There has been some coverage in the newspapers this week of the report by the Taskforce on Tackling Radicalisation established by the Prime Minister in the days following the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in May.
The terms of reference for the taskforce were set out in the PM's speech announcing its creation. The focus was given to be schools, prisons, universities and the internet. And true to form, the taskforce report does contain a number of provisions dealing with these areas.
The Daily Mail on Thursday, the day following the publication date of the Tackling extremism in the UK report, chose to focus on the issue of multiculturalism. The report, repeating in some respects the criticism of 'the doctrine of state multiculturalism' that Cameron uttered in his Munich speech a couple of years ago, states: "Approaches in the past that, on occasion, sought to deal with different communities as separate and distinct, were mistaken". The paper also illustrates its story with an image of Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and mentions his forewarning years ago of the country 'sleepwalking into segregation'. Of course, no mention of Phillips' most recent remarks on Muslims "doing their damnedest to integrate".
The Daily Telegraph editorial on Thursday meanwhile focused on concerns raised on the alleged number of young Muslims going off to Syria to fight and the fear of them returning home radicalised. It also refers to the report's reference to universities and the use of Muslim chaplains to provide students with pastoral care on campus stating that it would however, "...be preferable if universities did not bow to pressure from radicals to segregate the sexes at official events."
On the Taskforce report itself, a number of concerns arise from the policies advanced to tackle extremism with many problems emanating from the curtailment of civil liberties, whether in universities through the 'excluding' of speakers, or online, through control of web content, and the poor evidence based analysis used in the defence of policies presented. For example, the report claims that 'some extremist groups target charities and seek to exploit and benefit from charitable status' but cites no evidence. A Cabinet Office consultation, released on the same day, does offer some insight into cases where the Charities Commission has been called to act on 'terrorism allegations' but it makes no mention of where the allegations are substantiated and in one of the examples illustrated in the consultation, the abuse of the charity was in no part the fault of the charity itself. Furthermore, as any familiar with the multiple allegations levelled at Interpal over the years, such allegations have been bandied about to bring Muslim charities and their causes into disrepute.
The report calls for "improve[d] oversight of religious supplementary schools" but as the fiasco surrounding the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation shows, and as a report by IPPR reveals, evidence based analysis on Muslim supplementary schools is hampered by the amount of available, and impartial, information regarding them.
The report makes mention of initiatives to challenge divisive narratives propagated by extremists such as "build the capabilities of communities and civil society organisations so that they can campaign against the large volume of extremist material, including online".
It also encourages the creation of a "public communications platform to allow communities to bring to life the success of integration and challenge the extremist worldview".
But according to the 2012 annual report of the counter-terrorism strategy Prevent, the Government is already engaged in these activities:
"We have supported community-based campaigns that rebut terrorist and extremist propaganda and offer alternative views to our most vulnerable target audiences. We have worked with digital communications experts to help fifteen civil society groups exploit the potential of the internet."
"More websites established to refute claims made by terrorist and extremist organisations. Wherever possible these websites should be created and sustained by communities and not by Government."
The Taskforce report support projects to demonstrate 'how communities come together, whether in: celebrating the 'Big Iftar', when Mosques up and down the country open up their doors to their community; commemorating the sacrifice of soldiers of all faiths from across the Commonwealth in World War 1; remembering where intolerance and hatred can lead, through Holocaust Memorial Day and the 'Remembering Srebrenica' project.'
It also notes that police forces will "ensure that the extremist dimension of hate crimes is properly logged and taken into account when conducting their investigations."
In both cases, the Taskforce report falls short of two substantive policies which would be far more meaningful in aiding integration and challenging Islamophobia: a requirement to record Islamophobia as a category of hate crime by all police forces in the country, as is currently the case with anti-Semitism, and a review of the incitement legislation which grants groups defined by religion lesser protection under the law than those defined by race.
As we stated earlier, a most interesting facet of the taskforce's work is captured in the PM's question on "whether we are doing enough to disrupt groups that incite hatred"?
The Racial and Religious Hatred Act contains provisions to ensure incitement charges are not used 'in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief systems.'"
The focus of offences on incitement to religious hatred is on 'threatening words or behaviour' but not 'insulting or abusive words or behaviour'. Racial hatred, on the contrary, covers 'threatening words or behaviour' and 'insulting or abusive words or behaviour'.
With the number of cases of incitement on social media in immediate days after Drummer Lee Rigby's murder, it is disappointing to see the area neglected in the Taskforce report.
The report includes a number of recommendations concerning universities and prisons though there is little to suggest that evidence earlier accrued has informed the taskforce's work. The Roots of Violent Radicalisation inquiry conducted by the Home Affairs select committee last year was inconclusive on the role of prisons and universities in radicalisation stating:
"As with the scale and drivers of radicalisation, it proved difficult for us to gain a clear understanding of where violent radicalisation takes place. In terms of the four sectors we explored-universities, prisons, religious institutions and the internet-we conclude that religious institutions are not a major cause for concern but that the internet does play a role in violent radicalisation, although a level of face-to-face interaction is also usually required. The role of prisons and universities was less obvious. Much of the uncertainty relates to the fact that a number of convicted terrorists have attended prisons and universities, but there is seldom concrete evidence to confirm that this is where they were radicalised."
It goes on to state that the Government focus on universities was considered 'disproportionate'.
The Taskforce report begins with the need to "define the ideology of Islamist extremism" as a "distorted interpretation of Islam".
It would seem the Taskforce has not heeded advice from the Communities and Local Government inquiry into the failings of the first Prevent strategy:
"There is a sense that Government has sought to engineer a 'moderate' form of Islam, promoting and funding only those groups which conform to this model. We do not think it is the job of Government to intervene in theological matters…".
While the report iterates that we "must tackle extremism of all kinds, including the Islamophobia and neo-Nazism," the vast majority of policies contained therein focus on 'Islamist extremism'. This in spite of the PM's undertaking that a focus on anti-Muslim violence would form part of the Taskforce's deliberations. For Muslims who have witnessed an alarming rise in anti-Muslim hate crime in recent months and poor legal protection for anti-Muslim hate speech, despite clear admissions of the 'real threat' posed by far right extremism. The taskforce report will do little to quell the perception that Muslims continue to be constructed as a 'suspect community'.