In the wake of 9/11, Britain’s Home Office concocted a counter-terrorism strategy that’s known as CONTEST – an acronym (kind of) for “counter-terrorism strategy” – and that consists of four distinct programs, each of which involves collaboration among a range of government agencies as well as businesses, community groups, emergency services, and the military. Those four programs are Prevent, which seeks to keep “vulnerable people from being drawn into extremism”; Pursue, which seeks to bring terrorists to justice; Protect, which seeks to safeguard potential victims of terrorism; and Prepare, which seeks to maintain a high level of readiness. Not surprisingly, CONTEST was controversial from the start for its basis in a frank recognition that Islamic terrorism is (hello!) the work of Muslims who carry it out in the name of Islam.
Take a 2015 article for the left-wing New Statesman, in which one Maria Norris – who at the time was a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics and is now a professor (pronouns “she/her”) at Coventry University – charged that then Prime Minister David Cameron’s rhetoric about Islamic terrorism, like that of Tony Blair a decade earlier, drew unforgivably “sharp boundaries between Muslims and the west.” Moreover, complained Norris, Cameron proffered “an extremely reductionist understanding of terrorism” and “ignored the terrorists’ legitimate grievances.” Also, Cameron dared to suggest that millions of Muslims in Europe were enemies of “our way of life” and “our values.” All of which, in Norris’s estimation, resulted in “a counter-terrorism strategy that reduces the complexity and diversity of the Muslim community into a homogeneous group of potential extremists.”
Of course, Islamic terrorism isn’t about specific grievances, legitimate or otherwise. It’s jihad, plain and simple – part of a holy war on the non-Islamic world that’s been underway ever since the religion’s founding. But you can’t say such things in respectable circles in Britain, where the standard euphemism for Muslims is “Asians” and where such activities as brutal Jew-bashing by Muslim gangs are routinely whitewashed as “tensions between communities.”
For someone like Norris, then, it’s the height of impropriety to acknowledge that jihad is, well, jihad. “Cameron´s call for Muslims to stop quietly condoning extremism,” she griped, “also carries with it an inherent connection between Islam and extremism.” And she cited with disapproval a then-recent survey showing that “over half of non-Muslim Britons believed Islam was incompatible with British values.” But what if Islam is inherently extremist? What if it is incompatible with British values? For the likes of Norris, even to contemplate such questions is bad form, and the only thing for a decent person to do is to dismiss them out of hand.
Criticism like Norris’s, coming mostly but not entirely from the left, has been commonplace ever since CONTEST was instituted. And the focus of critics has been largely on Prevent, because Prevent, by recognizing that new homegrown Islamic terrorists will by definition emerge from within the British Muslim population, is seen as targeting Muslims – as eyeing them with suspicion, as considering them guilty before the fact. And in a country whose politicians, as a rule, are even more desperate than those elsewhere in the West to flatter, appease, reward, and placate Muslims at every turn, that just won’t do.
Over the years, consequently, in an attempt to avoid giving any possible offense to Muslims, people whose job it is to administer CONTEST, Prevent, and the other P-word programs, have departed dramatically from the strategy’s original intentions. This is, incidentally, not an isolated development: the same British police who used to be respected around the world for their integrity, professionalism, and dedication to public safety have ignored Muslim gangs that are responsible for thousands of rapes while arresting hundreds of law-abiding Brits for speaking the truth about Islam online. If this grotesque state of affairs is finally beginning to be officially acknowledged and addressed, it’s because high-profile figures like Tommy Robinson, Laurence Fox, and Harry Miller have made a great deal of noise about it.
Perhaps remarkably, the problems with CONTACT are also beginning to be addressed. In January 2021, Priti Patel, who was then the Home Secretary, commissioned a report by one William Shawcross, an author, journalist, broadcaster, and public servant. Educated at Eton and Oxford, Shawcross has spent his long career as a member of sundry councils, high commissions, and advisory groups; he’s been awarded the Royal Victorian Order. He wrote a laudatory biography of Rupert Murdoch and the authorized biography of the Queen Mother. In short, he’s one of those fixtures of the British establishment who seem to have been transported from another era and a completely different culture.
Significantly, moreover, Shawcross is one prominent Brit who’s not scared to say that Islamic terrorism has (gasp!) something to do with Islam. In a 2006 op-ed that was published in the Jerusalem Post not long after the foiling of a “massive plot to blow US-bound airliners out of the sky” – a plot that has long since been dropped down the memory hole – Shawcross criticized the British media for describing the plotters as “British-born” and “of Pakistani origin” while ignoring what he called “their Islamic ideology.” He went on:
In Europe the truth is so terrible that we are in denial. Perhaps it is understandable. We do not wish to face the fact that we really are threatened by a vast fifth column – that there are thousands of European-born people, in Britain, in France, in Holland, in Denmark, everywhere – who wish to destroy us.
Indeed. It’s good – and more than a little astonishing – news that this solid citizen, of all people, is the man who was tasked with evaluating the way in which Britain’s counter-terrorism program is being managed. After long delays, his single-spaced, narrow-margined, heavily footnoted 192-page report was released to the public on February 8. It’s a fascinating read. Ever the old-school British gentleman, Shawcross opens his executive summary with compliments: the Prevent program “is broadly right in its objectives, admirable in its intentions and…fulfils many of its functions to good effect.” But, he adds, “there is room for improvement.” And then he drops the hammer:
Prevent must return to its core mission – countering all those ideologies that can lead people to committing or supporting acts of terrorism. This can only be done if Prevent properly understands the nature of these ideologies and how they attract and suborn individuals.
It is correct for Prevent to be increasingly concerned about the growing threat from the Extreme Right. But the facts clearly demonstrate that the most lethal threat in the last 20 years has come from Islamism, and this threat continues….
Other democracies have programmes similar to Prevent. But rarely are these subjected to the same critical attack as is Prevent in Britain. One of the most constant and strident accusations is that Prevent unfairly targets Muslims living here. This is simply not the case.
Shawcross also points out in his executive summary that “all too often those who commit terrorist acts in this country” – including the killer of Sir David Amess and the perpetrator of the 2019 London Bridge terrorist attack – “have been previously referred to Prevent,” raising the question of “why Prevent apparently failed to understand the danger in these cases and how such failures might be avoided in the future.”
If anything, Shawcross’s executive summary is considerably tamer than the body of his report, which is awash in blunt observations and sweeping recommendations that won’t surprise – but will surely gratify – anyone who’s followed with concern and frustration the naive, hapless, and cowardly responses of Western governments to post-9/11 Islamic terrorism. For example, Shawcross charges that:
- Prevent, originally conceived as “a crucial pillar of the UK’s counter-terrorism architecture,” has instead been increasingly concerned with “protecting those referred into Prevent from harm and addressing their personal vulnerabilities.”
- Prevent, while defining the extreme right so broadly as to include “mainstream, right-wing leaning commentary,” has taken “a much narrower approach” in its definition of Islamic radicalism. (On Saturday, the Mail revealed that a Conservative politician whom Prevent apparently tagged as dangerous because of his “far-right” admirers, but whom Shawcross left unnamed in his report, is in fact Jacob Rees-Mogg, that respectable Tory from Central Casting.)
- Community organizations funded by Prevent have welcomed speakers who preach terrorism.
- Throughout the Prevent bureaucracy, “a culture of timidity exists…when it comes to tackling Islamism.”
- Too many employees of Prevent don’t grasp “the nature of Islamist ideology” and “Islamic scripture.” (They’re also taught, by the way, that Antifa members are “united by opposition to racism and the far right.”)
- In universities, “anti-Prevent narratives dominate the discourse” and pro-Prevent academics “feel unable to express their genuine views.”
There’s more in Shawcross’s report – much more. Suffice it to say that he’s produced an impressively thorough and candid account of the Prevent program – including critical observations that apply every bit as much to the counter-terrorism policies of several other Western countries as they do to those of the UK. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has promised to act on all of Shawcross’s recommendations.
Still, the report is open to serious objections. Most worrying of all is Shawcross’s determination to draw a firm line between Islam, which he professes to view as benign, and Islamism, which he regards as a set of dangerous ideological propositions. “Islamism as an ideology,” he asserts, “is not the same as Islam as a faith.” It’s because of his devotion to this specious distinction that I find myself agreeing with much of the response to his report by the loathsome Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC). Shawcross, maintains IHRC, is guilty of “problematising Islam”; his call for Prevent to pay more attention to “non-violent Islamist extremism” is “a call to criminalise mainstream Islam.” On these points, IHRC is, quite simply, correct: many of the unsavory attitudes and behaviors that Shawcross rightly recognizes as extremist and problematic, and hence identifies with “radical Islamism” or “extremism” – such as virulent Jew-hatred, the systematic oppression of women, and (yes) jihad – are, in fact, part and parcel of mainstream Islam itself. He may claim not to be condemning Islam per se, but all of these things are Islam, whether he likes it or not.
Predictably, IHRC is far from alone in assailing Shawcross’s report. Other Muslim groups, along with their reliable leftist allies, have reacted to it with outrage. Layla Aitlhadj, director of an “anti-Islamophobia” organization called Prevent Watch, rejects it as “[l]ight on research, poor on analysis and heavy on anti-Muslim bias.” John Holmwood, emeritus Professor of Sociology at Nottingham University, calls the report “ideologically-driven, factually erroneous and methodological only poor” and accuses Shawcross of smearing “the opinions of British Muslims.” (Which opinions? The ones about Jews? Democracy? Sexual equality?) The Runnymede Trust, Britain’s “leading race equality think tank,” accuses the report of lacking “integrity and rigour.” And Amnesty International UK describes it as “riddled with biased thinking, errors, and plain anti-Muslim prejudice.” Indeed it is full of anti-Muslim prejudice – if a civilized distaste for Islam’s most brutal and primitive aspects can be counted as prejudice.
Of course, one should hardly expect anything other than than bile from such quarters for a report like Shawcross’s. But it is legitimate for an admirer of Shawcross’s efforts to wonder whether his report will make any difference at all, or if it’s just one more official document that will end up on a shelf in a government archive somewhere. It could also be reasonably argued that even if all of Shawcross’s proposals were vigorously implemented, the whole business would still amount to little more than the equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. (Or is attempting to hold back the sea a more apt metaphor?) How to make sense of the fact that the government that commissioned this report is still pursuing the same self-destructive, catastrophic immigration policies that made Islamic terrorism – and Islam generally – a major issue in Britain in the first place, and that were a key reason for the 2016 Brexit vote?
After all, when it comes to the Islamic threat, terrorism is far less important than the day-by-day Islamization of Western society and culture. Given Britain’s chronic willingness to bow down to Muslims who may not commit acts of terrorism but who lead their lives according to rules and norms that are utterly at odds with Western values – and given Britain’s punishment of people like Tommy Robinson who dare to speak the unvarnished truth those rules and norms – anything that the British government might do to reform the Prevent process seems, alas, almost pathetically beside the point.