The Observer newspaper presented the findings of a major survey into race in Britain in November 2001. One question asked which ethnic community had had the most positive influence on British society. Some 52 percent of respondents replied Asian.
Jump forward eight years and the landscape looks very different. Muslim communities have been demonised as terrorists and extremists posing a threat to national security.
A Harris poll in 2007 found that nearly 30 percent of people in Britain believed that it was impossible to be both a Muslim and a Briton and 38 percent thought Muslims posed a threat to national security.
This dramatic change can only be explained in the context of the “war on terror” and the government’s targeting of Muslim communities as the “enemy within”.
The government’s Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) programme has been centrally important to this.
PVE has its roots in something called the Contest strategy that was launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 bombings. Contest is the government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
Contest suggested that Muslim communities were becoming a fertile recruitment ground for Islamist extremists and that funding should be put in place to “win the hearts and minds” of marginalised communities.
The PVE pathfinder fund was made available in 2006 with £6 million available for 2007-8. In July 2007 Gordon Brown announced a further £70 million over three years.
PVE money is supposed to “support local authorities and community groups in improving the capacity of local communities to resist violent extremism”.
As someone who lives in the north west of England – and who has Nazi Nick Griffin as one of my MEPs – I’m all in favour of resisting Nazi extremism. But the strategy is targeted at Muslim communities only.
In particular, money has been made available to improve the governance of mosques and mosque schools and to ensure that imams could speak English.
The government says a lot about challenging “extremism” but what does it define as extremism?
I asked this question at a briefing for councillors on PVE. I was met with a deafening silence.
Earlier this year the Guardian newspaper reported a leaked document showing that the government regarded important “indicators of extremism” to include opposition to government foreign policy, Middle Eastern governments and homosexuality.
The furore caused by this leak has meant that the government has now refused to offer any definition of extremism!
Kris Hopkins, the leader of Bradford council, claimed on Newsnight last year that the government had said, “If we are willing to go out and monitor the Muslim community and use the resources of the local councils to do that, they would release an amount of money to us.”
In March this year it was reported that 200 children, some as young as 13, had been identified as “potential terrorists” by teachers and those involved with PVE projects. In the period prior to June 2008 only ten children had been identified in this way.
The government’s aim is to integrate PVE funding into mainstream educational, social service and other funding streams.
This means extending the security arm of the state and restricting the civil and human rights of increasing numbers of people.
It is a dangerous precedent – and one that we should resist with all the means at our disposal.