Last summer’s failed car bombings in London and Glasgow underlined once again the need to tackle violent Islamist ideology and activity in Britain, something that the government has tried to build a policy around since 9/11, and particularly since July 2005. What was remarkable this time round, though, was just how different the government’s response was from two years previously.

In 2005, the government reacted to the suicide bombings on the London Underground by turning to its usual partners in the Muslim community, primarily the Muslim Council of Britain, to establish a series of consulting groups under the rubric of Preventing Extremism Together. The MCB had long been nurtured by government as a single point of contact for their interaction with the Muslim community.

Dave Rich's spread from the January/February 2008 issue of New HumanistModelled on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the MCB had been established in 1997 for precisely this purpose. Its Secretary General – formerly Iqbal Sacranie, now Muhammad Abdul Bari – came to be treated as the nominal leader of the British Muslim community; when the Chief Rabbi was awarded a knighthood in 2005, it was Sacranie who received the parallel honour for the Muslim community. Yet the leadership of the MCB, and many of its affiliates, have from the beginning been drawn from those parts of the Muslim community influenced by the radical ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and its South Asian equivalent, the Jamaat-e-Islami.

This ideological layer was repeatedly exposed by the media, in particular John Ware on Panorama and Martin Bright via the Policy Exchange think tank. It had a direct impact on the MCB’s position on a host of issues, including opposing anti-terrorist legislation, boycotting Holocaust Memorial Day (a stance it has recently abandoned) and calling for exceptional treatment of Muslim pupils in state schools. On these and other issues, the government became increasingly disillusioned with the MCB’s divisive and at times provocative attitudes. The argument that the MCB was too ideological and, in parts, actually quite extreme was augmented by the realisation that the Muslim community in Britain is too diverse and fractured – in reality, several communities rather than just one – to be represented by one national voice. The Preventing Extremism Together programme produced little of value; the final straw came in August 2006, when a large number of British Muslims were arrested on suspicion of plotting to blow up transatlantic aircraft in mid-flight. The MCB’s response was to co-author an open letter blaming the terrorist threat on government foreign policy.

It was after this faux pas that the government began to look for alternative ways of engaging with British Muslims. Behind this lay the belated realisation that the MCB’s opposition to extremism is strictly conditional, relying on a literal Islamist definition of extremism, whereby anything that is justified by Islamist theology or political doctrine cannot, by definition, be extreme. While the MCB has consistently condemned terrorism in Britain, their line on suicide bombers becomes somewhat hazier when the victims are on public transport in Tel Aviv rather than London. When the Policy Exchange think tank published a report, “The Hijacking of British Islam”, that exposed some of the horrifically anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic and xenophobic literature available in a minority of mosques and Islamic centres, the MCB rubbished the report and dismissed its findings. This was no surprise, given that the report dealt with Saudi Arabia’s promotion of Wahhabi propaganda in Britain. The MCB, with its strong Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami influences, was never likely to side with Policy Exchange against the Saudi establishment. Yet a bedrock value of Wahhabism is that the world is divided into us and them, believer and infidel. This directly contradicts the programme of social cohesion that the government is trying to promote. While the MCB is quick to condemn terrorist activity in the UK, it has still not accepted the idea that jihadist terrorism is rooted in a wider ideological movement that reaches beyond the hardcore of al-Qaeda. Nor can it: for this wider ideology includes the kind of Islamist worldview that, in its non-violent form, influences much of the MCB itself.

This, though, is exactly where the government now stands. In November, MI5 Director General Jonathan Evans set out its current thinking, that Islamist terrorism in Britain “is the product of a much wider extremist ideology ... although the most visible manifestations of this problem are the attacks and attempted attacks we have suffered in recent years, the root of the problem is ideological.” The government certainly had a political need to identify a deeper motivation for terrorism than simple anger over Iraq and other foreign policy; but in doing so they have highlighted the obvious truth that there is a distance to be travelled between feeling that anger and murdering large numbers of your fellow citizens. This is where radical Islamist ideology does its work, and the strategy to tackle this ideology is where the government has been both imaginative and bold, bypassing national Muslim community structures and taking its engagement directly to local Muslim communities. Led by the Department for Communities and Local Government, this is part of a long-term strategy to tackle extremism, framed within wider efforts to aid integration and social cohesion at a local level. This approach is much more likely to bear fruit, enhancing contact and understanding between people at a local level while removing it from the context of international conflicts or wider political struggles. Around £70 million has been allocated for a range of programmes designed to combat violent extremism, enhance social cohesion, improve governance within the Muslim community and help to build emerging Muslim community leadership. Recipients of this money must, in the words of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, be “serious about taking practical, long-term steps to counter violent extremism”. Schemes based around sporting projects, women’s groups, youth fora and civic and citizenship training are all intended to fill the vacuum that extremists normally use to attract vulnerable young Muslims, offering alternative stimuli to draw people away from the path towards violent extremism.

This, then, is the government’s “soft power” approach to tackling extremist and anti-democratic Islamist ideology. That the Director General of MI5 and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government are saying the same thing shows the extent to which government agencies have joined up their thinking as part of a single overarching strategy. Jonathan Evans went on to outline the “hard power” part of the equation: that there have been over 200 terrorist convictions in Britain since 9/11, many others are awaiting trial, and the current estimate is that there are at least 2,000 other people involved in terrorist-related activity for the intelligence services to monitor. These figures reflect the delicate balancing act that the government needs to follow. A loose network of 2,000 people is capable of maintaining a sustained, devastating terrorist campaign in Britain. However, it constitutes around 0.1 per cent of British Muslims, a tiny minority. While it is obviously wrong, and dangerous, to hold British Muslims generally responsible for the terrorism perpetrated by such a small proportion, British Muslims have greater ability and opportunity than non-Muslims – and with it, a greater responsibility – to work towards a solution to the problem of Islamist extremism in this country. This is a difficult but important distinction to maintain, and goes to the heart of Muslim concerns with the counter-terrorist effort.

Some recent terrorist cases, such as the conviction of Samina Malik, the “lyrical terrorist”, simply for possessing terrorist literature and expressing jihadist ideas, have raised concerns that the new counter-terrorist laws introduced since 9/11 are too limiting to free speech. Much of the new legislation has been based on the idea that the new terrorism is so apocalyptic in scale and ambition, and so broad and unpredictable in its targeting, that the police need the tools to intervene in terrorist-supporting activity much earlier than in the past. Hence the laws against possessing material that might be useful to terrorists, training in jihadist camps here or overseas, or glorifying terrorism as part of the process of grooming potential recruits. There is a widespread perception amongst British Muslims that this legislation is too broad, too restrictive and has had the impact of criminalising Muslims in general. This is partly because it is now illegal to support what many Muslims consider to be legitimate jihads overseas, whether in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya or elsewhere. In reality, and whether by accident or design, the new laws have had a twofold effect. They have provided the police with laws that enable them to shut down activity that could support UK-based terrorism, which was the primary intention. But they have also undermined the culture of jihadism that came to dominate British Muslim political activity in the 1990s.

The government’s strategy is far from perfect, though, and there are many potential pitfalls. It would be idealistic to think that strengthening social cohesion will end Islamist terrorism. Mohammed Siddique Khan was the epitome of an integrated, educated British Muslim with a respectable job. Nor has it proved possible to completely remove the Jamaat and Brotherhood influence from Muslim community leadership, given that these ideologies have a genuine and strong presence on the British Muslim scene. The job of improving mosque governance has been entrusted to MINAB, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board. This body will encourage mosques to sign up to a code of conduct that will include, amongst other things, ensuring that extremist preaching and literature are not available on their premises. Yet MINAB’s four constituent organisations include the MCB and the Muslim Brotherhood-orientated Muslim Association of Britain. Given their response to the findings of the Policy Exchange report into hate literature at British mosques, these are not organisations that are going to prevent the distribution of extremist literature to the extent that the government might be hoping for. It is easy to get British Islamists to condemn tabloid targets like Omar Bakri Mohammed or Abu Hamza, with their overt support for al-Qaeda. It is another thing for the Islamists of the MCB to oppose Wahhabism, which they see as part of the Islamic mainstream, despite its divisive doctrines. Even the strategy of taking government funding and engagement directly to grassroots level is likely to find that many local groups are controlled or influenced, to some degree, by the MCB or its affiliates. It is an unavoidable fact that British Islamist organisations are much better organised and politically attuned than their non-Islamist counterparts. The government is trying to nurture groups that can challenge the Islamist monopoly of political representation of British Muslims, but it is still very much at the embryonic stage. This is not about depoliticising the Muslim community: the government has included vociferous critics of the Iraq war, for example, in their engagement with non-Islamist Muslims. Rather, it reflects a process of British Muslims developing a political agenda and a method of engagement with government that is not shaped by the worldview of the Jamaat-e-Islami or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another complicating factor is that many British Muslims have an understandable defensiveness, a feeling of siege even, because of the nature of media coverage of Muslim-related issues. Whether about terrorism, the veil, honour killings or other stories, the sense is of an unremitting stream of hostile press. The fact that the media is, in many cases, legitimately reporting on events and issues of interest is beside the point; tone, volume and proportion are more important than the validity or otherwise of an individual story, and perception is all. The very idea that there is a “Muslim problem” that needs to be dealt with inevitably puts ordinary British Muslims on the defensive and reduces the possibility that important issues can be engaged with in a constructive way. In this light, the emergence of several former Islamists, most prominently the former Hizb ut-Tahrir activists Ed Husain, Shiraz Maher and Majid Nawaz, has introduced a welcome nuance into the media debate. Their distinction between Islam and Islamism, and their determination to address Islamism as a political movement, has enabled the media to address the question of Islamist politics in a more focused way without attacking Muslims per se. It is also no coincidence that since the arrival of authentic Muslim critics of Islamism, the MCB and others have felt obliged to speak out against, for instance, the situation in Darfur or the “Muhammad” teddy bear affair.

The change by government from national to local partners carries with it an implicit recognition that there is no genuine alternative to the MCB, whether as a single national representative body or as a locally-based network, nor is there likely to be one in the near future. This is, to a limited degree, a shift away from dealing with Muslims as Muslims (as opposed to, say, citizens), something that many have been advocating. However, the fact that the terrorist threat and its associated ideology are rooted in Islamist theology and politics means that it is precisely as Muslims that British Muslims are best placed to act. The contradictory and uncertain nature of this issue alone illustrates just how much is new and unknown about the problem of Islamist extremism and how best to tackle it. There are no guarantees that the current government approach will prove more successful than the last; sadly, June 2007 is unlikely to be the last time that jihadist terrorists try to attack this country. But at least the government seems to have recognised that in addressing this they need to partner with organisations that have a genuine commitment to tackling the spread of religious extremism.