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What Does Prevent Prevent?

01/04/2015 18:08 BST | Updated 31/05/2015 10:59 BST

ISIS knows how to sell itself to Muslim young people. Yes, only to a small minority of them. But enough for its lure to be creating a growing threat. In consequence we have a further terrorism Act. But do governments know how to challenge the brand, counter the attraction, well, prevent it? Does anyone?

Understanding the cause of this descent into the glorification of violence - there have been many others historically such as the Khmer Rouge - has proved intractable. At least three interlocking but unresolved conflicts of interpretation are in play: about the role of what is called religious ideology, the importance of psychological, social and economic factors, and critiques of government measures, the former and latest iteration of the Prevent strategy.

Prior to any of these comes the question of explaining what exactly it is that must be countered. In other words, is the problem best described as religious extremism, which includes non-violent and pietistic forms, or more precisely violent religious extremism? In the early days post 9/11 the answer was the latter. It was religious behaviour turning violent, killing and maiming in the name of God, notably in what is called "the West".

Then, even organisations that rejected democracy, sought the creation of a Caliphate and the harshest implementation of Shari'a law, manifested virulent anti-semitism, were discounted as an immediate national security threat. Al-Muhajiroun was in existence for 25 years before being proscribed in 2010. Before that date I remember hearing it called Al-Muppetiroun, by someone whose job it was to worry about such things, a telling, if flippant, shorthand for "a lot of auld talk".

The world has changed and the verdict on such organisations with it. Now the story goes - and it sounds plausible - that such ideas are the antecedents to, and motivate, violence, or that they are the "soil in which violent extremism grows". Nasty ideas lead to violent behaviour.

The trouble is that, by now, more information is available from those whose violent behaviour or intentions resulted in prison and interrogation. And it reveals a baffling plethora of pathways to violent religious extremism. Far from all jjhadis demonstrate the importance of religious ideology - al-Muhajiroun and Hizb-ut-Tahrir provide two versions - in tipping them into violence. Though all would share either half-baked, or more elaborate, versions of a religious ideology that contains most of their themes. The most fundamental and common feature would be the role of jihad, understood as holy warfare in a modern form of an individual duty accruing heavenly rewards and taken as the touchstone of personal obedience to God.

What is often lumped together as Wahabi, Salafi, or Islamist ideas, does not necessarily lead to violence, any more than conversion to Islam provides access to a suicide belt, or Mediaeval Christianity necessarily invented plenary indulgences - a get out of Purgatory free card - for Crusaders. Though, again, converts who become jihadists are far from unknown.

So what can be said of the role played by religious ideology? Well, it certainly provides legitimation, even if not necessarily primary motivation for killing and conquest. Indeed it presumes to give divine meaning and sanction to war crimes and cruelties.

That leaves open the question of what is triggering violence and the role of socio-economic and psychological factors. There are not going to be any universal, or single, causes here either. Evidence suggests that recruitment to Al-Shabab and Boko Haram alongside Al-Qaida in the Maghrib, sub-Saharan Africa's most important jihadist movements, is strongly correlated with socio-economic deprivation and often linked to psychological push and pull-factors. This is not surprising. If you are young, male, hungry and despairing of any future, then food, a sexual partner, a gun and the promise of wealth and heavenly rewards, will press more buttons than Ibn Taymiyya's fatwa against the Mongols. Jihadism for the poor is often the religion of the stomach. On the other hand, for the original 9/11 crews, largely Saudi, Al-Qaida members, religious ideology weighed much more heavily in the balance.

The UK picture is different again. "Home-grown" jihadists from Europe, soaking up the glory of the mujahid super-hero on extremist websites, or virtuous brides of holy warriors, longing for a supposedly feminine role in "the Caliphate", seem utterly alien. But they swim in similar emotional currents to those besotted by Che Guevara in the 1960s. The perennial quest of the older teenager, anti-authority, seeking belonging, struggling with identity, pursuing ideals and adventure away from parents condemned as out of touch with nothing to offer, tragically ends in the hell-hole of ISIS.

This is why the first task of the recruiter is not indoctrination- that comes later - but cutting the potential recruit off from contact with family and friends so that their only belonging is in a fantasy world of perverted religion and the spider's web networks that sustain it. And this is why the Kuwaiti artist, Naif Al-Mutwa, has filled his comic books with marvelous Muslim anti-extremist heroes. He gets to the heart of the matter. A possible strategy: combat a malign fantasy world with a benign one.

But many leaders of jihadist movements, especially in the Middle East, fit none of these descriptions. Transnational in their experience, yet not cosmopolitan, they bring the distorted chapter and verse of experience to their hatreds. They build on textual references taken out of context from religious scholars. They have the economic security to inhabit the world of religious ideology, plus a talent for social media and for effective terrorist tactics.

The latest iteration of Prevent does not provide the palette, nor canvas, to counter the multi-causal nature of the problem. Nor to stimulate the growth of young people's moral imagination when seduced by the Lawrence of Arabia romance of jihad, and the intense belonging of the righteous elect. Worthy appeals to tolerance, respect for diversity and British values, civic responsibility, are not doing the job, at least not the job of safeguarding. Authority figures, least of all non-Muslims, do not change minds configured to reject authority nor make counter-narratives compelling. They may have the opposite effect. Youth led peer-to-peer education, discussion with former mujahideen, or with charismatic and captivating teachers - they can't all be - including exceptional parents, have more promise.

Governmental multi-agency initiatives, such as the Channel process, do sometimes "prevent". But parts of civil society have more potential. And the most important of these are schools and young people themselves.

In the words of another branch of government, the Department of Education: "Interventions work best where they are young person centred and young person led. This means both having young people as peer educators, which offers a sense of empowerment and can raise self-esteem, and making materials and activities relevant to young people's lives."

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