More than any other country in the West, Britain has become practised in the arts of self-deception and subject avoidance. If a politician in France had been butchered by a Muslim of Somali descent, the French media and political class would have gone through a cycle of debate about the ideology that propelled the killer. Government and security sources would have talked about the networks surrounding the suspect. And the whole society would have learned a little more about what might have led to such an outrage.
In Britain the situation is otherwise. David Amess was stabbed to death in a church while holding a surgery for his constituents. The man apprehended for his killing is a 25-year-old of Somali descent named Ali Harbi Ali. In the days since then we have learned that the suspect had been referred to the government’s Prevent programme seven years ago while still a sixth-former at Riddlesdown Collegiate school in Purley. Yet the political classes have once again shown themselves incapable of even being able to speak about the most likely source of the problem.
From the immediate aftermath of the murder politicians talked of the killing almost as though Sir David had died of natural causes. Sadiq Khan, among other senior politicians, tweeted his sorrow that Sir David had ‘passed away’. When the Commons met on Monday to commemorate Sir David, it was once again as though a colleague had merely died uncommonly suddenly and unnaturally early.
Compare this with the aftermath of the killing of Jo Cox in 2016 when the entire pro-Brexit movement seemed for a moment to be in the spotlight as anything from inspiration to actual co-conspirators. The UK knows what to do when a far-right maniac goes on a murder spree. But as reactions since last week have shown, even after all these years we remain utterly unsure of how to even speak about likely Islamic radicalism.
It is why Andrew Marr spent his Sunday morning show on the BBC questioning the Home Secretary about online anonymity. There is no evidence at all that the murderer of David Amess was bothered by questions of anonymity, either online or off. Abuse of MPs is said to have reached particularly high levels of late, and politicians of all parties have expressed growing concern about the matter. So perhaps it was inevitable that when the Commons reconvened earlier this week friends and colleagues of Sir David’s should have talked about the government’s online harms bill, and about increased abuse of MPs. The fact that some of that abuse comes from MPs’ own colleagues, such as Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, went politely unmentioned. But missing from any of the obituaries or comment was the matter of why a young man might have butchered Sir David in the first place.
Of course at this point it is normal for excuse-makers to note that we have a principle of innocent until proven guilty in this country. But that did not prevent speculation about the killing of Jo Cox in the months before her murderer was tried and convicted. Besides, there is much evidence that in the case of Islamist extremists even the moments after a trial and conviction never bring the much-heralded ‘debate’ this country remains so reluctant to have.
For instance, how much debate or discussion was there in January when Khairi Saadallah was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of three gay men in a park in Reading in June last year? ‘Wait till the verdict,’ said the legal and sub-legal minds. But the trial came and went and nobody seemed to much care about Saadallah’s immigration status (he was a Libyan asylum-seeker), shouting of ‘Allahu akbar’, or boasting after the attack that he had killed ‘the right people’. People talked about the importance of coming together and demanded that the government stop such attacks from happening in the future. But because Britain never does get down to the details, there is no reason to think that this problem will go away.
It is not as though the apparatus is not there to at least try to address the problem. Six years ago the David Cameron government commissioned Dame Louise Casey to lead a review into how to tackle extremism in the UK, with a special emphasis on problems of integration. Casey did a good job at looking at a tough problem. The government of Theresa May finally published the review, the usual Muslim groups condemned it, and then the whole thing was shelved. Another problem pushed away to be dealt with at some later date.
And yet nothing demonstrates the British unwillingness to tackle extremism so much as the programme which picked up on Ali Harbi Ali and then lost sight of him.
The Prevent programme was set up by Tony Blair’s government in the aftermath of the London suicide bombings in 2005. Its aim was to tackle Islamic radicalism in the UK. From the outset it faced a set of wholly predictable challenges. A near entirety of the UK’s official Muslim organisations condemned Prevent from the outset. Many of them spent the ensuing years simply lying about the programme. In particular they performed the self-pitying trick of complaining that Prevent ‘targeted’ or ‘singled out’ British Muslims as a security threat. And so, as the years went on, Prevent went out of its way to prove that it was not what its obsessive Muslims detractors said it was. It did this, among other things, by spreading out its remit to take in other forms of extremism as well. In time Prevent boasted of the amount of work it was doing to tackle ‘right-wing extremism’, which it sometimes had the decency to remember to call ‘far-right extremism’. Over recent years it has expanded to take in every other form of extremism, including ‘incel’ terrorism.
Today Prevent is a vast sprawling blancmange of a programme. Nobody even seems sure how many people work for it. It is another great bureaucracy of lost purpose. A programme set up to tackle one form of extremism now ostensibly seeks to root out and tackle extremism wherever it finds it. So across the UK, tens of thousands of teachers, university lecturers, healthcare professionals and others have been put through Prevent training to help them identify signs of radicalisation. And because Prevent officials do not ever want to be seen to be singling out Islamic fundamentalism, there is an endless emphasis on the range of radicalisations towards which the average British person is allegedly vulnerable.
No prizes for guessing which of these subjects Home Office officials and others find it easiest to discuss. ‘Violence against women and girls’ is one of the latest more fashionable types of extremism to oppose, because strangely it is easier to talk about this, and does not bring the suspicion that might be accrued by anyone concerned about Islamic radicalism.
Nevertheless it is Islamic extremism that still constitutes the UK’s number one terrorist threat. Nobody could deny that there are other types of extremism. But Prevent was set up to tackle that one, and it long ago lost the desire or direction to keep its eye on that goal. Those who oppose its Islamist focus have in recent years been gleeful in telling people that most online referrals of people to the programme involve alleged far-right sympathies. Ergo, these people imply, the real threat comes from there. In fact, Prevent has simply created more casework for its own ever-expanding workforce. For if you look at the number of people put through to the next stage of Prevent — that is, the Channel programme — a disproportionate number are Islamists.
All that has happened is that in the past decade Prevent has told people to watch out for jihadis and also for people who might hold the wrong sort of views about immigration. In the process it has created not just an unlevel definition of extremism, but also a lot more hay for itself to forage in. The predominance of Islamic radicals in the Channel programme confirms this. But Prevent remains unbothered by the mission-creep that has defined it in recent years. And that has consequences. If your job is to find needles in the haystack but you spend your days making as much hay as possible, then finding the needles naturally becomes ever harder. That is the situation our alleged counter–extremism programme has found itself in.
When an Islamist carries out an attack in the UK, they almost always turn out to have been known to the Prevent authorities. One reason why they are not followed up on is because Prevent does not only encounter distractions — it creates them.
Perhaps a more focused counter–extremism strategy could have saved more lives. More likely it is impossible to ever have a state secure enough that a David Amess could have been protected from an individual such as the young man currently in custody. But we owe it to Sir David’s memory and the memory of the victims in the past, as well as those to come, to try not to divert ourselves. And trust ourselves as a country to have discussions that we are long past needing to have.
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