for the government’s deradicalisation programme, Channel, which operates in what is described eerily as the “pre-criminal space.”
Channel is the least known and, in some ways, the most sensitive part of the government’s Prevent programme so called because it’s about stopping people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism before they have done anything wrong.
Schools, universities, the NHS, local authorities, charities, faith institutions, prisons and the probation service now have a statutory responsibility to prevent people being drawn into terrorism when carrying out their day-to-day functions.
If someone is exhibiting a belief in extremist ideas, they may be referred to what’s called a Channel Panel, whose membership will be drawn from local agencies relevant to the individual’s case, like social services, youth offending services and so on. The panel decides if that individual would benefit from referral to a specialist mentor like Mr Qadir to change their ideas before they become involved in terrorism. A first stage in the development of extremist ideas can be, as Mr Cameron has said, a belief in conspiracy theories about Jews exercising malevolent power.
So what about this tweet from Mr Qadir when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, its 50-day military assault on Gaza to stop rocket fire into Israel in the summer of 2014? “A whole nation is being radicalised to exterminate the Palestinians. Where are the interventionists? Who is going to prevent this Terrorism?” “Exterminate”? There could be no more serious, nor tendentious, charge against Jews.
The UN estimates roughly three civilians for every combatant were killed in Protective Edge; the Israelis say it was half that rate. But even if the UN are correct, that was still no higher than the NATO ratio in Afghanistan — a brutal reality about asymmetric urban war, especially since Hamas deliberately moves its fighters into civilian areas knowing that would constrain the IDF. “For the Palestinian people, death has become an industry, at which women excel, and so do all the people living on this land” said Hamas MP Faithi Hammad in 2008. “The elderly excel at this, and so do the mujahideen and the children. This is why they have formed human shields . . . It is as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: ‘We desire death like you desire life’.”
The charge of “exterminate” is the kind of wild and disproportionate canard now routinely directed at Israel. As Baroness Ruth Deech says, a cult of “fashionable disgust” has taken hold. Yet it surely feeds the grievance culture whilst simultaneously inflaming hatred (as distinct from legitimate criticism) against Israel.
This mind-set dismisses as mere “detail” Israel’s long history of treating Palestinians in Israeli hospitals as a matter of basic humanity. In 2010 some 180,000 Palestinians are reported to have been treated in Israel. Two weeks into Protective Edge the Israeli army set up a field hospital near the border with Gaza to treat the injured and wounded caught in the crossfire and sent in medical supplies during a brief ceasefire.
Even Israel’s sworn enemies are treated. The daughter, granddaughter and brother-in-law of Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyah and relatives of other Hamas officials are all reported to have been treated at Israeli hospitals. So were the wife and brother-in-law of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. That doesn’t sound like the conduct of a government intent on “exterminating the Palestinians”. Nor does the $10 million which the Israeli foreign ministry says has been spent to expand the border crossings into Gaza since 2014 to allow in 1,000 aid trucks per day.
If anyone is bent on extermination, it is Hamas, and the infamous Article Seven of its 1988 Covenant quoting the Prophetic injunction to kill Jews, which Hamas apologists keep saying is outdated but which Hamas itself has yet to rescind.
At the height of Protective Edge, Mr Qadir also tweeted a picture showing Israelis supposedly playing badminton inside the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, located on the eastern edge of the Old City of Jerusalem. He wrote: “So this isn’t anything to do with religion or deliberate acts to undermine islam & Muslims. Who are the extremists???”
The picture was captioned: “One of the most disturbing images of today. This is inside Masjid Al Aqsa!! Palestinians were not allowed to pray inside but these people are allowed to play!”
Attached to it were pictures of what look like smouldering Korans and a woman defiling a Koran by standing on it with her bare feet and painted toenails.
The picture of badminton being played “inside Masjid Al Aqsa” is false and appears to have come from Turkish media reports in July 2013 showing badminton (and karate and soccer) being played — not in Jerusalem — but in the Milas Mosque in the Mugla province of Turkey. A simple Google search would have alerted Mr Qadir to his error. But more than that it displays a predisposition to believe the inflammatory propaganda promoted by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority that Israel intends to change the status quo of the site on which Al-Aqsa is built. The site is administered by the Jordanian (religious) Waqf authority, as it was before Israel captured east Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. Israel has repeatedly insisted that will continue.
It is, of course, true that to Jews, the site is just as precious as it is to Muslims — if not more so. While Al-Aqsa is Islam’s third holiest site (after Mecca and Medina), it stands on Judaism’s holiest site because it was built in the seventh century (when Muslims conquered the city) over the sites of the first and second Jewish Temples, the latter destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The site also houses an Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock. So while Muslims call the site the “Noble Sanctuary” (“Al-Haram-al-Sharif”) Jews call it the “Temple Mount.”
In recognition of how important the site is to both Muslims and Jews, Israelis often refer to it as Al-Haram-al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Precisely because the 37-acre site is such a powder keg, Israel prohibits Jews from praying there. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the site, accompanied by police, but only Muslims are allowed to pray and those from other faiths who try are escorted away. Visiting times are co-ordinated with the controlling body, the Waqf, so as not to clash with Muslim prayer times.
However, some rabbis and right-wing government ministers have demanded equal access to the site to pray there, and last year two Israeli MPs proposed a bill supporting this, although one of them withdrew and it got nowhere. There has also been an increase in Israeli visitors and politicians, with one minister having called for a third Temple to be built. Mainstream Jewish law prohibits this. Nonetheless, such ideas are no longer as fringe as they once were.
Equally provocative has been a demand by the Muslim Council of Clerics in Jerusalem to ban all Jewish presence from the site. Dozens of women are reported to have been hired to harass Jewish visitors and the police officers escorting them. They have been filmed shouting and trying to assault Jews and policemen. Palestinians are also reported to have smuggled stones, firebombs and pipe bombs into Al-Aqsa mosque.
On September 15, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed there would be no change to the status of the site. The following day the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas simply ignored this. In a televised address to Palestinians, he said: “We bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem, which is clean and pure blood, blood spilled for Allah, Allah willing. Every Martyr (Shahid) will reach Paradise, and everyone wounded will be rewarded by Allah.”
Abbas concluded: “Al-Aqsa is ours and so is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre . . . They [the Israelis] have no right to desecrate them with their filthy feet.” In Gaza, the head of koranic studies at the Islamic University of Gaza Dr Subhi Al-Yaziji declared: “The Jews of Palestine are fair game today — even the women.” These sentiments rated barely a mention in the British press, even though such racism is routine from senior Palestinian Authority members. By contrast, had Netanyahu said “We don’t want any filthy Arab feet on Jewish land” there would — rightly — have been a global outcry.
Two weeks later came the start of the “knife intifada” — the wave of cold-blooded stabbings, car-rammings and shootings of mostly unarmed civilians, including women, by mostly young Palestinian men, and many of them close to Al-Haram-al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The attacks mirror the Jerusalem knife attacks on Jews by Arabs in 1920, also influenced by “statements of hatred and incitement against the Jews”, according to Israel’s official memorial to murdered Jews.
To the PA Governor of Ramallah and El-Bireh, the morning after two Israeli civilians were stabbed to death in October was “fragranced by the blood of the Martyrs”, according to her Facebook page. Another PA leader implied he considered the stabbings to be legitimate self-defence. Abbas has refrained from condemning them outright.
Twice more did Netanyahu repeat that the status quo of the Al-Haram-al-Sharif/Temple Mount would not change. He also reprimanded any minister who said it should change and he banned politicians from visiting the site. He has also agreed to a Jordanian proposal to install 24-hour cameras to prove to Palestinians that the government has no intention of changing the status quo.
Whatever else may be said about Netanyahu he is not stupid. Like all his predecessors, he understands that to change the status of Haram-al-Sharif/Temple Mount would be seen as an act of incendiary provocation on a regional, if not global, scale. As the head of Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of MI5, has said, it would have “implications for the Palestinians and for Muslims everywhere in the world”. That is why Shin Bet actively monitors Jewish extremists who want to blow up Al-Aqsa, and why the Netanyahu government has sought to restore calm.
So why, in the midst of this religiously inflamed bloodshed, and despite Netanyahu’s unequivocal assurances, did Mr Qadir add to the anger of British Muslims here by tweeting a picture of an Orthodox rabbi with the caption: “This is Sick:- Killing Palestinian resistance a ‘religious duty.’”?
His tweet highlighted a report of the Chief Rabbi of the ancient Israeli town of Safed, Benzion Mutzafi, who said no mercy should be shown to Palestinian stabbers once cornered. The rabbi said it was a “religious duty” that they should be killed. Another right-wing rabbi said, “Hold his head down to the ground and hit him until his last breath.” Other rabbis, however, have emphasised that mercy should be shown. One thing, however, is surely clear: anyone who suddenly plunges a knife into the person next to them is a murderer. What was “sick” was to suggest that stabbers should be seen as “resistance fighters”.
Mr Qadir also provided the link to the original “resistance fighter” story, run in a UK journal called the Middle East Monitor (MEMO). MEMO is a pro-Muslim Brotherhood publication which claims to be “honest in everything we write and publish”. It has certainly been upfront in its support for the “knife intifada”. A MEMO article hailed the stabbers as the “the pride and dignity of the Muslim nation”. The author hoped the stabbings would turn into a “third Intifada . . . may God bless the people of the third intifada. Go on with your intifada, our hearts are with you.”
David Cameron has said that it is just this sort of mindset that forms part of a broader extremist spectrum offering Muslims a warped worldview which can take some to the front door of violent extremists.
In contrast to his tweets on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Mr Qadir’s denunciations of the cold-blooded barbarity of IS come over as heartfelt and passionate. The fact that he receives government funds and is also a Home Office-approved mentor for the Channel deradicalisation programme will also come at a cost to his standing in some sections of the Muslim community, for both signal that he buys into the government’s Prevent agenda. So what explains his aberrant behaviour when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict? I emailed and telephoned him to try to find out but was told he could not comment.
Hanif Qadir is not the only Muslim to stick his neck above the parapet actively promoting Prevent, while at the same time making incendiary remarks with no factual foundation about this highly contentious conflict that helps keep young Muslims angry.
Take Waqar Ahmed, manager of the Prevent programme in Birmingham since 2011 — a tough patch, to be sure. Reading Mr Ahmed’s Facebook pages, his commitment, like Mr Qadir’s, to trying to prevent young Muslims from going to Syria and Iraq burns through. Nor does he flinch from taking on the Prevent naysayers, like the 280 academics and Islamists who last summer signed a letter to the Independent saying that Prevent would have a “chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent”.
“I feel I have to respond,” wrote Mr Ahmed on Facebook, “because no one is going to do it on my behalf, the people we work with will be too frightened to speak out of fear of becoming community outcasts.”
The letter complained that Prevent “remains fixated on ideology as the primary driver of terrorism” when really the government should be focusing on factors like “social exclusion” because they “play a more central role in driving political violence than ideology”.
It was yet another attempt to persuade the public that government counter-extremism policy is based on the flawed notion that there’s an inevitable progression from non-violent but extreme ideas to violence. But the letter shoots at a straw man. Ministers accept that social factors may well make some people more vulnerable to ideology. Equally, ideology also helps turn “simmering prejudice into murderous intent”, as Mr Cameron has put it. The one constant with terrorism is that it always draws on ideology. The bien pensants seek to factor that out.
Mr Ahmed has the intellectual rigour to see this, and the courage to say so. “I agree ideology is not the only cause and may not be the driving factor,” he writes. “But I don’t see young impressionable Muslims citing they don’t have a job and that is their reason — no, they are going in drives (sic) to join a ‘so called’ religious state that gives them a vehicle and a justification to carry out mass rape and killings including low and behold, FELLOW MUSLIMS! . . . ideology gives them the justification. Unless you remove that you will always give people an avenue.” He pointedly asks if any of the letter’s signatories — who include the organisation Cage, which blamed MI5 for radicalising the British cutthroat Jihadi John — “are doing and Preventing on the ground? . . . Hmmm I wonder.”
But then comes the screeching handbrake turn on Israel-Palestine. In a separate posting Mr Ahmed accuses Netanyahu of “leading his supporters into becoming another Daesh-style state; led and influenced by bigotry and religious illiteracy”. A “Daesh-style state”? Is this the same Waqar Ahmed who takes on the Prevent detractors? Does Israel carry out public beheadings or throw gays off high-rise blocks in Tel Aviv, abandoning its status as the gay capital of the Mediterranean (then stone them if they survive)? Does its edgy film industry, often challenging to the status quo, subvert its talents to choreograph executions by burning Palestinians alive or drowning them in cages, all immortalised with a director’s gimlet eye? The analogy with Daesh is unspeakable.
I have also been told of another Prevent official who showed slides in a training session that appeared to draw an analogy between a Daesh patrol and an Israeli tank.
Shouldn’t someone have a word with this official and Mr Ahmed? Abuses against Palestinians by the IDF and religious extremists there certainly are in Israel. There are also sizeable inequities between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs although these are narrowing. The newspaper Haaretz — no friend of the Netanyahu government — reports that relations between the two have improved significantly over the last 15 years. And the stabbings have highlighted a big difference between how Israeli Arabs and the 320,000 Palestinian Arabs in East Jerusalem see Israeli Jews. Unlike their East Jerusalem compatriots, who have not opted for Israeli citizenship, Israeli Arabs have condemned attacks on innocent bystanders.
But IDF abuses (there is no occupying army in the world, including the British, that has not been guilty of them) and extremism in some sections of Israeli society are not representative of the country’s civic society as a whole. In truth, Israel remains the only Middle Eastern country that enshrines values closest to those as defined by the British government’s Prevent strategy: democracy, free speech, a muscular press, an independent judiciary, and pluralism.
I suspect that Messrs Qadir and Ahmed do not agree with the picture I paint of Israel. They are entitled to their view — and to express it publicly in the inflammatory terms that they have, if they must, were it not for the fact that not only are they funded by a government counter-terrorism programme but that what both have written would also be considered by the government as promoting a warped worldview.
That is not, of course, to say that either man intended to incite violence — far from it. But their views aren’t likely to discourage any angry young Muslim already simmering with prejudice either.
But then again, as I discovered while making a programme for BBC Radio 4 on the Channel deradicalisation programme, even some of the senior officials at the heart of Prevent don’t seem to agree with how the government defines extremism.
Mashuq Ally chairs the Channel Panel in Birmingham that decides if someone needs to be referred to a mentor like Mr Qadir. Mr Ally is responsible for overseeing all Channel cases in the Birmingham area. Once a lecturer in Islamic studies, he is now an assistant director of Birmingham City Council and is in charge of equality and community cohesion.
Last year a government inquiry found evidence of what it defines as non-violent extremism in up to 16 state schools in Birmingham. In total about 5,000 pupils were in schools affected by the Trojan Horse affair.
The inquiry was led by Peter Clarke a former head of counter-terrorism assisted by a team of senior civil servants and experts. Clarke reported that the Islamist “ideology” his inquiry found was “an intolerant and politicised form of extreme social conservatism that claims to represent, and ultimately seeks to control, all Muslims”.
Its manifestations in these Birmingham schools included: “anti-Western rhetoric, particularly anti-US and anti-Jewish; segregationism: dividing the world into ‘us and them’, with ‘them’ to include all non-Muslims and any other Muslims who disagree; perception of a worldwide conspiracy against Muslims; attempts to impose its views and practices upon others; intolerance of difference, whether the secular, other religions or other Muslims” and disdain among teachers for the armed forces.
Both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, Theresa May, have described what Clarke found as examples of (non-violent) extremism. Indeed, the government’s recently published counter-extremism strategy said that Clarke had “described extremists gaining positions on governing bodies and joining the staff . . . extremist speakers making presentations to pupils and bullying and intimidation of staff who refused to support extremist views”.
However, when I asked Mr Ally if he regarded what Clarke had found as evidence of extremism he replied: “No I don’t, because I think that Trojan Horse was about essentially conservative Muslims using state schools or local government schools to promote their particular version of Islam, which wasn’t extremist, and also that was related to poor governance and management of those schools.”
Although Mr Ally said that this “conservative interpretation of Islam” was not one he would subscribe to, he nonetheless questioned whether Clarke had actually found any examples of anti-Semitism.
Clarke manifestly did — citing a teacher leading prayers giving a sermon during which he said that Christians and Jews were ignorant; a three-year-old in nursery saying his family was poor because “all the Jews and Zionists have all the money”; a ten-year-old aghast when his friend drew some stars by overlapping two triangles saying, “You can’t draw that! It’s haram [sinful] because it’s Israel.”
An ex-teacher has subsequently told a disciplinary hearing into the conduct of some of the teachers identified by Clarke that she “heard both pupils and staff use anti-Semitic language. Pupils would say to staff or other pupils ‘you Jew boy’, which was considered a derogatory term . . . racist and homophobic comments were an ongoing problem” at the school and there was “an increase in anti-Semitic graffiti in pupils’ books . . . Our pupils were being fed entirely inappropriate and biased information, which was in particular anti-Semitic.”
Clarke’s inquiry into Trojan Horse also heard evidence that Birmingham Council’s response to allegations that extremists were trying to take over schools was not to intervene for fear of damaging community cohesion. And who was the council official in charge of community cohesion? It was Mashuq Ally — who doesn’t accept that what Clarke found was evidence of extremism but who also chairs the Channel Panel that decides if someone needs to be disabused of extremist ideas.
I don’t doubt for a minute that Messrs Ally, Qadir and Ahmed would draw the line at comments like “Jew boy” or would not recognise anti-Semitic graffiti for what it was. I just wonder if they have ever considered that this stems from the cacophony of disgust now directed at Israel that owes more to fashion than facts. There may be much that is wrong with Israel — it would be a miracle if there was not, given the vicissitudes of a rapidly changing demography and the complete breakdown of trust in the Palestinian leadership. But there is much that is good and right as well — and too rarely mentioned.
For years we were assured that a new dawn would break over the Middle East if only Israel-Palestine could be resolved. Yet the satanic thunderclouds that now darken the region have rolled in all on their own.
Racism towards Jewish people has never quite had the stigma attached to other ethnic groups, a double standard that has grown as criticism of Israel has morphed into demonisation. Only when all practitioners of Prevent understand that, will they also understand that addressing it is part and parcel of what the Prime Minister says has become the defining battle of this century.