Prevent strategy: the unpalatable is theological

by - 8th June 2011

On Tuesday afternoon this week Home Secretary Theresa May unveiled the long-awaited paper that details the Coalition’s plans for the now discredited ‘Prevent’ strand of the previous regime’s strategy for combating terrorism – known as CONTEST.

In the run–up to the strategy’s publication, there has been a considerable amount of anticipatory comment not the least of which has come from the Home Secretary herself. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph over the weekend she was keen to highlight that the new strategy would focus on ‘extremism’, not just ‘violent extremism’ as the previous government had done.

Global ummah

Of course, the new strategy sits within the context both of ‘the failure of multiculturalism’ cited by the Prime Minister in Munich earlier this year and the Coalition’s desire to generate the cohesive community envisaged by the ‘Big Society’.

On the face of it the new strategy looks set to raise the bar appreciably in terms of ideological engagement. But the reality might be that it will suffer from the same confusion as the previous incarnation, which couldn’t decide whether it was combating the methodology of jihad, or the ideology of the global ummah-state that jihad promotes.

The previous government eventually plumped for jihad and consequently got its fingers burnt on a number of occasions through supporting groups who were espousing the ideology but not the methodology.

It looks like the current government will try to avoid that, but going after an ideology is ethically fraught and hard to enforce evenhandedly: if Hizb ut Tahrir is to be banned because of the ideology of the Caliphate, should not the communist party be banned also? It seems that Muslim and secularist alike are gearing up for a fight over this ‘ideological policing’.

An early indication of the kind of response to be expected came from the BBC news website which carried a quote from Azad Ali, chairman of the Muslim Safety Forum. He characterized this shift in focus, from attacking ‘violent extremism’ to attacking ‘extremism’ as tantamount to attacking ‘ideologies’. Ali’s response mirrors that of several MPs, and it is a view that digs down right to the heart of the Prevent conundrum: in a democratic society you have to safeguard freedom with some limits, but what are those limits?

Weimar Germany set few boundaries on free speech and eventually found itself handing over the reins of power to the fascists. Clearly that must go down as ‘too much freedom’, but, if a group or individual is not threatening to overthrow the government by violence, but is committed to transforming the country into a Muslim, Sikh, Communist or Old Testament state through the ballot-box, is that acceptable?


Whilst the unpalatable logic of democracy decrees that it must be, the issue has startling and immediate manifestations.

Last week, in spite of acknowledging evidence of ‘isolationist principles and teachings’ an appeal to permit the building of a 12,000-capacity mosque by the Tablighi Jama’at in Newham, the world’s most successful Muslim mission, was upheld by Her Majesty’s Planning Inspector Graham Dudley (para. 75 of the Inspector’s Report).  The TJ have been consistent in characterizing themselves as non-political, seeking only religious revival – which is true. But the outworking of their ideology is an Islamic state, or state-within-a-state, as is the case in India. Does that make their views unacceptable under the new government Prevent strategy?

The chances are, any government trying to combat views such as the TJ will be doomed to failure, not because the government can’t articulate the validity of the British democratic system, but because it is speaking to people who don’t accept its premises – on non-negotiable theological grounds. How can any ‘secular’ government combat such views without getting mired in the kind of theological discussion it feels itself ideologically unqualified for? How do we square the circle? How can you talk about the principle of the sovereignty of the people who are convinced of the sovereignty of God alone, as is the case with this group? and while some Muslim groups espouse democracy, as the father of Islamism, Maulana Maududi himself did, it might be a kind of democracy that liberal Britain would not recognize. 

Prevent can only work if what is being prevented is well defined and if there is a willingness to challenge the core assumptions that inhabit opposing ideologies. At least the ‘contest’ has moved onto ideas and is a step in the right direction.

Read the Prevent Strategy here.