Speeches recovered from the Conservative party’s online archive More…

Pauline Neville-Jones: Society's Role in Preventing Terrorism

At the beginning of January, I was in Syria and Lebanon as the crisis in Gaza continued to unfold.

It was instructive to compare the coverage of the conflict there to its coverage in the mainstream media here in the UK.

The news reports in the Middle East made use of particularly graphic images of death, violence and destruction.  Worrying, because we know that the emotive content of images can contribute to the process of radicalisation.

Even though such images were not used by our major broadcasters, primarily because of the Israeli restrictions on Western broadcasters and their own editorial policies, Al Jazeerah was not so restricted or self-censored. We in the UK nevertheless saw quite enough for there to be a strong public reaction. Imagine the effect of the much more emotive images - which of course are disseminated all round the world on all sorts of platforms: not just TV, but also PC, mobile and so on, on diaspora communities, and co religionists. What does this example tell us about the challenges we face in trying to counter radicalisation?

It reinforces or tells us three things.

First, that as technology develops, so the sources by which extremist messages and ideology are propagated become more diverse and reaches a wider more geographically dispersed audience.  Truly the global village. Opinion is mobilised ever more widely.

Secondly, that Western media no longer control the communications agenda of the world and we cannot assume that we share the same news agenda or the same experience. So we may suffer from illusions about what others know and think. Moreover, we will not view and most of us will not even be aware of the websites that exploit the anger that events like Gaza engender.

Thirdly there may be a gap between the result of events on the ground and their propaganda effect.  Many people in the area, including Palestinians take the view that Hamas did not do a good job in protecting them and that they are part of the cause and not just victims of the resulting misery.  But this assessment, which may contain much truth still does not detract from Hamas' propaganda coup which has been huge. And that is as important as any assessment of what might call the "real" situation.

The conclusion we have to draw is that the 'Prevent' agenda really does need to encompass, simultaneously, both the domestic and the international. And that it has to be pretty sophisticated.
This morning, I want to look in more detail at these observations and what they mean for us going forward. 

If you take one message away with you, it is that the state, by itself, does not have all the resources necessary to tackle radicalisation. 

I would suggest that, ultimately, tackling radicalisation can only be done effectively by communities themselves and society as a whole.  The Government can - and must - however take a number of steps to help build resilient communities and diminish the attraction of the extremists' message. This means government communicating effectively with communities, working with civil society, empowering individuals as well as cooperating internationally.

<h2>What is radicalisation?</h2>

Before turning to look in greater detail at how the process of radicalisation has evolved, and how our 'Prevent' agenda needs to adapt in response, it might help to clarify the use of key words that pervade the literature and over which there is often contention if not confusion.

What is extremism?  Does 'extremism' refer to violence, or does it refer to an ideology?

Our understanding of these concepts does have implications for the strategies we pursue, so a shared understanding is pretty important. I do not think we have this at present.

The Government has tended to construe the problem we face as one of 'violent extremism' - that is, the physical manifestation in violence of an ideology.  In simple language, terrorism.  The Conservative Party, though agreeing that 'Prevent' was - and is - the key strand of CONTEST, has parted company with the Government in this analysis.  It is incomplete.

It is certainly necessary to act to prevent or respond to acts of terrorism.  But this is just part of the approach.  By itself it can, at best, only contain the problem.  Tackling the physical manifestation of an ideology comes too late in the game: individuals are already radicalised, and this has implications wider than that of any physical attack.  It divides and segregates communities.  It means that individuals do not identify with common values.  The more extremist ideology spreads in our communities, the harder it is to maintain a united and open society.  And the more it will act as a conveyor belt leading people to violence.

So we believe that it is necessary to tackle extremism itself. We realise that this is both more controversial - since whereas we can agree more or less about what constitutes violence, we can disagree about what is extreme and about the extent to which it should in any case be permitted as part of legitimate activity in a democratic society.   It has certainly been put to me that it is fair game for extremists who wish fundamentally to change the form of government in this country to something much less liberal than we have now, to exploit the freedoms we have now in order to destroy them.  Our parents' generation would have said that is what they fought the Second World War to prevent.  So when does being liberal become just soft headed and when does trying to set limits deny the values we seek to uphold?

Government is not full of philosophers.  It has to fashion a practical policy, do what it thinks is right, be prepared to defend its actions- but in the end it must take public opinion with it.  So we need to discuss these complex issues, not bury them or hide from them.

<h2>How has the process of radicalisation evolved?</h2>

But first, before turning to policy remedies we need to know why some individuals are vulnerable to extremist messages and ideologies. There is academic literature on this subject but we still have much to learn on this subject. I therefore submit the following possibilities in the knowledge that there may be reasons other than those I list.

Vulnerability can be a function of many different things, including a poor education, unemployment, poor local services, a lack of access to local services, isolation and a lack of engagement with political institutions and policy or a combination of these.

These vulnerabilities can easily interact with what seems, for many second and third generation young British Muslims, to be a conflict of personal identity.  They are torn between the modern British society- not always an attractive sight, the traditional values advocated by their parents, and, as the result of modern technology, the sort of events which have just occurred in Gaza,  And they may be watching through  the eyes of commentator  and reporters different from the majority in this country.  The resulting tensions may not be easily resolved. Simple fundamentalist solutions to complex problems assume an attraction all their own.

And flawed policies like multiculturalism practised by government have compounded the difficulty by emphasising cultural difference and exceptionalism at the expense of a common British identity and common British values.

Taken together, this vulnerability to radical ideas combined with uncertain personal identity helps foster a sense of grievance. But it is still not obvious that in a democracy it should lead to the desire to kill people. As a recent study noted, 'without ideology, grievances may lead to crime and other forms of disorder and delinquency but are unlikely to result in politically motivated violence'.

So what is the added element? The answer seems to be the exploitation of the linkages between fundamentalist goals; events and movements abroad and alienation from local society at home. Detachment can create an environment in which it becomes legitimate to engage in political violence in the name of religion.

And some of the current trends in the UK are reinforcing rather than reducing division and separation. So called 'gateway organisations' are an example.  Without themselves advocating violence they promote values and activities antithetical to a unified and open society and they provide access to those who do. They are examples of bodies which exploit freedoms with the aim of repressing them. We know that universities, both on an off campus, as well as some mosques have become centres of radicalisation as have some prisons. And the numbers are growing.

Internet technologies magnify the scale and scope of propaganda.  It is possible, with some determination, to stop the import of some of the vile bigoted literature that appears in the name of Islam.  It is harder, but I would maintain not impossible, to track its publication on the internet.  What the police can do against paedophilia rings, they can do against extremism.  In the case of extremism, it is not so much passive browsing of extremist messages or violent images that will by itself cause an individual to resort to violence, but it is the creation of 'virtual communities' where social interaction promotes radicalisation and extremism.

<h2>Policy response</h2>

So what do we need to do? First, in this country.  

The unavoidable priority is to identify the individuals who intend to commit violent acts and prevent them doing damage. The development of regional Counter Terrorism Units has increased the security of this country. If this work can over time be successfully integrated with mainstream and community policing, it will bring a further major advance in security. Getting to vulnerable people before they become "hot" must be the right goal.

My party supports this effort but it seems there is still some way to go. In November last year, a report by the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of the Constabulary found that Local Authority Chief Executives, local police commanders and other partners did not receive information on the vulnerabilities of their local areas.  As a result, they were not able to make informed decisions on their Prevent strategies, coordinate well or assess outcomes. 

It is the case Ladies and Gentlemen that in some areas of government there is all too much information swilling about.  Usually yours and mine. And being mislaid. In other cases, like this one, government agencies find it hard to share the government's own information.  This is something a Conservative government intends to reverse.

The second thing to do is to inhibit the activities of the groomers. Our position on organisations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir is well-known.  People argue that it is illiberal- and I know it may be difficult under current law to ban organisations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir.  But Indonesia, a Muslim democracy does.  And so do a number of other governments. Precisely because of this, the UK has become the world wide HQ of Hizb. Imagine. The Conservative party draws the line in a different from the government on what a democracy should permit those who out to undermine it should be allowed to do.

We would draw up a register of extremist individuals and organisations that will be made available to public bodies and authorities, so that public money and facilities are not provided to them. And we would also review the list of proscribed organisations to abolish the spurious distinction made between the social/charitable and military wings of terrorist organisations.

Removing the malefactors from circulation and shutting down organisations which help groom train and finance them is the first step towards reducing the draw of radicalisation.  Putting them on trial is undoubtedly another.  The danger of spending a long time in jail is a sobering thought.  But this is the negative part of the agenda- necessary but not sufficient.

We need a positive message.  We need to create conditions in which the pull of fundamentalism and extremist ideology is less potent to all our citizens than the attractions of an open and liberal democracy. We need also to create conditions in which moderates feel able to speak out against the intellectual intimidation of ideologues and radicals.  And third, we must create conditions in which the rights of all citizens of this country are defined on an individual basis and are not subordinated to supposed group rights.

To give one example. It is not, Ladies and Gentlemen, that the Conservative party opposes the existence of the Muslim Council of Britain, though we disagree with quite a number of the views it expresses which are illiberal and damaging to Muslims as much as anyone.  It is their pretension to speak on behalf of all Muslims which is not acceptable. This discourages ordinary people from airing their own view and blocks, rather than facilitates, wider decentralised dialogue among Muslims and between British Muslims and other parts of society. It is ghettoising. This is the last thing we need.  We need integration.

Let me unpack that last thought a little. It is not for non Muslims to seek to intervene in the debate between Muslims which is underway about the meaning of Islam in twenty first century Europe. It is wrong to think that Islam has no roots in Europe.  It has plenty and these are being re-established.  They need also to be re indigenised if I may put it that way. France has gone down the road of creating a state supported Muslim hierarchy with a grand mufti.  I somehow doubt, in the different conditions that prevail in the UK, we shall pursue that route, but we can and should increase knowledge of Islam and Islamic culture in mainstream teaching beyond the confines of the specialists in schools and universities.

And Muslim centres of learning should encourage a similar inclusivity. A strong faith has nothing to fear from its adherents knowing about other religions and traditions. The Germans have created a forum for exchange of views between minorities and mainstream, individuals and organisations, but- and here is the important point, on the basis of a shred commitment to democratic values.

Under the heading engagement, the government has sought to create links with Muslim communities. The Conservative party does not object to engagement.  It is hard to do so. But what does it really mean?  The initial foray by the government was misconceived in a least two ways- it was based on and fostered what I hope is now the discredited because damaging notion of multiculturalism.  Secondly, it was executed though privileged leadership organisations like the MCB which reinforced separation.  It now recognises that its links with the Muslim population need to be much broader. More organisations are involved. That is better.

But for my taste, the approach is still very communitarian-organisation to organisation with little scope for individuals and still too exclusive an emphasis on the role of the state and the expenditure of public money. Where are individuals and volunteers and small informal groups in all of this- able to organise local events and activities on an ongoing basis with comparatively small sums of money?  And the branding is terrible. The programme is called PVE - preventing violent extremism.  Do we really want to brand integration as a prophylactic against violence?  Can't we do better than that? And who wants to apply for money which suggests that their qualification rests on their predisposition to violence?  Again, the government seems to think it important only to prevent violence and not to provide the alternative positive message which promotes integration.

Through its Preventing Violent Extremism programme, the Government has distributed millions of pounds to different community groups and projects.   But with little guidance to local authorities on how to spend it. Those in receipt of funding are critical.  A woman who received £7,000 from the fund said: 'I did feel at the time that the amount of money I was being offered was rather large for the kind of work and it made me concerned about who gets the money and how they were checking these funds were going to be effectively used'.

The Conservative Party supports what the Government is trying to achieve through the Preventing Violence Extremism programme, but we have doubts about the effectiveness of many projects and of the mechanisms for distributing and monitoring funding.  So we want a full, evidence-based review of Prevent projects.  Increasing our understanding of the process of radicalisation will be an important part of assessing the effectiveness of 'Prevent'.

<h2>The international dimension</h2>

Let me now say something briefly about the international dimension. We are all aware of the need for international intelligence cooperation over the terrorist threat. It is very important but I am not going to dwell on it today any more than on the military side of counter terrorism, both of which form part of the whole.

Our diplomacy is important.  What just happened in Gaza tells us that if we do not turn the tide of conflict in the Middle East by grasping the peace process and persisting until it yields results- a job of several years not doubt- we shall see more radicalisation and more terrorism from which the UK will not be exempt.  The threat will grow. We could say something of the same about Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Underlying this is the ideological challenge of political Islam especially in certain key countries. How we deal with that directly affects the likelihood of winning the ideological challenge at home. They are linked. The Conservative party have put forward a proposal which we have called "Partnership for the Open Society".  This is a long term concept- and in our haste to protect ourselves in the short term we must not forget the need to build for the future. I do not agree with those who say we should give up trying to promote democracy- and promote our values abroad.  On the contrary. 

I do agree we should give up promoting the premature introduction of the ballot box into societies where it may well lead to unwanted outcomes- including the legitimation through election of extremists.  But we do need to help societies that do not have the institutions which support a participative society.  Extremism is bred in young people without a stake and without prospects and who answer the siren song of fundamentalism for lack of other prospects.  There is not time to discuss this at length.  All I would say is that it has to be done on the basis of a broad international partnership and not, as the French would say, de haut en bas.

Over the long-term, we must also work to achieve political, social and economic reform in countries.  Political and social reform over time, as well as economic development which gives ordinary people a stake in their own societies and the right to participate in politics, are the best solutions to radicalisation.  The Conservative Party have proposed the concept of a 'Partnership for Open Societies' to help foster this in other countries on a partnership basis.  This is all the more important in the context of the global economic downturn.  Take a simple example in Pakistan: if the economy continues its collapse, the illiteracy rate - already 66 per cent - will decrease further, so increasing the susceptibility of individuals to extremism.

To accompany this we need a positive narrative about democracy to sell. The unit in the Home Office, the Research, Information, Communications Unit (RICU) does important work in dismantling the jihadist message and exposing its internal contradictions as well as its brutality and nihilism.  I would like to se more done however to sell what we stand for, why democracy is good. Both at home as well as abroad.


I want to end on this point. There are some very specific things for government to do and I have tried to set them out. But the title of my talk "Countering radicalisation, society's role in preventing terrorism" is not an accident.  We are all involved in this.  I have on other occasions talked about the need to build an inclusive British identity. I think we need to be less squeamish about what makes this a good society to live in and what is special about his country. More and better history in schools; more and better instruction in our institutions and traditions.  More effort to do things together across communities. Liberation of volunteers from health and safety... But that it a different speech.

But I do think that ultimately it is about the society we want to be. We have fought some battles over the last year or so over the power of the state in relation to detention and civil liberties are once again high on our national agenda. I think it is good that we are not so obsessed by security that we connive in the suppression of our liberties.  But we need also to take other measures that will reduce the threat to them and these include building a cohesive society in which we citizens trust each other rather than looking to the state to protect us from each other.

Keyboard shortcuts

j previous speech k next speech