Should we be ‘going to extremes’?


Tina Rosenberg, an American journalist with a new book to plug, makes a passing reference to my Policy Exchange report, Choosing our Friends Wisely, in a new essay for Foreign Policy magazine. The crux of her piece repeats the hackneyed wisdom of Robert Lambert and Jonathan Githens-Mazer.

That much is clear from the standfirst to her piece which states ‘Why Muslim fundamentalists may be our best hope for stopping terror’. About my report she says:

Others go further, arguing that Baker’s theology is necessarily part of the support structure of terrorism. The conservative think tank Policy Exchange called working with [Abdul-Haqq] Baker [from the Brixton STREET project] one of the big mistakes of Britain’s counterterrorism strategy.

It is true. My report cites Baker and makes it clear why we believe he is an unsuitable partner for Prevent projects. In support of Baker’s bona fides, Rosenberg says:

Although Brixton Mosque was scrupulously anti-violence, Britons began to worry that the mosque had become, in the words of Time magazine, “an ideal hunting ground for terrorist talent spotters.” But some of Britain’s front-line experts on Islamist radicalism soon came to believe that this cloud hanging over the mosque had a silver lining — that the same fundamentalist Muslim community that had been a departure point for Britain’s most notorious terrorists could be used to persuade other alienated young Muslim men not to make the same decision…


STREET’s mostly Salafi staff members are credible to their audience because they are like them — indeed, several were once in their shoes. “If they cannot relate to you,” says Baker, “if your lifestyle doesn’t resonate, they will not accept anything from you.”


Why should the British government give money and support to groups that share much of the ideology and grievances of terrorists? Baker has an answer: A would-be terrorist is unlikely ever to walk into an event sponsored by a group like Quilliam. But he might very well stop by STREET. “We are the ones who have credibility with these young people, and we’re the ones addressing their concerns,” says Baker.

Baker might well say that, but as Rosenberg herself acknowledges, the failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid was also a regular worshipper at the Brixton mosque. No explanation is offered about why Baker’s ‘credibility’ failed to stop him. Indeed, the matter is entirely glossed over.

This was something we explored at length in my report – and which Rosenberg carelessly dismisses. The premise of Baker’s assertions rest of the ultimate counter-factual: “But for us, these people would have become terrorists”. It is impossible to measure the veracity of that maxim, yet Robert Lambert has established an entire school of thought around that fallacy.

By contrast, the flipside is all too easy to measure. The case of Richard Reid and his relationship with both the Brixton mosque and Baker is examined in my report. It states:

[Abdul Haqq Baker] acknowledged that, ‘Salafist ideology is considered by many to be one of the significant contributory causes to violent extremism.’ He went on to state that, ‘Adherents of this particular branch of Islam’ – which includes himself – ‘consider their practices mainstream, away from the extreme spectrums of both liberalism and violent extremism.’ Was Baker therefore judged to be an appropriate partner precisely because of his commitment to Salafism?

Some policemen are clearly thinking along such lines. One supporter of this kind of approach, Robert Lambert, has argued, ‘Salafis and Islamists often have the best antidotes to al-Qaida propaganda once it has taken hold.’ Yet, as Baker has admitted, their ability to administer this ‘antidote’ in practice is not necessarily proven. In an interview with CNN about Richard Reid, the would-be ‘shoebomber’ who had worshipped at the Brixton Mosque, Baker stated, ‘He came because he said that we were teaching the pure form of Islam and that we should show him the straight and narrow sort of view of Islam and practice of Islam – which is the orthodox Islam. He was happy that we weren’t going to be feeding him rhetoric or erroneous beliefs.’

Clearly, then, Reid’s experience of the Salafist brand of thinking did not steer him away from the path of jihadi terrorism; his encounter with non-violent extremism failed to defuse his potential for violent extremism.

For these reasons, it seems clear that in some areas the PVE-PF programme has not functioned as intended.

Unfortunately Rosenberg has imbibed too many of Lambert’s canards without subjecting them to the scrutiny they deserve. It is hardly a glowing endorsement of her new book if the whole thing is based on similarly lazy research and easy assumptions.

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