Michael Gove and Theresa May are not the best of friends at the moment, according to a recent piece in The Guardian. Their falling out over the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ row about alleged extremism in Birmingham schools apparently dates back to disagreements over the (then Labour) government’s ‘Preventing Violent Extremism’ strategy launched in the wake of the 7/7 bombings. Gove favours so-called ‘draining the swamp’ tactics with regards to Islamic extremism – tackle the pernicious ideology directly, and prevent the radicalisation process that apparently stands behind it. As such, he seemingly dislikes the Home Office approach of building community partnerships and outreach programmes, and of even funding certain controversial groups.
Heaven knows I’m not one to willingly offer anyone relationship guidance, but in this case the disagreement seems fundamentally misguided: they’re both wrong. In fact, they’re both wrong for very similar reasons, and the realisation of this should, at least, give them grounds for some solidarity or reconciliation. Whilst Gove presents a hard-line approach to dealing with Islamist radicalism and Theresa May’s Home Office treads a more tolerant path of building linkages with (and within) the Islamic community to undermine the radicalisation process, they both share two vital assumptions that place them at two points on a continuum, rather than in different paradigms. These two assumptions are: First, that it is the religious ideas, beliefs, or ideologies themselves that are the grounds for radicalisation, and that countering this message with better (read: more moderate) ideas is the answer. Second, that government is best placed to conduct such attacks on radical ideologies. Both assumptions are false.
Prevent is one element of the government’s wider CONTEST strategy for combating violent extremism of all stripes, and was launched shortly after the 7th July bombings in the UK. CONTEST contains a number of aspects aimed at detecting violent plots, capturing would-be perpetrators, emergency plans, and the like – many of which we would consider traditional counter-terrorism policies, and the kinds of things the security services no doubt ought to be doing. But, Prevent was something different. Prevent sought explicitly to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of (predominantly) young, male Muslims who might be drawn to radical versions of their faith, and from there to acts of violence. Prevent has attempted to provide a counter-message to the radical Islamist doctrine; a message more moderate, more conducive to British society. The Home Office (and others) have funded various outreach programmes, and serenaded various religious and community groups in order to find partners to develop and push this message. If only they could turn away the vulnerable, impressionable youth from these crazy doctrines and ideas; make them see sense, and provide an alternative path.
There is a lot of intuitive appeal in such a tactic. It seems like common sense. After all, who in their right mind would join radical religious groups? We asked the same back in the 70s. Who would join the Hare Krishnas, or be married in a football stadium along with thousands of other Moonie couples, or die in a compound in Waco? It’s tempting in such cases to think that individuals who join radical groups – and here I mean groups that stand in some tension with their surrounding societies in terms of beliefs, mores, practices, and not necessarily violent groups – must be easily led, or vulnerable in some way to economic or cerebral sway, and that education and more moderate options are the antidote. This is what I have called elsewhere the Dumb-and-Malleable thesis.
Decades of research have, however, not just cast doubt on the DaM thesis, they have blown it apart. If the experience of 7/7 taught us anything, it is that even the most extreme do not fit the pattern of ill-educated, poor, juvenile loners looking for spiritual reward. Simply put, most adherents of religious groups make a simple cost-benefit analysis about membership. They weigh what they will give up against their expected benefits, and then choose a product that suits the trade-off they’re willing to make. Nothing has changed since the days of the Moonies. Despite tales of brainwashing, mass conversions, and the like, the Moonies were incredibly poor recruiters. So much for brainwashing. The Prevent strategy has bought into the 1970s tactic of trying to ‘de-programme’ susceptible individuals from their crazy ideas; a tactic that didn’t work then, and won’t work now.
Even if it is the ideology of Islamism that attracts individuals, we should be very wary about concluding that government involvement is in any way the appropriate mechanism for combating religious radicalism. Prevent aims to support local communities, organisations, and institutions to challenge the message of extremism, and to help provide that more moderate version of Islam as the most attractive or correct. Yet, such a tactic suffers from two problems; one obvious, one not so obvious but highly pernicious. First (the obvious): government pronouncements on the ‘correct’ version of a religious faith are likely to strike even moderate adherents of that faith as disingenuous, at best, or just downright insulting. Second, when the state funds or supports a religious view it actually provides a negative incentive for those groups to be active and influence and recruit adherents. In the absence of state funding, religious groups are reliant, like high street businesses, on the contributions of their members (customers). They need to provide a service that their customers are willing to pay for. This incentivises groups to recruit in order to survive and compete with rivals. The providers of a government-sponsored religion, however, are shielded from the pressures of competition and the desires and preferences of the pool of potential and actual members. Given a fixed remuneration, funded groups will tend to make suboptimal effort and provide a suboptimal range of services, whilst investing significant resources chasing government money and the monopolistic position it brings with it. This is the phenomenon known as ‘rent seeking’, and is familiar from other areas of government services.
Of course, radical niches – and violent ones – still remain. The former, at least, are an inevitable part of any religious environment. Some people just prefer their religion that way and are happy to bear the costs; and someone will always provide the goods they desire. But, their numbers will be smaller where non-interference is the norm, and state interference only increases the number.
Both May and Gove would do better to abandon the Prevent policy as it stands, and to concentrate efforts elsewhere, rather than to haggle over the ‘correct’ way for government to tackle religious radicalism. The battle for hearts and minds is the wrong battle, and government errs when it sets itself that task. This does not, of course, mean government should do nothing. Other aspects of counter-terrorism are more plausible avenues: detection, deterrence, capture, prosecution, and the like. Similarly, government can avail itself of other laws such as those against religious hatred, discrimination, and the like to deal with instances of outrageous behaviour by those who utter messages of hatred or incite to violence, or against those who would turn public institutions, such as schools, into places that fail to respect equality of opportunity, that violate the rights of pupils and staff, or that fail to teach the National Curriculum in an appropriate manner. Moreover, if we are looking for sources of dissatisfaction that are the drivers of violent extremism, we might look elsewhere than just at religious ideas. If Theresa May and Michael Gove want to have a proper argument, then one of them should jump off the Prevent ship, and then they’d really have something of substance to argue about.
Dr David Stevens in a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.