In a recent online Guardian article, Imams from the Newham borough of East London have come out in criticism of the government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy as ‘spying on young people’, ‘increasing division’ and ‘breaking down trust’.
This statement comes at a time of heightened tension within the Muslim community following increasing reports of Islamophobia in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks and concerns over the welfare of Islamic institutions. The sentiments of Newham’s Muslim community are shared in boroughs in other parts of the UK and it brings into question the effectiveness of a government policy that is supposed to protect and galvanise communities to prevent individuals and institutions falling victims of extremists and eventually casing criminal and terrorist activities.
The need to eradicate sentiments of extremism within communities is not something that can be done just by the community or just by government but as a coalition of the two. However, when there is a genuine breakdown of trust and communication between the two because of a pervading feeling that the policies shortcomings are not being addressed, then there needs to be an honest appreciation by the policy makers of this and proactive steps need to be taken to help alleviate these issues.
If ‘Prevent’ is causing mistrust through improper implementation and there is ambiguity over its definition of what constitutes extremism i.e. the perception that it infringes on normative, majority held Islamic beliefs then there needs to be an open discussion between government and the local community to dispel these sentiments. To continue operating in an atmosphere that is laced with apprehension is only going to lead to further alienation down the line. When we have incidents of police questioning school children over spelling mistakes or for sporting a pro-Palestine badge and these are investigated under guises of ‘early radicalisation’ then there certainly needs to be a review into the implementation and definitions of the government’s strategy.
As recent events have shown, Muslim communities are increasingly the victims of extremist terrorist acts by way of reprisals and Islamophobic sentiments. The Prevent agenda and policy needs to work for and ‘prevent’ it (Muslim Communities) from attacks and vilification. Local authorities are now obliged under new laws (Counter Terrorism and Security Act, 2015) to implement the Prevent Duty so this must be done in full cooperation with the Muslim community. The Muslim community’s doors are genuinely open to discussion on how to prevent people becoming radicalized and it is important that these conversations are open and inclusive.
The Prevent strategy has its shortcomings. There is no denying that legitimate questions need to be answered on definitions of terms and the impact it has on civil liberties, particularly on freedoms of speech and opposing political viewpoints. What is important to note though is the impact a unified Muslim voice can have if it engages on the issue in a coherent manner. The role Imams can play in this respect is crucial.
Channels of communications over issues such as ‘Prevent’ and the need to establish bridges of trust through different levels of society is something Imams, in their capacity as faith leaders, need to be prominent in. It is important that in the effort to establish cohesion within society, Imams do not close down the doors of dialogue. Through their influence and through the respect they have deservedly earned, Imams need to be at the forefront of discussions with policy makers and implementers. As the beloved Prophet Muhammed (saw) was known to his community as ‘Al Amin’ (the trust worthy one), we note how this spirit of open and genuine dialogue and discussion for the better of his society was a crucial quality for nation building and safeguarding the interests of all.