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OPINION: Softly, softly: working with communities to counter extremism

Dr Basia Spalek, Reader in Communities & Justice, Institute of Applied Social Studies, University of Birmingham.

Historically, countering terrorism has been something that the security services have carried out on behalf of the state, without community consultation or consent.  Therefore, ‘hard’ policing tactics such as the use of stop and search, informants and surveillance for intelligence gathering purposes have dominated counter-terrorism arenas.  Perhaps one of the most surprising and significant developments since the bombing of the Twin Towers on 9/11 has been the notion that ‘communities’ can defeat terrorism’ (Briggs et al. 2006).  Within counter-terrorism contexts and approaches there is the increasing acceptance that the prevention of terrorism can and should engage and actively involve communities.  This work is multifaceted and diverse.  It includes ongoing formal and informal interaction between police officers and community members regarding questions of crime, in particular hate crime such as Islamophobia and racist violence, it involves community involvement in multi-agency work that seeks to assess the risk factors associated with preventing terror crimes and the implementation of appropriate programmes and responses, and it involves partnership work between state actors like the police, probation, prison, youth justice services and others and communities with those deemed ‘at risk’ from committing acts of terrorism. 

Community initiatives are complex and multi-faceted, and in the UK policy makers, state agencies and communities are currently undergoing a steep learning curve.  For example, it may be the case that community policing programmes, when used to penetrate local communities to provide intelligence, can rapidly alienate communities (Hanniman, 2008).  It may be that trust is a key element to building initiatives between police and communities that involve community members perceiving and experiencing these initiatives as being community-focussed rather than as part of a security apparatus that serves to stigmatise communities.  At the same time, issues regarding British foreign policy and its impact on diverse communities in the UK can also significantly influence community-based approaches to counter-terrorism.  Moreover, it may be the case that hard’, state-led security policies involving surveillance, intelligence gathering, the use of informants and the implementation of a number of anti-terror laws have helped to create contexts characterised by fear, distrust and suspicion, making community-focussed work particularly difficult. These ‘hard’ strategies have had significant consequences upon individuals’ lives, leading to ostracisation from their wider communities, family breakdown and job losses (Spalek, El-Awa & MacDonald, 2009).  Indeed, previous research has established that trust and confidence in the police can be seriously undermined in situations where communities feel that they are being over-policed (Hillyard, 2005).  Therefore, it is legitimate to argue that currently there is an imbalance between ‘hard’ approaches to countering terrorism and ‘softer’ approaches based on community engagement and partnership work.

New models of community-based approaches to counter-terrorism are currently being implemented across the UK (Haqq-Baker, 2010; Lambert, 2010).  It will be important to assess and document what characteristics define ‘effective practice’ in relation to countering terrorism. It may be the case that, for example, effectively countering terrorism involves effective youth work with those young people deemed ‘at risk’ of violent extremism.  It may be that effective practice contains social, political, theological, emotional and other elements.  The role of emotions in counter-terrorism work is particularly important to examine.  For example, how, in what ways and to what extent are ‘radicalised’ youth displaying ‘destructive emotions’ and in what ways are practitioners working with and trying to influence these ?  Are state actors and agencies emotionally distant and bureaucratic and can this adversely impact upon engagement and partnership work ?  Do community partners/leaders/influential figures draw upon their ‘emotional intelligence’ when working with youth deemed at risk ?  If so, how and in what ways and what are the components to this ? These are just a few of the questions that I and my research team Dr Salwa El-Awa and Dr Laura Zahra MacDonald are beginning to ask.

Hanniman, W. (2008) ‘Canadian Muslims, Islamophobia and National Security Royal Canadian Mounted Police’  International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice Vol. 36 (4) pp.271-285
Haqq-Baker, A. (forthcoming, 2010)  Countering Extremism Locally: A Convert Muslim Perspective Unpublished PhD Thesis.  University of Exeter
Hillyard, P. (2005) The “war on terror”: Lessons from Ireland, Essays for civil liberties and democracy in Europe, European Civil Liberties Network.
Lambert, R. (2010) The London Partnerships: an insider’s analysis of legitimacy and effectiveness Unpublished PhD Thesis University of Exeter
Spalek, B., El-Awa, S. & McDonald, L.Z. (2009) Police-Muslim Engagement and Partnerships for the Purposes of Counter-Terrorism: an examination Birmingham: University of Birmingham

Dr Basia Spalek is a Reader in Communities & Justice within the Institute of Applied Social Studies at the University of Birmingham.  Dr.Spalek has led two high profile research projects funded by the Arts & Humanities & Economic and Social Studies Research Councils looking specifically at community-based approaches to counter-terrorism:

‘A Study exploring Questions relating to Partnership between Police and Muslim Communities in the Prevention of Violent Religio-Political Extremism amongst Muslim Youth’  Religion & Society Programme 2009-2010

‘An Examination of Partnership Approaches to Challenging Religiously-Endorsed Violence involving Muslim Groups and Police’ Religion & Society Programme 2008-2009
Dr. Salwa El-Awa is the Co-Investigator on the above projects and Dr. Laura Zahra MacDonald is the post-doctoral research fellow.


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