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Debate in Bradford on the UK Government's Prevent programme - video recording

In this debate, I stressed that the first victim of radicalisation is the person who is radicalised and who may throw his or her life away. The Prevent programme, and specifically the Channel programme, is about helping such people, not about criminalising them.

Summary

Recorded 8 May 2016. Posted on 19 May 2016.

Since its inception shortly after the 7 July 2005 London bombings, the Prevent programme has been the subject of controversy. Many British Muslims and other commentators contend that it unfairly demonises Islam and Muslims.

As one illustration of the objections, see my piece "Group letter wrongly attacking the UK Government's Prevent strategy."

A few months ago I was approached by someone from Bradford who I had not met before, Irfan Hussain. He was trying to organise a debate about Prevent, but struggling to find anyone local willing to speak in favour of the programme. I agreed to do so. The poster Irfan created to promote the event is reproduced lower down on this page.

The debate itself

The debate took place on Sunday 8 May. At my request Irfan had organised an event chairman, Nasar Iqbal, who did a commendable job of keeping the speakers to time as well as chairing the question and answer session.

The audience numbered in the region 30-40, overwhelmingly male. They behaved commendably; although many questions were critical and challenging, after asking the questions the audience listened to the answers politely and there was no heckling.

Someone in the audience, recorded the event on video using a hand-held smart-phone. I had not expected this, but did not object since when I speak on a platform I expect to be "on the record." That individual, whose Facebook name is Abu Musa, has posted the video onto Facebook. When this page was first created, I embedded the video below. However as a result of changes Facebook has made, the video can no longer be embedded, but there is a link to it below.

The video is just over 70 minutes long. Apart from occasional periods of noise interference, the sound quality is quite good. The picture quality is variable, and watching it may cause seasickness! If so, I recommend just listening to the sound, as watching the picture adds little. I have created a table with some times below to make it easier if you cannot watch the entire video in one session. The text of my prepared remarks is also reproduced below.

The video

The video can be watched if you click the "Watch on Facebook" link.

For some reason, the recording ends abruptly before the session itself finished. However most of the question and answer session was successfully recorded.

Table of timings

Time What is happening
0:00 Chairman's opening remarks
5:09 Mohammed Amin's opening remarks
20:41 Irfan Hussain's opening remarks
37:38 Question and answer session starts

Text of my prepared remarks

While I spoke using the text below, I did not read it verbatim, but added to it with extensive "ad lib" remarks. Accordingly I recommend listening to my opening remarks if possible.

"Good afternoon and assalumu aleikum.

The threat of terrorism comes from a variety of sources. I still remember how the centre of Manchester looked in 1996 after a large IRA bomb went off. Fortunately, nobody was killed. However, the IRA have killed many people elsewhere in England and far more in Northern Ireland.

Today, I only want to talk about the risk of terrorism being committed in the UK by Muslims. The reason is that if we try to cover everything, we will get no depth. The motivations and issues are different for each type of terrorism.

In these preliminary remarks, I want to cover the following:

  1. A bit more about myself.
  2. What Prevent is about and how it fits with the rest of our counter-terrorism strategy.
  3. A bit more about how people become terrorists.
  4. Some comments on whether Prevent is working.

A bit more about myself

Professionally, I am a chartered accountant and a chartered tax adviser. I practised full-time until I retired at the end of 2009. Now I spend my time on voluntary activities, mainly in the areas of politics and interfaith relations. One example is being here today.

So what qualifies me to say anything about the subject? I first became aware of Al Qaeda after the East African embassy bombings of 1998. Like almost everyone else, I remember exactly where I was on 9/11 and when I learned about 7/7. Since then, I have been reading, studying, learning and writing about radicalisation. I particularly care about it because these terrorists are trashing the brand of my religion.

The UK’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy

The strategy is called CONTEST. That is just a fancy acronym from Counter Terrorism Strategy. Civil servants love acronyms.

The strategy has four parts:

(1) Pursue

The purpose is to stop terrorist attacks by detecting and investigating threats at the earliest possible stage, disrupting terrorist activity before it can endanger the public and, wherever possible, prosecuting those responsible.

(2) Prevent

To stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism. That is what we are talking about today.

(3) Protect

Strengthen our protection against a terrorist attack. For example, physical barriers against truck bombs.

(4) Prepare

Preparation to reduce the impact of a terrorist attack. This includes training of armed police, major incident rehearsals in hospitals etc.

How do people become terrorists?

Two years ago, I wrote a piece which is now on my website. It is called “Terrorism by Muslims and two opposing denials.”

The first denial is that some people deny that British foreign policy in any way causes British Muslims to want to commit terrorism. They put all the blame on the terrorists' understanding of Islam. This denial normally comes from non-Muslims. For example, Tony Blair.

The alternative denial is to deny that the terrorists' interpretation of Islam has anything do to with their motivation. Instead all of the blame is put upon British foreign policy. This denial normally comes from Muslims.

Both are wrong.

When the leader of the 7/7 bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan recorded his suicide video, he expressly referred to British military actions overseas:

“Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. 

And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters.

Until we feel security, you will be our targets.

And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight.”

I think this refutes the first denial. Khan clearly was concerned about British actions overseas. I could give you other examples.

Let’s look at the second denial. Khan obviously thought he was doing a good thing. You can tell from his words above. If he had believed that carrying out the bombings would guarantee he spent all of eternity in Hell, he would not have done it. It is one thing to sacrifice your life in a noble cause, as Khan clearly believed he was doing. It is something quite different to kill yourself doing something which you believe is a major sin, something for which you believe God will punish you for all eternity. Khan obviously did not regard the bombings as a sin.

This example alone is enough to show why religious beliefs matter in such cases.

I think you need four things to make a terrorist.

  1. You need a grievance. For example, America’s invasion of Iraq, or Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
  2. You need vulnerable young individuals who are going through an identity crisis. There is a reason why most people who get radicalised are young.
  3. You need an ideology. What ISIS promotes for example is a complete, compelling, worldview, which can be very appealing because it gives you answers for every question.
  4. You need a recruiter. This can be in person, or via long distance communication. However very few people self-radicalise with absolutely zero involvement of other people.

Every radicalised person is also a victim

The other thing to remember is that every terrorist is also a victim.

The 7/7 bombers killed 52 completely innocent people. However, they also killed themselves. Even if they had survived and gone to jail, they would have wasted their lives. Every terrorist is also a victim of those people who radicalised him or her.

Let me read you something. It is from the testimony of Sir Norman Bettison of ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers. He was giving evidence a few years ago to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, about the Channel programme. So let me read out his words.

“Can I start with a story about Hasib Hussain.

Hasib Hussain was a young man, a third generation Leeds-born individual. He went through the school system. He was the son of a foundry worker. His three siblings have done very well. Hussain was doing a business diploma course at a local college. He was a model student at Matthew Murray School in East Leeds.

He went on at the age of 18 to strap a rucksack to his back and blew up the number 30 bus that we have all seen in the scenes that followed the 07/07 bombings.

We started to unpick what was known about Hasib Hussain. He had never come to the notice of the police at any stage in his young life and therefore in terms of opportunities for the police to intervene to prevent what went on to occur, there were just no hooks there.

However, what we did discover is that as a model student whilst at Matthew Murray School his exercise books were littered with references to Al-Qaeda, and the comments could not have been taken as other than supportive comments about Al-Qaeda.

 To write in one’s exercise book is not criminal and would not come on the radar of the police, but the whole ethos, the heart of Prevent is the question for me of whether someone in society might have thought it appropriate to intervene.

What do I mean by intervention? I do not mean kicking his door down at 6 o’clock in the morning and hauling him before the magistrates. I mean should someone have challenged that?

They are the sorts of cases that get referred through the Channel scheme.

It is not a question of having a scheme and targeting it on individuals but having a scheme that is capable that has the facility to actually provide intervention opportunities that might be a precursor or it might be some way up-stream from somebody’s ideas and attitudes developing into violent extremism.”

Those were the words of Sir Norman Bettison.

I want to stress that the Channel programme, which is a key part of Prevent, is about helping people to not become terrorists. It is not about spying or about criminalising young people.

How well is Prevent working?

The short answer is that I don’t know. I don’t get involved at all in Prevent work. As I said, I do politics and interfaith relations. However, I do know that Prevent gets maligned quite regularly.

I want to discuss one example.

Many of you might have heard the story about the “terrorist house”. That is the story of a 10-year old Muslim boy visited by police officers. There were lots of press reports about him allegedly being visited by the police because in school he had said that he lived in “a terrorist house” when he meant to say “a terraced house.”

That is the story that got all the media attention and the headlines.

The media did report in a small way what the school said afterwards. The school had other reasons for being concerned. There are limits about how much the school could say to the media. However, the school did say that there were worrying things in the child’s homework. For example, he had written “I hate it when my uncle hits me.”

After investigation, no further action was needed. Should the school have ignored the concerns they had?

Rather than looking at other examples, I want to go back to the principle. The purpose is to stop young people being radicalised. The first beneficiaries of Prevent are those young people themselves. If you become a terrorist, or go off to Syria to marry a jihadist, you are throwing your life away. Such people need help.

And let me stop there."

Reference material

During the prepared remarks and the question and answer session, I mentioned some items which are on my website.

One of the examples of over-reaction mentioned during the debate was the child referred to Channel for using the phrase "Eco-terrorist" in school. The journalist Andrew Gilligan wrote a expose of this story on 30 January 2016 in his piece "Muslim extremists' 'campaign of lies' to undermine the government's fight against terror."

Event poster

The poster which explains what the event was about is reproduced below.

 

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