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Volume 508: debated on Monday 22 March 2010

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s efforts to counter Islamic extremism. (322938)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. (322952)

Contest is a world-leading counter-terrorism strategy that endeavours to meet the serious threat this country faces from international terrorism. I have today published the first annual report setting out progress against the objectives in the strategy. Since 11 September 2001, 230 people have been convicted of a terrorism-related offence and more than a dozen terrorist plots have been disrupted. The Prevent strand of Contest is aimed at addressing the causes of terrorism by challenging the ideology of violent extremists, supporting vulnerable individuals and building community resilience.

Does the Secretary of State accept that Islamism is a threat because of its refusal to accept the separation of religion and the state, its social intolerance, particularly as regards the status of women, and its attempted subversion of moderate Islam? If he does, will he undertake not to allow the introduction of sharia law into this country in any form?

First I should say that the threat comes from violent extremism. There are people with all kinds of views with which we may disagree, but it is when those views turn into violent extremism that counter-terrorism kicks in and those views become unacceptable. On sharia law, I should say that the law of this country is absolutely paramount. Where sharia law has been introduced in some small experiments in local communities it does not, in any way, subvert or detract from the law of this country.

Does the Home Secretary agree that we have to work with the Muslim community? In Banbury, the Thames Valley police force consciously seeks to recruit Muslim men and women as special constables, because when the Muslim community has people that it knows working with the police force, it is more likely to talk to them about things that are causing it concern. We therefore need to work with the Muslim community, as well as being suspicious of it on occasion.

I agree completely with the hon. Gentleman. Not only in Banbury but elsewhere, the police and the local communities are working to break down these barriers, and part of that involves working with the Muslim community—indeed, the Prevent strand of our counter-terrorism strategy has about 1,000 projects, where work is being undertaken with 40,000 people in various communities. This is something that politicians and chief constables cannot do from on high; it must be tackled in the community and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, in part by recruiting people from the Muslim community into the police and other authorities.

Does the Home Secretary agree that if by “Islamism” one means people who support the religion of Islam, that is not, in itself, a threat? However, subversive and criminal activity is to be found among some members of the Muslim community. The danger of trying to tar the entire Muslim community with the same brush is that that undermines our efforts to engage with the community, and to fight terrorism and crime.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The only way in which we will succeed in this area is by demonstrating that the vast majority of Muslims just do not buy into the rhetoric of the ideologues and those promoting violence and division. That is the measure of success. It is essential that we in no way give the impression that our counter-terrorism policy is anti-Muslim, because it is not; it is very much pro-Muslim and pro the vast majority of the Muslim community, who believe in peace, justice and freedom.

Is it not absolutely essential, as my right hon. Friend has pointed out, to make the greatest distinction between the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who, like ourselves, totally oppose and detest terrorism, and the very few religious fanatics who distort their religion and glory in death? There is absolutely no link between those two groups, and we should never try to pretend, as some do, that Muslims are any more in favour of terrorism than adherents of any other religion.

Again, I agree with my hon. Friend, who has made an important contribution to these issues while serving on the Select Committee on Home Affairs. The only point that I should make here—this reinforces the one that he has made—is that giving people in Muslim communities, particularly younger Muslims, the arguments and empowering them so that they can try to argue back against what are sometimes very forceful arguments coming from much older people in their community must be an important part of our counter-terrorism strategy. That is why Prevent is the crucial strand that it is.

In the light of the Home Secretary’s efforts to separate Islamic issues from terrorism, I wonder whether he has noted the following written evidence to the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government’s inquiry into the Prevent arm of the counter-terrorism strategy:

“Inconsistent and generalised language or loose terms weaken public confidence and hamper the debate around Prevent. In addition and more specifically, they also provide opportunities for Muslim Rejectionists at the grassroots.”

Given that countering Islamic extremism is linked to, but is not the same as, a counter-terrorism strategy, does grouping these issues today not illustrate the point being made to the Select Committee?

The hon. Gentleman talks about grouping these issues, and I think it would be strange if we had a counter-terrorism strategy that did not seek to prevent people from getting involved in terrorism in the first place, just as it would be strange to have a policy on drugs that did not try to prevent youngsters from getting involved in drugs, or to have a policy on knives, guns and gangs that did not have a strand that aimed to prevent people from getting involved in the first place. We have to be very careful about the terminology—that is the hon. Gentleman’s point—but we also have to be careful to realise that there are those who are opposed to Prevent because they are opposed to any voice of reason and to our trying to help vulnerable youngsters, in particular, to argue back against those who seek to persuade them down the route of violence. We must recognise that those people are against our strategy—not our Prevent strategy but against our whole Contest counter-terrorism strategy. We have to be aware of the devices they will use to try to suggest, for instance, that Prevent is about spying when it patently is not.