Yesterday I was listening to British home secretary Wacky Jacqui Smith unveil New Labour’s spanking new comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy. And, as usual, when politicians start strategising, it’s time to run for cover. The front end was Wacky Jacqui telling us all to be afraid, be very afraid. And, having established that we’re all doomed, it was then time to wheel out some half-baked proposals. The most eyecatching of these was the plan to recruit a Dad’s Army of 60,000 curtain-twitching amateur spooks to help defeat that rotter Osama. And perhaps there are still some of those old “Careless Talk Costs Lives” posters gathering dust in the Home Office basement.
It was also notable that Wacky Jacqui, who has quite a track record of demanding the moon on a stick from technology, is still hell-bent on reading all our emails. Not only that, she also wants to know who our Facebook friends are as well. Perhaps the government could get Tim Berners-Lee to sit down with Jacqui and spend half an hour explaining how the internet works.
But what interested me more was the “tough on the causes” bit, where the report went into the issue of how young Muslim men can get radicalised. There was, to be fair, some mention of overseas conflicts, but it remains absolutely verboten to suggest that British government policy, in Iraq for instance, or in terms of New Labour’s pusillanimous response to the destruction of Gaza, might come into the equation. So the weight of the thing remains with vague talk about intolerant ideologies.
This is where the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme comes into play. First you have to realise that New Labour likes to solve social problems on the cheap. One reason why this government has been so gay-friendly is that passing legislation on gay rights costs virtually nothing. If you’re talking about alienated Muslims in Tower Hamlets or Sparkbrook, it would take far too much time, money and attention to detail to, for instance, provide young men with meaningful job prospects, or clean up rat-infested estates, or deal with decades of structural inequality. It’s much easier and cheaper to pay off some community elders. Hence the PVE programme, which basically means Hazel Blears is charged with disbursing a big massive slush fund to compliant Muslim groups.
Then the question arises of who you pay off. For a long time, the cornerstone of this sort of thing was the Muslim Council of Britain. Now, the MCB is a bit traditionalist and conservative for many people’s tastes, but it aims to be a broadly representative umbrella body, in many ways modelled after the Jewish Board of Deputies. It consciously, even ostentatiously, seeks respectability. But it does have some disadvantages from Wee Hazel’s point of view, not least that it tends to go off message on foreign policy and put out strong statements on things like Gaza. One could object that this is necessary for the MCB to have any sort of constituency. One could also point out the Board of Deputies’ role in organising the pro-IDF rallies in London and Manchester, without any cabinet minister pontificating on the need for moderate leadership in the Jewish community. But this is to miss the point. The point is that the MCB, however much they crave acceptance by the establishment, just aren’t pliable enough.
So the MCB have been cast into exterior darkness, at least until they meet a series of ideological tests we may as well call Hazel’s Hoops. So who’s left as a partner for your PVE strategy? Well, the official downfall of the MCB has been welcomed by lots of liberal Muslims in academic and media circles. But, although these liberal Muslims may be more like your or my personal cup of tea, they tend to be individuals without much social traction. Often good people, yes, but not much of a force.
So we’re left with a situation where Wee Hazel is reduced to, effectively, appealing for Muslim groups to come forward, endorse New Labour policy, and get a handout. Some of these groups, needless to say, are a bit dodgy. Many are two-men-and-a-dog outfits. A few are rather obvious neocon fronts. Some are just plain weird. The canonical example here is the “Sufi Muslim Council”, a body that doesn’t seem to have any actual members, but has lots of money, lots of media access and lots of political connections. On a somewhat higher level you would have Ed Husain’s Quilliam Foundation, which got a lot of sympathetic coverage but, since Ed showed a bit of independence over Gaza, had better look over its shoulder.
Effectively, New Labour is saying that it doesn’t have a Muslim leadership willing to play the allotted role, so it’s going to select some small groups and individuals and fund them into a position of leadership. The apparent target is to have the sort of state-sponsored “moderate Islam” you used to have in the Soviet Union, and still do in China and Uzbekistan, only created by patronage rather than corruption.
This basically corrupt setup won’t work, of course. Not that the Useless Tories could make that basic point, as Chris Grayling’s main beef seemed to be that the government wasn’t having enough of a populist crackdown on Preachers of Hate. This raises the prospect that Tory policy is being determined by headlines in the Daily Express. Bring back David Davies, I say.
And maybe, as an example of where this can lead you, it’s worth mentioning the case of Hassan Butt, who enjoyed some low-level notoriety as a preacher of hate in the 1990s. A couple of years back, Hassan re-emerged to tell hair-raising stories of his life in al-Qaeda, and warned of the dangers of appeasing Muslim radicals. This was just what lots of people wanted to hear, and so Hassan got acres of press coverage, and enjoyed sit-downs with New Labour ministers. Then, some weeks ago, Hassan admitted in court that he was a professional liar and had made the whole thing up for profit.
This example of journalistic and political gullibility, of course, should have been all over Private Eye‘s Street of Shame, but strangely the Eye seems not to have run a word on the story. Could this perhaps be connected to Nick Cohen having been one of Butt’s most enthusiastic boosters? I think we should be told.