Given the news this morning that a growing number of voices are concerned about the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) agenda and its funding in Birmingham, I am reproducing below a short briefing paper that I put together through my role at BRAP in July 2007 for the Birmingham Strategic Partnership and the Equalities Department at Birmingham City Council. Many of the issues raised today are in line with those flagged up over a year ago, long before the PVE Pathfinder budget was allocated: on paper at least. Unsurprisingly, none of the recommendations were considered and the paper was immediately discarded.
Are we preventing extremism?
This is a short paper to provide a brief analysis of the Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) programme – formerly known as Preventing Extremism Together (PET) – including the way in which this is approached at the local level in Birmingham. We feel that before the city commits to a large-scale series of projects as part of a PVE Pathfinder, it should carefully consider the limitations of previous projects in other parts of the country and discuss associated learning points.
Following the 7/7 terrorist attacks, ‘extremists’ and ‘extremism’ have been given a much more important emphasis in public and political life. Whilst ‘extremist’ typically refers to Muslims who have become radicalized and who advocate violence against society at large or the Government, ‘extremism’ has become much more politicised and is used to describe a flammable mixture of ideology, methodology and religion without differentiation. The shift has occurred not least through the Government’s PET programme. Setting up various working groups in partnership with Muslim communities to combat the threat from ‘home-grown terrorists’, the programme initially made 64 recommendations: 27 for Government, 37 for Muslim communities covering youth, education, women, imam training and the role of mosques amongst others.
Whilst many of these recommendations are yet to be taken up, the PVE Pathfinder fund has followed some of them and has funded a variety of projects and initiatives designed to tackle violent extremism at the local level. On the whole, these have focused on three strands that have sought to build the capacity of: leaders; organisations; and women in Muslim communities. An indicative list of some of the projects funded is set out below (further information about projects can be found in the PET Progress Report available on the DCLG website):
Tottenham Hotspur Youth Forum, Haringey
A scheme to improve self-esteem, confidence, and other important skills using high-profile Muslim footballers and coaches as role models for young Muslims who are not in education, training or employment and who lack positive aims.
Barking and Dagenham Islamic Awareness
Here the local authority supports organisations through providing education about Islam and its teachings, contrasting the reality of Islam against the rhetoric of violent extremism.
Black Country Imams
Dudley Muslim Association, the Black Country Sunni Ulema Council, the British Muslim Forum and other local authorities are developing a programme to give new skills to imams and help develop future ‘home grown’ British imams. This includes offering language courses; training in citizenship, British history and the British legal system; training on health and safety, child protection and other necessary governance functions.
Kirklees Webspace and Radio Activity
A scheme create a managed webspace for young people to express, share and develop their views on issues of identity and community relations as an alternative to extremist websites.
Life In Britain: Rights and Responsibilities
Calderdale Authority, the Local Education Authority, schools and local faith bodies are developing citizenship education resources to be used by young people of all faiths in schools as well as youth groups and madrassahs to address the specific challenges that face the Muslim population.
Crawley Awareness Training
A programme of Islam awareness training for key service providers including police, teachers, neighbourhood housing managers, youth workers, and college lecturers amongst others. It will focus on inter-generational issues; community structures and relationships; challenging stereotypes and ‘myth busting’; the impact of national or international events on local minority communities; and how negative impacts can be mitigated.
Watford Bridge of Peace
This Women’s Group works by bringing Muslim women and Christian women together to share experiences and understanding, and support each other in promoting tolerance.
Has the PET Programme made an impact?
At a national level, the answer to this question is fairly close to ‘we don’t really know’. One of the overwhelming characteristics of the projects listed above and with other projects and recommendations made as part of the PET programme is the lack of empirical evidence available to show how and indeed whether projects of this type are having an impact on the levels of extremism. Whilst we recognize that the PET programme came about largely as an urgent reaction to acts of terrorism two years ago, it would appear that monitoring or evaluation of the projects is still relatively scant. A review of the PET Progress Report identifies that certain projects are currently underway, yet the report does not discuss whether these projects have helped to prevent the emergence of extremism or address its root causes.
We face a situation then where it is extremely difficult to identify which projects might be best to build upon, which might be rolled out to a wider constituency, which are merely chasing red herrings and which – if any – are just too little, too late either because they are completely ‘missing’ where extremism occurs (as with the Crawley project for example) or that it has already gained a firm foothold.
For example, whilst the Black Country Imams project seeks to develop ‘home-grown’ British imams, there have been for many years imams trained in British Deobandi ‘dar ul-uloom’ or seminaries. If these have been unsuccessful in reducing extremism, is it not more important to understand ‘why’ seminaries of this type have failed to make an impact? At least before commissioning a scheme of the type we see in the Black Country.
Given that those who were behind the atrocities of 7/7 – as well as those who failed on 21/7 and more recently in London and Glasgow – would have been very unlikely to have ‘bought-in’ to the types of projects listed above, surely we need to reflect critically upon their appropriateness as a tool for ‘preventing violent extremism’. There is also a case to be made for considering the influence of broader political debate on the direction of the PET programme (in particular, debate about the influence of ‘living parallel lives’ and the wearing of the niqab on integration and cohesion).
Who speaks for the ‘Muslim community’
‘Representation’ has been the means through which Government have sought to engage with BME groups in the past and has on many occasions been highlighted as having serious flaws. However, when issues around faith and religion are involved, some of these flaws could be further accentuated, as with the Barking & Dagenham programme for example when it states that it aims to contrast ‘the reality of Islam against the rhetoric of violent extremism’. Can we ever be certain for instance that those representing the ‘reality of Islam’ are actually doing that? In a number of cases, it is the ‘usual suspects’ that are asked to ‘represent’ Muslims. This has led some of those within the Muslim community to question the ‘representatives’ ability to ‘represent’. It has also led to a number of charges of ‘cronyism’ from those outside Muslim communities.
How useful are ‘projects for Muslims’?
Group representation is often used to advocate and lobby on behalf of views and interests of particular groups. Historically this dynamic has encouraged groups to play up their victimhood and unique cultural/religious identities in a bid for public funds or social influence. In a programme like PET, unduly focusing on the needs of Muslims as expressed by self-appointed Muslim representatives can have a number of negative effects. Most significantly, it can reinforce divisions and encourage those from outside Muslim communities to believe that Muslims are getting preferential treatment (consider for example the use of ‘grants for Muslims’ statistics used by the BNP in their campaign material).
By focusing primarily on Muslims, the ‘problem’ of extremism is also seen as being about ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. In this way emphasis is placed upon how Muslims should be changing, rather than on how society as a whole can take shared responsibility for promoting integration and preventing violent extremism. This latter point and the need to go beyond understanding individuals and communities through the lens of a ‘single identity’ was also something that was identified as being particularly problematic in the findings of the recent Commission on Integration & Cohesion report, Our Shared Future. The Commission’s decision to restrict ‘single-identity funding’ in the future has significant implications for the development of the PVE programme.
Opportunities for the Birmingham PVE Pathfinder
The Birmingham PVE Pathfinder fund offers a unique and real opportunity to do things differently. In line with the PET Working Group ‘Supporting Regional and Local Initiatives and Community Actions’ observations, Birmingham should be leading the way by encouraging projects and initiatives that are “stimulating and supporting inter-community communication and co-operation”. The PET Working Group stated “…what is missing is the exchange of best practice…valuable experience is not being captured or shared in ways that would prevent the repetition of past mistakes or stimulate new advances”. We think that the Birmingham PVE Pathfinder has a real opportunity to ‘prevent this repetition of past mistakes’, stimulate and support ‘inter-community communication and co-operation’ and make ‘new advances’. To do this BRAP recommends:
Initial research should be commissioned into extremism – both Islamist and far-right – in the city. The research should also consider the link with socio-economic factors such as inequality, deprivation and disengagement.
More rigorous processes of looking at how the success and impact of projects and initiatives are and indeed might be measured.
More inclusive projects are commissioned so that preventing extremism is achieved ‘together’, rather than placing the responsibility squarely within Muslim communities. This will help to redress a number of the associated negative cohesion issues that can result from single-identity funding of this type.
A clear message is communicated that ‘extremism’ is not a ‘Muslim-only’ issue in order to reduce the sense of victimization experienced by Muslim communities. This will also go some way towards challenging the perception that Muslim communities are being afforded ‘preferential treatment’ and that far-right extremism in the outer city can also be tackled That projects and initiatives go beyond ‘Muslim representation’ and that a broader collaboration of groups, organizations and institutions – both Muslim and non-Muslim – from the private, public and third sectors have the ability to ‘buy-in’ to the Pathfinder and embed preventing extremism into all that they do.
The recommendations of the PET Working Group ‘Supporting Regional and Local Initiatives and Community Actions’ as well as the Commission on Integration & Cohesion more recently, should be more closely adhered to and used as a benchmark against which all projects and initiatives are undertaken.
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