Kundnani's report - mainstreaming Surveillance
On 17th October 2009 an independent report from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) confirmed what Muslims have known for some years: that beneath the veneer of platitudes to do with transparency and civil liberties, the State has embarked on an unprecedented degree of spying and intelligence monitoring of its Muslim citizens.
To date, the evidence had been anecdotal. Stories have circulated of young men detained on immigration irregularities, and offered release if they were willing to serve as informers: "the men claimed they were given a choice of working for the Security Service or face detention and harassment in the UK and overseas" (The Independent, 21st May 2009). A community magazine in North West England, Paigham, in March 2009 reported the experience of a Muslim who was followed while out shopping with his family: "...I needed a toilet break. So I headed towards the gents and from the corner of my eyes I could see two security guards either side of me trying to hide behind a pillar. Clearly they were following and observing someone. Initially I did not want to believe it was me but after a few minutes reality sank in as they tried to discreetly follow my every move. Despite being angry I politely made it known that I knew I was being followed and the red-faced guards gave me a sinister look and walked away. I was really annoyed at being watched with suspicion and mistrust. I have never done anything illegal in my life...."
Another newspaper report conveyed the scale of the paranoia: a surveillance operation in Liverpool worked in two groups: "one, made up of "72 elderly women; the other, young mothers with babies in prams" (Daily Express, 17th August 2009).
Arun Kundnani's report 'Spooked! How not to prevent violent extremism' for the IRR now provides an objective and well-informed account of realities in Britain today. It describes how the Government's 'Prevent' programme has led to "violations of privacy and professional norms of confidentiality" and presents evidence that "Prevent-funded services are being used by counter-terrorist police for information gathering", through the institution of a little known protocol, the 'Information Sharing Agreements' (ASAs).
Immediately after the release of Kundnani's report, a government communications unit specialising on Muslim affairs - RICU - issued a statement quoting a Home Office spokesperson rejecting the charges, "any suggestion that Prevent is about spying is simply wrong. Prevent is about working with communities to protect vulnerable individuals and address the root causes of radicalisation". Ironically, a 'think tank' that has been a beneficiary of Prevent-largesse contradicted this, by declaring to the media that spying was "gathering intelligence on people not committing terrorist offences. If it is to prevent people getting killed and committing terrorism, it is good and it is right" (The Guardian, 16th October 2009, 'Spying is morally right, says think tank')
What Muslim civil society now awaits from Government is an unequivocal statement that it does not condone spying on individuals who are not suspected of involvement in unlawful and criminal activities.
Arun Kundnani's report is based on interviews with Prevent programme workers and managers in local authorities and community workers, supplemented with roundtable discussion events. He notes, "we have attempted to conduct this research in an evidence-based manner, providing sources to claims made wherever possible....we hope that other individuals and organisations will, along with ourselves, continue the investigative work begun in this research project so that the Prevent programme will be subject to a much greater degree of critical scrutiny and be required to become more transparent in its operation".
The report quotes a manager of a youth project stating, "More and more pressure is being placed on our organisation to collude with police needs. We have had a host of requests from the police to collude with them, for example asking us for names of people at meetings and things like 'oh. Can you just have a conversation with...' calls. When we refuse, we have been told by the police that 'you are standing in our way' and they have tried to undermine our organisation. We have been threatened but we have refused to share the belief, views and opinions of people we work with".
In another youth project, the youth worker found that when "he refused to give the police the names of the young people he worked with and information about their religious and political views, he was himself questioned by the police about his own views." Moreover, "in at least one case, the pressure on youth workers to become information providers is alleged to have escalated into serious mistreatment by intelligence service officers".
"In London, the manager of a voluntary sector organisation told us, 'To start with, there was less pressure. Now it is much more about surveillance. We were told it is not about surveillance - but it says it is about "identifying risks". Who is using this information? How is it being used. The real agenda is to mainstream surveillance across all local authority departments. In the absence of a statutory requirement against Islamophobia, this will feed people's prejuidices".
The report notes that as part of its Prevent work, the police are building links with community organisations and local schools. The aim of these links is to encourage flows of information to the police and to manage perceptions of 'grievances'. Schools, youth projects and women's groups are seen as key organisations to target as part of this 'community engagement.
Police documents also reveal that "there is an effort to acquire knowledge about local Muslim 'community representatives' who might potentially be engaged with...a key aspect of Prevent is the cultivation of 'moderate Muslims' through 'targeted capacity building' and government backing. The aim is to elevate 'moderate Muslims' to becoming stronger voices in Muslim communities, able to lead a campaign of promoting 'shared values' and isolating the 'extremists'. For Muslim organisations that are able to present themselves as 'moderate', significant financial and symbolic resources are being offered by central and local government".
Arun Kundnani's impressive critique and marshalling of evidence is an authentic reflection of the feeling within the Muslim community. Government propaganda units such as RICU dismiss it at their peril. The lesson for Charles Farr, the head of the Office for Security & Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) is that Muslims in Britain warrant dignity and respect - no more, no less than anyone else. His Afghanistan days as an MI6 man may have given him the impression that money can buy anything, but he is now in a different setting. He is no longer flying around in a helicopter "with thousands of dollars in bundles" and making deals (4th October 2009, The Times).
Kundnani correctly links Farr with the Government policy of marginalising the Muslim community's main representative body, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). When reports of 'Contest 2 (the over-arching programme that includes Prevent) first surfaced in the media, it was suggested that Government would widen the definition of who is an extremist, to include for example those supporting armed resistance by Palestinians against the Israeli military. When published, the proposals were less explicit, but a marker had been placed. Kundani places Farr as one of the backers of such a more extensive interpretation of 'extremism' - to include 'extremist views', even if those advocating the views did not call for violence. When referring to such types of views Farr is quoted: "there is nothing violent about that and it is not necessarily going to lead to terrorism, but it does seem to me to be unreal for this or any other government not to say they are going to challenge that..." [p.21-22]. Thus when Daud Abdullah, Deputy Secretary General of the MCB signed the Istanbul Declaration in Gaza that affirmed the rights of Palestinians to resist occupation, the dominance of the Charles Farr mind-set in Government circles meant this had to be 'challenged', leading to a suspension of Government relationship with the MCB.
While Kundnani's exemplary report helps us join the dots, the record needs to be put right on some issues: the MCB has not received Prevent funding 'in the past' for core activities, as suggested by one of his interviewees; reference ought to have been made to a community consultation meeting organised by the MCB at the Birmingham Central Mosque in March 2009 on Contest 2, when concerns on surveillance and intelligence gathering were expressed by many mosque representatives; the MCB did not come into being as a result of government 'encouragement', but rather it was a grass-roots led initiative building on the networks formed during the Rushdie and Balkan crises; and finally, the MCB did not 'initially acquiesce' to the Afghan bombing - notwithstanding pressures from Downing Street that Muslim leaders had 'a selling job' to do at the meeting on 27th September 2001. In fact the MCB's press release of 9th October 2001 stated, "British Muslims want justice to be done for the horrifying events of September 11th. These day and night strikes - which are already leading to innocent civilians deaths amongst the long-suffering Afghan population - will not achieve this purpose…These attacks will only lead to further polarisation in the world. This will not be a fitting memorial to those who died in the September 11th atrocities".