Community & Civil Society

UK Gov. Spies on ‘Innocent Muslims’

18/10/2009

By  Inayat Bunglawala
A British spying program targeting thoughts & believes of innocent people

The British newspaper The Guardian carried this weekend a highly disturbing front page story revealing that the British government’s ‘Prevent’ program – which is meant to be aimed at halting Muslims from being lured into the world of violent extremism – is actually being used to gather intelligence on innocent people who are not themselves suspected of involvement in terrorism.

According to documents checked by The Guardian the information being gathered by the UK authorities includes political and religious views, information on mental health, sexual activity and associates, and other sensitive information

As The Guardian’s editorial observes regarding the collection of this data:

“It hardly needs saying that it would be incredibly dangerous if innocent Muslims were to come to believe that [divide and rule] tricks were now being deployed against them, whether through the recruitment of agents or overt spying operations. Yet when, as we report, the authorities are actively seeking information on sexual activities, this must surely be a risk. What use could such data have apart from blackmail? How is news of its collection to be explained, other than in terms of a desire to dominate?” (1)

Biggest Spying ProgramShami Chakrabarti of Liberty, the human rights organization, responded to The Guardian’s revelations by voicing outrage that the government appeared to be engaged in:

“…the biggest domestic spying programme targeting the thoughts and beliefs of the innocent in Britain in modern times. It is information-gathering directed at the innocent and the spying is directed at people because of their religion, and not because of their behaviour.” (2)
Shock of 7/7 Bombings

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The UK government’s Prevent agenda was first set up three years ago in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London. Many had been expecting an Al-Qaeda-inspired attack in the UK especially after the UK government actively participated in the invasion of Iraq. However, it had been widely assumed that a terrorist attack would be carried out by foreign nationals. The fact that the 7/7 bombings were perpetrated by four British born Muslims came largely as a shock to the government, the security services and the UK’s two million strong Muslim community.

Faced now with a serious domestic terror threat – and there have been a number of successful convictions since 7/7 of UK Muslims for terror-related offences – it was inevitable that the government would seek to devote resources to countering this threat.
New Outfit Doesn’t Fit

In normal circumstances you would have expected British Muslims to wholeheartedly rally behind the stated goals of the Prevent agenda, i.e., to reduce the risk of terrorism and to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting violent extremism.

In practice, however, under the guise of the Prevent program, ministers at the communities and local department (CLG), including Ruth Kelly and her successor Hazel Blears, attempted to engage in a rather ambitious bit of social engineering and began promoting and funding outfits which had little or no support among UK Muslims, including the Sufi Muslim Council and the Quilliam Foundation, while trying to marginalize far larger and more representative bodies such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Oddly enough, the views of the government and these new outfits concerning the “war on terror” were largely indistinguishable.

The result, of course, was entirely predictable. The “Prevent” agenda – one of the four strands in the government’s overall CONTEST strategy, the others being “pursue,” “protect,” and “prepare” – quickly lost the trust of UK Muslims and became widely discredited and ridiculed as the “provoke” agenda.

At an `Eid reception for British Muslims earlier this week, the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, sought to quell concerns about the Prevent agenda saying:

“I know that there have been some ill-informed criticism of our Prevent strategy recently– that it’s simply about intelligence gathering, or that its only objective is to stigmatise the Muslim community. This is nonsense – we would make no headway at all in tackling violent extremism if it were true. “Prevent” is about empowering British Muslims to be at the forefront in challenging and undermining those who seek to distort Islam in order to justify terrorism.”

It is worth remarking that nobody has seriously claimed that “Prevent” is ‘simply about intelligence gathering’ – the concerns are far more widespread than that.

The ‘Islamist’ Smear

“It would be incredibly dangerous if innocent Muslims were to come to believe that [divide and rule] tricks were now being deployed against them, whether through the recruitment of agents or overt spying operations,” The Guardian.

According to The Guardian, the Quilliam Foundation has received £700,000 in Home Office Prevent funding to date. It is an eye-opening figure given that the Quilliam Foundation was only established in April 2008 by two former Hizb ut-Tahrir activists Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz.The Quilliam Foundation has earned notoriety among UK Muslims by consistently being seen to smear and attempting to undermine leading Islamic figures and mainstream organizations by labeling them as ‘Islamists’.

And also adding to British Muslim concerns, the Quilliam Foundation has gained the vocal support of a whole gallery of influential neo-conservatives and Zionists including Nick Cohen, Michael Gove, Charles Moore, and Martin Bright. Indeed, the latter, Martin Bright, was the author of a notorious article whose title referred to the holy Qur’an as a ‘great con trick’.

So, it will come as no surprise to many British Muslims that the one person The Guardian managed to find who was willing to support the government’s spying on innocent Muslims was Quilliam’s Ed Husain whom it appears freely admitted that Prevent was:

…gathering intelligence on people not committing terrorist offences.“(2)
Policy Shift Needed

To his credit, John Denham, the new Secretary of State at the Communities and Local Government department, indicated two months ago that he wanted to see a policy shift away from defining the government’s relationship with Muslim communities solely in terms of tackling extremism while also developing a more explicit strategy to resist white racist extremism. Denham is well-regarded in UK Muslim communities and he was one of the very few ministers who resigned from their positions in the government in 2003 as a protest against the decision to support the Iraq war.

In view of the deeply troubling revelations in The Guardian, it would appear natural for British Muslims to want to shun those involved in the Prevent agenda. That would be a tragic mistake. It should be self-evident to all that Britain needs to have an effective and successful Prevent strategy in place to safeguard all our communities. 7/7 showed that the terror threat is not an illusion. British Muslims who have made the UK their home and are bringing up their children there have an obvious stake in ensuring that the country is protected against the evil scourge of terrorism.
However, the trust lost by misguided and ill-motivated past actions by the government may well prove difficult to regain. Many British Muslims have understandably come to view the Quilliam Foundation as constituting a government-backed attempt to destabilize leading Islamic organizations in the UK. An essential and necessary first step to help rebuild relations with British Muslims and increase trust must be for the Home Office to publicly make crystal clear that the government does not in any way condone spying on individuals who are not suspected of involvement in unlawful activities.  A second essential step must be to loudly distance itself from the actions and views of the Quilliam Foundation and to immediately cease funding its mischief-making against Islamic institutions.

Sources:

  1. Surveillance of Muslims: The lives of the other
  2. Government anti-terrorism strategy ‘spies’ on innocent
Inayat Bunglawala is the Chair of Muslims4UK, a group set up to celebrate the UK’s democratic traditions and promote active Muslim engagement in British society. He is also a spokesperson at the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). He writes a regular blog column for the Guardian’s popular Comment is Free. Bunglawala has been active in UK Islamic organizations since he joined The Young Muslims UK in 1987. He has written pieces about Islam and current affairs over the past few years for The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Daily Express, The Observer, and The Sun. In August 2005, he was appointed by the Home Office as the Convener of a working group on Tackling Extremism.