Citizen Khan

11 Jun 09
As cohesion minister, Sadiq Khan must tread a fine line between promoting the government’s counter-terrorism strategy and winning the ear of a sceptical Muslim community.
By Alex Klaushofer

24 April 2009

As cohesion minister, Sadiq Khan must tread a fine line between promoting the government’s counter-terrorism strategy and winning the ear of a sceptical Muslim community. Alex Klaushofer talks to a minister on the front line

If the latest indications from government are anything to go by, councils are to play a major role in Britain’s efforts to counter global terrorism. The government last month launched its counter-terrorism strategy, Contest, which – alongside measures such as training 60,000 ordinary citizens to spot potential attacks – places a new emphasis on tackling extremism through prevention. Councils and other public service providers are to be on the front line of this approach.

The man at the centre of this development is Sadiq Khan who, last October, became one of Britain’s first Muslim ministers. Elected to Parliament as MP for Tooting in 2005 at the age of 34, Khan has risen rapidly through the ranks, becoming a government whip before joining the Department for Communities and Local Government as minister for community cohesion.

By any standards, the role of a Muslim minister involves something of a tightrope walk, treading between the sensitivities of a large, vocal minority, often at odds with British foreign policy, and the realities of pushing the government line in Westminster.

The difficulty was graphically illustrated earlier this month when 12 men were arrested on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack in the Northwest. Eleven of them were Pakistani students, a tiny proportion of the numbers entering Britain from Pakistan on student visas. Khan found himself on Newsnight, arguing that the government does ‘lots of checks’ on such immigrants, from biometric testing to checking names against a ‘watch list’. But days later, following a trip to Pakistan, he spoke out on the need for Britain to disassociate itself from US foreign policy in the eyes of Pakistani students. ‘They lumped us together with the US, which to me is a poison,’ he said. ‘It demonstrates to me we have a big problem.’

In the past, Khan – then a human rights lawyer specialising in actions against the police – demonstrated his roots in the Muslim community by speaking out against some of the anti-terrorism measures planned in the wake of the July 2005 London bombings. He was also one of three Muslim MPs who signed an open letter to the prime minister criticising Britain’s position on Israel’s controversial military operation in Lebanon in 2006. He has subsequently had a high profile on Gaza in the Muslim community, chairing an emergency meeting of council and community workers called by ministers to address the outrage many of Britain’s Muslims felt about the Israeli attacks in January.

Now, he is in the thick of defending the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Speaking to Public Finance on the day that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith launches Contest, Khan explains how public service bodies are expected to implement the government’s tougher approach to those who threaten British society by rejecting its ‘shared values’. ‘If a group or an individual has views that aren’t acceptable, we’re obviously going to challenge them,’ he says.

He is keen to distinguish the policy from the kind of all-encompassing approach detailed in BBC’s Panorama, screened a month before Contest was announced. According to the programme, this approach would extend the definition of extremism beyond promoting violence to banning some of the conservative views held by many of Britain’s 1.8 million Muslims on issues such as sharia law and homosexuality.

The government is not going to ‘outlaw your views and your behaviour’, he says. ‘There’s a difference between me engaging with you, and me endorsing you. Me endorsing you is giving you funding to do projects and stuff, me engaging with you is having discussion and debate. We distinguish the two.’

He cites the option of withdrawing money from projects funded by the Home Office’s £70m Prevent Violent Extremism fund, which supports initiatives to discourage young Muslims from becoming radicalised. ‘If we have any evidence of anything going on that promotes violent extremism, we can always put the money away,’ he says. But other than withdrawing funds, it is difficult to discern exactly what the tougher line will mean for service providers.

Khan does say that local authorities need to extend their scrutiny of organisations to any connections they might have with radical groups abroad. But, he immediately adds: ‘It’s not for us to tell local authorities how they spend their money; we don’t micromanage the allocation of funds by local authorities.’

Government has been encouraging public service providers to combat radicalism behind the scenes for some time. Local government has been quietly developing expertise, particularly in councils with large ethnic minority and Muslim populations. Some of the conclusions are now starting to be dispersed through, for example, a ‘lessons learnt’ exercise conducted by the police inspectorate and the Audit Commission. The result, local government watchers agree, is that there is generally much more know-how in this new area of policy than there was a few years ago.

The launch of Contest certainly suggests that government is becoming increasingly serious about bringing counter-terrorism into the mainstream public sector. For the first time, there is going to be a Public Service Agreement on counter-terrorism work. In addition, Khan says, the new Comprehensive Area Assessment inspection regime, which came into effect this month, will take into account ‘outcomes’ in preventing extremism.

But when asked directly to confirm that the government is seeking to expand the role of public service providers in the fight against global terror, Khan is less than clear. ‘It depends’, he says cautiously, adding: ‘The fact that we’re training people to help fight terrorism means that every person has a role to play.’ He cites tube passengers reporting suspect packages, as well as imams and teachers among others. And councils? ‘Councils are very important and that’s one of the reasons why we work in partnership with them, and it’s not top-down,’ the minister replies.

The reason for such vague answers might well lie with a lack of clarity at the heart of the preventing extremism policy about exactly what councils are meant to do. ‘I think there is a bit of confusion about what the expectations are, and what means are available,’ says Nick Johnson, director of policy at the Institute of Community Cohesion think-tank. ‘I’m unclear what local authorities are being expected to do in terms of counter-terrorism.’

One obvious source of difficulty, he adds, is that most important information about what goes on in communities is held by security forces rather than councils. Michael McLean, policy consultant on safer communities for the Local Government Association, agrees, but says this is improving: ‘The difficulty was that, in the past, the information held by the police and security services wasn’t always transferred to local authorities as efficiently as possible, but this is changing,’ he says.

But, he adds, when it comes to implementing anti-extremism policies, councils must investigate any organisation they are considering supporting. ‘They need to do the homework themselves – to sit round the table and ask the organisations about their values, and ask people in the community and the people that councils work with, what they know about these groups,’ he says. Such an approach draws heavily on local authority resources, he acknowledges: ‘It is intensive. It does require a lot of soft skills in terms of getting out there and talking to people, which is something that councillors are particularly good at.’

In Johnson’s eyes, councils’ contribution to counter-terrorism needs to be part of a much wider role: ‘There’s an awful lot local authorities can do to promote cohesion overall – that’s the biggest contribution they can make to any counter-terrorism strategy. The more cohesive our communities, the less likely they are to be prone to extremism,’ he says.

Back in Westminster, I ask Khan about the difficulties of treading the line between communicating with Muslim communities and promoting government policy. If he feels any tension in the role, it’s impossible to detect: ‘I think most British citizens of Muslim faith recognise the huge responsibilities there are in being a minister, and they recognise that more can be done by engaging sensibly than by disengaging.’

Did you enjoy this article?