A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience some years ago provided insight into learning and in particular, learning from one’s mistakes. The study found that good learners demonstrated greater neural activity and would use feedback not only to check their past performance, but also to adjust their next performance accordingly.
From an Islamic perspective, of course, this not exactly a ground-breaking discovery. The Qur’an encourages believers to take stock of history in an admonitory fashion:
“Has the news of those before you not reached you – the nation of Nuh, Aad, and Thamud?”
Well before Foucault was exploring the concept of the “technologies of the self”, Islam had encouraged individual spiritual accountability by pondering over one’s deeds and actions. Reflection is key to forging ahead in a manner where mistakes are not repeated. It contextualises the succinct narration of the Prophet, peace be upon, found in Bukhari,
“The believer is not stung from the same hole twice”.
This brings us neatly to recent events involving the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). The MCB’s behaviour has been somewhat strangely masochistic, enjoying an impending second sting with open arms.
The First Sting
Historically, the MCB (along with many other organisations, both organic, and covertly setup by the Foreign Office) had been at the forefront of delivering a countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy. In 2005, Number 10 convened seven working groups to investigate radicalism in Muslim communities which produced the Preventing Extremism Together (PET) report. Inayat Bunglawala was responsible for “tackling extremism and radicalisation”. This was subsequently presented to then Prime Minister Tony Blair as a blueprint for fighting “extremism”.
The policy then, like now, notably eschewed foreign policy by exploiting Sufi scholars to spread the message of peace, love and non-violence – a message which at the time conveniently omitted discussions on a sovereign state’s right to self-defence, the illegality of the war in Iraq, and a frank discussion on armed resistance within the framework of the law of armed conflict. Ideally, the scholars and Muslim organisations involved could have firmly conveyed the angst of Muslims as well as the message of peace and non-violence to the government, instead of behaving like Sharif Hussain, who placated the Muslims at the behest of the British as Al-Quds was sliced and a portion handed to Zionists. The MCB of course opposed the Iraq war, but it also supported the cold war, CVE element at home, with the hot war equivalent being the Western invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. A retrospective analysis shows that whilst Muslim organisations were happily receiving funding to deliver the CVE projects and peace roadshows as the government bombed and raped Iraq in the name of democracy, they were also inadvertently or otherwise crucial in paving the way for the legitimisation of the discriminatory securitisation of the Muslim minority. The authoritarian PREVENT policy of today owes its existence to the neoconservative project, co-opted by Muslims, of that time.
Pertinent to this retrospective is the understanding that the discussion on “extremism” and its lead into terrorism is a part of the neoconservative counter-terrorism architecture and integral to the culturalist analysis which posits Islam as an intrinsic threat and enemy. The ”original neocon” Tony Blair famously rejected the intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan being a cause for the 7/7 attacks (despite Mohammed Siddique Khan explicitly blaming foreign policy), asserting instead that terrorism could only be defeated if “we stand up and confront the ideology of this evil” – not just the methods, he argued, “but ideas”. This was supportively quoted by premier neocon Michael Gove in his book Celsius 7/7, in which he averred,
“the fight against Islamist terrorism cannot be restricted to police action against isolated individuals or small groups… a much broader effort is required to tacle, at root, the ideology of Islamism…”
The counter-terrorism thinking was not empirically supported, but rather based on the Bush era military doctrine of pre-emption, the brainchild of neocon Iraq war architect Paul Wolfowitz. US army manuals from 2006 defined counterterrorism as “Operations that include the offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, preempt, and respond to terrorism.” As McCulloch and Wilson, in their recent book exploring “pre-crime” intervention state,
“The declaration of the “war on terror” was the catalyst for a more pre-emptive approach to threats.”
In other words, whilst neoconservatives were pre-emptively striking Muslim countries abroad with freedom bombs, at home, they were pre-emptively striking at the hearts of Muslims by controlling if not inhibiting their religious and spiritual expressions. Thus, foreign policy factors have always been “recognised” and “acknowledged” but ultimately downplayed or simply omitted from the dominant discourse on tackling terrorism. This is but a natural by-product of pre-crime approaches. McCulloch and Wilson make this in point in a particularly blunt fashion:
“Precaution [the framework for pre-emption and pre-crime] when integrated into criminal justice is a “get out of jail free card” for politicians, police and security agencies, providing a basis to deflect critical scrutiny and accountability. By allowing imagination license, pre-crime deepens the capacity for the political manipulation of popular fears surrounding crime and security.”
By passing the pre-crime buck to the community the deflection of criticism aimed at the government, as well as the political manipulation, is further accentuated.
To return to the Muslim context in Britain, MCB was hoodwinked into delivering a project which had, in the words of Chris Allen, the “covert objective” of creating an “institutionally approved, ‘mainstream’ and ‘moderate’ expression of Islam that would be dually endorsed by various co-opted ‘liberal’ Muslims as also Government itself.” Years later, MCB would be ditched due to the neoconservative witch-hunt characterising them as “Islamist” and therefore a part of the “extremism” problem.
There are lessons to be learned from the above, brief explication of the interplay between the Muslim minority of Britain and their “representative” organisations on the one hand, and on the other, the deceptive and dangerous neoconservative policy and its ideological advocates in power.
But has MCB learned anything?
The Second Sting?
Two days ago, a report was published in the Guardian penned by Vikram Dodd that the MCB was seeking to establish a “mosque-centred” counter-terror initiative to “challenge” PREVENT. The report interestingly excited journalists across the spectrum. Even the Daily Mail issued a surprisingly cushy article on the development, prominently featuring MCB’s Miqdaad Versi. Quilliam Foundation’s Jonathan Russell lauded MCB for joining the liberal-paradox that is counter extremism industry. This is unsurprising given it dovetails with their recommendations for the future of counter-extremism being civil society-led. As the hours passed and the pulses increased, one could almost hear the collective thoughts of Muslims: is history really going to repeat itself?
The collective sigh of relief did not come. Instead Muslims were treated to a confusing MCB press statement supplemented by an equally incongruent opinion piece authored by Versi.
A look at the MCB press statement raises more questions than it answers. It claims to speak for MCB affiliates and a “cross-section” of British Muslim society, which has “directed the MCB to explore a grass-roots led response to the challenge of terrorism.” What is the methodology to determine this cross-section and which affiliates exactly issued this direction? I am told that Northern mosques are perplexed at MCB’s position – have they been consulted too?
Further, the statement reads,
While we have not been established to operate solely within the narrow and often corrosive confines of ‘counter-extremism’, our affiliates realise that real challenges exist, as we see with Muslim families broken up as a number of children, mothers and fathers leave to travel to Syria.
If, as the statement asserts, MCB is looking for a genuine grassroots response, then why has it already framed the discussion for the “grassroots” within the existing security paradigm accepting the neoconservative assumptions of counter-terrorism and purely focussing on “extremism” and therefore ideology? The incoherence is all the more apparent given that the statement, firstly, highlights that counter-extremism “litmus tests” for engagement are discriminatory and subjective, and secondly, leverages an attack on PREVENT by invoking “academics and practitioners”. In order to counter extremism one needs to be able to understand what one is countering. By defining extremism through signs and beliefs, discriminatory and subjective “litmus tests” are by implication going to be formed. How does the MCB plan to counter extremism exactly without running into the problems it quite rightly condemns? Furthermore, academic opinion largely discredits the focus on ideology. Hundreds of academics have criticised the government’s fixation on ideology, whilst hundreds more have heavily criticised the notion of “pre-crime” determination of radicalisation.
Despite this, MCB effectively blurs the nebulous concept of extremism with terrorism and the notion of pre-empting terrorism:
“Whilst the Muslim Council of Britain was not established to focus on terrorism and extremism, it has nevertheless given the issue prominence because the threat of terrorism and extremism continues to blight our communities.”
“Many ideas have been put forward on what communities and government should do together to confront and preempt terrorism.”
MCB calls on the security services to adopt an evidence-based approach, yet its statement is a text-book example of the complete opposite. Whilst lambasting PREVENT, it is laying the foundations for the same, albeit with the token credibility of having “consulted the grassroots”.
Versi in his opinion piece is no less incoherent. He rightly reiterates the criticism of PREVENT, which focusses wholly on ideology, and debunks the notion that mosques and madrasas are hotbeds for terrorism. However, his piece then descends in to lecturing Imams and teachers of these very disconnected institutions on how they should “more loudly and innovatively articulate the normative understanding of Islam to create more resilient communities that uphold “the middle” path and unequivocally reject the violence of the likes of al-Qaida and Islamic State” – a distinctly ideology-only driven prescription, which reinforces the discriminatory treatment of the Muslim minority that they have to “do more”. Why only focus on rejecting ISIS-related violence? Western violence is the cause of ISIS being created in the first place. Britain continues to sell arms to authoritarian regimes that are bombing their countrymen into an abyss. Will MCB publicly call on mosques and Imams to loudly and innovatively articulate the hypocrisy among Western governments in calling on their Muslim communities to reject violence whilst, pursuing violence and destruction abroad in the name of peace? Au contraire, we have MCB reportedly supporting the machinery of violence in the Middle East by approving mosques signing the “Armed Forces Covenant”. Incidentally, is this selective denunciation of violence a way of demonstrating “that British Muslims are part and parcel of British life”?
MCB has done an excellent job in contributing to the exposition of PREVENT. However, their recent activity seeks to massively undermine this effort.
It seems MCB’s rhetoric is not so much in tune with the concerns of Muslim interests than it is with the aim of wriggling itself into the corridors of power. It was alarming to read MCB’s overtly positive response to the Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) report, “Radicalisation: the counter-narrative and identifying the tipping point”, which I dissected and demonstrated as being more dangerous than the current iteration of PREVENT. The HASC report courted MCB as the actor fitting the “community engagement” recommendation it makes, which forms a distraction to the actual crippling problems associated with counter-extremism. The following paragraph can be found under the title “Challenging extremism together”:
“MCB also told us that they were working within Muslim communities to try to understand and articulate their concerns about terrorism, and focus on how they could effectively tackle the radicalisation of young people in these communities.”
Whether there have been closed door discussions involving MCB or not is speculative, however, the incoherent statements coming from MCB and Miqdaad Versi certainly do not help the organisation. This does not mean that MCB has yet lost its legitimacy. Indeed, the MCB leadership are said to have intelligent, sensible figures involved who do have grassroots Muslim support. It would be wrong to cast MCB in the same light as quisling organisations likes the Quilliam Foundation, Inspire et al. Having said this, MCB can no longer hide behind the excuse that it did not know what it was getting itself into.
If MCB genuinely wishes to assist in tackling terrorism, then it needs to prepare itself to adopt an approach which will be uncomfortable for hawks in Whitehall. Counter-terrorism in the present age shifted with the War on Terror. It is a paradigmatic phenomenon, which sought to coercively quell dissent against Western violence abroad and justify public surveillance under the cover of counter-terrorism and counter-extremism. Rather than obtaining the credibility of the community to effectively recreate nip-and-tuck solutions within the same paradigm, MCB would do well to deconstruct the framework by calling for the rejection of the hate-fuelled, militarist roots of the counter-terror legislation. This would involve calling for a readjustment of the neocon-destroyed liberty-security balance, in manner that formulates a solution targeting the individual based on crimes committed, as opposed to whole communities because of their shared ideas and religious characteristics.
As it stands, the MCB has created bewilderment within the Muslim community. MCB’s credibility is drawn from its representative power. If the organisation continues upon the path it has etched itself, it will risk losing the respect and the support of its affiliates.
 Al-Qur’an, 9:69
 Gove, M., Celsius 7/7, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2006, p.93
 Jude McCulloch, Dean Wilson, Pre-crime: Pre-emption, Precaution and the Future, 2015 p.2
 Ibid. p.51