The assassination of State University of New York-Binghamton Middle East anthropology professor emeritus Richard Antoun, on Friday, December 4, in which a Saudi Arabian graduate student named Abdulsalam Al-Zahrani has been charged, once again highlights the issue: how to distinguish between Islamist extremists and moderate Muslim believers, both of whom have come to live in the West?
An official British government project titled "Preventing Violent Extremism"--with "Prevent" as its abbreviation, but also known as "PVE"--has received much attention on its home soil, but is seldom mentioned elsewhere. Yet the conception, difficulties, and, finally, the probable destruction of the program by Muslim radicals abetted by "anti-racism" activists, offer numerous lessons to Americans.
In the aftermath of the July 7, 2005, London metro bombings, Labour government officials developed a counter-terrorism strategy called "Contest" (emphasis on the second syllable), intended to mobilize anti-radical elements among British Muslims. "Prevent" was introduced in 2006 as one of four alliterative aims: "Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare." Early in 2007, the UK Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) specified its goals and methods in a paper titled "Preventing Violent Extremism: Winning Hearts and Minds." That set of guidelines declared that in contending with terrorism, "while a security response is vital it will not, on its own, be enough. Winning hearts and minds and preventing individuals being attracted to violent extremism in the first place is also crucial." Definitions of these worthy goals were, however, vague--they comprised little more than "promoting shared values, supporting local solutions, building civic capacity and leadership, and strengthening the role of faith institutions and leaders."
In this 2007 iteration, "Preventing Violent Extremism" offered sparse elaboration, beyond support for the "shared values" of "respect for the rule of law, freedom of speech, equality of opportunity, respect for others and responsibility toward others." The local, on-the- ground response to radical Islam was, however, diffuse rather than focused. It included introduction of materials on British citizenship into madrassahs, many of which exist in the UK and many of which are radical, sponsoring "roadshows," i.e. anti-extremist speaking tours by Muslim leaders, and financially assisting anti-extremist Muslim groups, which were left unnamed. It extended to strengthening activities by Muslim women, assuring that Muslim preachers can speak English, and improving professional standards for Islamic clerics, along with governance in mosques.
But the program was flawed from the beginning. It depended on British Islamist institutions and programs, which were already receiving official subsidies, to carry out its work. One of these is a bizarre network called "the Radical Middle Way," which sends Muslim fundamentalists around Britain to speak in favor of public order. Its acolytes include Tariq Ramadan, the Oxford-based Islamist theoretician, and grandson of the founder of the radical Muslim Brotherhood.
In May 2008, the effort was refined with the publication of a second, longer document, "Preventing Violent Extremism: A Strategy for Delivery." The ampler version of the plan still included "the Radical Middle Way" and its cast of preachers, but called for prisons and colleges to be helped to "resist the influence of violent extremists," as well as for blocking radical propaganda on the Internet. Yet the 2008 paradigm lurched toward the politically correct attitude that radical Islam is a product of grievances, rather than ideology. Britain would, in predictable rhetoric, alleviate radicalism on its territory by "Assisting foreign governments to improve education, human rights, and the rule of law in their countries. . . . Creating safe spaces [in Britain] for debate about grievances . . . [and] policies to promote equality and tackle racism and bullying." By August 2009 the Prevent program drew on a reported budget of 45 million pounds sterling, or about $75 million.
Prevent never addressed the public presence in Britain of powerful radical Islamist institutions organized and financed from abroad--i.e. from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the latter of which accounts for the plurality of born Muslims in the country. The goal of Prevent was to counter an ambiguous, prospective "radicalization" rather than to identify and neutralize existing extremist agents and forces. The British authorities appeared to want to counter extremism without admitting that it has already become an entrenched and significant element in British Muslim life. A similar official blindness is visible in the U.S.: radical Islamist activities are viewed as a product of discrimination, misunderstanding, or accidents of life, rather than of the rhetoric purveyed by a well-organized, extravagantly financed, and aggressive Islamist leadership.
The comparative influence of that leadership is different in the UK and the U.S. Radical Muslims account for only about a third of British Muslim leaders, while in the U.S. they exercise an institutional monopoly over Islamic communal life. Still, in both countries, government officials appear anxious to appease the radicals rather than to expose and discredit them. Under the Obama administration, such an attitude is visible in high-level cooperation between the White House and the fundamentalist, Saudi-created Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). The president of ISNA, Ingrid Mattson, appeared at the Obama inauguration, while another of its top officials, a hateful agitator named Louay M. Safi, was invited by the Defense Department to visit Fort Hood in the aftermath of the atrocious events there--to "explain Islam."
Back in the UK, Prevent spent money on seemingly innocuous community activities, including theological sessions, "leadership" training, rap music performances, sports events, fashion shows, dressmaking classes, and theatre tickets for young Muslims. It encountered its first major problems late in summer of 2009 when Muslim advocates complained that its "strategy against extremism" only targeted Islamists, and neglected to deal with the white-supremacist British National Party. For some time, the Labour government promised that it would widen its reach to include non-Muslim extremists. Yet an Islamist counter-offensive against the entire concept was already building. Labour minister for "cohesion" Shahid Malik announced in August that the title "Preventing Violent Extremism" offended some Muslims and would no longer be used.
Prevent continued receiving cash, including $12 million in August 2009. But in September, the Tax Payers' Alliance, a British civic group, released an audit of Prevent spending. It reported that in addition to its inventory of lectures on religion, entertainments and seminars, Prevent had given $1.5 million to the fundamentalist Muslim Council of Britain, and about $80,000 to a British branch of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Welfare House Imams' Communication Network. Other extremist entities had also benefited from the rain of money.
As Conservative party politicians began to publicly question the methods and decisions of Prevent, the program came under further denunciation from Muslim radicals, as well as from self-styled monitors of "racism." Suddenly, numerous mosques and community groups attacked Prevent and the Contest strategy for allegedly labeling all Muslims as radicals. And then the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), a decades-old British leftist institution, released a report, with the lurid title "Spooked!" alleging that Prevent was a scheme for spying on Muslims, and nothing more. IRR homed in on a major Islamist objection to Prevent: Some of its local representatives classify Muslims according to their theological views. So-called "Salafis," who support Saudi Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Deobandis, aligned with the Taliban, are described by the authorities as extremists. But these are the extremists who agitate among British Muslims in favor of violence. To deny their nature is to deny the problem. Radical Muslims and their enablers appear united in an attempt to divert attention from the compromising and embarrassing policies of Prevent toward those trends it was intended to, well, prevent--by denouncing the very existence of the program.
At the beginning of December, the British House of Commons Defense Committee announced it would investigate Prevent. How the parliamentarians judge the confused efforts of the British government to counter radical Islam should prove fascinating: Will the practice of throwing money at radicals be condemned? Or will the commonsense approach of identifying Muslim extremists by their theological interpretations be judged a violation of civil rights? If the U.S. authorities were to undertake a similar effort against the Islamist milieu that encourages domestic terrorism, they would face identical challenges. Throughout the years since September 11, 2001, analysis and naming of radical Muslims in the U.S. has been assailed as "profiling" and imposition of an unfair collective label. Britain tried and seems to have failed to locate and defeat its enemies on the ground; the U.S. has yet to begin learning from Britain's mistakes. Time, however, may be growing short for government measures to stop the incitement of Islamist violence inside America.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor. Irfan Al-Alawi is executive director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation.