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Britain’s most diverse borough takes a new approach to countering extremism – it’s time to talk

The threat of terrorism isn’t new to Londoners but is now fresh in our minds following the rise of the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ and the Paris attacks and the stabbing at Leytonstone tube station. Cases in the courts and in the news have highlighted Brits travelling abroad to receive terrorist training. 

We’re now awake to the concept of ‘lone-wolf’ attacks, by people radicalised over the internet without having any solid links to organised extremist networks.

It’s worth remembering that there is as much of a difference between Islamic extremist terrorism and the faith of the vast majority of Muslims as there is between the Ku Klux Klan’s cross-burning lynching parties and your local Christian vicar’s tea party and charity tombola.

In addition to the threat of terrorism there is also the challenge of the pernicious growth in the number of random anti-Muslim attacks in the UK in the aftermath of extremist incidents.  

Let’s call them what they are – hate crimes.

Brent is Britain’s most diverse borough, so this isn’t an abstract worry for us – it is real, and immediate. In the 12 months up to this October, there were 509 racist and religious hate crimes recorded in Brent, up from 460 the previous year.  Ten a week makes this a substantial issue.

This is an issue all across London, and Brent is still a safe and welcoming place to live, with crime rates falling.  We’re determined to maintain and enhance that.

We know how events that happen on the streets of Raqqa can travel around the world from Syria to our part of North West London within minutes.  Social media and 24 hours rolling news have made a big world feel very small sometimes.

The risk of hidden extremism in our neighbourhoods is painfully real.  It’s no good just wringing our hands – it’s the job of those of us elected to public office to do something about this.

At a national government level, the strategy designed to stop individuals being radicalised, whether from right-wing extremists or, so-called, Islamic extremists is called Prevent, and it’s our legal duty as a local council to cooperate with central government, the police and others to advance its objectives.

It’s important though to remember that Prevent is not just about Islamic Extremism – it tackles radicalisation from whatever direction, including far-right extremism.  Indeed, around 30 per cent of ‘Channel’ cases (catching signs of extremism early amongst young people) are about far-right activity.

As ever, when there’s a tricky issue, the first step is to acknowledge that there is something real that needs to be dealt with.  Ignoring one wrong in the process of tackling a second wrong has never worked well in the long-term.

Whilst public services have a central role in dealing with these issues, we can’t deal with them on our own.  We need local communities, neighbourhoods, families and individuals to come together to tackle extremism, together.

We need communities – and faith groups in particular – to acknowledge that religious extremism is a real issue, and that some young people are at risk of being attracted to it.  We need this to be talked about in community centres – and yes, in Mosques too.  We need to challenge extremism if and when we hear it.  Many of our faith leaders are already leading the way.

We need families to accept that they have a responsibility too.  Do you know where your children are and what they’re up to?  Are they falling in with the wrong crowd?  Are they being taken advantage of, groomed even?  It happens rarely, but it should be as worrying if your child was being groomed and lured into religious extremism as if they were being groomed for drugs, gang violence or sexual exploitation.  Sadly, too often several of these threats go hand in hand.

It’s our job to support communities and families in this.

If a community leader has a concern, they need to know there is someone they can go to who will take their concern seriously, and look into it, but without overreacting.

If a family member or a neighbour has a concern about a young person being led astray, they need to know there is someone they can speak to who can offer practical help, but without labelling them a bad parent or their child a criminal.

We need to work harder, but we need this to be matched increasingly by our communities and every individual playing their part. 

Considering this all together, that’s why we’re trying something genuinely new here in Brent.

In our Stronger Communities Strategy which we agreed this week, we’re not just doing more of the same.

We’re not turning our back on Prevent – but we want to go much further, and to build an approach that our community owns and engages with, not one that some feel is being done to them by a distant government that doesn’t understand.

Our new approach in going further is to say to our communities: we’ll work with you to construct your own solutions.  If you’re uncomfortable feeling that you’re being done to – now’s the chance to take control and ownership yourselves.

This model of co-production has worked well in other areas of social policy – but this is the first time such an approach is being taken on the streets of London to an issue like tackling violent extremism.

In the meantime, we need all to accept responsibility for challenging anti-Muslim prejudice and violence.  Not only is it just plain wrong, but it also does more harm than good – throwing up barriers between communities that we ought instead to be breaking down.

Problems this big require solutions just as big.  These are problems that affect all of us, so we all need to be part of the solution too.

Let’s start by talking about it.
 

Written by Cllr James Denselow

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