The number of Muslim charities in Britain has grown in recent years, but this sector is increasingly treated with suspicion by the government. Far from being an effective policy, the targeting and stigmatisation of such organisations risks undermining efforts to tackle violent extremism, explains Samantha May.
According to the latest government review of the counter-terror policy “Prevent”, critics of the policy are simply “bad faith actors” who spread disinformation regarding Prevent procedures and aims. A thinly veiled threat is provided to critics of the Prevent policy when the author, William Shawcross, suggests that those “hostile” to Prevent are “Islamist groups and their sympathisers”. While the implicit assumption is that anyone who offers critique of Prevent may now be viewed as an “Islamist” or “sympathiser”, the latest report is unlikely to stop the numerous (legitimate) critiques of this arm of UK counter-terror project. At the risk of being labelled a “bad faith actor”, I argue that many of the varied criticisms of Prevent are justifiable to the extent that the entire strategy should be radically reformed or replaced.
The Prevent strategy sits alongside the other so-called “P’s” (Prepare, Protect, Prevent and Peruse). Since its conception, Prevent’s remit has incrementally expanded. In 2015, participating in the strategy became a legal duty for all public sectors including Education, Health, and importantly for this blog, charity. The expansion of Prevent provoked research on the negative effects of engraining Prevent in educational settings, especially in terms of academic freedoms and the risk of driving “extremist’ views underground. Importantly, evidence points to an undue targeting, surveillance, and reporting of Muslim individuals as potential “extremists”.
Since the events of 9/11 and the London Bombing of 7/7, the seemingly benign act of charity has been deemed a potential means through which nefarious organisations and “terrorists” can secure funds undercover. Previously published work has argued that Muslim charities in particular have come under scrutiny in an environment of Islamophobia and media conflation of anything “Muslim” with “terrorism”. It was under William Shawcross’s previous chairmanship of the Charity Commission of England and Wales, that the majority of investigations and surveillance of Muslim charities occurred. The government’s choice of Shawcross to review the Prevent programme led many stakeholders to believe the government was simply uninterested in a genuinely objective review. As a result, several important charities and organisations decided to boycott the review process. Thus, findings from the latest Prevent review should be taken with a “pinch of salt” in the absence of critical voices engaging with the review process.
In a recently published article, I have argued that extending counter-terror policies into the remit of charity regulation is counter-productive and harmful to British civil society. This is not because I am an “Islamist sympathiser”, but simply that there is no evidence that in recent decades (post-9/11) that charities (Muslim or “other”) have been involved in terrorist financing. While numerous investigations were conducted by the Charity Commission, to my knowledge, no charity has been found to have financed a single violent political act. The vast majority of investigations on the basis of counter-terror are concerned with “extremist” speakers or association with so-called “extremists”. What is considered “extremist” is vague at best, and no list of potential “extremist” speakers exists for charities or organisations to consult.
The term “extremism” is legally undefined in British law but is understood in Prevent documents as “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”. Critical voices have argued that by including “vocal” opposition as a component of “extremism” essentially criminalises “thought” rather than violence. However, my concern here is the phrase “fundamental British values”. What “fundamental British values” are, and who decides them, is rather opaque. The Prevent strategy provides an incomplete list of “fundamental British values” which includes – democracy, tolerance, and rule of law, amongst others. There is nothing in this list which is specifically “British” and most of these so-called “British values” can be shared by individuals and communities beyond the UK.
Given the constructed nature of “British values”, Muslim charitable practices can be – and already are – part of a shared value system within the UK.
Worryingly, by stating what “fundamental British values” are, creates a rigidity which is likely to fossilise “British values” rather than protect them. I argue that whatever “British values” are they have always been fluid and adaptable to British society at any given time. Societal values are constructed by society itself (not by politicians), and society is in a constant state of change and transformation. Given the constructed nature of “British values” it is argued that Muslim charitable practices can be (and already are) part of a shared value system within the UK. British Muslims follow the long tradition of charitable action in the UK, providing for all those in need regardless of faith.
A counter-productive policy
The lack of any evidence for the effectiveness of current counter-terror policies is another concern. The recent Prevent review admits to “inadequate” evaluation mechanisms. No current evidence exists to suggest that counter-terror policies, as applied to the charitable sector, have deterred a single violent act. On the contrary, much evidence demonstrates that counter-terror policies have harmed charitable and humanitarian work with the direst consequences being born by the recipients of aid. Recipients of aid, by default, are some of the most vulnerable and needy in our global society. Applying counter-terror policies to charities has not stopped a single “terrorist” attack, but they have delayed or curtailed funds to those in need, causing unnecessary suffering and death.
The curtailment, monitoring and surveillance of charities sits in tension with the UK’s broader counter-terror policy CONTEST. According to the latest version of CONTEST, “actively supporting mainstream voices especially in our faith communities and civil society” is crucial to “counter radicalisation and extremist narratives”. If supporting civil society is deemed essential in undermining “extremist narratives”, then the constant surveillance and securitisation of charities (especially “Muslim”) is counter-productive.
In the current post-COVID-19, cost-of-living crisis, charitable donations from the general public have fallen, with the exception of faith-based actors. A recent report has indicated that British Muslims are donating to charitable and humanitarian organisations to unprecedented degrees. As demand for charitable services within the UK increases, with growing numbers relying on foodbanks and additional support, British society needs the altruism and faith-based activities of Muslim charities and actors.
Current counter-terror policies, as applied to British charities are counter-productive and undermine efforts to strengthen social integration and the construction of truly organic “British values”. The recent Prevent review therefore missed an opportunity to re-frame Muslim charitable actors and organisations from potential supporters of “terrorism” to an important civil society tool in combating violent “extremist” narratives.
This post draws on the journal article “Muslim charity in the United Kingdom: Between counter-terror and social integration”, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations (January 2023)
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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