Groupthink In Action

I mentioned an episode of the BBC Radio 4 series called “Law in Action” in a recent post. The episode was:

Terrorism, Extremism and the Law

In this episode the BBC presenter Joshua Rozenberg (JR) talks with a Muslim called Dr. Salman Butt, with the former GCHQ director Sir David Omand, and with David Anderson QC (DA QC), about the government’s “Prevent” strategy and the surveillance bill known as the Snooper’s charter.

[Note: The longer 45 minute version of the program is found by clicking on the download MP3 link in the above web page]

I decided to write a specific post about this program because I think it helps to shine a light on the way the government and the mainstream media (particularly the BBC) exist in a narrow-minded ideological group-think bubble. Together they reinforce each others’ prejudices and work to block voices from outside the bubble from being heard. Many people consequently have come to the view that the current establishment is engaging in a sort of conspiracy that is actively working for the benefit only of a narrow rich elite, and against the interests of ordinary people. Unfortunately I think there is a degree of truth in this, although I think the closed nature of the establishment “clique” is also a problem in its own right. Even if there is such a big conspiracy going on, it will eventually come back to haunt the establishment elite themselves as the whole Western world will either likely descend into chaos and conflict, or become part of a theocratic caliphate which will not be kind to the former elite. Either way, they are living in a deluded ideological bubble which needs to be burst, and soon.

[Click the READ MORE button to see this post in full:]

Read More »

Joint Select Committee Scathingly Dismisses Theresa May’s Counter Extremism Proposals

From the Joint Select Committee report:

“The Government should reconsider its counter extremism strategy, use the existing extensive legal framework for dealing with people who promote violence, and introduce new legislation only if it can demonstrate a significant gap.”

They echo the concerns I had expressed some time ago, some quotes from their report:

“No clear definition of extremism”

“The difference in wording suggests a degree of confusion and, in either event, these definitions are couched in such general terms that they are likely to prove unworkable as a legislative definition. In particular, the extent to which lack of “mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs” could or should be deemed unlawful is likely to prove deeply contentious.”

“The aim should be to tackle extremism that leads to violence, not to suppress views with which the Government disagrees.”

“The legal issues that we have examined are so problematic that we consider that it would serve no purpose to have a further general consultation. If the Government wishes to take forward these proposals it must bring forward a draft Bill. It is plain that a consultation which does not provide a clear legal definition of what is meant by extremism would be futile. “

To put it in simpler terms, it is not possible to “combat non-violent extremism” without abandoning our most important liberty – freedom of speech. A great deal of the government’s time is being wasted establishing this patently obvious fact.

Is this enough to sink the strategy though? Could be embarrassing for the government. Theresa May’s government.  How did we end up with this person as our Prime Minister?


The Pretend Strategy – From Chamberlain to Cameron

Extremist Banning and Disruption Orders



The Pretend Strategy – From Chamberlain to Cameron

[This is the fourth in a short series of posts about the UK Government’s counter extremism strategy, called “Prevent”]

In the 1930s the UK government was pursuing a strategy of appeasement towards the rising menace of fascism in the European continent at that time. In 1938, tensions between Germany and Czechoslovakia were growing. Hitler was calling for the Sudetenland to become part of Germany, due to the large number of ethnic Germans in that region. Chamberlain went to Munich to agree with Hitler an “Anglo–German Agreement” which was supposed to be “symbolic of the desire of our two people never to go to war again”. Chamberlain claimed that during the meeting Hitler agreed not to bomb the people of Prague. He returned to England, and triumphantly proclaimed:

“My good friends, this is the second time there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Now I recommend you go home, and sleep quietly in your beds.”

Shortly afterwards, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and the path to war had become inevitable. Then Hitler invaded Poland and war was officially declared. Chamberlain’s honour was in tatters.

Appeasement is always a tempting response when faced with a rising supremacist ideology. Of course it might work, the problem is that usually it doesn’t work. What is revealed by our investigation of the government’s “Prevent” strategy is that this policy is essentially a policy of appeasement. It hides from the truth, it pretends that the Islamic religion is not the intolerant and supremacist ideology that it is. Especially during the time that Labour were in office, large amounts of money were given to mosques and other Islamic organisations in the hope that this would promote a more peaceful “version” of the religion. Then since the Conservative party took over, a rather different strategy was attempted. Essentially this strategy has been to pretend that Islam can be moulded into something that it is not. This interference has more served to alienate a lot of the followers of the religion than it has to reduce the rising threat of Islamic intolerance. This strategy also has failed, and now a new direction is being attempted, which is equally doomed to fail because it avoids the truth.

Ultimately we must face the truth. The UK government cannot re-write Islamic texts. Mohammed’s example was a brutally warlike and intolerant one. Those who attempted to speak out against him were killed. Take for example the story of Asma bint Marwan who was murdered in her bed as she slept with her children around her. This is not the way of a civilized society. This is not the way of democracy. We must allow people to speak freely. We must allow people to mock their leaders. We must allow people to mock religions.

The new Orwellian direction that the policy has now taken is just about the worst reaction possible to Islamic intolerance. By promising to silence the critics of Islam using “Extremist Banning and Disruption Orders”, the Conservative government are handing victory to the terrorists. In a towering gesture of hypocrisy, this policy proposal comes not long after David Cameron’s attendance of the je suis Charlie rally in France that followed the massacre of cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Stéphane Charbonnier must be rolling in his grave.

Supposedly the rationale behind this new direction is that criticism of Islam will lead to hostility towards the Muslim population, which could lead to violence against them. Or if we are more honest with ourselves, perhaps it is that we must keep critics of Islam quiet because followers of the religion get very upset when Islam is criticized, and themselves may turn to violence? Whichever is the main motivation is immaterial. We have free speech because free speech allows us to criticize bad ideas. If we cannot criticize a religion that calls for those who try to criticize the religion to be killed, then we no longer have free speech. If the government were to silence the critics of Islam, then they would simply be doing the bidding of the Islamic terrorists whose goal is also to suppress that criticism. Free speech was not won by cowardice in the face of intimidation and aggression. We must take risks to preserve it.

Extremist Banning and Disruption Orders

[This is the third in a short series of posts about the UK Government’s counter extremism strategy, called “Prevent”]

In the autumn of 2014, the Conservative government announced a truly Orwellian plan to deal with “extremism” using new legislation. The proposals they described are not yet law, but will probably soon be put before parliament. Here is an extract from Theresa May’s speech at the 2014 Conservative party conference, when this plan was first mentioned:

I want to see new banning orders for extremist groups that fall short of the existing laws relating to terrorism. I want to see new civil powers to target extremists who stay just within the law but still spread poisonous hatred. So both policies – Banning Orders and Extremism Disruption Orders – will be in the next Conservative manifesto.

Note especially the phrase “extremists who stay just within the law but still spread poisonous hatred”. Since it is already illegal to incite violence, this was a curious choice of phrase.  What sort of “extremism” might this include?  The proposals were indeed included in the manifesto, albeit vaguely. In October 2015 the government published a draft “Counter-Extremism Strategy” which can be found here:

In this document they gave some examples of the kinds of extremism that they intended to target with the orders, here is one of the examples of extreme speech that they gave (chapter 1, page 11, section 11, 4th bullet point):

  • describing Islam as a “disgusting, backward, savage, barbarian, supremacist ideology masquerading as a religion.”

So, if you describe the Islamic religion in these terms you are, according to the government, an extremist. But there are also Islamic extremists apparently as well, this is an example they give of Islamic extremist speech:

  • unbelievers (or ‘Kufaar’) are “not worth anything, less than an ant, less than an insect, less than a dog. A dog has more honour than a Kafir and at least the dog he’s loyal to you.”

However surely the speaker here is just elaborating on this Koranic verse:

Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve, then they would not believe.
(Quran 8.55)

So, on this page of the document the government have both described a critic of Islam as an extremist but also (probably unwittingly) criticized the Islamic religion themselves. It almost seems to me the UK government is coming dangerously close to implicitly accusing itself of “extremism” here.

Worse still, no clear definition of extremism was even given in the document. The word is in any case very subjective. Not deterred by the difficulty of defining a clear legal definition they again announce:

Disrupting extremists – We will create new targeted powers, flexible enough to cover the full range of extremist behaviour, including where extremists sow division in our communities and seek to undermine the rule of law.

As I mentioned in the first post on the “Prevent” strategy, the government have themselves already been accused of sowing division by prominent Muslims, a type of “extremist” behaviour defined here.  Is the government itself an extremist organization according to their own vague definition?

What other kinds of “extremism” might be targeted by the orders? One Conservative MP suggested that school teachers who argue against gay marriage should be subjected to the orders:

In short, it seems that just about anything the government doesn’t agree with then might be targeted. Perhaps global warming skeptics might be next? Opponents of mass immigration? Where might it end? There was a suggestion that environmental activists might be subjected to the orders in one speech I read about.

How would these orders work in practice? This is what I have gleaned so far:

If the police (or the home secretary? I’ve read different reports) feel that an individual is an extremist they will apply to the High Court for an Extremist Banning or Disruption Order against them.  Apparently the criteria would be as vague as someone saying something in public that was likely to cause “alarm and distress”. Note here that many Muslims claimed to be alarmed and distressed by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Whilst they are subjected to the order, all public speaking or publishing that they do will have to be vetted by the police and approved before they can go public with it. (How long the orders would remain in force or what conditions would lead to them being lifted has not been revealed yet). If they bypass this process and go public without checking with the police beforehand, they will be in breach of the order and will have committed a criminal offence for which there will be a prison sentence. If this sounds like something out of the Soviet Union or George Orwell then that’s because it is like that. This is the thought police telling people what they can think and what they can’t.

One really big issue I have with these orders is that they would be directed at individuals rather than particular opinions. The incitement to violence law by contrast was aimed at a specific thing a person had said. Once subjected to one of the orders, journalists and commentators on current affairs could be effectively put out of business because absolutely every time they wanted to make a public statement they would have to submit it first to the police and then wait for approval. Even if the police allowed most things they wanted to say, the simple process of waiting for approval could hamper the person to the point where they were commenting on yesterday’s news always a day or more behind the rest – especially at weekends probably when the police were not on duty.

The stigma associated could also encourage people reading the person’s opinion to dismiss their views more readily, as the government would have tarred them with the brush and they could be dismissed as just that “extremist”, no need to listen to him/her. Of course this could also work in the opposite direction and encourage other people to read their views more intently, if they were generally suspicious of the government. Either reaction is bad though, because in the first reaction the government is successfully interfering with free speech, and in the second distrust of the government is increased which is also bad for democracy. Different people would react in different ways and so these are not contradictory objections.

Perhaps most worryingly of all, the government could even use the orders to silence their political opponents.

Crucially, will the public be kept informed about who the orders have been used against, and how? If so, then that revelation could undermine the very point of the orders, because the very opinion that the authorities are trying to suppress will be so publicized and will be much discussed in the media. If not, then it would seem to me that the thought police state has become a reality, because opinions will be being suppressed, and we won’t know whose opinions or why.

The Pretend Strategy – A New Orwellian Direction

[This is the second in a short series of posts about the UK Government’s counter extremism strategy, called “Prevent”]

In the run up to the general election in spring 2015, a new tougher rhetoric began to be heard from the Conservative party leadership. It seemed they were realizing that the “Prevent” strategy was not proving terribly effective. An almost endless stream of Islam-related bad news stories kept appearing in the press. A clearly not very de-radicalized individual nicknamed as “Jihadi John” (because of his English accent) kept appearing in online videos which showed him hacking the heads off people including an aid worker and a journalist. A lot of other UK citizens were also believed to have gone to join the Islamic State.

In a speech in autumn 2014, the home secretary Theresa May announced:

And I want to tell you about another change we intend to make. As part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent has only ever been focused on the hard end of the extremism spectrum. So the Home Office will soon, for the first time, assume responsibility for a new counter-extremism strategy that goes beyond terrorism.

Was she just talking about Islamic extremism here? Was she just talking more generally about the sort of extremism that directly incited violence perhaps? It soon became clear that she was referring to all sorts of other kinds of “extremism” as well:

And our policy doesn’t just focus on violent extremism, it deals with non-violent extremism too.

So what, exactly, constitutes non-violent extremism? She listed a number of Islamic hate preachers that she had “kicked out” of the country.  She did not mention the fact that she had also barred two well known critics of Islam (Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller) from entering the UK to speak on Islam at an EDL rally in 2013.

Other phrases such as “extremism in all its forms” were repeatedly heard in speeches by the Tory leadership from this time onward.  She also said in the same speech that free speech was an important British value. So where exactly was the line going to be drawn between extremism and free speech? It was not at all clear. She concluded the speech with this:

We must confront segregation and sectarianism. We must face down extremism in all its forms. We must stand up for our values. Because, in the end, as they have done before, those values, our British values, will win the day, and we will prevail.

It became no clearer at all where the line would be drawn when she tried to clarify this in July 2015:

We’re not talking about curbing free speech. We recognize that free speech is one of our values. But we have to look at the impact some people have in terms of the poisonous ideology they plant in people’s minds that will lead them to challenge, lead them to undermine the values we share as a country.

So how exactly were the prime minister and home secretary going to confront “non-violent extremism”?. It was clear from the speech that they intended to introduce new legislation, Orwellian measures called “Extremist Banning and Disruption Orders”. I will examine these in detail in the next post.


The Pretend Strategy – The Story So Far

This is the first in a series of posts examining the UK government anti-terrorism strategy known as the “Prevent Strategy”.  This strategy is part of a larger 4-part counter-terrorism strategy called “CONTEST”.

In the wake of the suicide bombing atrocities that took place in London on 7th July 2005, the then Labour government created this convoluted strategy that was supposed to address the underlying problems that had led 4 young men to commit the terrible acts.  In the government’s words the goal of “Prevent” is “to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”. Is the strategy working?  The BBC estimates that 800 UK citizens have gone to join the Islamic State in spite of the strategy being in place:

Have others been turned away from violent jihad?  Possibly, the government claimed in 2013 that 500 people had undergone “deradicalisation” which had steered them away from violent extremism.  However there have also been claims that many Muslims in the UK feel alienated by the strategy.  If many Muslims feel alienated by the strategy it is perfectly possible that it is having the exactly opposite effect to the one intended on those people.  Of course it is impossible to estimate the scale of such an effect.  Here is an example of just such a reaction from a prominent Muslim, the chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque:

Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on the strategy.  Meanwhile a government funded community centre was found to be being used to  recruit people to join the Islamic State!

A lot of Prevent funding has apparently just been given to mosques and Islamic organisations, presumably as an incentive to dissuade terrorism.  This is really based on the idea that “mainstream” Islam is a peaceful religion, and therefore it should be encouraged in order to draw Muslims away from more violent “strains” of the religion.

The above articles relate mainly to spending during the Labour government’s time in office.  The strategy was revised somewhat since the Coalition came to power, and spending has been reduced greatly, but currently annual spending is still £40m.  I am under the impression that generally the focus has shifted more towards spying and greater interference in what is being taught.  The increased feeling of being spied upon appears to have worsened the alienation felt among the Muslim population.  More hostility towards the government has been reported since the Conservatives came to power.  The government also cannot control what is taught in the home.  Even if they close madrassas, radicalization can just go on behind closed doors.

Unfortunately the government cannot change the teachings of the Koran and the violent and warlike example of Mohammed’s dictatorial rule, so there is really a limit to what influence they can have.   As long as they are clinging to the notion that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the religion, they are avoiding the elephant in the room.   Some Muslims will almost inevitably be “radicalized” as long as Islam is taught.

The strategy has also been targeted at non-Muslims, presumably in a feeble attempt to appear balanced.  The “Prevent duty”, advice given to schools and child care providers states: “Protecting children from the risk of radicalisation should be seen as part of schools’ and childcare providers’ wider safeguarding duties”.  This general purpose advice has led to a bizarre case where a child was arrested for visiting a UKIP website and watching an EDL video:

As a non-Muslim UK citizen I am outraged that large amounts of taxpayers’ money has been given to organizations promoting a religion whose ideals are so very antagonistic towards free speech and democracy.  The strategy is really typical of a government making a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis situation, governments it seems must always be seen to be doing something, however pointless, and as discussed the strategy is actually counter-productive.

The “Prevent” strategy would be better named as the “Pretend” strategy.


Click to access prevent-duty-departmental-advice-v6.pdf