My apologies for the length of this post. I'm not in the habit of fisking articles in the Guardian but I got carried away.
A Guardian article by Newham's Labour councillor for East Ham Central, Unmesh Desai (right), in which he defends the Prevent prgramme that supposedly aims to tackle 'radicalisation' amongst young Muslims, has attracted much attention locally. The Newham Recorder this week says that Desai has “got tough on Islamic extremism” for his position that 'non-violent' and 'violent' extremism “are different sides of the same coin, and both have to be fought together”.
Twenty years ago, before becoming a councillor, Desai was an admired anti-racist campaigner, someone I personally respected as an activist who argued passionately that the state is neither benign or restrained: given the opportunity, state authorities would always seek to extend their powers in potentially repressive and intrusive ways. So it is saddening to see the political trajectory towards mainstream conformism he has followed over the intervening years. Nevertheless, lumping together as extremists all those from Muslim communities who fail to adhere to unspecified “common values around a common agenda,” directed towards something as confused and ill-defined as "Britishness," represents a new low.
In his article, Desai begins by raising the case of Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed and seriously wounded local MP Stephen Timms in May 2010. He offers her actions as evidence to show there is a linear progression “where individuals become angry, turning religious or political, and then to terror”. But the attack on Timms proves nothing of the kind. It does demonstrate that there is some vile material on the internet but as a Guardian profile of Choudhry in November 2010 reminded us:
Chowdhury's actions were clearly the isolated actions of a deluded loner who spent too much time online – she was not shaped and moulded by the “non-violent extremists” Desai wants to package together with bomb plotters as one demonic enemy. I therefore have question the appropriateness – and indeed the morality – of generalising the actions of one disturbed individual with mental health problems and using it to justify a policy that targets an entire faith group. To his credit Stephen Timms, who strikes me as a fundamentally decent man who made some terrible decisions over the Iraq war, has been far more circumspect in avoiding the search for political capital from his traumatic and deplorable assault.
After her arrest police seized and scoured her computers for contacts with jihadists, of which none were found, and for details of websites she had visited. She had no known connection to any Islamist groups, and there was no evidence she had attended meetings or owned any potentially extremist literature.
Desai goes on to ask whether, “if one does not counter the basis of extremist ideology, isn't it then too late to stop it being translated into terrorist action?” The answer to this is quite obviously 'not necessarily'. As he hints at in his attack on the Federation of Student Islamic Societies – again tarring them all for the actions of another loner, the alleged transatlantic bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab – the adoption of rigid, doctrinaire and fringe views is often more likely to be found amongst the young, whether it involves unrealistic demands for a 'general strike now' or the equally unlikely call for the creation of a caliphate. But youthful rebellion does not necessarily result in ever greater radicalism – on the left, sadly, it's more often a phase that people grow out of, a path that leads to ever greater conformity and reaction in middle age.
Witness all the young revolutionaries in far-Left groups who moved rapidly to the right: former Socialist Workers Party (SWP) members like the journalists Julie Birchill, Christopher Hitchens, his brother Peter and associate Spectator editor Rod Liddle, or the Tower Hamlets MP Jim Fitzpatrick... or indeed, a youthful Unmesh Desai, who as a young militant was expelled from the SWP in the early 1980s for advocating violent confrontation with the far-right, what the comrades called “squadism”.
What might it tell us about a person if even a Trotskyist organisation kicks you out of their party for alleged 'violent extremism'? Completely nothing, of course – other than the interpretation of such terms are dependent on the political bias, value judgements and ulterior motives of the people who make them. What is deeply disappointing is that Desai, who once was prepared to proudly and defiantly stand alongside councillors from Sinn Fein, at a time when the British state and the mainstream press were condemning them as sympathisers for violent extremists, has apparently forgotten this.
Ireland is, of course, the classic example of the way that the British state can brand an entire community as potentially subversive and dangerous. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 7,052 people were detained between 1974 and 1991, the vast majority of them Irish, but 86 per cent were subsequently released without charge and only 3% convicted. Even then, convictions involved the imprisonment of innocents, as miscarriages of justice such as the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four have revealed. As Paddy Donovan of the Irish Post commented in 2005,
In the face of constant vilification and harassment that “caused injustice, alienated law-abiding citizens and created resentment among people whose co-operation could have been invaluable for government and police,” this was an entirely understandable reaction. No doubt, however, there was a politician somewhere during the 1980s blaming the Irish for failing to integrate and perhaps even saying that “for too long we have allowed communities to go their own ways and live separate lives”.
"The community shrank into itself. In Liverpool many Irish people went absent from work the day after a bombing atrocity, for fear of reprisals. Irish clubs developed as a network of havens where people could mix with their own”.
The Irish in Britain were treated as stereotypical 'untrustworthy paddies' for appearing, at least in the minds of the prejudiced, to share a view at odds with British foreign policy, although there is little doubt that support for Irish nationalism was fuelled by what Donovan calls “the feeling of collective isolation and threat” that fosters “sympathy where there may have been none”. But Desai thinks that foreign policy as a key driver of 'radicalisation' is now “lazy thinking”.
He goes on to use the extraordinary example (albeit a prudently opportunist one in the context of Newham's political landscape) of 2009's British Tamil occupation of Parliament Square, citing it as a diaspora community that is “unhappy with our foreign policy and have not resorted to terror” (unlike the deeply suspicious Muslims, presumably). These are the same protesters who were battered by the police and who are likely to now find themselves on a police database as a different kind of extremist – a “domestic extremist” - that drags in a wide swathe of activists (including myself) that support attempts to change government policy “outside of the normal democratic process”. Moreover, given the prominence of flags bearing the emblem of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an organisation proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000, some of those who took part in the occupation may now find themselves under an even greater level of surveillance by suspicious state agencies.
But that's the problem with trying to define 'extremism' – whatever Councillor Desai thinks it means, the state is neither benign or restrained in who it chooses to include, which is why lumping together 'violent and 'non-violent' extremists is so fraught with risk.
I know he is familiar with the work of the Institute of Race Relations, so perhaps Desai should read its 2009 report 'Spooked', which concludes that the failed Prevent programme he so vigorously defends has treated the whole Muslim population as a 'suspect community' and and “is counter-productive in reducing the risk of political violence”. The report's author Arun Kundnani was unable to document any practical Prevent work that was not directed in some way at Muslim communities or, for instance, “find any examples of work that focuses substantially on far-Right extremism”. The bread and butter community events that Desai celebrates in his Guardian article either have little relevance to actually tackling 'radicalisation' or, if they do, are treated with distrust and suspicion precisely because of their specific links to a Muslim-focused counter-terrorism agenda.
As I've written before, Newham council officers responsible for Prevent have denied this but refused to give a single example of activities that do not target Muslims. This is in spite of the fact that the most immediate and prominent threat from 'extremists' probably now comes from the far-Right English Defence League. An EDL march two weekends ago and not far away in Goodmayes led to attacks on Asians that left three injured and one hospitalised. Must we really wait for the EDL to turn up in Newham before Councillor Desai lays off the grandstanding about Islamic extremism and gets his priorities right?