The government is pursuing a “carrot and stick” approach towards British Muslims. The “stick” has been very much in evidence in recent weeks.
The police raid on two homes in Forest Gate, east London, on 2 June, in which an innocent man was shot, followed consultation with both prime minister Tony Blair and home secretary John Reid.
The raid was notable for the scale of intimidation used by police. It involved 250 officers, many of them armed, and saw a 6,000ft air exclusion zone established over the area for a week.
The media spectacle was reminiscent of an earlier episode from February 2003.
In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, Blair personally ordered 450 soldiers in armoured vehicles to Heathrow airport.
David Blunkett, then the home secretary, said the move was to protect the airport from attacks that could be “linked to the Muslim festival of Eid”.
Other sensationalised anti-terrorism operations have included police claims of a plot to blow up Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh in 2002, a ricin poison plot in north London in January 2003 and a plan to attack Manchester United’s Old Trafford football ground in April 2004.
None of these claims turned out to be true.
These attempts to intimidate Muslims go hand in hand with the other element of the government’s strategy – attempting to promote what New Labour calls “moderate Islam”.
A leaked cabinet office letter from April 2004 detailed discussions in which “ministers focused on the need to encourage moderate Muslim opinion to the detriment of extremism”.
A reply from the home office contained a draft document entitled Young Muslims and Extremism.
This set out measures under the government’s anti-terrorism strategy, known as Operation Contest, through which government endorsements could be used to promote certain elements within the Muslim community:
“We need to find ways of strengthening the hand of moderate Muslim leaders, including the young Muslims with future leadership potential, through the status which contact with the government can confer.”
The government’s strategy also involves support for young Muslims who promote a particular perception of Britain, support for “moderate” Islamic media outlets and the promotion of Muslim organisations, individuals and forums that are seen as government friendly.
Operation Contest also considers measures to influence and vet the imams who lead prayers in mosques.
It calls for support for “the Muslim community in efforts to improve the quality of imams, many of whom are poorly educated and come from unsophisticated backgrounds abroad with little understanding of the UK and sometimes with crude and extremist teachings”.
Documents such as Young Muslims and Extremism are clear that the reasons why Britain has become a potential target for terrorism lie in “the war on terror, and in Iraq and Afghanistan”.
But Blair is determined to deny such a link.
Abdurahman Jafar, a leading member of Respect in Newham, east London, said, “The roots of the current problems lie in the starting point for Blair – that you can’t rationally understand any of this, that it is nothing to do with foreign policy, that Iraq is not the reason.”
In the context of the continued occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and police repression at home, working with the government and police is not an attractive option for many Muslims.
“The stick approach is having a greater impact on the community than the carrot approach,” said Abdurahman. “For most, the carrot is not an option. It is only offered to a select few who do not represent the whole community.”
Toaha Qureshi, chair of Lambeth Muslim Forum in south London, has been involved in a number of bodies involving the police and local authorities.
“I think that community engagement is very important,” he said. “But have the police learned any lessons?
“When they attacked Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell, they could have learned the lessons from that incident.
“The police are saying that lessons have been learned, but I don’t think that they have.”
He added that after Forest Gate, it is harder to convince other Muslims that they should be working with the police. “Muslims are being demonised, harassed and victimised,” he said.
“There is anger in the community and there is unrest after the police raids. We understand that the police have a difficult job to do.
“But it becomes very difficult for the leadership to stand at Friday prayers and tell people that they should help the police because people say, ‘Look what has happened to our brothers and sisters’.”
Human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar feels that the government’s attempts to take their “war on terror” into the mosques is fundamentally misguided.
He said, “We have heard a lot of nonsense from Tony Blair and Metropolitan Police chief Ian Blair about how they are going to shut down these radical mosques and hunt down these evil imams – but there aren’t any.
“Politics isn’t really discussed in mosques any more. Debates used to happen in the mosques, but now the community leaders are petrified.
“The government are actually pushing debate out of the mosques and into people’s houses or outside.”
Even in their own terms, the police’s measures are counterproductive. Aamer said, “They want to get intelligence from the Muslim community, but after Forest Gate that has dried up because people don’t trust them.”
Aamer also thinks that the constant pressure on Muslims to denounce extremism and declare themselves “moderate” is a government strategy to silence debate and dissent.
“They are playing the strategy of good Muslim and bad Muslim. It’s like the old racism of good black slave or bad black slave.
“There is no longer any room for debate – you are now ‘with us or against us’. Most Muslims are against the war on Iraq, and the ‘war on terror’. But people are frightened to speak out because they may be labelled as a terrorist.”
‘Police are acting on flimsy evidence’
Sohaib Saeed is a student at Edinburgh university and former Scottish chair of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies. He gave his view on recent police and government policies towards Muslims
‘It is easy to say that mosques or Muslims at universities are the problem. There have been a lot of fingers pointed since 9/11, mostly I think to avoid the difficult questions about our country’s foreign policy.
The police have a job to do, but the problem is when the police are sometimes seen to be acting in a way that serves political interests.
On the one hand, we see things like the Forest Gate incident where the police are acting on very flimsy evidence.
The same could be said of the government when it went to war in Iraq.
On the other hand, in Tayside the police have set up a unit involving Special Branch to monitor students.
This is about the politicians wanting to be seen to be tough on terrorism rather than establishing the proper means to investigate whether terrorism exists.’
Police policies are up the creek
by Osama Saeed, Muslim Association of Britain
Scotland's first anti-terrorism tsar, John Corrigan, was unveiled to the public last week.
One of his first actions was to tell everyone to be suspicious, particularly people who run outdoor centres.
He called on groups running centres for sports such as whitewater rafting to be on the lookout for “suspicious groups of strange males” especially at weekends.
However, Corrigan does not put any flesh on what such suspicious activity would be.
There have been reports that the London bombers went rafting in Snowdonia a month before they carried out the attacks.
Presumably they did not parade around with bomb making equipment in their pockets.
One would think that if someone saw people planning a terror attack they wouldn’t need to be told by the police – they would just report it.
Corrigan’s appeal then is simply a licence for paranoia.
I am shocked that his comments have been reported verbatim and that no one has challenged him.
I have been on many outdoor trips with young Muslims.
Would paintballing in itself now be seen as preparation for terrorism?