The new Prevent strategy is an excellent document, which both affirms and extends many of the best features of the original Prevent strategy, while rightly rejecting a number of dead-end strategies.
It should be said, of course, that the value of the policy turns on its implementation. If it is not consistently and fully followed, by all relevant government departments, it will fail. To that end, a number of commentators have suggested that the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Carlile, be appointed to oversee that process: and I agree with that recommendation.
There is one point, which a number of commentators have also made, about one aspect of the report: the definition of Islamism:
Islamism is a philosophy which, in the broadest sense, promotes the application of Islamic values to modern government. There are no commonly agreed definitions of ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islamist’, and groups or individuals described as Islamist often have very different aims and views about how those aims might be realised. Some militant Islamists would endorse violence or terrorism to achieve their aims. Many Islamists do not.
That definition is broadly correct. But it is, in my view, over-broad.
It should be said that the report then subdivides Islamist politics, by reference to the major Islamist political parties, the nature of their activities, and the extent to which their values conflict with the basic precepts of liberal democracy. That, definitionally speaking, is the right approach.
However, the notion that Islamism is essentially about “the application of Islamic values to modern government” is flawed. That is, of course, how Islamist parties themselves characterise what they are doing. However, I don’t think that it is right to concede that definition to self-identifying Islamist parties, which assert that their politics is the natural, and inevitable conclusion of the proper practice of that faith.
The problem with the definition is, as has been suggested, it might also catch (for example) somebody like Tehmina Kazi from the group, British Muslims for Secular Democracy. She is a secular liberal democrat, who opposes Islamist political parties and organises against hate preachers, while promoting positive social action such as addressing poverty in Muslim communities. In doing all this, I am sure she would say, she was motivated by her faith. A similar thing might be said of many of my Muslim friends, who have put themselves on the line, again and again in the struggle against hate preachers, antisemites, and Islamist political parties – and some of whom see what they are doing as an imperative as part and parcel of putting Islamic principles into action. In short, it is possible to be a liberal and a democrat, and to see all this as “the application of Islamic values to modern government”. None would call themselves Islamists. Yet, taken in isolation, the definition of “Islamist” appears to do just that.
I do use the term Islamism, largely because it is often used by Islamist politicians themselves: see the Muslim Brotherhood’s Kemal el-Helbawy’s Islamism Digest. However, my preference is to speak instead of specific Islamist political parties: those stemming from the Jamaat-e-Islami tradition, from the Muslim Brotherhood tradition, and from the Hizb ut Tahrir tradition. I also include those Salafi Jihadi/takfiri hate preachers, and their supporters, who are loosely associated (in the United Kingdom) with the J-e-I and Ikhwani institutions. All of these groups fail the “liberal democracy” test.
I do not think that the definition of Islamism in the Prevent report is a fatal flaw. The focus of the recommendations contained in the report is those political parties which oppose liberal democracy. Its function is not to define Islamism by its essence, but to oppose its challenge to liberal democracy. That, fundamentally, is the approach that we need.
It is good to know that we’re back on track.