It is quite rare to read an article in which almost every sentence is untrue and every claim deeply flawed, let alone one written by a supposed academic and expert in the field. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I was treated to when I read this piece by Professor Tariq Ramadhan. In fact, the piece lends credence to the notion that some political and religious activists lodge themselves in academia merely to provide a veneer of credibility to their polemics, unsubstantiated as they are.

Tariq’s piece can actually be summarised into one sentence – ‘the government says that it is all about religion, but really it is all about Western foreign policy. Thus work with and support the groups I am a part of since only we have the solution’. However, he attempts to dress this simple statement up in language that could do with closer examination.

Tariq opens his piece by regurgitating the widely discredited cliché that the Prevent strategy relies on a flawed understanding of radicalisation that assumes a linear trajectory going from basic religiosity to extremism, often referred to as the conveyor belt theory. My organisation, Quilliam, has often been accused of peddling this theory too, a claim that is not only incorrect but also malicious given the amount of times we have refuted this claim in public. In Tariq’s own words:

“Religious radicalisation is described as a process through which individuals pursue a continuing trajectory, leading from a “moderate” understanding and practice of religion, to an increasingly violent or extremist involvement. Nothing could be further from reality.”

He is correct in that nothing could be further from reality but no official Prevent strategy document makes this claim or assumes this process. In fact the term ‘religious radicalisation’ is not used at all. Official Prevent strategy documents are not a treatise on the radicalisation process, which is a highly complex and individualised process that often involves multiple factors acting simultaneously. As such, Prevent as a strategy does not have an official position on how people get radicalised and academics often differ about this process too. However, Prevent strategy documents do acknowledge a wide range of factors that can play a role. The quote below, taken from the official Prevent strategy document, highlights this point:

“Some recent academic work suggests that radicalisation occurs as people search for identity, meaning and community. It has been argued in particular that some second or third generation Muslims in Europe, facing apparent or real discrimination and socio-economic disadvantage, can find in terrorism a ‘value system’, a community and an apparently just cause. We note that organisations working on Prevent have also found evidence to support the theory that identity and community are essential factors in radicalisation. Social movement and social network theory emphasise that radicalisation is a social process particularly prevalent in small groups. Radicalisation is about ‘who you know’. Group bonding, peer pressure and indoctrination are necessary to encourage the view that violence is a legitimate response to perceived injustice. We have also seen evidence to support this theory from classified Government reporting.”

It is hardly an enthusiastic endorsement of the conveyor belt theory and sadly it illustrates that the professor has not even done the most basic research before writing his piece. Tariq then moves on to what he thinks causes extremism, namely the foreign policy of western governments. He says:

“Politics must also be singled out as a prime cause of citizens slipping into violence – an issue on which deradicalisation programmes are almost entirely mute. Acts of violence do not take place in a political vacuum. As early as 2005, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to admit any connection between British foreign policy and radicalisation. Though nothing can justify the killing of innocent civilians in London or Paris, any more than in Damascus or Baghdad, it’s clear that western policies in the Middle East have led to high levels of frustration and may well explain why some individuals have adopted extremist views.”

This is the kind of statement that you expect to see as a Facebook status update for a teenager, not an Oxford professor writing for a national newspaper. Why must politics be singled out? What is the evidence base for this? What proof is there that de-radicalisation programmes are mute on this point? The evidence I have seen suggest the opposite, discussions that take place within Prevent projects spend a lot of time talking about politics, as do the Counter-Extremism projects my organisation is involved in. Furthermore, the Prevent Strategy document I quoted earlier has this to say about the role of politics:

“Support for violence is associated with a lack of trust in democratic government and with an aspiration to defend Muslims when they appear to be under attack or unjustly treated. Issues which can contribute to a sense that Muslim communities are being unfairly treated include so-called ‘stop and search’ powers used by the police under counter-terrorism legislation; the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy; a perception of biased and Islamophobic media coverage; and UK foreign policy, notably with regard to Muslim countries, the Israel-Palestine conflict and the war in Iraq.”

Once again the Prevent strategy seems to say exactly the opposite of what Tariq suggests it promotes. In truth, political grievances can cause frustration and anger but they are insufficient as an explanation for Jihadist terrorism. It is only when these grievances are construed through a particular ideological prism, one that believes the West is at war with Islam, that the radicalisation process can start. After all, violence against Muslims in itself will not lead to one supporting an organisation that is dedicated to even more violence against Muslims, unless one has adopted the ideological agenda of that organisation.

Tariq then concludes by doing what all critics of Prevent do. He attacks those Muslim organisations involved in Prevent as stooges and suggests the real solution is to work with groups that are also critical of the government since they possess credibility. It is true that the government needs to work with a wide range of partners and needs to develop their network of partners further. However, the criteria for engagement should be value-based and not linked to perceived credibility within certain circles. Government needs partners that are not shy to promote liberal values such as democracy, human rights, equality etc. not ones that endorse and support hate preachers. Credibility is not the same as popularity, credibility is rooted in what you believe in and promote, not on whether or not you have a fan base.

The problem for Tariq here is that he does not have a clean track record himself. He is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the son of Said Ramadhan, a devout Islamist who helped to export Muslim Brotherhood ideology. Whilst no-one should be tarnished by the sins of their parents, Tariq is not only uncritical of his Islamist forefathers but defends them at every opportunity, denying their flirtation with Nazism on one occasion. Tariq also appeared as a guest speaker at a recent dinner for pro-jihadist campaign group Cage, which tells you all you need to know about his credibility as a commentator on Counter-Extremism issues.

What Tariq and critics like him, such as Cage, are really angry about is the fact that they have not been about to fully exploit the post 911 counter-extremism agenda for their own advantage or to promote their own narrow ideological goals. Prevent was initially viewed by them as an opportunity to build alliances with government whilst creating greater visibility for themselves amongst Muslim communities. Hence, no incarnation of Prevent will meet with their approval if they are not partners, and since I have illustrated their unsuitability, the inaccurate and misguided critique will continue.

However, a finger of blame must also be pointed to the Home Office and the OSCT in particular. They simply haven’t done enough to defend the Prevent brand, their PR strategy is woefully inadequate and they seem to lack a basic understanding of how to respond to an activist campaign. Civil servants are not equipped to do such work at the best of times but creative solutions do need to be sought quickly, since their opponents are relying on the old strategy of throwing enough mud and hoping some sticks.

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