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Counter-Radicalization Lessons From the United Kingdom

To correctly assess our counter-radicalization policies, the United States can learn from mistakes made in the United Kingdom.

July 29, 2011

Published in Roll Call.

A House subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday on “Preventing Violent Radicalization in America.” Although the title didn’t explicitly mention American Muslims, the proceedings undoubtedly focused on this community.

The two witnesses — Peter Neumann and John Gannon — hail from the Bipartisan Policy Center, whose recent report urged the United States to put into operation a counter-radicalization program similar to the one that failed in the United Kingdom.

This is not a new idea. Government officials, such as Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, have been evaluating the U.K.’s counter-radicalization policies for years and have apparently concluded — correctly — that they are not suitable for use across the pond. Here’s why.

To begin, let’s be clear: the U.K.’s counter-radicalization policy, which is generally known as “Prevent,” is not only about fighting violent extremism or terrorism. Its goal is also to combat “extremism” of thought and belief among Muslims.

In the United States, however, we have a First Amendment that bars government interference in what we think, say and believe. And, as America knows only too well, attempts to monitor thought and speech carry an enormous risk of mission creep. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI started out keeping an eye on communists but ended up monitoring other, more benign, groups.

Much of what Prevent sponsors, such as direct support for Muslim groups considered moderate by the U.K. government, is simply out of the question here.

But can we and should we follow the Bipartisan Policy Center’s recommendation to follow the other major element of Prevent?

This would require us to use teachers and social workers to finger individuals who are considered to be “cognitive radicals” so that they can be given “mentoring and tailored interventions, which can be theological, psychological, and/or socio-economic” to divert them from their extremist ideas.

In our view, this is just thought police disguised as ostensible concern about vulnerable Muslim youth.

Even if we were allowed to police people’s speech and beliefs, the experience of the U.K. shows that it is likely to be a waste of time and money.

Prevent has been unpopular across the political spectrum. Its effectiveness is hampered by the fact that many British Muslims view it with resentment and suspicion. It is seen as embodying their government’s unequal approach to violence emanating from their communities compared to others. Right-wing violence, for example, is dealt with as a matter of individual criminal activity, but Muslims are told that terrorism is an ideological problem, which they have a special responsibility to solve. When that ideological challenge involves the U.K. government in taking a stand on religious disputes — which is almost inevitable when the government is involved in deciding which views are acceptable and which are not — it effectively creates a state-sponsored ‘official Islam,’ which has no credibility with Muslims. Moreover, because police forces are closely involved in the management of Prevent locally, they are able to use it as a vehicle for intelligence gathering on people not suspected of criminal activity but thought to have a radical ideology. Many Muslims thus see a hidden agenda in Prevent. Non-Muslim communities, for their part, have criticized the British government for pouring money into the development of Muslim communities while ignoring other groups. Many conservatives hated Prevent because they felt the government’s efforts had no measurable impact.

Given this level of opposition — including from the community at which it is targeted — it is no surprise that the U.K. has been reviewing its commitment to Prevent and is currently struggling to reconfigure the program. What is surprising is that anyone would advocate following a failed strategy.

Attempts to counter radicalization among American Muslims will further securitize our government’s relationship with this community. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the context within which any such policies would be implemented.

Our country is being swept by a wave of Islamophobia that runs the gamut from allegations that President Barack Obama is a closet Muslim to spurious anti-sharia initiatives in nine states, to attempts to block construction of mosques. At the same time, American Muslim communities are under pressure from intensive law enforcement scrutiny and feel as though they are treated as suspect by the government.

Attempts to “counter” radicalization in these communities through Prevent-like programs will only feed the public perception that American Muslims are a security risk in need of special measures, and the community’s view that it is being unfairly targeted.

Instead of trying to re-jigger failed British policies that are inconsistent with our core values, we should build on initiatives that have already been undertaken. The Department of Homeland Security’s focus on the “violence” part of violent extremism is the right direction for policy. So are the guidelines developed for the Justice Department Building Communities of Trust initiative, which identify important steps we can take to build confidence between law enforcement and all communities. These types of programs are a far better direction for America than Prevent.